Travels with Sam – Part 1

On Thursdays at 1:29 pm I always get on a train to commute to my university job. Twice now I have shared the trip with the new “”Native Speaker””, i.e. English Assistant from my husband’’s school. Sam from Illinois, who — – as he told me last time — likes to spend the entirety of his disposable income on beer and traveling on the weekends. Just one of the many things we have in common –-  or had in common? I’’m not sure whether to use past or present here, because every time we talk, I reconnect with modern America and am simultaneously thrown back into the past. Exactly thirty years ago, I was Sam. An English Assistant, new to this country having just gotten a Liberal Arts degree from a Midwestern university. No clue really what the future would bring but kind of excited about not knowing. Or at the very least, being okay with not knowing.

Side note: I usually change the names of people to protect myself from the guilty, but here the name is so perfect. Sam. As in “Uncle Sam”. As in my personified heritage, my past self, reappearing in my life for the sole purpose of making me reflect on how my life has gone since my emigration 30 years ago. And how my home country has changed since I left it. Because . . . despite all the things I have in common with Sam, it is the differences that really get to me.

When I came here I wasn’’t saddled with student loan debt to repay and I wasn’’t facing a dire job market. I didn’’t have to spend my precious time here applying for jobs at 50 different companies in the hopes that one or two would pan out. I didn’’t spend every free moment seeing as much of Europe as I could just in case this turned out to be my one and only chance. If I hadn’’t studied Literature I would now write “”The world was my oyster.”” But I learned the true meaning of that saying to be ““I will take a knife and use it to get what I want.”” The world was definitely not my oyster at that time – – it was the envisioned sum total of all my future travel destinations.

That was the plan anyway. What I actually ended up doing was becoming the ultimate homebody living out in the country, outside a small village, near nowhere, since forever. But that is okay too, because as I was settling, technology was advancing, and with each big change, the world came closer to me. First the PC came and then the internet. Then satellite TV. Then email came. Then cell phones and Facebook and Skype and WhatsApp. Each innovation helped me reconnect, more and more, with the world I had left behind.

On our train ride, I told Sam a bit about how it was way back then without all these things. How 5 minutes of static-y telephone conversation with Mom cost the equivalent of a meal and a beer and so we did it sparingly and infrequently. (Now with Skype it is like we are in the same room and it’’s free to boot!) I told him that if friends or family wanted to reach me on my later travels they would have to write a letter and address it to ““Poste Restante”” + the city and country I was currently in (if they even knew at all) and then hope I would go to the main post office there sometime in the next month and pick it up.

Sam said to me on the train that on his first evening here he was already on Skype and Facebook, checking in with all his people, and that he didn’’t think he could have come here at all under the conditions that I had.

I have never been one to say that things used to be better, but somehow that statement made me sad. I realized that never again would a young person really just take off into the world completely on their own.

I got off that train and made my way to the bus stop. Standing and waiting, at first lost in my thoughts, I slowly started looking around at all the other people there in a different light. Every single one of them, as usual, was holding a cell phone – talking on it, reading off it, typing on it. We were all in the same place, in the same situation, waiting for the same bus. And we were all disconnected.

Mission Accomplished

I can’’t believe I am actually going to write about skiing.

Three separate events set me off on this topic. First, my blog friend wrote about her emigration to Germany 20 years ago and wondered how far her assimilation of and into that culture had gone. Second, I was making arrangements for our upcoming trip – our annual ski weekend at my aunt’’s house in Tyrol. And third, my daughter just arrived home from her ski week with her school class. It is an important tradition in this country because it generates memories in the vast majority of the citizens which they can later share, compare, laugh about, lie about, bond over . . .

I am a flatlander and I stand by that.

But I married a citizen of this country and, although I didn’’t realize it at the time, that meant inviting skiing into my life – for better or worse, in sickness and health, till death do us part. It is simply a part of the deal. In fact, I believe “”will learn to ski“” is one of the points in the “Integration Contract” that new immigrants have to sign when they move to this country. It comes right after ““will not wear headscarf“”.

In the beginnings of our romance, I valiantly agreed to go skiing. I was eager! It was all so new and an important intercultural experience to boot! I was pretty successful too – – in those first four or five trips, I only landed in the hospital twice.

Thereafter the frequency of my skiing outings slowly decreased. I remember telling people years ago: ““I go skiing once every five years to keep my marriage happy.”” Those five year intervals gradually increased in length with one thing or another preventing me from going along. Finally, I had managed to go 11 straight years without once having to ski. But in the meantime, I had started my family.

By the time my daughters were two years old, my husband decided it was high time to strap them onto two boards and send them careening down the side of a mountain. By the age of five and seven, they had developed enough verbal ability to successfully pressure me into joining them. On one of our annual trips to Tyrol, I finally caved and went along.

I strapped on all the heavy and awkward equipment and waddled toward that rope thing with those metal hangers that look suspiciously like meat hooks in a slaughterhouse. I let one skewer me and schlep me up to the top of the bunny hill, where I detached myself and fell down. I got up, slid a couple meters and fell down. I got up, made one or two careful curves, and managed to come to a non-horizontal stop. I looked down the hill and saw my five year old waiting for me at the bottom. This repeated itself for two hours.

That was my last skiing experience. Funnily enough, since then I have gotten no pressure whatsoever to come along. In fact, everyone is really understanding when I say I might just stay home.


My husband is the Principal of a school in a small town.

Generally speaking, – that sentence should say nothing about me apart from the word ““my””, but we are here in a country where there is a dying-but-not-quite-dead custom of bestowing women with their husbands’’ titles. So the wife of a doctor is sometimes addressed as “Frau Doktor” and the wife of a “Direktor” (the German word for “”principal””) is “Frau Direktor”. It has already happened to me many times –- originally as a kind of joke, which became a standard joke, and then later a nickname, and then a moniker, and finally an established way of greeting me. As much as I find this comical, I still have a weird sensation every time I walk through the front door of his school now -– something has changed since the days when he was simply one of the 30 or so teachers there, – half of whom I occasionally saw socially on a totally equal basis. Now there is a slight difference – – or deference – in the way they greet and talk to me and, I assume, a difference in the way they hear what have to I say. The wife of the boss is talking . . .

Tonight was the Open House for the school and I attended in the triple roles of wife of the boss, mother of prospective student, and fellow teacher – just in a different school. In other words, I had to make sure to get through the evening without embarrassing my husband, disadvantaging my daughter or being disloyal either to the quirky alternative school I work in (and love) or the one I was standing in -– the one I try to motivate my own students to attend once they leave us. I wandered around and made an attempt to greet everyone with some special individualized attention – I worked the crowd, so to speak, – and eventually ended up in the buffet surrounded by other language teachers. We stood in a circle and all eyes were on me, all words were directed at me, all my words were universally listened to.

I really really wish that my words were actually that interesting or important and that the social context had nothing to do with the attention I was getting. But they weren’’t and it did. And it was out of my hands.

How much can you control how others see you? How they hear you?

““I feel I am not being heard.””  That sentence was spoken by the mother of one of my students during a parent-teacher conference last month –- the low point of a discussion that for some reason had quickly gone from bad to worse. I had noticed her and others in my school using this phrasing before. They had learned to express themselves this way in a series of “Violence-free Communication” seminars and probably considered it diplomatic. Personally I don’’t see a hell of a lot of difference between this and ““You aren’’t listening to me.””

And boy was I listening! I just didn’’t know what to make of it. She began with the fact that her son likes me a lot and he likes English and it is important to him to complete all his homework and so when he didn’’t understand something, she sometimes just did it for him and why did I give so much homework and why can’t I just spend 4 years singing songs and playing games with them?

Here are some of the undiplomatic responses I would have loved to make:

“Did you think I was kidding when I said that parents should not
sit down with their kids and do their homework with them?”

“It’s kind of helpful for me to know when the kids don’t understand
something so that we can go over it together again. If their homework
is perfect, I think they have understood (whatever it was) and so I go
on to something new.”

“’”My son wants to do his homework!’”- Lady, do you have any idea
how many parents in this school would love to have your problems?”

“If you want to come to this class (of 13 and 14 year olds) and try to
sing a song with them, please be my guest.”

I, of course, said none of the above. I don’t even know how we ended the conversation, to tell the truth. I do, however, remember saying “”You know . . . I am not really very sensitive or emotional compared to a lot of the people here. I look at my (school) kids and think: Do they like English? Are they learning? Are they happy? – And if all three answers are “yes” then I figure things are basically going fine.”” From her reaction I could feel that I was suddenly “being heard”. And I have no idea why. The next morning her son happily announced that he had his homework assignment done and she pulled me aside to sort of apologize for the previous evening. Even so, I continued to brood, replaying the talk in my mind and trying to figure out where exactly things had begun to go south.

The minor detail I have so far left out is that this woman is technically my boss. One week before our conference, she had been elected Chairman of the association of parents that had created and still financed the school. Since our talk it seems she has figured out that everyone in the school now hears her differently.

Orderly Chaos

I am getting an Art Education from my one and only blog friend. Lately we have been going back and forth about orderly straight lines and shapes versus breaking-it-up chaotic playfulness. It occurred to me that I have an original painting hanging in my house which has elements of both. It is from my favorite Austrian artist. I like the way the words are trying to either jump off or sink into the canvass,depending on how you train your eye on it. I like the way it messes with the rainbow. I liked the way my daughter’s eyes got big the first time she saw it and how she literally jumped up and down when I said we could hang it in her bedroom.

lyart original edit

Deep and true but not romantic

I woke up Wednesday morning and immediately felt good. Not only was it my free day, I also knew that once the coffee was made and the dogs taken out, the vitamins swallowed and the email checked, I could sit down at my laptop and watch the State of the Union. President Obama did not disappoint. I sighed when it was over and I noticed once again that I actually felt better about the general state of the world. I had the recurring and somehow strange thought that I can actually end the statement ““I love . . .” ” with the words ““the President””. It’’s true. I always have and presumably always will. Of course I, too, have felt some of the frustration others have declared over the years. And I delighted at his successes. At other times I became a reluctant apologist. And then I was a cheerleader again. But I was never a romantic, projecting all my wishes and desires, hearing them into the poetic words of his campaign speeches. You can’’t be disillusioned unless you had illusions to begin with.

Way back in 2008 at the peak of Obamaphoria, I surprised one of my best friends by saying “”You know, don’t you, that he is very likely going to be a boring president.”” She gave me a horrified look and asked me how I could say such a thing. “”Well, he is such a thinker and long-term planner and he’’s always going on and on about acting responsibly and making compromises and coming together to ‘find middle ground’ and ‘do the right thing’. It’s like listening to Grandpa.”” (I hope she has since forgiven me for this first taste of disillusionment.)

My students at the time of the 2008 election were equally incredulous about what I had to say, but in a different way. They couldn’’t get beyond their disbelief that Americans would really elect a black man to the office of the presidency. Americans were racist in their minds and nothing I could say would convince them otherwise. And then I had them read the Declaration of Independence.

The discussion started excruciatingly slowly. I dragged them through the significant sentences (I’ll paraphrase here a little to save time):

We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . “

. . . that all (rich, white, property-owning, non-female) men are created equal and have rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of more property and governments are allowed to exist to protect those rights and the people also have the right to throw the bums out when they suck and replace them with something better.

What follows is a long list of complaints against King George III. One student noted the irony of the current president having the same name as the King –- even more ironic were the abuses those two rulers – 230+ years apart – had in common:

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good . . . (Think of King / President / George / Bush’’s opposition to social welfare programs.)

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither . . . (Think of President Bush’’s position on immigration reform.)

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power . . . (Think of his privatization of many military services and pre-emptive war policy.)

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury . . .
(The War on Drugs)

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences . . . (Guantanamo)

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people . . . (Environmental policy – aka ““No Tree Left Behind”” – or Katrina)

By the end of the class, a fair number of students had seen the light. The 2008 election was about so much more than the skin color of the candidates –- it was Americans re-declaring their independence and self-rule. It was totally American (in the best sense of the word) that Obama won that election.

I confess I was a little disappointed that Obama evoked Abraham Lincoln in his acceptance speech instead of the founding principles. It cemented the aspect of race into the historical moment when there was so much more at stake. And if historians can be believed, Lincoln himself believed in white superiority even while being against slavery. It is this kind of double standard in our politicians that drives me (and I assume most of my compatriots) crazy. It is the change we wanted that never came.

And now I will be an apologist again. I don’’t condemn President Obama for not seeing the full potential of his election. No one can know what it must have been like for him at that moment – knowing the history books would reflect the astonishment of the “FIRST BLACK PRESIDENT! FIRST BLACK PRESIDENT!” His plans, his goals, his vision for the country –- they all came in second to that momentous FIRST. Yet there is so much more to the man than his skin color.

True to the content of his character he played by the rules. Either he didn’’t see that it was the rules that should be changed, or he recognized that the time for revolution had not yet come. He did what he could within the confines of the system he lived in.

Six years later, everything seems different. Not in his character, but in his understanding of the times he is living in.

America may have been ready for a black president, but I don’t think they were ready for a grown-up one. (Or can someone explain to me why there are so many childish congressmen?) In the first six years of Obama’s presidency, it often seemed like he was the only grown-up in the room. And that he was the very last person to realize the Republicans were NEVER going to come around.

Lately it seems he has figured that out.

Things have changed and I am hopeful.

My Years of Montessori – Part 1

I had just gotten to the school where I have been working for three and a half years now – a lovely little holistic school, sort of Montessorish, but then again, not. We have three groups of kids spanning the 1st through 8th Grades –- 42 in all. Anyway, I was standing in the kitchen making my morning Müsli, as I always do, greeting the kids as they arrived at the old farmhouse-turned-schoolhouse, and talking through the day’’s lessons with my co-teacher –- let’’s call him “Mark”. We teach the class “World Studies” together- – or in Montessori-speak -“ Cosmic Education”. (What this basically means is all the classic school subjects other than German, Math and English lumped together.) Mark is there because he knows a lot about all these subjects. I am there to supply structure, my didactic experience, and to make the class bilingual. Our team-teaching has been a growing experience and an education in itself – but that is a subject for a later date.

So I had just eaten my first spoonful of Müsli when my three 4th Grade girls (and yes, there are only three) appeared in the doorway of the kitchen. They were excited and giggling and whispering among themselves. They were shifting around in an attempt to hide behind one another. “Come on – ask!” – “No you ask!” – “No, you do it!”

I say ““Could it be that you three want to ask us something?”” More whispering and giggling, and then one of them (let’’s call her Emma) finally says to her friends, ““Okay, I’ll do it.”” She turns to me and my colleague, squares her shoulders, and says “”We . . .” – ”  and then she loses her courage momentarily. Her two friends start to giggle again and she turns and says to them, ““You guys ask!”” – They reply, “”No, you can do it – – just do it!””

““Okay”” says Emma. She turns to us and takes a deep breath.

““We just want to ask a question . . . . What is the difference . . . between . . . gas and diesel?””

Mark and I do our best not to laugh – or even smile. “”Mark”,” I say, ““I think that is a question for you.””

Those four saunter off to their classroom so that he can teach them about oil refining. I eat another spoonful of Müsli and think “”God I love this place!””

Je ne suis pas terrorisé

I’’ve long noticed that everything in this world exists in concert with – and inextricable from – its exact opposite. The Yin and Yang thing. No light without darkness. The fact that life without end would have no meaning, so death makes life possible. Or that you can only reach the extremes of hate for something that you could also potentially love. Nothing less could ever raise your emotions to that ultimate level – whether on the positive or the negative side of the scale. This homegrown pseudo-philosophical nugget puts me in a conundrum about how to feel, how to react, to the events in Paris this week.

Ten years ago, when the original cartoons were published and months later “spontaneous” organized outrage erupted in protests around the globe against them, my students decided they wanted to discuss Religious Fundamentalism as one of the five “Social and Economic Issues” of the semester. I read up on the subject and current events and created materials for students to read and prepare for discussion. I included the cartoons that were at the source of the controversy. I also included a quiz on Islam so that we all could see how much we knew (or – more accurately – didn’’t know) about this religion. I had them read Bill Moyer’’s “”There is no Tomorrow”” so that Christian Fundamentalism would also be represented. I uploaded it all onto my homepage for the students to download and print out. The resulting discussions were sometimes dumb, sometimes fascinating, sometimes prejudiced, sometimes enlightened. We did some English grammar practice in complex comparison and contrast: “the Muslim heaven has 10,000 more virgins than the Christian Rapture” or “this cartoon is even less funny than the last one”.

At one point, a student asked me ““Are these the actual cartoons?”” and you could tell he felt uncomfortable about holding them in his hands. Was he a target now? Was I? If I were teaching the same course today, would I upload (= republish, albeit in a very limited way) those cartoons? Or have I been terrorized into changing my own behavior?

I don’t know. Maybe I am not Charlie. I understand the ironic satisfaction of republishing the original offensive material and knowing that millions more than ever before will now see it. But it is not my nature to react with an “”In your face, Kouachi brothers!”” I’’m more of a Kill-–It-With-Kindness type.

Years ago, we got a letter from our newspaper deliverer complaining about a flower box in front of our house that is partly in the street. The letter was full of indignation, unnecessary rudeness and really basic spelling mistakes. My husband’’s first reaction was to write back and ask him where he got off. I said – “what’s the point? This is an old guy who has to get up at four in the morning to deliver papers – he can’t be in very good shape financially or have a particularly nice life.” And he clearly didn’t understand that he was in a position of absolute zero authority. We ended up writing a really nice letter apologizing for the inconvenience and explaining that the box was there to slow cars down and to stop our young kids from running out of the house straight into the road. We attached it to a bottle of wine and left it out for him. We became his favorite people. From then on, the newspaper was carefully placed right on the welcome mat instead of flung into some far corner of the front porch.

Clearly, it is much more of a challenge to kill-with-kindness in a situation where innocent people were massacred – but I will give it a try anyway. So . . . I am sorry that your experiences as orphans and your foster care and your prison stints combined with your weak characters to make you easy to manipulate and susceptible to delusions of grandeur. I’’m sorry that people with an agenda recognized and exploited your excellent potential as cannon fodder. I’’m sorry that the big scary-looking guns in your hands made you feel powerful. I’’m sorry that you saw meaning only in death and not in the path towards it. I’’m sorry you decided to skip to the end of the line and to take a dozen others with you. I’’m sorry that your mugshots will live on forever in the internet and that, in the end, you have immortalized yourselves as empty, one-dimensional dead people.

Ironing to Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any girl who reads “Pride and Prejudice” between the ages of 13 and 17 will spend the rest of her life secretly in love with Mr. Darcy. It is equally true that guys just don’’t get it.

I finally started ironing today. A scene ensued that has repeated itself over and over again since the beginnings of my marriage. Because I had put off ironing for so long, the pile – as usual – had turned into a hill and then a mountain. I knew it would take me many hours to get through all those wrinkly clothes, so I put the 6-hour BBC version of P&P into the DVD player and set out to keep ironing for as long as the film lasted. At some point my husband walked into the room and asked incredulously “”You are watching that again?!””

A few years ago at a dinner party, he once revealed to our guests how I have watched the same “boring” film at least 25 times.

HIM: “The whole thing is people sitting in a room and talking. Sometimes it gets exciting when a third person walks in the room. And sometimes the people are taking a walk while they are talking.”

ME: “You just don’’t get it!”

HIM: “Admit it! Nothing happens. There’’s no action.”

No action?? There is witty repartee! Meaningful eye contact! Eloquent insults are hurled! It is suggested that duels might have taken place! Seductions are intimated! And I haven’’t even gotten to the 18th century repressed sexual tension yet!

He just doesn’’t understand.

But he does understand wrinkle-free shirts.

Drowning in Stuff

“Everything has a place and everything is in its place.” That was my grandmother’’s #1 household rule. And boy did she live by it! Her house was ordered down to the tiniest detail. She was a stamp collector and had a filing case for her doubles –- thousands and thousands of tiny brown envelopes — with the country, year, and catalog number of each extra stamp written meticulously on the front. She had “diaries” where she wrote one sentence each day saying what she had done -– and seeing as how she lived to the age of 92, there were a lot of them. Her book cases and spice racks were alphabetized. She made lists . . . lots of lists . . . of her records, and video tapes, and jewelry, and friends’’ birthdays . . . The clothes hanging in her closet were grouped by color and arranged ROYGBV, with matching shoes underneath.

As I do every year when I find myself with four days home alone –- my family off on a skiing vacation that I mercifully am allowed to bow out of – I spent the last four days maniacally ordering my house in a desperate (and futile) attempt to reach a state that my Grandma would approve of. I failed miserably. At some point I got overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff.

How did this happen? I came to this country 30 years ago with two suitcases. At the time the plan was to live a nomadic existence. To go somewhere, stay and work for a year or two and then pack all my belongings in two suitcases and move on (maybe with the option of sending one box of memorabilia home to my sister to store in her attic.) Things turned out differently. I stayed. I settled. I started accumulating. Now living in a fairly large house that somehow miraculously belongs to me, there is still no longer the space to have “everything in its place”. I sift through it. I sort it. I shift and stack. I scooch and scrunch. I shelve. I stuff. I save. I slave.

I sit back and contemplate the overspill. And I think back to a time in my life when I was 23 and traveling through Asia. At one point, I found myself stuck in a country waiting for a visa that wouldn’’t arrive. The sum of my worldly possessions was a suitcase, a typewriter, a one-way ticket to Seoul, South Korea and $10. I had a bed in a room with 11 strangers in a traveler’s’ hostel that cost $2 dollars a night and an unofficial teaching job that brought in just enough extra to buy a meal and a beer each day. Anything more depended on the kindness of strangers. I lived that way for about three weeks. Never in my life, before or since, have I ever felt so free.

Years later, when my university Business students expressed superior attitudes about our way of life as compared to “less developed” cultures (i.e. nomadic or simply less materialistic ones), I tried to point out to them how our culture steers us to live. We study hard in school to pass tests and get to university where we study hard to pass tests to get a good job. Then we marry and produce our 2.2 children and build a house and proceed to fill that house with stuff and keep on working hard and harder to maintain that house and all the stuff in it. It’’s self-enslavement in the Land of the (Buy One Get One) Free where our possessions own us.

I don’t think my students were very impressed. They continued to look forward to their future Audis and vacations in the Maldives. They certainly didn’’t envision their lives –- their lists and stamp collections, their diaries and costume jewelry, their letters and photo albums — all packed willy-nilly in boxes and sitting, collecting dust, in my sister’’s attic.

The Tunnel at the End of the Light

Lately I have been confronted with two startling realities. One is that my potential retirement is only 7 years away. The other -– and this one has been hovering at the edge of my conscious thoughts for years –- is that I may very well lose my sight someday. Somehow the two ideas are inextricably connected in my mind now. I have had a great career and am still having a great life, yet there is a big missing piece I can’t quite grasp. Something I am not doing. Or haven’’t tried.

Two days ago we watched the midnight fireworks to celebrate our collective need to go buy a new calendar. Today I spent hours watching two retired teachers’ pictures of their triparoundtheworld. It was very nice this time, but it also made me think back on all the travel slideshows I have had to watch over the years – many of them excruciatingly long with their cringe-worthy captions and painful muzak soundtrack. After the show, the couple launched into a detailed itinerary for their next trip and I couldn’t help thinking: Is this my future? Taking snapshots of the gaudy interiors of cruise ships? Thirty-nine years of teaching followed by thank god that is over and now I can start living? If I am not living fully now, I doubt I can learn to do it at some legally ordained future date.

This is my life now. I am a mom. I am a teacher. I am a traveler. I am a writer. I have 50+ years worth of stories that I have told and retold and retold. I have experienced a plethora of aha moments in classrooms and at tables. My students have taught me so much and my kids have raised me well. I have tried and erred and rewritten the rules of English grammar. I want to get it all down on paper before it fades into darkness.

And I want to let the words travel.

To see where they take me.

And where I have been.