Category Archives: love

Proud to be an American

I had a very strange day today. I was supposed to be hosting another American friend, who lives in Paris, for the weekend but she got sick and had to cancel. So my plans for the last few weeks (all of which were about getting my flat ready for her visit) went a bit awry, and I was left with an unusual three days of a completely blank calendar. This led, as it normally does, to my doing lots of cooking and eating. (My sister and I have just started a cooking blog, visit it here!) This also led to my spending three hours transfixed by the live broadcast of the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert “Rally to Resore Sanity and/or Fear” which was actually and amazingly available to view from the UK. (I say amazingly because the Comedy Central site is one where I normally get the “This video is not available in your country” message on rather frequent occasions.) It was full of American flags and American patriotic songs and hilarious jokes and stunts and lots of good music. No one really knew what the point of the whole thing was, but the Jon Stewart speech at the end of it was amazing and made me really happy.

I lived in the greater Washington D.C. area as a kid, and as a post-doc I was at the University of Virginia while my sister was a grad student at Georgetown and thus I’ve spent a great deal of time in the DC area. I consider that region to be one of my homes in the US, a complementary city/region to my actual home town of Minneapolis. Seeing the rally streaming over my iPad (hooray, the video worked! Must not have been flash…) while I was cleaning, cooking, and otherwise hanging around my flat, was actually a bit tough. I kept getting choked up about the whole thing, which is remarkably silly given how completely silly and apparently (tho’ probably not actually) pointless the whole thing was. It was not a major American patriotic holiday. It was the several-days-eve of a mid-term election, when voter turnout is usually poor. It did come in response to the whole crazy Tea Bagger thing that has caused America much consternation (not to mention dirty jokes–link NSFW!) over the last few months.

The thing that seems to get me the most, as a long-term expat, are the songs. The patriotic songs of America have become a real tear-tipping point for me in the last few years. I don’t know what it is about living away from “home” and never hearing the songs that makes this such an emotional experience. I guess when you’re around things all the time, you get used to them. And when you’re away, you miss them. (Like me and my obsessions with orange cheese-flavored crackers, for instance.) But I ended up watching the “rally” in tears due both to location and to music, and then to just polish myself off as useless for the night, I started perusing you-tube videos of my favorite American song that always makes me sob. Enjoy.

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Last full day in MN

I finished off my Minneapolis trip for 2010 with which might have been the perfect day. I started off the morning going shopping with my Mom/Mum (I think in my confused state it comes out somewhere in-between in terms of the vowels) and bought her an early (by a month) birthday present of a smart phone. She was not on the carrier of the iPhone, so it’s an Android HTC touch thing, but it’s way cool. We set up her Gmail account and played with the new toy, all for the princely sum of $99 plus a few random taxes and fees. Now she can stay updated with both her out-of-town daughters, the recently repatriated sister-o’-mine who is still over 1000 miles away, and of course me many thousands of miles away.

After the shopping (which included other things as well) and the lunch (Oh Noodles and Co., can you please follow Chipotle’s example and set up shop in England so I can have a sandwich-free lunch alternative?) we spent a few happy hours sorting through old boxes in the basement of my parents’ place. Since my sister and I have been such vagabonds, there are many boxes of our things mixed in with stuff that got packed up from the parental abode after a fire in their basement many years ago. I grabbed a bag full of things that I want now, marked other things as “discard,” “donate,” or “keep” and found all sorts of lovely surprises, like a pair of Sapphire earrings that I thought had been lost in the trans-Atlantic shuffle. We even managed to stumble on the box of photographs of my dear grandparents (her parents, who died in a car crash just over ten years ago) mostly from the 1930s and boy was that fun to sift through.

I continued my day with a return visit to my best friend’s hospital bedside, where she is recovering from a C-section and has a bouncing baby boy at her side. I got to hold the darling little one, which was a real treat that I was not necessarily expecting, my trip being timed optimistically to catch them but with the knowledge that it could all be different than it ended up actually being. Now that I think about it, I’ve never actually had the honor to visit such a person-who-means-so-much-to-me in the hospital having just given birth, so the entire experience was particularly poignant if slightly confusing to me (the sole solo operator in a room full of mommies or mommies-to-be) since I had no idea how to join in the conversation about the benefits of nipple shields for nursing. Okay I need to add a sentence to close this paragraph to take away from that being the last image of my hospital visits to see darling baby over the last two days. Darling baby was nearly 10 pounds and was quite the load to hold, but I did not pay any attention to how tired my arms were since he was so sweet and it was great to see my friend feeling better since yesterday when the C-section surgery was too recent to be comfortable. Baby is cute and his name is adorable and I was so pleased that my timing worked out well and I got to deliver my crocheted baby blanket to its rightful owner (the baby, obviously) in person.

I left the hospital to head for the home of my nonagenarian grandmother, who is clearly older than she was the last trip when I saw her, just over a year ago, but still the same grandmother I remember. I got to spend many hours with her this trip and they were many minutes of heaven all strung together. Our family is blessed many times over in that another family member (my aunt, grandma’s daughter) lives with her and allows her to stay in the home that she and my grandfather built not long after World War II. (Or in Brit-speak, “The War”) Grandma may be losing some short-term memory, but her recall of the 1940s is exceptional and I heard stories this trip that I had not heard before. I even taught her to use my digital camera, so she could take a photo of me with my lovely aunt (her care-giver) after I insisted on some photos taken by my aunt of me with grammy (which she hated, because she says she “looks old”). In the midst of the reminiscing, I got a photo of my late grandfather as a 9th grader and a photo of my great-grandfather’s (grandmother’s dad’s) diploma, which I did not realize was hanging in the upstairs hallway all along. I even had a grilled cheese sandwich for dinner there at Grandma’s, although now it was my aunt who made it and not my Grammy herself.

For the first time in a very long time, I leave this place–Minneapolis–in peace. I did not escape to another midwestern city to do some work. I did not even take up the offer of a local work colleague to drop by since I was in town. I spent the entire time that I was here doing family and friend things along with a few crucial errands (new glasses being the most important, but new cowboy boots being a close second). I listened to Country Music K102 in my rental car during my entire trip, a station that I never would have touched when I lived here but which resonates with me now that I’m gone. In previous years, I’ve come here out of obligation in some degree, but now I think I will come back out of love. I feel like I have finally escaped the shackles of this place being associated with my past and my childhood and I could just enjoy it for what it was, including some sense of past that never really grew to be too overwhelmingly much. Maybe my experience of living abroad for nearly four years has started to calm the negative feelings of this place and is letting me really sink into it and enjoy it. This was the least planned trip I’ve ever had to MN, in part because I was waiting for baby news from my dear friend I did not plan much and I just let the trip happen. I can go back to England a happy girl, and look forward to future visits even knowing that they cannot, will not, be the same as this excellent trip has been.

Ten years ago

It was, as of a few weeks ago, ten years ago that my grandparents died in a car crash. Ten years ago, that my world ended but didn’t. Ten years ago that I stopped getting phone messages from my beloved grandmother even though we were technically not in the same area code and thus long-distance. I last heard her living voice right before the trip they went on, that ended badly. I went on and kept living, but some of the most important people in my life didn’t continue to be after some date approximately ten years ago. I managed to stay busy in the anniversary of this accident, and I was working and attending conferences in Newcastle and Singapore. And I didn’t let loose and feel the grief until tonight, when it suddenly hit me, without warning. So if I’ve ignored you when I should have been your friend, please forgive me. I’ve been dealing with my own pent-up grief. I can’t believe it’s been ten years, in some ways. And I can’t believe it’s only been ten years in others. I miss them so much. At the time, one of my aunts mentioned that I should keep track, that I would be unlikely to attend a double funeral again in my lifetime. I can be happy that this has not happened again, without wanting to ever be in a place where two people that you love are in coffins at the same time.

On being an ‘Auntie’

When I was a child of about 9 years old, I met the person who was the adoptive ‘Uncle’ through my formative years. He was called that to me, ‘Uncle Dave’ and he was a work friend of my father’s. I was a budding engineer, thus illustrating that I knew very early what my job in the future was going to be. He was a PhD mathematician, and I know he was put into my direct path by my father to encourage me to stay with maths and to pursue this technical stuff as a career. He and his wife were childless by choice, as am I, and we developed a special relationship that lasted well into my late 20s before circumstances drove us apart. There was a special thing when I was a kid, whereas we as a family used to go out with Uncle Dave and his wife, always for pizza. An interesting factoid that will be important later. On the back of a napkin, Uncle Dave explained to child-me the concept of a “googol” which was not a search engine, but a number–10 raised to the power of 100. A very large number. And there was a “googol plex” or 10 raised to the power of a googol. Again, a very large number. But not infinity. And we spent time discussing the concept of infinity in pizza joints across America as people moved and things changed. (And now the search engine behemoth’s headquarters is called the Googleplex, which is not an accident but a geeky play on words found amusing by those of us who find such things amusing.)

In the early days, before I called him ‘Uncle’ and before I freely acknowledged how important he was to me, I called him my mentor. When email was new in the early nineties, and I was at University, Uncle Dave and I re-connected and he continued to be my mentor, but our fondness for each other developed and we had a true friendship that continued up to about the time that I moved to the UK, or just after. It was a completely intellectual meeting of the minds and it mattered a great deal to me. Unfortunately I think the last time we communicated much was a few years ago now. By that time, I had a PhD degree of my own and an exciting new job and a physical distance from much of what I left behind in the US. For various reasons, we’ve drifted apart completely and have not been in touch in recent years; he nears (if is not already at) the retirement age, and I’ve been remarkably busy and distracted trying to forge this career of mine. I’m sad about this loss of communication with someone who was a factor in my life for literally 20 years, but also strangely philosophical. Sometimes a person appears in your life to play a key role and then drifts out again. Life is complicated, and unpredictable. But when people ask how I ended up where I am, both literally and figuratively, one of the answers is always ‘Uncle’ Dave, who I credit as a mentor and a friend, not to mention a special person who was there for me, listening to me when I was yet a child and continuing to discuss the world with me when I was struggling with adulthood and the realities of grown-up life.

I feel a strange sense of history repeating itself, but now with me potentially in the ‘Auntie’ role. I’ve become quite attached to fellow expat blogger Kat‘s kids (the kids are known as Lala and Kiki, in internet anonymity terms). When I think about it, it’s the closest attachment I’ve had to any small children since I was babysitting in junior high school, literally 20 years ago. Coincidentally, we’ve had pizza most of the times that we’ve all been together, including two outings to kid-friendly Pizza Express (although the kids don’t get why there is so much sauce and so little cheese on the pizza here compared with American pizza) and a Domino’s delivery up at Kat’s place. Although being with them does not encourage any maternal feelings in me, I connect with these kiddos in a way that I never could have imagined. My ‘Uncle Dave’ knew that I was struggling with the realization that I had no desire to bear my own children but he always told me how fun it was to be an ‘Uncle’ and to watch the development of young minds–and that I should not discount the importance of children in my life even if I did not wish to have my own kids. I don’t think I quite understood what he was saying until now. And I’m really enjoying it. And I’m really hoping that I get to be a part of Kiki’s and Lala’s lives for another 19 or so years (at least!) and in the way that my Uncle Dave was a part of 20 of my formative years.

Ordinary world?

Came in from a rainy Thursday
On the avenue
Thought I heard you talking softly

I turned on the lights, the TV
And the radio
Still I can’t escape the ghost of you

What has happened to it all?
Crazy, some are saying
Where is the life that I recognize?
Gone away

But I won’t cry for yesterday
There’s an ordinary world
Somehow I have to find
And as I try to make my way
To the ordinary world
I will learn to survive

We all have them, ghosts in our past.  And no matter how things have changed, how we all move on, it’s hard not to stop and have a good cry for the past when big things change, even if you’re not really actually sad about the end result and you definitely don’t wish for any other outcome.  So tonight, conveniently Friday night, I will raise a glass to my ex-husband and his new wife.  Cheers.

April 21, 1939

On the 21st of April, 1939, seventy years ago today, my grandparents were married. They were married out in the homestead prairie regions of southwestern Minnesota. The wedding photographs prominently featured a baby goat and mostly took place in the bride’s family home. This was small town/farm country America. My immigrant great-grandparents (grandmother’s parents) moved to the area from the Netherlands in the early 20th century. They initially lived in a sod house with dirt floors; they had 15 children, my grandmother included, of which 14 lived to adulthood. They were so stuck for names that there is a series of pairs, with the first and middle name switched, for most of the older children.

My grandparents fell in love and got married in a scandalous cross-culture experiment: she was Dutch! But he was Norwegian! Tongues were wagging across southwestern Minnesota, although they both came from “highly respected families” in the area. They took up more than a few column inches in the local newspaper with the wedding announcement (I have a scan, hoorah!) My grandfather’s sister was the bridesmaid and my grandmother’s brother was the groomsman–thank goodness these details were preserved in the local paper for posterity! We even know what song was played for the wedding processional. If we didn’t have the photos to sustain us, we could be assured that the bride “was beautifully attired in a floor length white satin dress, trimmed at the shoulders and sleeves and with stand-up collar. An ankle-length veil completed her attire. She carried a bouquet of Easter Lilies and white Sweet Peas.” If we had any doubts, we could know that “A bountiful lunch concluded the reception…” and that the honeymoon took them “for an extended wedding trip, which will take them to the Twin Cities and other points.”

They managed more than 60 years of married life before they left the earth at the same time, after a car accident some years ago. This is admittedly more personal than my usual post, but… Have you ever seen two people so happy in a wedding photo?

wedding-couple-laughing

An Expat in Paris

I had the chance this weekend to briefly visit a friend of mine from back home–she moved to Paris just over six months ago to take an amazing job.  She is thus my only expat friend from the states who is not related to me (since my sister in China is both a friend and a relative).  Really, I feel lucky to have both a friend and a sister who are embarking on these new lives in other countries, it makes me feel not-so-alone when we are all in this experience together.

I took the Eurostar train over to Paris, which is great fun.  Hello, you can take a train off an island and get between London and Paris in only a few hours with a great view out the window?  As I was traveling on the train, I could not remember why I had only done this once before in my more than two years in the UK.

My first trip to Paris was as a tourist.  I was new to the UK, and I had met friends from the states on the Thanksgiving weekend nearly two years ago.  One of them was Paris-familiar, and both of us had taken French in high school, so we did okay and had a good time seeing the classic sites.

This trip was totally different–I was with a (newly assimilating)  local, hanging out in her neighborhood and seeing Paris in a totally different light.   We did the fun and day-to-day things that you do when you live somewhere–we went to the apartment of another friend of hers where we were to await the delivery of a mattress (since the friend was out of town).   We hung out in cafes in real neighborhoods, not tourist areas.  We spent most of our time enjoying life with Paris in the background, instead of enjoying Paris with life on hold.  We got lucky with the Parisian weather–it was sunny and warm during the day and cool but clear in the evening.

We enjoyed the weather.  We shopped.  We walked along the Seine.  We laughed.  We cried.  We talked about life, love and happiness.   We worked on our French.  Sometimes with better results than others.  We ate.  And we ate well, this being Paris.  Onion soup, cheese plates, salads, cafe creme, little cafes on every corner.  That thing where you can walk into a boulangerie and step up to a fromagerie  and get bread and cheese to take home and eat for brunch.  And when you’re with a local, there is a home to go to and drink coffee and eat.  It’s amazing.

It’s also interesting how the expat experience translates.  France, England, it doesn’t matter–the basics of relocating from the US to Europe are surprisingly similar.  Europe is so clearly not the US, and the differences between European countries pale in comparison with the difference between Europe and America.  The troubles that you face when being an expat, especially at first, are something that transcends the details of location.  We both benefitted from the comparison of silly little annoyances in our own lives, and from the commiseration that comes with shared experience.

At the end of the day, this was a great weekend for me.  I don’t have friends here in England as great as the friends I have from home, and it was amazing to be myself, my unguarded, completely American self, for many hours on end and to know that there’s another person just a short train ride away who shares my experiences.  I also feel lucky to be reminded that love is such a great and broad thing, a thing that encompasses family, romance, and perhaps most importantly, friendships.

Paris, je t’aime.