Gone But Not Forgotten

After 4 years, living the German experience, I’m back on the other side of the pond. So, this blog is kaput! No, not broken, just in a suspended state of being. Danke Deutschland! Bis bald!

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Enter the Village Idiot

After relocating several times, I am familiar with the feeling of being the village idiot for a while. Or, as a Dr. Fred Goodwin, a professor of psychology at George Washington University, more kindly puts it: we “lose competence” when we relocate. Why? Because when one relocates to a new city, state, or country, there is so much to learn about where and when to go, how to get there, how it’s done, and maybe a new language during the whole process.

Most of the time I can get things figured out pretty well but there continue to be those moments when it all gets ridiculous. For example, while we were still living in hotels, waiting for our shipment from Germany, some longtime friends Brad and Sheena, offered for us to stay in their house while they went on vacation. So, the kids and I moved in Sunday evening (Gary was traveling for work) and slept soundly. The next day, after breakfast, we needed to leave for an appointment. All ready to go, I discovered we could not get out of the house. We were literally trapped inside the house. I’ll just explain how by paraphrasing my phone conversation with Brad:

Me: You won’t believe this but we are locked inside your house.
Brad: What? How?
Me: Well, remember how you told me to only use your garage door to get in and out of the house?
Brad: Yes
Me: Well, we did that to get in but now the [automated] garage door won’t open. When I press the button, the motor runs but the door won’t move. So, I went around to all the other doors in the house but they are deadbolted and I don’t have the key. Also, none of your ground level windows open.
Brad: (laughter) Hmmmmm….
Me: I know…what should I do?
Brad: Well, before I come up with an idea, I’m just going to enjoy this moment.
Me: Thanks! Glad I can provide some entertainment.
Brad: (cackles)

The children’s new school is a wonderful place but they are accustomed to having students (and parents) who have all been there for years, and know everyone else and how everything works. Unlike the International school in Germany which caters well to its loads of newcomers with workshops and all communications that are descriptive enough so that everyone understands what is happening or about to happen. Instead, here, I get emails from room parents asking for help saying things like “you’ve all done it before so you know what to do.” Well, no, I actually have no idea how you want me to decorate the classroom door for the month of January; and, no, I have no idea that I didn’t have to shell out $60 for after school care but too late now; And, by the way using “backpack mail,”  whatever that is, sounds like the quickest way to lose something very important.

Fortunately, along the way, I’ve gotten help from new friends like Chrissie, Alison and Meghan, to help navigate as one of the few clueless newcomers. Things are running a lot more smoothly these days but the occasional blips happen, not always because of the school, but because of the chaos of moving and having too many details to take care of.  One of the most memorable happened about 2 weeks into school.  I picked up Nora and Jack at the end of the day and they informed me that they weren’t signed up for hot lunch that day so had nothing to eat at lunchtime. Hot lunches must be ordered a month ahead of time and I mixed up which dates that week I have chosen for hot lunch. So, while I begin with “Oh no, I’m so sorry….” Jack pipes up with: “That’s ok, Mommy. I just ate the rest of my turkey sandwich from a couple days ago.” I nearly ran the car off the road in utter shock and horror as I looked at the back seat, expecting to find him doubled over in gastric distress. Instead I got a bright, front-toothless smile and his hands up: “See, no worries, Mommy!”

There are Two Kinds of Surprises

I got a bad surprise recently that has lead to a good sort of surprise. Here’s what happened:

One recent morning, I was pulling the trash bin to the curb for pickup when a large dog wandered straight up to me and stopped. He looked disoriented and lost. Our neighborhood listserv often has messages about people losing or finding dogs so I thought maybe I could help him. I started talking and cooing to him and reached over, fingers tucked in so he could have a sniff. Maybe I could see if he had any identification tag on the collar he was wearing.

Then, with a loud “woof,” he chomped down on my fist. Or, as Nora put it later: “Knuckles for breakfast!” i was startled, to say the least, but also bleeding from several spots on my hand. The dog took off and I cleaned and bandaged things and got the kids off to school. Speaking about it to my friend Tammy later that morning, she startled me again by saying I needed to get to a doctor immediately and will probably need rabies shots if I can’t find the dog. And, I need an antibiotic to deal with other possible infection from the bite. Seriously? Something about all of it reduced me to tears and pretty soon Tammy was picking me up to go to Urgent Care.

Yep, after that visit, a call from the head of the county health department, and a trip to the emergency room. It was true. I needed the rabies series, an antibiotic, plus a tetanus shot. There have been recent cases of domestic dogs in our county getting rabies because the owners let the vaccinations lapse and the dogs were bitten by some other rabid animal such as a raccoon or bat.

We still haven’t found the dog but have a gotten a recent lead, thanks to Nora posting some signs around the neighborhood. The rabies series takes two weeks and I’ll be done with it tomorrow. The side effects have made me nauseous and very tired the entire time but I hear the series is much better than what it was back in the day. So, shots in the stomach are no longer necessary, in case you were wondering.

Bad surprises aside, here’s how something good happened. The children have been begging to get another dog almost since the day ours died when we moved to Germany. Our promise to them was we would get another dog whenever we moved back to the US. So, ever since our return, the heat has been on to find a dog. For me, housebreaking and training a puppy is about as appealing as a getting a cavity filled with no novacaine. I’ve done both of those things before, by the way. I know exactly what I’m talking about! I thought the answer would be to get an adult dog and had visits with several rescue dogs. But, nothing was clicking for me. I love dogs but I couldn’t find a way to say yes to any of them.

So, a few days after the dog bite, I surprised myself and did the unthinkable: I got us a cat. It’s been unthinkable because I have been violently allergic to cats my entire life. I start sneezing and wheezing within moments of being around nearly all cats. Probably because of the this, my opinion about cats has ranged from dislike to indifference. Then along came Wolfie. When we moved into our house in August, Wolfie a large fluffy, black cat, made his presence known right away. He belongs to a house across the street but wanders the neighborhood at will. He lets Nora and Jack pick him up and march up and down the street, holding him like a baby; He follows me around the garden; greets me at my car when I pull up; and, naps on our front porch. Some of these traits could be a bit bothersome if it were a different cat. But in Wolfie, they are absolutely loveable. He changed me.

So, now we have a Cali, a Russian Blue that I adopted from a rescue. I didn’t tell a soul I was thinking about it and had her brought over while no one was home, so I could see if she really was hypoallergenic, as I’d read. She is! And, she’s also the sweetest animal I’ve ever encountered. Very fun too, and has the whole family completely charmed. The first thing Nora wanted to do was take her on parade in our neighborhood to show her off. So we did.

Cali, not so sure about this.

Cali, not so sure about this.

Victory lap around the neighborhood.

Victory lap around the neighborhood.

Reentry

While were were living in Germany the last 4 years, of course we visited the US once or twice a year but those visits were always compact, flying from point to point, and fogged with jetlag. Now, that we have moved back to the US, we are looking at life here through the eyes of residents, stakeholders. The first couple weeks in America, it was great to be back except for one jarring thing: It’s noticeably louder here and people seem to live life on a soundtrack. The volume of people’s voices seemed extra-loud and every restaurant and shop had music blasting. But now that I’ve been back for 9 weeks, I don’t even notice anymore. It all seems normal. In fact, this morning at Trader Joe’s the whole place, including me, seemed to be whistling to the Beach Boys “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”

My adjustment always has threads of familiarity. However, our children are the real trail-blazers. They don’t remember life with things such as ice and water dispensers in the refrigerator door. The sound of the garbage disposal was a complete shock. But the real heartbreakers happen at unexpected moments such as when in a Philadelphia airport restaurant, they were presented with individual-sized milk cartons. Any American child is familiar with these plastic-coated paper containers, usually from the school cafeteria. As a girl, I recall working hard to perfect my technique of opening these things. It’s practically an art form.

http://earth911.com/news/2011/12/15/philadelphia-now-offers-curbside-carton-recycling/

So when the waitress deposited these things in front of Nora and Jack, their faces went blank. Nora had a vague recollection but hadn’t been here long enough to perfect her technique. She started struggling with her carton and her cheeks grew pink with frustration. I quietly offered to help but the whole exercise ended up with tears. Then there was Jack who wanted a bagel and started putting the cream cheese on the outside of the bagel. Then Nora whispered “Mommy, is a dime 10 cents?” Just in that one meal, I thought Holy Crap, my kids must feel like aliens in their own country.

The feeling continues….After we moved into our house, Nora woke me early one morning with a “Mommy! What is this weird noise I keep hearing?” Groggy from a deep sleep, I had no idea what she meant. We searched our whole house to try to locate the strange noise. A few minutes later, she raced back into my room—”Did you hear that?!” I did. It was the whistle of a freight train. Growing up in Indiana, I loved the sound of the freight trains blowing their horns and the clatter of the wheels on the track, in the distance. It’s such a familiar and sedating noise as one fell asleep, safe in bed. I’m not going to feel bad about these uncomfortable moments because my children have had countless enriching experiences because of our journey. But, it does make me pause, slow down, and try to help them understand this world where they are supposed to belong.

Reentry has its moments of bliss as I relish things like grocery stores that have everything you never knew you needed and someone to actually bag your groceries and put them in your car. Oh. wow. And, viewing my cable television from my iPad in any room where I unpack boxes. Sex in the City reruns, Breaking Bad, and The Real Housewives of New Jersey have carried me through this endless task of unpacking a 40 foot container worth of stuff, plus a 500 lb, air shipment, plus our storage unit. Oy.

I love, love our house and new surroundings in an historic neighborhood but, all hasn’t gone smoothly. In fact, don’t read the rest if you are thinking of becoming an expat or just moving to somewhere else. We seemed to attract calamity for a while during our 8 week sojurn in suitcases: Customs set our shipment aside for 2 extra weeks for inspection; we were attacked by bedbugs in a hotel room; then our new house was vandalized and robbed. Not to mention, money flying out the window every day for all the expected and unexpected expenses for a transatlantic move. Yes, your sponsor company pays for many things but you will never recoup the true expense for all it entails. For example, there’s no allowance for having to eat out for nearly every meal for 6 weeks (the other 2 we were on holiday). Add that one up!

Make no mistake though, I’d do it all again. Maybe not tomorrow but, yes, I think of all the faces I miss and the places I’ve seen. I am richer for all of this.  

 

 

Dressing the Part

We sure dress up a lot around here, I thought to myself as I watched Jack and Nora board the school bus one morning and wave goodbye through the window dressed as a dinosaur and  as an American Girl Doll. It was Fasching, the German term for Carnival and Mardi Gras. All day long there were great costumes to see but my favorite was a boy of about 15 or 16, casually walking along the street in Frankfurt, book bag slung over his shoulder, and wearing a penguin suit.  The arrival of Fasching, to me, has always meant that winter shouldn’t be too much longer but, not this year. There was no shock or disappointment as we watched the snow flurries this Easter morning. Winter doesn’t want to end but I assume, at some point, it will have to.

But, back to the costuming….Every year, mixing more than one culture, there’s several opportunities to dress up in various costumes or just for fancy dress: Multiple Oktoberfest celebrations, Jubilee tea for the Queen, Halloween, Australia Day, Fasching, Viennese Balls, a charity gala, Kentucky Derby, and so many more. Being in the expat world, everyone not only wants to keep their cultural customs, they are eager to share them.  Never have I encountered more reasons to celebrate than here.  Another form of dress up that seems more common here than the US is for the stag parties, where a pack of friends accompany a groom-to-be on a weekend of hijinks and embarrassment. I’ve encountered two stag parties in the past year that were particularly memorable. The first was on a cold spring day last April in Munich. We were wandering through the Viktualienmarkt and heard the unmistakable sounds of something very funny. What we saw was this: 

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The other one I encountered was in Dresden and this photo may require a bit more explanation. Imagine you are the groom-to-be and your friends put together a sort of cape that has 2 large holes underneath the arms. Then, they march you around town with a soccer ball where they rally passers-by to try to score a goal by kicking the ball through one of the holes while you stand there with your arms stretched to your sides. So, if the person misses, just imagine where that ball goes: your head, your stomach, and any other painful place there is. 

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Poor guy…and now he is immortalized in a blog.

Italia xoxo

We just returned from what is now my 3rd trip to Rome and at least my 7th visit to Italy. Each time I leave Italy, I carry the same impressions: beauty and organized chaos. Some lessons you learn the hard way, like this time when we finished the Vatican Museums tour, we discovered that the only place to return the audio guides (and get your driver’s license back) is all the way back to the beginning, even though you are dumped out on the complete opposite end. If you haven’t been to the Vatican Museums before, it’s a must, but realize it has enormous masses of people in it at all times. So, having to go back to the beginning is like a salmon swimming upstream. But, even when those things happen in Italy there are so many other big and small experiences that make up for it. After all, how can you stay annoyed with a people who work out in your hotel gym wearing sunglasses and covered in sequins?

You Are Here and It’s Not a Horrible Mistake

Every once in a while I notice my perspective has shifted and it happened again on Halloween, our 4th one in Germany. Like we’ve done the last few years, we went to the Siedlung in Frankfurt, which is the housing compound for Americans employed at the U.S. Consulate. Besides having more Halloween festivities than a typical German neighborhood, it has the added draw that all the candy passed out is from America! The residents here have access to military base commissaries where they can purchase American goods. It’s at the Siedlung where we rediscover lost loves like Tootsie Rolls, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Nerds, Laffy Taffy, Twizzlers, and Milk Duds. So, as we walked around in the dark the other night, collecting treats, seeing other friends, and speaking English, it felt cosy and like a mini homecoming.

And then, I ran into some new friends, Nicole and Kim, who moved here from America a few months ago. “Happy Halloween!” I smiled and said. Their normally kind faces looked looked dim and I sensed a bit of sadness. A day or two later I saw Nicole and asked if she had a good time. “It was fine, you know, not like home, we only stayed an hour or so. It all looked the same.” Ah, yes, the Siedlung is the place where every two-story building is built in the same non-descript way. It’s the one where earlier in the evening, I only found my friends Allison and Maria because they started yelling my name until we could locate each other. Trying to talk me through it on our mobiles was not working. Later on, when Gary was trying to meet up with us, I didn’t know where to begin when he said: “Where are you?”

Shortly after that, another friend also named Kim, approached me full of apologies. “That was me who cut you off on the street a little while ago.” It took me a moment to figure out what she meant. Then I remembered…Traffic was heavy and, as I tried to turn left into a cramped parking lot, a car facing the opposite direction crept forward so I couldn’t get in. I remembered sighing in resignation and commenting to Nora and Jack: “Germans.” But that was it, I didn’t sit there incredulous and frustrated as I may have been a few years before. I just settled in and waited. It turns out, Kim’s car had suddenly developed a major problem and it was all she could do to move it forward. Even so, I congratulated myself with, Wow, I’ve really progressed, I don’t care about belligerent Germans behind the wheel anymore. That moment of zen was gratifying but, a few days later, when I was in a parking garage situation, resentment sprang to life. I couldn’t help thinking: Who put all these mean robots behind the wheel and who is going to help me destroy them?

So, to my friends who are rather new to this place, think of it as the first year of your first child. Even if by textbook standards, your adjustment to your life with a baby is going well, it’s still a baby and your life has changed dramatically. And, then there are some of us, by luck of the draw, who don’t have a textbook beginning with their baby (accidents, illness, work problems, etc.) Life can be hard that first year. Some moments may feel defeating but there are many joys to experience as an expat–so, chin up, eyes open, and don’t let the bastards get you down. P.S. You will make German friends too and you will like them a lot.