Category Archives: past lives

my gramma

I love books. I love reading and l love talking about books. Someday, I want to write a book. I love gifting books I know my loved ones will love… and then calling said loved ones to talk about said books. I like the stories, but I love the words. I underline my favourite passages and pause and think about why the writer chose those words. My heroes are the men and women who use words to paint pictures that don’t leave you any choice but to feel the way they felt when they wrote them.

I record inspirational passages in the journal Mr. Butterflies gave me for my birthday 5 years ago: gifted specifically to let me know that he knows how much I love words. I wonder if the author wrote the passage first and the story around it, or if the prose just came naturally. Did they edit several times to make it seem more poetic or did the sentences form themselves on the fly?

It happens in real life too. In the middle of conversations, I sometimes tune out for a moment and think about why a person chose the words they did. My first memory of this was with my Gramma. Gramma almost never referred to herself in the first person when she talked to me. I noticed, but I never understood why, until I did.

Come sit over here with Gramma.

My Gramma had Her Spot on the couch. There were many couches over the years – the most memorable was her teal and purple sectional with a digital print (it was the 90s, obviously) – it had recliners on the ends and a cupboard in the corner piece. My sister and I stored our prized possessions there: a knock-off “Disney” colouring book, car bingo games, a dollar bill we folded and unfolded into origami elephants and swans and flowers, and most importantly, our Pogs and Slammers.

Her Spot was square in front of the TV: arm’s reach from the phone she used to place orders from QVC. She occasionally looked up from her murder mystery to see if we wanted a hot chocolate or some pasta. Our answer depended on how long it was until dinner – we knew we had to save room for Pillsbury biscuits. We giggled hysterically when the tube popped – it scared us every time. If we could convince her to open a second pack we had to promise to eat them all. She knew a top secret recipe that made her biscuits the best in the whole wide world (it was butter).

When I was a teenager, my life was upside-down. Nothing was okay, everything was fucked up and it seemed like no one understood. She’d invite me to lie down on the couch with my head on her lap. We’d watch the shopping channel and she’d comb my hair back from my face. Absentmindedly and rhythmically, her nails softly scratched a trail from the corner of my eye, along my hairline and behind my ear, down to my shoulder. She’d tell me stories about when I was a little girl, when I lived with her while my parents worked. She’d say “this is how Gramma got you to fall asleep when you was a little girl. You was the sweetest little girl…”

Don’t you dare bring that shit into Gramma’s house on Thanksgiving.

When I was 21 I moved to San Francisco. I loved my new life as a ‘career woman’ – thriving in the big city, being all fancy and stuff. I was jet setting and getting pedicures and all sorts of other extravagant things. I left my fucked up life behind for a fresh start and, for a little while, never looked back. Until I looked back. I found myself lonely and lost, and promptly hopped in the car and drove the 7 hours to Gramma’s house. It was Thanksgiving – my compatriots know but for those who don’t: Thanksgiving is the ultimate American holiday. It’s a bigger deal than all the other holidays combined.

It was Thanksgiving and I was a newly minted grown up and so it seemed time to ‘help’ with the preparations. I couldn’t cook (even if I could have, I wouldn’t have wanted to compete with my uncle’s deep fried turkey). I decided that my contribution to Thanksgiving Dinner would be my mom’s signature: “Orange Stuff”.

Orange Stuff is a Ritz Cracker crust with a Cool Whip/Condensed Milk centre and canned mandarin orange slices. I went grocery shopping, prepared the dessert, washed the dishes, and sat down feeling like an adult. An impeccable dinner was served and I looked around, counting my blessings for being part of such an amazing family. It was time for dessert and I was so proud to pull my dessert out of the fridge and serve it to relatives eagerly awaiting Kathy’s Famous Orange Stuff. The family took turns politely complimenting me, I acknowledged their praise and agreed it was pretty good.

Gramma interrupted my moment, shouting across the table, “what is this?” She clarified “this tastes like diet!” and shot an accusatory look my way. I tried to explain but she interjected: “this ain’t Orange Stuff! What’s this fat free shit?” There was no arguing with her, only apologizing…and of course, laughter. I’ve made Mom’s Orange Stuff twice since and I’ll never again dream of using that fat free shit. I never forget the tenderness in her glance, a softness that she didn’t even try to hide as she “scolded” me.

Gramma loves you so much.

A couple of years ago, I introduced my (then) husband to my Gramma. I was equally proud of each of them, and eager for them to meet one another. They were two of the most important people in my life and they both loved each other immediately (I knew they would). While my Grampa and husband sat inside, I stole a moment with Gramma on the porch. She said, “Gramma loves you so much and is so happy you’re happy.”

 

Since I was too little to remember, my Gramma always referred to herself in the third person. This isn’t the first time I’ve pondered, not even the first time I’ve written about it. It’s the first time I’ve shared because there are many people thinking of her right now, and who she was to them.

My Gramma never talked to me as the woman she was – a woman who had overcome so much, a woman who always put others first, a woman who approached every one of life’s ups and downs with grace and strength. As far as we were concerned, she was just my Gramma. Since long before I came along, she lived her life for everyone else. She was someone’s Gramma, someone’s Momma, someone’s wife and someone’s friend. She talked about herself in the third person – she chose those words – because they reflected how she saw herself and how we all saw her.

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things you may not have known about Holland…

In observance of Queen’s Day, a list of peculiar things you may not have known about the Dutch and life in Holland. Everyone knows about the tulips, windmills, clogs, cows, drug policies, red light windows, and bicycles.  But did you know about these quirky facts?

  1. Restroom Revenue You must fork over cash if you’d like to use a restroom.  You may have just ordered an expensive meal in a fine dining establishment, but if you want to stop in the Ladies’ room on the way out the door it’s going to cost you 50 cents.  You may have a cart full of merchandise you’ve just paid for at a department store, but if you need a potty break before the trek to the car you had better have change ready.  Unless you’re at a high end place that accepts credit cards.  Yes – they exist.  Many businesses actually hire someone full time to sit in front of the restroom and collect change.  This is usually a grumpy middle aged woman (I supposed I’d be grumpy too if that were my job) who is strict about the fare.  If the toll is 25 cents and you’ve only got 20, you are simply not getting in.  Does collecting change from each patron even pay their salaries?  This from the country that places urinals in the middle of sidewalks.
  2. Bunny Bungalows Just outside of Amsterdam in an office park visible from the train window is a habitat for rabbits.  Artificial tree stumps are scattered about the courtyard and rabbits hop between them without a care in the world.  Ask a local about it and they’ll look at you like you’re crazy: where else would rabbits live? I don’t know – a park? A forest?  Seems odd that people go to the trouble of building little communities for an animal that’s not domesticated.  Perhaps this is the mammal version of a birdhouse.
  3. Cinema Customs The Dutch yell at movies.  Not at live performances, at films played in cinemas.  They scream at characters on the screens and clap as the credits roll.  They don’t do this for live performances where the actors/directors could actually hear the feedback – just at movies.  Interesting.

I suspect I’ll always miss my life as an expat, especially on days like this.

I think of you often, Don Bowling.

An excerpt from my travel journal, one year ago on Easter Sunday in Florence, Italy.  Reflecting on the goals I set and the progress I’ve made (not much) is more than a little depressing. I haven’t kept my promise to myself and Don (yet) but I’m not giving up.

Easter 2009

I have just met the man who changed my life. I pray I do not lose the passion and optimism I feel in this moment.  I pray.  Last night I prayed in a church.  After sitting for hours in a piazza, taking in the beauty of Italy, of Florence, I wandered into a church.  A tiny church on a tiny street, I now regret I do not remember the name.  I sat and prayed that I find what it is I am looking for, and to the extent I believe in prayers, they were answered.  I’ll never know whether it was God or fate, but I am at peace with not knowing.

Don found me as I purchased postcards on my way out of the most beautiful city I’ve ever known.  He asked me about the day’s events at the Duomo, it is Easter Sunday and there is a parade.  We connected over shared ties to San Francisco and a mutual love of Florence.  My first of what shall be many visits to the city and his return after saying “goodbye” to his sweetheart, Ethel.  Don is 79, and despite his daughter’s protest he has returned to finish writing the book they started together.  He is writing about travel for elderly and handicapped people and has just begun his 3 month visit.  He lives in a studio apartment overlooking a piazza.
donIn what is likely one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, I asked him to join me for coffee.  As a crowd gathered at the Duomo behind us, we chatted over lattes (and a croissant for him) about life and love.  In the hours that we sat, I saw the most beautiful soul I’ve ever had the great fortune of knowing.  He wore a beret and proudly told me the story of how he became a writer.

After the Korean war, he and his wife attended UCLA on the GI Bill.  He became a history teacher and later a school principle.  He realized he was a writer when he wrote scripts for a television broadcast at a school for the developmentally disabled in Sacramento.  He wrote them word for word, but always ad libbed his lectures – they were slightly different but better.  His wife was a speech pathologist who wrote a book about the first 6 words a person says.  You can tell almost everything you need to know about a person by their introduction: “Hi, my name is…”  You have a sense of where they’re from, their level of education, their confidence, and their personality.

She came across a publisher who had overcome a stutter, and he agreed to publish the book.  Don became her agent and set out to promote the book.  Not wanting to seem biased, he created the name “Steven Dash” for his correspondence related to the book.  Once, he forgot the name he’d created and though this caused suspicion a radio host in Salt Lake City agreed to a live interview.  Don was afraid it wouldn’t sound good, but was pleasantly surprised that a phone call from Sacramento sounded like she was sitting right there in the Utah studio.  His wife was always great at interviews.

She passed away when Don was 68.   A gay buddhist counselor from San Francisco helped him through the grief, and his belief in reincarnation gave Don hope.  Three years ago he was blessed to have found love again, “the luckiest man alive, to have two great loves in one short lifetime.”

Don thanks “the gays” for the introduction of the domestic partnership.  He could share his benefits with Ethel and neither would lose their social security.  More importantly, Ethel refused to marry him.  She had spent most of her life married to an alcoholic and had grown to despise the idea of marriage.  For Don, this was a blessing because it meant he could spend every day of their lives together trying to win her over, to convince her to keep him around for one more precious day.  Knowing she could kick him to the curb motivated him to be the best partner he could be every single day.

Ethel died of colon cancer with Don by her side, she left him as soon as he told her it was okay to go.  He sees her every once in a while around Florence, sometimes Venice.  He wears her ashes in a cross around his neck, the rest are hidden in a secret place until he scatters them throughout Italy.  Don believes she got cancer from pesticides, having grown up on a farm.

Don feels blessed to have had the opportunity to take care of these women and help them go.  His “Mormon tax guy” believes they chose him because they needed him.  And now another woman’s life has been changed by this man, likely one of many knowing how much love he has to share.

He excitedly told me of getting published through Amazon.com.  It is very scary though.  Somehow you have to send thousands of words and pictures through a tiny little telephone wire.  Who knows where they go or how they get there? For all he knows, all of his hard work is being beamed up into space.  But somehow an editor in South Carolina was able to get his book out of the telephone wire and mail it back to him as a good old fashioned book.  He just received his first royalty check in the amount of $52, we drank to that.

Don’s advice to me before we parted ways was:

1. Write every single day, at least 300 good words.

2. Your biological clock will start ticking, don’t let some jerk take advantage of that.  You’ve got plenty of time and if it runs out, the world has too many children that need to be adopted.

3. You don’t find love, it finds you.

I’ve decided to become a writer, for Don.

Dutch workplace etiquette

this post is from The So-Called Real World, a blog from my past lives.

Yesterday one of my colleagues was kind enough to give me a ride from the train station,  when I arrived at the office the others wondered why I had needed a ride. I told them of the difficulty I’ve been having in obtaining a Dutch driver’s license (administrative errors on the part of the government office have delayed this over 7 months, but that’s another story). The Manager explained that my troubles are not because I’m a foreigner, but because I’m a woman. To quote him, “You wonder why they keep saying no? Look at yourself. You’re a woman – women can’t drive. Or at least they shouldn’t!”

Anyone who knows me knows that (without condoning them) I have a sense of humor about things like this.  This guy had just met me an hour ago! One fellow foreigner in the room kindly explained that comments such as these are unprofessional and offensive.

Dutch guy #2 responded to his advice by saying “that’s stupid,” and to me “you’re stupid if you’re offended by this. Americans are so easily offended, especially women.” Needless to say, both of the non-Dutch people in the room were shocked, literally speechless. Our eyes returned to our computer screens and we attempted to move on.

Dutch guy #1 didn’t want to let it go. He continued, “if you think that’s offensive, wait until you hear this…” the American guy tried to stop him, but to no avail. He went on to share the following e-mail with me:

There is a theory that beer has female hormones in it, and can turn men into women. To test the theory, 100 men were each fed six pints of beer within a one-hour period. It was then observed that 100 per cent of the men; – gained weight – talked excessively without making sense – became overly emotional – couldn’t drive – failed to think rationally – argued over nothing – had to sit down while urinating – couldn’t perform sexually – and refused to apologise when wrong.

Again, I think this is as funny as the next guy/girl/Dutch/American. But how do you respond to something like that? AT WORK! I’d like to say this level of unprofessionalism is surprising to me, but really it’s not.

Disclaimer: These observations take place in (and among people from) smaller towns in the Dutch Bible Belt. This is not representative of all of Holland, all of my company, or anything other than my own very limited experience here! I also don’t want to imply these things are specific to the Dutch – we all know there are ignorant people in every culture. These are just examples of things I never have nor would expect to see in an American workplace.

The flawless logic of the cat in the microwave

Dutch people love to quote this story when discussing the many things that are wrong with America. I’ve heard it at least three separate times from different (unconnected) people. The story goes that a woman put her cat in the microwave (aka Magnetron) to dry it off when it got wet. The cat died, and the woman sued the manufacturer of the microwave because there was no warning. Now, all microwave instructions in America must say “do not put live animals in this machine.” Where to even begin?

First of all – the story is an Urban Legend. I found three incidents of this happening and all were malicious acts of animal cruelty, not ignorance: some hooligans in Alberta, a group of students in South Africa, a drunk mother in the UK. Did anyone else notice that none of the above happened in America? Even the acknowledged Urban Legend does not include the part about the lawsuit. The Dutch made that part up.

Yesterday, Dutch guy #2 brought this up. The American guy had just advised him that when working in mixed company (both in terms of culture and gender) they should be more sensitive.

Dutch guy #2 (confrontationally): What are you going to do, sue me? Americans sue for everything…[insert Cat in Microwave story here]

Me (respectfully): That story isn’t even true. (Seriously, I was respectful – it took everything I had, but I was polite)

Dutch guy #1 (angrily): Yes it is. Americans need warnings for everything. My son has an American toy and it says you should not leave the child unsupervised when they are playing with it. Obviously you shouldn’t leave your child alone. Americans are stupid for needing to be told that on a toy.

Me (calmly, but a little less respectfully): Why do you care if there is a label on the toy? Why do you care if Americans leave children alone? Why does it bother you so much that there are an extra 10 words in tiny print on the package?

Dutch guy #1 (annoyed): I just told you this. Because they sue everyone.

Me: Have you ever been sued by an American?

Dutch guy #1: No.

Me: What about you?

Dutch guy #2: No.

Me: Have you ever been to America?

Dutch guy #1: No.

Dutch guy #2: No. And I don’t need to go. People are too sensitive and they sue everyone for everything.

Me: Do you see any flaws in your logic here?

Dutch guy #2: No, do you?

Me: Yes, for example…

Dutch guy #2: See, that’s because you’re a woman and an American. You’re too sensitive and you want to sue everyone. Are you going to sue me now?

As you can see, the conversation goes nowhere. I’ll be the first to admit that frivolous lawsuits in America have gotten out of hand. In fact, I usually respond by giving them examples of things that actually happened (the famous hot coffee on the lap incident of 1994, or the case of the missing drycleaning in 2005). But this only applies to rational people, so no use in this case.

All of this would be funny if they were sarcastic, or joking. But they were serious: no one was laughing after this conversation, and the Dutch guys’ faces were literally red. Hard to imagine getting so worked up about an entire population of a country you’ve never even been to for doing things that don’t even affect you – but that’s their deal, I guess.

Again, it should be noted that these are just a few people – not all Dutch people are like this!

a stranger in my own home

this post is from The So-Called Real World, a blog from my past lives.

There are things in your life that you feel you can’t live without – losing them is not the source of culture shock.  Your mind is somehow more prepared to acknowledge and accept the differences when you consciously consider your appreciation for or dissatisfaction with the item or behavior.

It is the things that exist in the background of your life that impact the process of adjusting.  Take for example, being in a crowd of people.  Cultural differences vary this experience in each country.  In Spain you must actively guard your purse, in England you will receive a flood of apologies for even the slightest brush of contact as someone walks past, in New York it is a mistake to even try standing still.  These differences are interesting and based on culture, but they don’t result in “culture shock” because you actively notice them and adjust your behavior accordingly.

What you don’t notice when standing in a crowd in your home country is the background noise.  People talking to each other in normal tones, voices blend into a constant hum.  Since I’ve been back, hearing (once) familiar accents and English speakers around me has been the most difficult adjustment. Upon moving to Amsterdam, I felt the opposite – overwhelmed by the background noise of so many languages I don’t understand.

Abroad, my ear picks out an American accent and there is an instant connection with the speaker.  I’ve spent more time talking to strangers in grocery stores and trains in Europe than I did with people I saw every day when I lived in San Francisco.  Realizing our common bond sparks an exchange of small talk that goes on at length. Used to noticing American voices, I now feel overwhelmed.  They’re not background noise and I have to make a conscious effort to tune them out.  Realizing this, I predict that for each thing I noticed an adjustment to when I moved, I will need to readjust coming the other direction.

I arrived in the United States 48 hours ago, and it feels more foreign to me than any country I’ve visited so far.  I’ve forgotten how to navigate the city I called home for two and a half years.  In that time, I’d grown accustomed to the good as well as the bad and everything in between.  My life sped up to keep time with the fast pace, and I got used to going coatless in the fall, taking taxis everywhere, and dining out regularly.  It’s all been overwritten by a slower approach to life, a tolerance for cold, reliance on public transportation, and the feeling that a restaurant dinner is for a special occasion or as a last resort.  Both lives are wonderful and each is better than the other, and I’d like to have them both.  But alas, there shall be no easy transitions between these two worlds.

In Amsterdam I was amazed with the combination appliances, I wondered how I ever lived without them.  Here, a friendly smile from a waitress amazes me and a group of people standing in an orderly line has (in my mind) a warm glowing light shining down on it and angels singing.  Such a short time ago I was appalled these things were non-existent in Holland.  Adjusting to the culture of not tipping in Europe was uncomfortable and felt wrong, but now the thought of giving a taxi driver an extra dollar is absurd.

I’ve been looking forward to this trip for months, looking forward to going back to the customs and foods and people and places and ideologies and daily routine I know.  Instead, I’m going through the same emotions I felt seven months ago.

The subtle differences on their own are minor, but combined they have left me in a state of constant distraction.  I suppose the jet lag and rigorous travel (it took me 36 hours to get to San Francisco) contribute, as well as eagerness to get home.  These factors conspired to find me yelling at the ticketing agent at SFO for losing my reservation this morning – only to realize my flight was departing from Oakland.

the family you choose…

this post is from The So-Called Real World, a blog from my past lives.

As promised, a Thanksgiving story of an American in Holland.  I think the best way to share it is with a list of the many things I learned this year:

  • You have to order a turkey a week in advance here – they don’t have them on hand and when they realize why you want it they will inflate the price and take advantage of your homesickness and desire to hold on to tradition.  The butcher shop I patronized (for the last time) tried to charge me almost 30 euros for a 5 kg (11 lb) turkey!  Little did he know, I had done my research while wandering past the outdoor Albert Cuyp market and knew where to get one for 18. He agreed to come down on the price and  I left feeling like a master negotiator and annoyed that he’d tried to screw me on such a holiday.
  • A mother passing family recipes down to her daughter is a beautiful tradition throughout history and across cultures.  A mother waking up before dawn to remain on standby while her daughter prepares her first Thanksgiving with a 9 hour time difference, talking her through the stuffing and basting processes from another continent, inspecting e-mailed photographs of the inside of a bird to determine whether there are giblets inside – that is a beautiful thing possible only with the technology we have now and only with a Mom as wonderful as mine (thanks, Mom, I love you!).
  • In my earlier post praising the combination microwave/oven I hadn’t anticipated the need to roast a 10 pound turkey.  Just finding a pan that would fit inside was a two day effort.  On a side note – the Dutch call it a “magnetron” which is infinitely cooler than “microwave.”

turkeyI rocked the turkey and the gravy with a recipe from a friend, I perfected the cranberry sauce that Mom and I  found together last year, and I aced the pumpkin cake recipe that has always been hers.  Everything turned out wonderful and everyone had a great time.

I have a lot to be thankful for, both here and back at home.  This was my first Thanksgiving away from my family, but as Elysia so eloquently quoted in her toast, “friends are the family you choose for yourself.”

just be normal, that's weird enough

this post is from The So-Called Real World, a blog from my past lives.

Now past the initial period of culture shock, I figure it is time to comment on how the adjustment is going.  To preface, I will give some background on the circumstances affecting my ability to “fit in” with my colleagues: I’m the only female consultant in my business unit of 56 people, the only American, and one of only two non-Dutch speakers.  I had significantly miscalculated the difficulty in integrating, and it becomes more obvious all the time that I’m failing to do so.

My first cultural faux pas (which set the tone for my future interactions with my coworkers) centered on the celebration of my birthday at the office.  As is typical in the US, I didn’t mention it to my colleagues and planned a small celebration with friends on the weekend.  When it came up in conversation with one of our secretaries, it became apparent that I had seriously breached the code of social conduct.  I was supposed to have announced it with an office wide e-mail and brought pie for everyone.

I wasn’t intentionally disregarding this custom, and in an effort to smooth things over I brought treats from the bakery the next day and left them with a note in the office common area.  If my colleagues didn’t already think I was a freak it was certainly cemented now: I brought them in the afternoon instead of the customary morning snack, I brought individual snacks instead of pie, and I left a note attempting to thank them for the birthday card (in Dutch) and instead thanked them for the “ticket”.  The secretary who informed me of my initial mistake was kind enough to fill me in on the office gossip which can basically be summed up with: WTF is up with the American chick?

In Europe, everyone has an opinion about Americans.  In Holland, everyone voices said opinions.  When I eat lunch in the office cafeteria I am either silent as everyone around converses in Dutch, or I am the center of attention where everyone looks to me for commentary on the US election.  In the US, everyone knows the two things you don’t discuss are politics and religion.  But when forced to choose between silent observation and instinctively uncomfortable discourse, I predictably chose the latter.  I’m glad I did, as it allows me the privilege of hearing about all things wrong with America.

I’m generalizing – there are a few people in my office who make an effort to speak to me about topics other than US politics.  They remind the others to speak English, and always ask how I’m doing. I’m not comfortable asking the others to switch, if anything it is embarrassing to be monolingual while everyone around me speaks at least two and sometimes up to four languages.  I’m still taking Dutch lessons but it is coming along quite slowly and I’m far from being able to carry a conversation.

I’ve come to appreciate the Dutch tendency for directness, without which I would not know all the reasons they think I’m weird: I don’t walk around to all of the other offices in the morning to say hello and make small talk with each and every one of my coworkers, I don’t drink milk with my lunch, I put vegetables in my sandwiches, I take phone calls with the door closed, the list goes on.  With readily available (you could even say “eager”) help, I’ve identified my reported idiosyncrasies and am making an effort to “just be normal.” (The title of this post is a popular Dutch phrase, I’m trying to comply.)

Otherwise things are going quite well.  I have a large group of friends who I fit in with well!  We are all expats, we are all far from home, and trying to maximize our experience abroad by trying new things and making new friends.  We have much in common in that we are all adventurous, independent, and curious about the world.  We have very little in common in terms of background: we’re from countries all over the world and cultures from both ends of the spectrum and everywhere in between.  In our differences, we are the same.  I love my expat friends and credit most of the positive aspects of this experience with having met them – life would be pretty difficult as the constant misfit.

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