Ain’t no half reppin’

heavier

Something miraculous happened on Friday night.  I got out of work late so I went to big Globo gym because, well,  its nearby.  Say what you will about this gym, it does have 8 power racks and plentiful benches.  I’ve only had to wait for a bench once in 3 years and I’ve never had to wait for a power rack.   So you can imagine my surprise when I strolled out of the locker room and realized that all 8 power racks were taken.  Not only were they in use, they were all being used for squatting!

“What the hell”, I thought, “is there some new social media challenge craze?”.  To say this was anomalous behaviour for this gym is pure understatement.  Sure, there are a few lifters at this place that powerlift or Olympic lift, but we never all train at the same time.   I was training deadlifts so the lack of free power racks was no hinderance.  A bigger issue was that I forgot my chalk.  Globo gyms don’t do chalk so I was sh*t out of luck, grip-wise.

As I warmed up I took a gander at the power racks.  2 of the racks were being used by these Oly lifting guys who were doing front squats.  The other 6 racks, however, were being used by gangs of youngish dudes, not really teenagers but let’s say they aren’t pushing 30 either.  And these guys were making every rookie error possible save one.  J hooks set way too high, backing up blind to re-rack the bar, using the silly foam bar pad, wearing gloves, using too much weight, knees way forward and, it goes without saying, not squatting to depth.  I’m not talking missing depth by a little bit, more like quarter squats.  So I didn’t see “knees caving in” because nobody was squatting deep enough to make that error apparent.

While it’s easy to lampoon a bunch of foam pad using young guys who quarter squat not terribly heavy weight and enthusiastically high-five each other, let he who is without sin throw the first wrist-wrap.  Honestly, I thought it was cool, but remain slightly baffled as to why the sudden popularity.  In an earlier post, I discussed the taboo of giving advice in Globo gyms.  At a rack right next to where I was deadlifting these 2 guys set the J hooks noticeably higher than their shoulders (!) and had wrapped a towel around the bar as there were no more foam bar pads(cringe).  The first guy who un-racked narrowly missed dumping the bar in my direction so I felt it was OK to point out that putting the J hook far lower and not using the towel would make for an easier, more stable lift.  Didn’t say a word re: form, though I was dying to do so.  Squats are not exactly enjoyable at first.  If you compound that with doing the lift wrong, you’ll probably quit after a few weeks.  Time will tell, I guess, if there are legs to this squat craze.

Without chalk, my deadlifts didn’t exactly go as planned.  My grip strength is a weak point, and my deadlift form tends to go to hell when I feel the bar slipping from my hands.  So instead of working up to heavy weight, I stuck to sets at 70% for volume and then did accessory work.  Note to self – keep some chalk in the car as well, and maybe get used to lifting straps or hook grip.

Good to see all those guys giving it a go in the squat rack.  I’m more than a little jealous since it’s been 3 months now since I’ve done a low bar squat.  My rotator cuff is not getting better so I have yet another ultra-sound scheduled for next week.  My physical therapist, sports friendly though he is, would freak out if he knew I still bench and deadlift heavy.  I’m 8 weeks out from the next competition.  I had registered for classic powerlifting as well as stand alone bench, but it’s fairly apparent now that I’ll only be able to do bench.  The record for for this federation in my age/weight class is 10 kgs heaver than my best competition bench, however I have bench pressed that weight “touch and go”, and can now bench within 5kgs with strict competition form.  I’m certainly going to give it a shot.

 

Coming to America…and then leaving.

In the mid-80s I was finishing my somewhat checkered high-school career in a 3rd, no, scratch that, 4th world country somewhere in Latin America.  I lived with my mother who is a highly educated, brilliant woman who, nevertheless, was not paid very much at that point in her career.  Anybody familiar with 3rd world countries knows that scratching out a living is a challenge.  If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere – forget NYC, which is a cakewalk in comparison.

Anyway, we had a standard of living that you might call middle-class for that country (whose middle-class was very small indeed) but would probably be considered poverty level in the US or Europe.  I should add that as blonde-haired, blue-eyed young man I rather stuck out in the neighborhood.  (NB:  I am American born to US parents, I just wasn’t born nor spent most of my formative years there).   Without straying too far into the minefield of political correctness, suffice it to say that without money in a place like this you are powerless.  I learned early on that many people of who have any sort of power love to see desperate people squirm.  I had a very hard time with that dynamic, it stuck in my throat.

It wasn’t all bad.  I wouldn’t have swapped growing up there, at the time that I did, in the way that I did, for anything.  It’s an amazing country, culturally vibrant, amazing beaches and blessed with a very funny, welcoming populace.  I was an overwhelming minority, and people brought it to my attention all the time, but it was usually not mean-spirited. It was so much fun that, upon discovering partying and girls, I pretty much kissed my high school career goodbye.  In spite of outstanding SAT scores and potential, I barely graduated from high school.  2 weeks later my long-suffering mother wished me well and put me on a plane for States.  I was 18 years old, I had a few hundred dollars in my pocket and vague plans of either living with my sister (who was going to college) or some high school buds who were in very similar situation.  I hadn’t bothered to apply to any colleges because my grades and financial situation meant it wasn’t an option.

Given my level of maturity and proclivity for partying, I lasted roughly 3 weeks with my sister before she gave me the heave-ho.  I didn’t have any hard feelings then, nor do I now.  It was best for everyone that I go.  So I took the train a few hundred miles up the East coast to join up with my aforementioned pals.  The five of us managed to score a small studio that was leased to one of the guys’ older brother.  We had 2 twin beds and 3 additional mattresses on the floor.  We had to be very careful about not drawing attention to ourselves given we’d have been thrown out if the landlord found out 5 guys were living in 1 studio.

Failure was not an option and that realization clarified my goals and game-plan almost immediately.  I knew I was in for a few years of hard-slogging so I resolved to make the best of it.  Crappy, minimum wage dead-end jobs weren’t going to cut it as they were a waste of time and potential.  I took the best-paying jobs a mere high school graduate could hope to score, but also ones that would hopefully allow me to progress to better jobs.  I started working in high-end restaurants, first as a dishwasher, then bus-boy, waiter, apprentice baker and eventually as a commis.  Restaurant work was exhausting, but it was an education.  There were periods when I held down 2 jobs.  All the while I lived in series of horrible apartments in crappy neighborhoods with, of course, room-mates who were in similar situations.

I eventually scored a mail-room gig in a bank in the financial district.  I mean, this was straight up old school – I don’t think mail rooms even exist any more.  Basically I delivered mail, and written memos (common use of email – and networked PCs – where still a year or 2 down the road) as well as performed a number of odd-jobs.  I busted my butt and hustled on every single task because I knew it was the only way to get noticed.  I eventually was promoted into “Data Processing” (the IT department as it’s generally known now) and I was off to the races.  I began to acquire valuable skills that enabled me to find better paying jobs, pursue my college degree (while working full-time) and, some years later, finally get an apartment all to myself.  This was the Holy Grail, a studio in a trendy downtown neighborhood.  It was also strangely lonely at first, after so many years of living with friends.

I finally had my own apartment, a college degree, a less than impressive used car and a decent job that employed both my IT and language skills.  I traveled often to Latin American, Africa and Europe for work.  I’m happy to say that all of my pals from the “5 guys in a studio” days had similar trajectories.  So there came a point when we were victims of our own success in the sense that people began to move away to follow their careers.  I had just turned 30 and I didn’t have a whole lot of reasons to stay.  Many of my friends were moving away and I had just ended a serious relationship.

This was at the height of the “internet boom” of the 90s.  I realized that I had been working very hard over the last 12 years, often taking, at best, a week of vacation per year.  I figured that I could probably find another job pretty easily.  So I quit my job to go backpacking for a few months through Guatemala, Belize and Mexico with these French girls I knew.  I have never, before or since, taken off that much time just to do my own thing.  For those of you who know Mexico, at the time Playa del Carmen was a village where we rented hammocks on the beach for 3 dollars a day (i.e. you slept in them) and there was virtually nothing in Tulum.  Hanging at the beach all day and sleeping under these huge palapas, surrounded by legions of hot euro-babes, I though I had died and gone to heaven.  Not to mention the cheap tacos, ceviche and beer.

When I got back to the US, I found out that I had scored a 2 year contract in Europe was welcome news as I was short of funds and I was itching to move.  So I did, and I’ve been here ever since.  I’ve only been back a few times given most of my family is living elsewhere.

I often wonder if my trajectory would be possible for a young guy starting out now.  I sincerely doubt it.  Firstly, I did not have to deal with globalization so I was competing for jobs on a national, not international level.  I was at the tail-end of the last generation when it possible to pull yourself out of the muck without impeccable academic credentials.  Also, by going to a very good state university (partially subsidized by my job) I graduated without crippling debt.  In my generation, having any college degree on your CV was good enough to get your foot in the door.   From what I hear and read in the US media, that is not the case any more.

As a father and somebody who interacts a fair amount with younger people, I always try to stress that excelling academically is actually the best way, to “hack” the system.   If you’re a young person blessed with the common sense to not go off the rails academically AND have a good idea of what you want to do in life, you have an enormous advantage.  I was able to find a reasonable level of success, but I worked extremely hard to do so.  Young people these day do not have the luxury my generation had of going to college to “find themselves” or earn less than practical degrees.  In the age of outsourcing, you best choose your academic path extremely wisely and pursue that career to the best of your ability.

 

 

Divorce and dating across cultures.

restaurant-alcohol-bar-drinksRoughly 7 years ago I had one of those “damn, we’re really going to get a divorce” moments when you realize that something you’ve pondered so often is actually going to happen. Even if part of you welcomes the divorce, it’s a very strange feeling, especially after many years of marriage. It was a mutual decision and, while I was well aware of the disadvantages (we have 2 kids) I realized that, at the very least, I could start dating again. At this point I will put my cards out on the table: I never cheated on my ex-wife, not even close. If you think that enthusiastically searching out sexual partners(at least in short-term) is lame and shallow than you, dear reader, have never lived through the last few years of a dying marriage. So, yes, I was overdue and was I ever motivated.

There are many reasons why I have lived in this city for the past 20 years but one of the nicest is that it’s extremely cosmopolitan, the sort of place that you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting some sort of expat or immigrant (I guess you could say I’m both). It’s very similar to some neighborhoods in New York or London, only on a smaller scale. It’s the sort of place where you can constantly meet people from literally all over the world. This meant that in my roughly 3 to 4 year stint of post-divorce dating I met women from enough nations to get a quorum call at the UN General Assembly.

Disclaimer: What follows are some personal very generalized (the better to protect the privacy of everyone involved) observations. Certain examples might cleave to a cultural stereotype of that person’s nationality and, if they do, it’s because I did indeed observe this behavior. Nobody is walking national stereotype but culture is very strong force. If you belong to a culture you will share at least a few characteristics with people in that culture. Also, this particular post will be stupendously shallow. You have been forewarned. OK, so now on to the good part…

  • General Dating strategy – You’ll have realize that I was many years out of the game so my dating game was weak. Even in my earlier single days, my game was pretty bad. I was able to date some pretty fantastic women, but it was almost in spite of myself. I quickly realized a few things: a) I’ve more money and lots more life experience than I did in my 20s b) I managed to stay in shape and consistently look younger than I should do in spite of ingesting a Lake Superior of booze in my lifetime c) I was going to learn from past experience and not date people from work and d) I was going get out of my comfort zone and be more outgoing. So I did what just about every one does in the situation; I looked up old girlfriends, I did online dating and I forced myself to widen my social circle by meeting as many people as possible. What follows are the results of those strategies.
  • Looking up Exes: I don’t care what anybody says, this works like a charm. If you were decent person in the relationship, the sex was good (or great) and it just so happens your Ex is not in a relationship at the present moment, your chances are excellent. What’s more, no surprises and no illusions about the future. I have had newly single Exes look me up, and vice versa. You therefore have a pleasant time together (sex and companionship) and eventually go onto to other things. It’s more a friends with benefits sort of relationship. I have moved on, as have the Exes in question, but in most cases we remain on very good platonic terms.
  • Online Dating: This might be the most interesting facet, especially given the multilingual/multicultural angle. One complicating factor is that I am really not a fan of getting my picture taken or the whole Selfie phenomenon. The best pictures of me are invariably “action” shots taken while I am doing something else than waiting for my picture to be taken. I eventually found 1 or 2 recent pics and worked on creating concise tag-lines in 2 languages. While I find this sort of blatant hard sell abhorrent I find the idea of being celibate ever more so thus I jumped in with both feet. It was a funny experience and I met loads of women that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. I certainly don’t regret it but I won’t do it again because a) it takes a lot of time and b) the type of people I met in person tend to correspond more to what I am looking for. Dating sites are the shotgun approach to dating. I did met some great women, some of whom remain good friends. I met a lot of characters and at least 1 or 2 women who had, shall we say, a somewhat tenuous grasp of reality. And I met some women who were just all about sex, asap (yes, ladies, it’s not just the men). Please note that I’m not complaining about that part as it’s one of my stated goals. However, when you walk into a cafe, talk for a few minutes or so and the woman says “Ok, let’s go, your place” (this actually happened to me once) alarm bells start to go off. I also met women who felt that a first date should be a “how serious are you” interrogation, seemingly forgetting if the date is not a fun experience, I’m not going to repeat it. I met women who, on a first date, would regale me with a litany of complaints about their ex-husband or who would try to grill me about my ex-wife. I learned a very valuable lesson from a few women, namely how to cut and run, done with class and consideration. Internet dating is a crap shoot and there will be times when you meet somebody and realize within the first few minutes that this person is not for you. At first, I’d suffer through a fairly long period (out of consideration) and then bring the date to an end. Women have much more experience rejecting the opposite sex and can usually do it decisively and tactfully if they so choose. Men, conversely, are much more used to rejection and we appreciate a “no thanks” when done with style. Bringing a non-starter date to a swift but considerate conclusion is a must.
  • Meeting women the old school way – This includes having friends introduce me to their female acquaintances, meeting women at parties, the tried and true method of going out to bars and clubs with friends and finally, from time to time, starting open, non-committal conversations with women in random locations . Considering all the time I spend in gyms, I’ve never dated or attempted to date women I meet at the gym. There are many reasons for this but primarily I work hard in the gym so I am a sweaty, red-faced mess most of the time. I met less women via the old-school methods than via the internet but there were distinct advantages. I wasted much less time and also I could perceive women (and they could perceive me) at face value, and not the result of some filtered internet search. In general, I find that I usually have more in common with women closer to my age. Via these methods, though, I often met and sometimes went out with women who were both younger and (a little bit) older than me. It’s easier to keep an open mind when the person is right in front of you.
  • Results: Bear in mind that during this period I was highly motivated. The end result was that I met quite a few women…and I slept with a quite few women. I easily slept with more women during this 4 year period than during my entire post high school/pre- marriage single period. In spite of no longer having the six-pack I did back then, I have a much more positive attitude which made an enormous difference. Concentrate on having a fun experience and chances are the sex will come. If I met somebody cool and interesting but did not have sex, that was fine too. Wasting my time on a dud date (no chemistry, conversation, negative vibe, etc) was really the only down-side. Conversely, rejection is not a big deal – everyone has the right to say no. Yes, some women I thought were cool turned out to not think the same of me. And that was fine – and makes me wonder why I dreaded that result so much as a younger man. Also, I was able to flip the script. A few times, as I attempted to politely say no to another date,etc , I’ve had a woman just lose her shit and get nasty. My loss, right, no reason to get worked up about it. It’s a virtuous circle, the less you fear rejection, the more fun you will tend to have. Final result I don’t necessarily feel the need to “met” women at any expense as I did “post-divorce”. If was fun (for the most part) and it pushed me out of several comfort zones which is something I think every divorced person needs.
  • Cross-cultural Observations (AKA is he really going to validate cultural stereotypes): I found that, in an extremely broad sense, cultural stereotypes tend to have some truth to them. Latin American, African, Asian and Eastern European women tend to expect and appreciate that you play the “man”, you take initiative make the decisions, open doors and, yes, pay for most things. No joke, You will reap benefits, shall we say, that would almost be unthinkable with upper middle class Aglophone (US, Canada, UK, Australia, etc) women but you must first Prove Your Worth. North-American women want their cake and eat it too – meaning that they expect full equality while at the same expecting you to pay for most things and still “take charge”. Sometimes. When, where and how to take charge is highly variable and woe unto he who misinterprets the signs. Western European women are somewhat closer to the North American end of spectrum meaning they appreciate their independence while still acknowledging that there are innate differences between the sexes. That being said, both groups tend to be lower maintenance which can be a real breath of fresh air.

I should note that class differences were minimal. The women I dates tended to have the same level of education and professional development – if not more in some cases.

Pleasant surprises – Russian women are invariably pretty and expensively dressed, yes, but in my experience are also very cultured as regards to literature, dance and music. They can have dark, off-beat senses of humor. Romanian women are some of the most fun women in the world. They combine Slavic and Mediterranean looks while preserving a more sociable Mediterranean warmth. They can, and will, talk your ear off but it will never, ever be boring. Know that a 50 kilo Polish or Irish woman can drink your punk ass under the table, all day, any day. Anglophone women and women from Western Europe tend to be somewhat less drama prone than women from other cultures that I met.
Wow – didn’t really expect that: When I was freshly separated from my soon to be ex-wife, the idea that I could meet and eventually sleep with a decent number of fairly interesting, attractive women seemed, if not far-fetched, at least a tad overly optimistic. I soon learned that this is not the difficult part. The truly difficult part is the karmic price you pay. A quick example that happened to me no less than 3 times. Married female acquaintances made it clear that I could help add some spice to their daily routine. For so many reasons, this is a horrible idea so I didn’t…until, of course, I did, for all the usual reasons. 9 & 1/2 weeks territory, as in indulging in the majority of fantasies one has harbored for quite some time. I ended it before things could truly go south but in the bargain I felt like a real asshole for doing it in the first place. Gentlemen, know that if your marriage is going stale or on the rocks and your wife/girlfriend is attractive, well, she can indulge herself at the literal snap of a finger. To the “other guy”:  Don’t ever be the “3rd person”, ever.

Lessons learned – Do not take rejection personally, stay true to yourself and your morals, have fun and above all, “be in the moment”.  Don’t do things you don’t want to do with people you don’t want to do them with. 

Finally, the city I live in is sufficiently small and cosmopolitan enough that one meeting and dating somebody from another culture was\is pretty much a constant. Everyone is doing it, not just out of necessity, but also because they can. It’s fun and exciting. Yes, long-term relationships between people who share a culture can be easier (less misunderstandings, for one). All I know is that I’ve never been one to take the easier path.

Sofrito/Epis – The delicious secret weapon for Athletes – A recipe

20120419-202609-sofrito-thumb-625xauto-234386

This is a recipe that I am publishing for all my brothers and sisters in the Strength Sport community.  It is a tasty method of injecting a tasty, highly nutritional component into your rice, stews, sauces and such.

What follows is a personal observation regarding the value of eating 100 percent organic.  Please jump to the next non-italicized paragraph if you just want the recipe.

When I was a young child to teenager going back and forth from the Caribbean to the US, it was the period just before (and the beginning of) the Obesity epidemic in the States.  There just weren’t that many overweight people when I was a kid.  My early to late teen years coincided with the paradigm shift in food production in the US and consequent rise in obesity.  I remember coming back to the US – every year or two – and literally noticing a greater percentage of obesity with each trip.  Meanwhile back in my “home” country, most people had a hard enough time eating every day much less worry about getting fat.      Amongst the vast majority of the population, having sufficient resources to fatten up would have been very welcome indeed.  Yet even amongst the upper classes (who were often fantastically wealthy) obesity was a rarity.

So people were generally slim and, furthermore, I remember noticing that younger adults who did manual labor (peasant farmers, construction workers, etc) were often incredibly ripped.  Those men and women could have made a fortune on Instragram had they been born a generation later.   The phenomenon that foreign adults remarked most frequently was a huge increase in libido(I was a teenager couldn’t notice a difference as my libido was already in the stratosphere).  The Caribbean was (and remains) a place were some people’s marriages went to die.  The often heard remark is that “there must be something in the water”.  Close, but no Monte Cristo.  My thesis that everyone was (and in the poorer more rural parts of the country, still is) eating 100 percent organic produce, meat and dairy.  We did this not because organic, local produce was a thing back then.  Big chain stores and processed foods were rare.  You bought most of your food in the outdoor market from peasant farmers.  You ate lots of fruit and vegetables, ate meat and fish occasionally (it was expensive).  You also get a lot of sun and therefore aren’t deficient in Vitamin D.  Basically, if you ate this diet in sufficient quantity (not too much or too little) it’s like being physically turbocharged.  You are firing on all cylinders.  Sofrito is the perfect example – it combines all of the proven health benefits of garlic, ginger, hot peppers, green herbs (parsley, cilantro, etc), onions and more.  A friend of mine eats a few spoon fools, uncooked, instead of taking vitamins.  It’s hard to think of a better, more bio-available way of getting quite a few vitamins and minerals in one go.

The base of much of Caribbean cuisine is “sofrito” or “epis” (as it’s referred to in the country spent most of my time in).  This preparation can be used in just about anything but especially in rice, sauces and stews.    There are many different variations depending upon the eventual recipe.  I whip up a batch of sofrito/epis at least once a week.  The components vary, but for me the back bone of any “sofrito/epis” is the fresh garlic and ginger.  I make a special effort to make my epis/sofrito as jam-packed as possible with various nutrients.  In case you were wondering, it  tastes amazing.  Below are the components of my current epis\sofrito recipe:

NB:  All components of this recipe should be sourced organically for the reasons I alluded to above.

Fresh Garlic, peeled (this should be one of the building blocks.  The amount is up to you depending on the eventual quantity. )

Fresh Ginger, peeled  (If at all possible not from China)

Fresh Curcuma , peeled – also you may want to wear some gloves when peeling and cutting, as it stains quite a bit

Spring Onions

Onions and/or shallots

Habanero Peppers – OK, this depends on how much heat you like.  I live in Europe where the Habanero come from either Kenya or the Netherlands – they are weak AF.  If I used 2 Habanero from the Caribbean or the Yucatan in my recipe, I’d be crying.  For now, however, 2 from my current sources provide a decent amount of kick.  Also, as with the Curcuma, keep the gloves on while handling these.  Anybody who has every cut Habaneros without gloves and then gone to the bathroom shortly thereafter can tell you why.

Bell pepper (partial) – for color and fiber

Cloves, 2 or 3 should do it.

Fresh cilantro and parsley

True sea salt (no additives).

Apple cider vinegar or lime juice

Olive Oil

A bit of water.

Put all of these ingredients in a food processor and mix to the consistency you see in the picture.  You will have to be the judge regarding the essential components and the liquids, but that is actually quite fun.  In most cases, saute this mixture in a bit of coconut oil before adding it to the rice, quinoa, stews or whatever.  Note that depending on the recipe some people may add tomatoes or what have you.  This an infinitely adaptable recipe.

Pro Tip – for the best and quickest Guacamole recipe known to mankind, add sofrito and peeled avocado halves in a bowl.  Thoroughly mix/crush with a fork until you achieve the required consistency.  You may want to add a pinch of sea salt to taste.

Stranger in a strange land

In my first post I touched briefly (albeit not very coherently) on the the notion of nationality, cultural identity and, I suppose, the idea of diaspora.  What makes it strange for people like me is that Americans think of themselves of the immigrant nation par excellence.  People, according to this narrative, are literally dying to come to the US.  The notion that Americans would choose to live elsewhere, perhaps permanently, does not register as if it’s some sort of fringe activity.  Yet there are millions of us: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_diaspora

If you take the lower estimate, that means are more US diaspora than the current population of the Republic of Ireland.  Nevertheless, even if we take the higher estimate of 9 million, that is a small fraction of the current US population. As globalization continues, the phenomena of US diaspora may one day be more than a blip on the US cultural radar.   My point is that having lived quite a bit in countries that have a very large diaspora population, I know what the general consensus tends to be from the folks in the home country:  Yes, they’re like us, but not entirely.  There’s something a bit off about them and, besides, they aren’t true citizens of (fill in the blank) because they haven’t been living here, sharing our experiences.  This is a fairly common sentiment that I’ve seen in many different countries.  The flip side of the coin is the experience of the diaspora – he or she is the perennial outsider.  They may master the language and culture of the country where they live, they are “not from here”.  And they aren’t entirely accepted back home either.   For now, most Americans don’t have an opinion regarding diaspora simply because they’re not that aware of it and don’t know anybody personally living outside the country.

So, I’m not saying my experience is analogous to an economic migrant.  Far from it, most American diaspora live outside the US due to circumstances other than economic.  For me being the outsider is sometimes curious state of being but it never weighs heavily.  At worst, on a rare trip back to the US I feel like a character from the Twilight Zone – somebody who fell asleep in 1997 only to awake in 2017 to a country that is both familiar but at the same time radically changed.