expat

Babies Abroad

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While living in Moscow during the 90’s I got pregnant and went to the US to have my baby. I retuned when he was seven weeks old.

On arrival at the airport after traveling for 15 hours, we were ushered to the head of the line at passport control and breezed through customs. My husband showed up about 10 minutes later saying he had a flat tire. So we took a taxi to the tire repair shop and waited for it to be fixed before finally getting home.

The apartment was a horrible mess. Boxes everywhere. Our previous landlords had kicked us out of our last apartment mainly because our one year lease was up but also because we had moved some of the books they left in the living room. They didn’t want us to touch any of their stuff. Go figure. So on to apartment number 4.

The new apartment had no furniture except for a couple of chairs in the living room and a crib for the baby so we had to sleep on the floor.  Luckily there were armoires so we could at least unpack stuff. I spent the first three days doing nothing but unpacking and taking care of my child. It finally got to a point where I could tolerate it. Unfortunately the washer started acting up so there was laundry up the wazoo.

I breast fed my baby for six months and then I had to go back to work so I switched to formula. I found one that didn’t make him sick and managed to get a regular supply at the children’s department store, Detsky Mir. After a few months they ran out. I went to every store I could think of looking for formula. Sometimes I could find it at a kiosk on the street. I was then forced to switch to a different brand and hoped he could tolerate it. Luckily he did but that brand disappeared as well. We did make it through until he went off the formula but there were times when I thought I would have to beg somebody to ship me some.

I’m sure some of you thinking – formula? Ugh. She could have made her own or pumped. Ugh. I had plenty of other problems to deal with so it just wasn’t an option. I never considered it. But he survived and grew into a healthy child.

A large healthy child. I used cloth diapers until he grew out of them and then I switched to paper. He got so big I had trouble finding diapers to fit him. I went through the same drill as with the formula, hitting every store I could think of. I finally connected with a woman who knew of a place where I could get extra large diapers.

She gave me an address in a Soviet apartment block. The entrance was around the back and downstairs into the basement. A very large man in a leather coat guarded the door. I felt like a criminal. Inside was a large room with a man sitting at a small desk in the entranceway. Boxes of diapers were piled high in the back. He had what I was looking for and I bought a large box to keep me going for a while. Sometimes he would be out and I would either have to go back on the prowl or buy a smaller size. Potty training didn’t come soon enough.

By the time we left Moscow, six years later I could have purchased any formula and any diaper I wanted easily. My timing was off.

By the time I left, they had Ikea. Civilization had arrived.

 

 

Brand New Expat 1953

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I found this letter in an old scrapbook. My family was living in Rangoon, Burma. The letter is from my mother to a friend in Iowa.

 

February 15, 1953

Dear Mildred:

I’m sorry not to have written you sooner – I have thought of you so many times. I would like to tell you so much about Burma and our life her, but it is hard to condense all these new experiences and decide which might be the most interesting.

First, I think you might like to know what your home is like. We are fortunate in having a good-sized brick house, which is rented from a Burmese woman. It has 20 ft. ceilings, ceiling fans, concrete floors, and every piece of wood in the whole house from rafters to coffee table is of beautiful teakwood. Due to the high ceiling, fans and brick walls we hope to be as comfortable as is possible here during the humid hot season, which is just now beginning. To help run our household we have a cook who is indispensible, for he does the marketing, acts as interpreter since he speaks excellent English as well as four or five other languages, and he miraculously runs the temperamental kerosene stove! There are very few Burmese who work as house servants and our cook is Indian. He is a Hindu and does not eat beef, but does not object to cooking it for us. Then we have a sweeper who does the cleaning with includes scrubbing the concrete floor and waxing all the furniture at least once a week o prevent mildew. Then since babysitters are unheard of here as such, we have a nanny who lives with us and, besides babysitting, takes care of light laundry, helps me with mending and sewing and is a most pleasant person to have around. She is a young, pretty woman and a good Baptist. I usually take her with me when I drive so that she can interpret for me if the car should break down or if we should become lost (I’ still learning my way around the city).

Now, as Mother keeps asking, you might be wondering what I do with my new “life of leisure”. Well, everything is not perfect and leisurely even with so much help, believe me. Since many people in this part of the world do not have the same ideas of sanitation as we do, I have to constantly check on the kitchen to be sure the water is boiled before placed in the refrigerator for drinking, to remind the dishwasher to use soap, to see that clean dishtowels regularly replace dirty ones, etc. Our help is very fine, and they do everything to make us comfortable, but they often don’t realize how particular we must be to avoid becoming sick. One day I found nanny straining freshly boiled drinking water through a very dirty napkin into a pitcher! Language differences sometimes cause confusion – such as the time Bill asked our cook to get a mess of lime to mark out our new badminton court, and the cook appeared later with 3.5 lbs. of fresh green limes! Needless to say we are still drinking limeade. But, all in all, our household is very pleasant and as much like it would be in America as we can make it under the circumstances. I manage to keep busy – I am trying to learn to speak Burmese, I keep all the household accounts, of course, and do most of the meal planning, attend meetings of several organizations, read as much as possible, go out socially, some, and write letters. It doesn’t sound like much, I guess, but time is passing very quickly.

Our two boys both go to school from 8:30 to noon every day except Thursday and Sunday. Their school is English-speaking, but children rom all nationalities are represented. Some are learning English as they go to school. Our boys have very good friends who are Chinese, French, Dutch, and Burmese – some of whom speak no English at all. But neither race nor language is any barrier to their friendships – an example from which we all might profit.

Rangoon is a most colorful and interesting city with large Chinese and Indian populations as well as the pleasant, friendly Burmese. The city is dominated by one very tall gold-roofed pagoda which is a most interesting place to visit besides being a landmark for Rangoon and one of the outstanding pagodas in this part of the world. One climbs hundreds of steps to the top where there are many statues of Buddha of different sizes, colors and positions. The roof or dome of the pagoda is pure gold leaf and it has many valuable gems sealed inside. We enjoyed the long climb to the top almost as much as the worship center, for the stairs are lined with little shops where everything one can imagine is sold – Burmese, drums, ankle bracelets, cymbals, flowers, lacquer ware, Ivory combs, flutes made of bamboo, brassware, toys, etc, etc. Once Bill and I wanted to buy a delightful-sounding Burmese gong, and since one bargains over the price of most everything here we started bargaining. The merchant asked 15 rupees, we offered 6 and finally after much haggling got it for 8 rupees – very pleased with our bargain. When we got home one of our servants pointed out the price mark written in Burmese – 5 rupees!! But we had had fun anyway, and you can be sure we learned how to read Burmese numbers that very day.

We are at the moment thoroughly enjoying our Iowa news since the monthly ship from New York came in this week. We got about a month supply of newspapers. We get all our letters in about 10 days, but the magazines and papers take about 6 weeks.

We really like it here in Rangoon and are so glad we had the opportunity to come. It is a joy to find that these people halfway around the world are just as human as Americans are, and that it is as easy to become good friends with Asians as it is with Iowans. This is one thing that gives me a renewed faith in the world.

The Glamorous World of Air Travel

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(I am reposting this from my Eclectic Global Nomad blog)

A couple of months ago I took a trip and found that my boarding pass said “TSA Pre-check”.  I didn’t notice it until the official at security told me I could take the fast lane. It meant I didn’t have to take my shoes off or pull anything out of my bag and I could wear my jacket. I breezed through security. It made a difference. I had known about it for a while but people told me I had to apply for it and it took forever. For some reason they just gave it to me without asking. I didn’t question it but I did wonder why.

- See more at: http://baltimorepostexaminer.com/glamorous-world-air-travel/2014/06/01#sthash.sYFm8EHu.dpuf

 

 

 

Guatemala and El Salvador

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My mom and I in Antigua. Great glasses, no?

When I was five, I was in a plane crash. After that I was terrified of planes. When I was six we had to travel from Burma to the US and then a year later we moved to Mexico City. I did not get on another airplane until I was twelve.

My first plane trip in many years was in the first class section on a PanAm flight from Mexico City to Guatemala. We were the only ones in first class so I got to be kind of chummy with the flight attendant. Toward the end of the flight he asked me how I liked the flight and how I felt about it. I thought that was kind of odd and didn’t know what he was talking about. Apparently my parents had briefed him on me and my troubles with flying, and so he had made a special effort to distract me. By that time I had blocked out the whole thing and had no recollection of there being any problems. I just wondered why didn’t fly more and why we took such long boring road trips everywhere.

Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan

 

In Guatemala, we rented a car and drove up the mountain to Lake Atitlan. Volcanoes surrounded the lake and the lake itself was a collapsed volcanic cone. Since I am off to Lake Como, Italy in a few weeks I want to add this quote I found from Aldus Huxley – Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.

On the way up the mountain to the lake, we saw people lying by the side of the road. We didn’t know if they were dead, passed out or taking a nap. It was very odd. We later found out that the previous day was payday and they had done their celebrating and not quite made it home. Apparently it was a familiar site in the countryside. We also went to Chichicastenango and to Antigua. This was major earthquake country. Antigua was the original capital of Guatemala but in 1776 there was such a bad earthquake they moved the capital to where it is today – Guatemala City. Antigua was surrounded by three volcanoes.

There was a new part of Antigua and an old part. The old part was all ruins. It was an eerie place. It was once a major city that tumbled down and was left there like a memorial. We stopped at a small restaurant and ate our meal in the yard. There was a group of musicians that wandered from table to table. We could see laundry hanging at the end of the lawn.

San Salvador

San Salvador

From there, we continued to El Salvador. I don’t remember much about it except one night in San Salvador we were staying in a high-rise hotel and I was sleeping on a cot. The building started to sway and my cot started moving across the room. All I could do was laugh. I was used to earthquakes in Mexico so it was not out of the ordinary. It wasn’t any laughing matter really since earthquakes can be devastating but being twelve and riding around on a cot, there really wasn’t much else to do. One thing I realized years later was earthquakes are very loud. They made a noise like a truck or a train. I don’t ever remember hearing that as a child.

 

 

Trailing: A Memoir

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There has been much discussion lately about the term “trailing spouse” and whether it is appropriate or even polite. It projects a sense of “other” rather than something that makes up a whole. I usually conger up a vision of a dog’s tail. Other terms being used are “accompanying partner”, “expat wife”, “support partner”. Expat Lingo says she had been called a ‘stakeholder at home’. I have used the term ‘world juggler’ before.

But in the end, whatever you call it, the trailing spouse is usually the support system, the glue that holds it all together. Sometimes the glue falls apart and life can be rough.

In Trailing: A Memoir by Kristin Louise Duncombe, things fall apart.  Kristin grew up all over the world so when she met her Argentine husband, the thought of moving overseas didn’t seem so strange. Although she did have her reservations about putting her career on hold, she didn’t have a passion about what she did and had not clearly defined what she wanted to do. Her husband, a doctor with Doctors Without Borders was passionate about what he did and had no questions about what he was going to do. She was in love. She married him and went to Kenya.

Being a TCK (Third Culture Kid) myself, I also thought following my husband overseas would be no problem. Even though you have lived in many places around the world, the child TCK and the Adult TCK have different experiences and challenges. I had no support system behind me as we just up and moved. Kristin had a small “family” of doctors but it did not help much since most of them were single and always on the road. Her husband was gone much of the time.

On the other hand, I think she showed remarkable resilience. She found herself some work at a Nairobi hospital helping teens and eventually found a position with USAID at the US Embassy. Unfortunately the Embassy was bombed and she lost her job but by that time her husband had taken a position in Uganda. After having a baby, she finds a job in a small village outside Kampala. She never sees her husband and the marriage starts to unravel.

I found myself identifying with this book on several levels. I had a difficult adjustment when I moved to Russia. My husband was a freelancer. There were no benefits or perks. As soon as I landed I was expected to find a job and help with financial support. If found jobs mainly doing clerical administrative work but I also fell into a writing position for the American Women’s Club and was able to improve my writing skills and help other expat women at the same time. I edited and produced a newsletter that helped to build a community.

Everybody has a different experience when they live overseas. I knew couples who were both professionals in their own right. I knew women who moved around the globe on their own and met their husband along the way. One woman was a very successful diplomat and her husband did his own thing in another country but was able to work remotely. Some people take the time to write books. There is always something to do. I found my way and started writing and wrote a memoir.

The current challenge for international organizations is to find the balance and provide options for accompanying partners. With today’s technology, there are much more possibilities available.

Kristin’s happy ending was her husband accepted a position in Paris and she managed to set up a successful counseling practice working with expat families who are trying to cope with life overseas. After having gone through the worst of it, she now had all the tools necessary to help others in similar situations.Trailing: A Memoir is well written and engaging. It makes me want to know more about her. It is available on Amazon.com.

 

 

Books from Asia, Moscow and Turkey

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I’m always interested in expat stories, expat memoirs, and third culture kid stories. I usually pick them up, get a few chapters in and set them aside. I don’t know what it is about them but they just don’t grab me. Maybe it’s the writing, maybe it’s the focus. Although I usually finish them at some point even if I just scan through them. Here are a few I read recently and liked.

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The Sullivan Saga, Memoires of an Overseas Childhood by M.H. Sullivan, was an interesting story about a girl growing up in a Foreign Service family in Asia and Africa. In the TCK stories I can usually find some personal connection that keeps me going. The thing that grabbed me about this book was she started out talking about returning to the US for college and wondering if she was “American” enough. Her family was very different from mine but there were some similarities in the experiences she had. I could totally identify with the story about her father having to go into the bushes and take his pants off because he was being attached by army ants in Africa.

 

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Lenin Lives Next Door, Marriage, Martinis, and Mayhem in Moscow by Jennifer Eremeeva is about a woman married to a Russian and her experiences living in Moscow for twenty years. She fell in love with Russia at 13 when she read “Nicholas and Alexandra” by Robert Massie. She studied Russian history and language and eventually ended up in Moscow running tours and hosting trade show delegations. A fellow tour guide introduced her to her future husband and she has been there ever since. Her book is all about the characters she meets along the way and the challenges of living in Moscow. It is very funny and some things are hard to believe since truth really is stranger than fiction. I could identify with a lot of what she talks about having lived in Moscow for nine years myself. And funnily enough I actually knew Jennifer when I lived there. I recommend it – it’s fun and fast paced.

 

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Yesterday I picked up Perking the Pansies by Jack Scott. Yes, you can read it in a day. It is fast paced and light reading. Two married gay men from Britain decide to chuck everything, quit their jobs, sell their property and all their belongings and move to Turkey. Most people thought they were nuts. It is something many people dream of doing but would never actually do. They did it. The book covers their first year in Turkey. They were not completely prepared for what they were getting into and it seems they should have done some more research on the weather but they manage to keep a positive attitude and stick with it. After making some adjustments, and meeting some unpleasant expats, they eventually find their way and their own group of friends. It is a fun read.

 

Expat Gertrude Stein

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I discovered Gertrude Stein my senior year in high school when I was taking an Art History class. I was told to write a paper on something to do with art and I couldn’t think of anything so my teacher gave me a book called “Matisse, Picasso and Gertrude Stein with Two Shorter Stories” by Gertrude Stein. I think I wrote my paper on Picasso but what grabbed my interest was Gertrude. I was hooked. I had never read anything like it. I asked my teacher why they didn’t tell us about her in English class. I was informed not everybody appreciated Gertrude.

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Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1906, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. When someone commented that Stein didn’t look like her portrait, Picasso replied, “She will.” Stein wrote “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso” in response to the painting.

Gertrude was born 140 years ago on February 3, in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. Her father and her uncle owned a textile business with stores in Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Maryland. The brothers did not get along so in 1875 her father took the family to live in Vienna, Austria. Thus began Gertrude’s travels. Three years later they moved to Paris and lived there for five years. They spent 1879 with relatives in Baltimore where Gertrude learned English after speaking first German and then French.

The family moved to Oakland, California in 1880. Gertrude’s mother, Amelia died eight years later of cancer. Gertrude was 14. Two years later her father died and she returned to Baltimore to live with an aunt. She went on to study philosophy and English at Radcliff College and ended up back in Baltimore studying medicine at Johns Hopkins. She spent her summers traveling around Europe with her brother, Leo. By 1903, she was failing her classes and her scandalous lesbian love affair ended badly. She moved to Paris and did not return to America for 30 years.

Gertrude and Leo collected art and became friends with many artists of the day. Leo started to paint and Gertrude wrote. They held Saturday night salons in their home to meet and promote artists and writers. In 1906 Picasso painted her portrait and gave it to her. Her portrait of Picasso was published about twenty years later.

Picasso

She wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933. This was her first “mainstream” piece and it was a bestseller. She was fifty-nine years old. Enjoying her new-found fame, she embarked on a lecture series across America, her first time back since moving to France.

“When I was in America for the first time travelled pretty much all the time in an airplane and when I looked at the earth I saw all the lines of cubism made at a time when not any painter had ever gone up in an airplane. I saw there on the earth the mingling lines of Picasso, coming and going, developing and destroying themselves. I saw the simple solution of Braque, I saw the wandering lines of Masson, yes I saw and once more I knew that a creator is contemporary, he understands what is contemporary when the contemporaries do not yet know it…” –Picasso

I admit it can be difficult to read some of her work. She writes long sentences without any punctuation and repeats herself endlessly. In Lectures in America she writes:

I began to get enormously interested in hearing how everybody said the same thing over and over again with infinite variations but over and over again until finally if you listened with great intensity you could hear it rise and fall and tell all that there was inside them, not so much by the actual words they said or the thoughts they had but the movement of their thoughts and words endlessly the same and endlessly different.  – Lectures in America

She returned to France and moved to the country during World War II living a low profile simple life. In 1946 she was diagnosed with colon cancer and died on the operating table. She left her writings to Yale University, her Picasso portrait to the New York Metropolitan Museum, and everything else to her lifelong companion, Alice B Toklas. She was buried at Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris with a tombstone designed by Francis Rose. Her birthplace was misspelled “Allfghany” and her date of death was two days off.

I think her writings are wonderful pieces of art and I enjoy reading them albeit in short bursts. She had a wonderful sense of humor, said what she thought and lived life to the fullest.

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In an essay for Life Magazine in 1945 she wrote:

When General Osborne came to see me just after the victory, he asked me what I thought should be done to educate the Germans. I said there is only one thing to be done and that is to teach them disobedience, as long as they are obedient so long sooner or later they will be ordered about by a bad man and there will be trouble. Teach them disobedience, I said, make every German child know that it is its duty at least once a day to do its good deed and not believe something its father or its teacher tells them, confuse their minds, get their minds confused and perhaps then they will be disobedient and the world will be at peace. The obedient peoples go to war, disobedient people like peace, that is the reason that Italy did not really become a good Axis, the people were not obedient enough, …

General Osborn shook his head sadly, you’ll never make the heads of an army understand that.

– Off We All Went to See Germany

You can listen to Gertrude Stein reading from her work online.

 

- Original post at: Baltimore Post Examiner

52 Food Fridays

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My new book is finally out in paperback and Kindle.

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 I dedicated this book to my mother.

Here she is in up country Burma in the 1950’s.

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

My mother taught me to be adventurous in the kitchen. I grew up overseas, often in countries where supplies were limited and inconsistent. My mother is the queen of improvisation. She can find a substitute for anything. I took this viewpoint when I went to live overseas myself. I improvised and I invented. Cooking should be an adventure.

She raised three children in Burma, USA, Mexico, Colombia, Nigeria, and the Netherlands.

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