Kara Nottingham works extremely hard (She plowed her way through college and Law School, excelled in a law program abroad, knocked down the LSATs, completed internship programs and then landed an enviable, albeit time-consuming job as a corporate attorney in Washington, DC). But when the time comes, she plays hard— and her playground is intercontinental. Having traveled for a tetrad of work, school, volunteerism and play, and having made homes in various counties, Kara is the consummate drifter— a true global citizen. Recently, upon realizing she wanted more from her life than a seemingly endless stream of depositions and case files with the occasional transient jaunt sprinkled in for good measure, Kara decided to quit her job and move from the US to a place where she found peace and contentment— Geneva, Switzerland. We got a chance to pick Kara's brain about the inspiration behind her globetrotting lifestyle, life as an expat, traveling as a woman of color, and more. Read on to see what she had to say.
ND: What sparked your interest in travel?
Kara: I have always had a love for different languages and cultures, as well as a passion for social justice and international affairs. I studied all of these subjects in school, which I presume sparked my interest in seeing the world. I also think that my experience in attending an international boarding school encouraged me to travel.
ND: Oh, yeah. That would do it.
Kara: While I was there we had students from 25 states and 25 countries, so at a relatively young age I was surrounded by people from everywhere. Being exposed to so many people and so many different cultures definitely influenced my desire to travel.
ND: No wonder you caught the bug [laughs]. So what was your first travel experience?
Kara: My very first travel experiences were at a young age with my family. However, my first real travel experience alone was moving to Madrid [Spain] during my 3rd year of law school for a study abroad program.
ND: Why Madrid?
Kara: I chose Spain out of a desire to discover Europe, and work on improving my Spanish, which I had studied for years in school. I had an amazing time and spent the semester hopping around Europe and North Africa, becoming acquainted with new cities and new people.
ND: That's must have been a great time. Looking back on that experience, if you could go back in time and give yourself some sage travel advice, what would it be?
Kara: If I could go back and give myself travel advice, I guess I would have to say, "pack light." I arrived with three massive suitcases that were so big I couldn’t even fit them in a taxi at the airport. Granted I was staying for five months, but the amount of luggage I brought was pretty ridiculous.
ND: That's hilarious. I know all about overpacking. My first time out of the country— I went to London and Paris for a total of two weeks— and I must have packed every "stylish" outfit I owned— you know, for just in case [Laughs]. I had this massive suitcase full of garments that never saw the light of day. I'm surprised I didn't get stopped by customs! Very unnecessary, and I was totally embarrassed.
Kara: I learned my lesson and now it’s rare that you will ever see me jump on a plane with more than a tiny carry on— or for extended travel, one [reasonably-sized] suitcase. I also always leave extra room in my luggage for purchases so I can accumulate items in different spots and bring keepsakes back with me on my return trip.
ND: Oh, you absolutely have to.
Kara: Traveling light just makes life so much easier.
ND: It really does! So, switching gears a little: your work has brought you to places like Geneva, Tanzania and Beijing. That's pretty major.
Kara: I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to do a lot of traveling for work and I’m so grateful to have obtained this exposure. I have found work-related travel experiences challenging, but in no way difficult, and an invaluable contributing factor to my growth as an individual and a professional. As our world becomes increasingly interconnected, and increasingly competitive, I think it is crucial to gain professional exposure abroad in any way that you can – either by volunteering, or participating in a temporary or long-term assignment.
ND: For sure. I think it's so important— especially for those at a cultural disadvantage— to get that exposure: to understand global best practices and become culturally competent. It's invaluable. What was it like having to quickly acclimatize yourself to not only a different organizational culture, but an entirely different culture?
Kara: The first time I moved to Geneva, Switzerland, I was working with a non-governmental organization focused on promoting rule of law and human rights initiatives. I had the opportunity to work with attorneys based in Cambodia, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Burundi, and China on a daily basis, and traveled to Singapore for a conference and training session. This was a formative experience in that it allowed me to expand my professional network, gain awareness of the realities of practicing law in different countries, and develop an awareness of cultural sensitivities and norms present in such a diverse work environment.
I also had the opportunity to travel to Tanzania to work with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which was by far my favorite experience to date. While working at the ICTR I not only had to adjust to a new work environment, but also to living a very different way of life.
ND: I love that you went with the flow and adopted their pacing. I've witnessed situations where people want their new environment to change for them— it never turns out good.
Kara: Yeah, and coming from a corporate law firm, I definitely had to get acclimated to the pace of the office. I also had to learn to thrive with a different set of resources. [But] I felt that there was a true sense of camaraderie amongst colleagues, unlike anything I have experienced in any other work environment. I loved every moment at the ICTR and used the experience as an opportunity to travel around East Africa, which was incredible.
ND: What about China?
Kara: I was in China for a few weeks while working for my former law firm. The work environment was formal and fast-paced, but overall very enjoyable. All in all, I think each of those experiences made me a more well-rounded, humble person, and helped to shape my career path, which I am grateful for.
ND: How have you found traveling as a woman of color? Any interesting stories there?
Kara: Traveling as a woman of color has made me acutely aware of my unique identity within the context of global history, and the politics behind labeling your origins. The most recurrent theme I have noted is how African-Americans are viewed around the world, and the general confusion about who we are, and where we come from. At least once a week I am asked, "Where are you from?” To which I respond, "I’m American, from Washington, DC." This usually immediately provokes the follow up question: “Okay, but where are you really from?”
ND: [Laughs] And how do you respond?
Kara: I either answer with a blank stare, or a 10-minute conversation on the history of the trans-atlantic slave trade. It’s always a bit awkward, and I always leave these conversations feeling a bit perplexed. That simple question, “Where are you from?” takes on such a different form depending on where you are in the world and who is asking it. Shockingly, or perhaps not so shockingly, a lot of people are unfamiliar with African-American history and the concept of the African Diaspora. Many people are equally unfamiliar with the concept of how it is possible for an individual to not know exactly where their family comes from beyond a certain generation, or in what specific countries they have origins.
ND: I know what you mean— it's like, we expect people to know, but really how can they? They have their own histories to memorize— and to be fair, I can admit that there are a lot of places whose back stories I'm unfamiliar with. The silver lining to that, I think— in some cases at least— is that some are curious enough to ask. How do we answer them, though? That's the question.
Kara: Sometimes I just say “I’m black,” but the lack of specificity tends to just leave people even more puzzled, and leads down the path of a never-ending stream of follow up questions. Perhaps I should just be satisfied with the “I’m African-American” response, and brush off all attempts to pry into my specific origins… but I’m not. Call me cliché, but I really want to know where exactly I’m from.
ND: Not cliché at all. It's sad that so many of us have been deprived of knowledge of our histories. Everyone should know where they come from.
Kara: I’ve always wanted to know, but I’m not confronted with the desire at home because everyone just understands what you mean when you say “I’m black” or “I’m African-American,” or “I’m from DC.” One day, though, I would love to have a more thorough response to the question, “Where are you from?”
ND: It'd be great to be able to know— even if it's knowledge you don't share. I imagine simply knowing would be empowering. Okay, so you lived in Switzerland a couple years ago, came back to the US (for a brief time, which I like to think of as an extended layover), but have since moved back to Geneva. What is it about Switzerland that appealed to you?
Kara: I moved back to Geneva, Switzerland last summer. To make a long story short, I just love it here. It’s absolutely beautiful— mountains and outdoor activities surround you, summers are spent swimming in the lake in the center of the city, the food is fresh…
ND: Oh my God, so fresh!
Kara: [Laughs] …The lifestyle is just healthier and happier. People are laid back and there is so much less stress. Most importantly, it’s diverse and people are open-minded. I can only really speak for Geneva when I say that… but because there are so many international organizations here, everyone really is from all over the world. Walking down the street everyday I hear no less than four languages. It’s a melting pot and it’s always interesting. There’s a small but lively artistic scene, and great music festivals and concerts.
ND: How was the transition moving back? Were you able to slip seamlessly back into the life you had [prior to leaving], or were there any obstacles?
Kara: Moving back was not too difficult. Of course it was an adjustment, but a year later I feel totally at home and at peace again. The biggest hurdle in my transitioning back was probably learning French. I’m still working on it, but I’m much better now and feel more comfortable, which I think was essential to me feeling truly at home here. Although Geneva is a tiny city, for some reason it just works for me and I’m very happy here. I hope to stay here for a while.
ND: You've traveled with family, with friends and alone. Do you have any preferences as to the company you like to keep, or lack thereof, when traveling?
Kara: I like to travel with friends, but prefer to be with just one friend, or a small group. When you’re in an unfamiliar place with a huge group of people, planning can get complicated. I love to travel with people who are easy going, down for anything, anti- scheduled tours, and interested in discovering a new place spontaneously. I’m a really laid back, relaxed person. I don’t trust most travel guides, and favor just meeting people and going with the flow. I like to travel with people who have a similar vibe.
ND: That's important, being on a similar wavelength with your partners-in-travel. It can make or break a trip. Anyway, we're done; I guess I'll conclude by asking, what's your travel philosophy?
Kara: As I said earlier, I think my travel philosophy is to “go with the flow.” Sometimes in over-planning we miss out on spontaneous fun, meeting new people, and discovering new things we may have passed over if we were focused on looking for something else. Always be open and free and willing to try everything at least once.