expat

Growing up Expat – Mexico

1963…..When I was seven years old, my father was sent to work in Mexico City. We were to travel by train from Rye, New York. My main travel concern at that point was my pet turtle, Tootsie. I put Tootsie in a peanut butter jar and poked holes in the top. It was summer and as we reached the border at Laredo, Texas, it must have been at least 100 degrees. The air conditioning went out just as we crossed over into Mexico and everybody was told to get off the train for customs inspection. Tootsie was in my mother’s carry-on bag under some other things and sat on top of a table in the middle of the cavernous customs house. The uniformed official walked up and down and around this table eyeing the luggage. He briefly looked as if he was going to inspect the carry-on. We all held our breath. However, at age seven I managed to successfully smuggle a live turtle across the border undetected by customs. When we reached Mexico City, I spent the entire day looking over my shoulder expecting to be nabbed for my illegal import. They never caught up with me and Tootsie lived a full turtle life.

Not too long after we got there, my father was off on a business trip and my mother and I were alone in the house with the maids. All of a sudden they became very upset and came to my mother’s room to tell her something. We did not speak Spanish yet and could not understand what they were saying. They kept saying Kennedy! Kennedy! , and then pretended to shoot a gun. We gathered that the president had been shot but we could not determine if he was dead or not. Later in the day, another expat wife was kind enough to phone my mother and fill her in that our president, John F. Kennedy, was dead.

In Mexico City, I had a choice of going to the American School that was very large and, well, American, and Greengates, the British school, which was much smaller. One of my brothers and I chose the British school, while my eldest brother went to the American School. Unfortunately because I was behind in certain areas due to the fact that I was coming from a different system, they put me in the first grade again. It was my third first grade. Before we were asked to leave Burma, I had just started first grade there. In New York, I went to public school and completed first grade. Now I was there again, feeling awful. I studied and studied and worried and studied; then halfway through the year they put me in second grade. I was so obsessed with doing well, I ended second grade at the top of my class and even received an award. I didn’t want to be the dumb foreign kid – not fitting in again. I was top of my class until the fourth grade and for a year, I woke up every morning with a stomach ache. My mother took me to all kinds of doctors but nobody knew why I had a stomach ache. Finally, they realized it was nerves and said I had the beginning of an ulcer and that I should learn to relax. I was nine years old.

Even though I was diagnosed with “nerves”, I really did like Greengates. We had to wear a uniform which was good because I never had to decide what to wear or worry about competing with anybody in that department – not that I was much interested in clothes anyway. When I was in the second grade, Prince Philip came to visit our school and speak to us at assembly. A friend of mine and I went to watch him play polo and afterward, we went up to him, shook his hand and introduced ourselves. We were very excited, giggly seven year olds, curtsying as best we could in our jeans.

After spending six months in an outer suburb in temporary housing, we moved closer to town in the neighborhood known as Las Lomas. “Lomas” translates as “hills”. Across the street from us was a “barranca” which is like a huge ditch but I guess the correct word is “ravine”. We lived in a big, fairly modern, two-story house that had four bedrooms, all with en-suite bathrooms, two living rooms, a large veranda and an interior garden as well as dining room, breakfast room, kitchen, laundry room, and servants’ quarters. This was a fairly upscale area and we had some neighbors who had estates and some were famous. Across the way was where the owner of a big Mexican brewery lived and we could see swans swimming in his little lake. The famous comedian Cantinflas lived up the street from us and I even saw him a couple of times, whizzing by in his car.

We shared a walled-in compound with our landlady who lived in an identical house. Dona Isabel, the landlady, always kept dogs – mainly for security reasons and she had a weakness for collies. Because the only thing that separated us was a hedge, the dogs spent most of their time at our house because we gave them lots of attention while she basically ignored them. The dogs were always barking their heads off if anybody approached the gates, though, so she didn’t mind if we enjoyed them as pets. My father never allowed us to have actual pets when we lived in the city. Since he had grown up on a farm, he was adamant that animals belonged outside. Except for my turtle, of course.

Our next-door neighbors, were a Mexican family with eight children. We had a chain-link fence between us covered with ivy but there was one section we could see through and we would hang out and talk through the fence. They invited me on family outings with them. The whole family were nuts for playing dominoes so I would go over to their house and play dominoes for hours.

Every summer we ran out of water. July was the dry season and we would go for a week or two where nothing came out of the water tap. We had a big tank under our stairway outside that would also run dry. This usually happened when we had people visiting from the U.S. My mother loved it because it showed them that our life wasn’t as glamorous as everyone assumed it was. Fortunately, there was a water station not too far from our house, so we could go down there with buckets and haul water to fill up the tank.

Josefina, our cook, stayed with us the entire time we lived in Mexico. She taught me how to cook quesadillas and cajeta (known now in the U.S. as dulce de leche) and she always had a fresh stack of tortillas in the refrigerator that she would heat over a gas burner and smear with butter for a snack. We would watch TV together at night when my parents were out. After she had been with us for a few years, she told my mother she had a son who was living in her village and wanted to know if he could come and visit her. My mother was taken aback. In Asia (and in Africa too) the children of the household help often lived with them on the compound. Josefina’s son Jaime came to live with us when he was seven or eight.

My mother was never very good at learning languages and she always struggled to communicate in Spanish. At one point we had an older maid, Inez, who was fresh from her village and had never lived in the city before. She laughed at my mother’s Spanish. We soon found that she could not read. So my mother sent her to school to learn to read. After a few weeks of that, she went to my mother and apologized for laughing at her. Now she knew how hard it was to learn something new.

On the weekends, if the weather was good, we would go out to the Reforma Club in the suburbs, past Satellite City. It had an Olympic size swimming pool and many clay tennis courts, squash courts and a playing field and lawn-bowling greens (very British). It also had a nice restaurant and ballroom for parties. I had learned to swim in Burma and I loved to swim and dive. I could spend the whole day in the water.

I loved going over to my best friend’s house because it was always full of chocolate and sweets. Her parents were Polish immigrants to the U.S. but she had been born in Connecticut. She was more American than the Americans. She had every board game and the very latest Barbie dolls with all the accessories. She had an Easy-bake oven that we could make real cakes in, a Creepy Crawler kit that had molds for making plastic creatures, and every Beatles album, fad and gadget. Whenever her father had to travel to the U.S., he would bring home the latest consumer items. The things they had crammed into their closets always fascinated me.

Thoughts on the TCK version of home…

Years later, I ran into her when her parents had been posted to Paris. I was in boarding school in Switzerland at the time and in love with Europe. She hated living in Paris and wanted to be back in New York. She ended up back in the States, finishing high school, living with a friend’s family. I never understood how she could give up Paris for some suburban U.S. high school. I guess having all that stuff in Mexico prepared her for better assimilation into American society. While all the American gadgets and “conveniences” were cool, they were never anything I longed for. I always found plenty to interest me in whatever culture I landed in.

One survival skill I learned as an expat child was the ability to feel like everyplace I lived was home. Even hotel rooms often were referred to as “home”. It didn’t really matter. My family talked about how, no matter where we were, or what the circumstances, everyplace was “home” as long as we were together and had a pack of cards. A good card game could get us through anything. Some of my fondest memories are of blackouts during torrential rainstorms playing cards by candlelight.

To this day, Mexico is one of my favorite places. I liked living there. I learned the language quickly and worked at getting to know people. I spent time with the maids watching their soap operas on TV. Even now, a suggested practice for leaning Spanish is to watch those ever-present “Telenovelas”.

There was a large expat community in Mexico City including business people, diplomats, scientists, scholars, retirees and all kinds of people. Many activities centered on the American School. They had Little League baseball, Girl Scouts, and big celebrations on major U.S. holidays such as 4th of July picnics. I don’t remember participating in any of those things.

The British school was small and didn’t have much in the way of facilities but we were all very resourceful and pretty adventurous and came from 27 different nationalities. We usually travelled in packs and spoke a mixture of Spanish and English. Many kids spoke a third language at home. When we spoke to each other we would use the words that first popped into our head or that were the most appropriate for their meaning, it didn’t matter which language they were. My closest friends were Italian, Mexican, Ghanaian, British and American.

Travels and Tourism in Mexico

I saw the sights of Mexico City and environs a million times or so it seemed. All our American friends and family came and visited us there. I enjoyed going to the pyramids at Teotihuacán. It was amazing to see how much that place changed over the years. When we first started going, the only pyramid uncovered was the Sun and a few smaller ones surrounding it. Then they uncovered the Moon and a few more, smaller pyramids. They discovered several galleries – the butterfly building with butterflies painted on its walls – a winding pathway with creatures’ heads sticking out from the walls – a prison cell where sacrifice victims were kept until it was their “time”. In the span of a few years, an entire city emerged before our eyes.

Every time I went there, I learned something new about the people and saw things from a different angle or height. I climbed the Sun Pyramid a couple of times but after they uncovered the Moon Pyramid, I stuck to climbing that one. Not only was it about half the size of the Sun Pyramid, but the Sun Pyramid gave me the creeps because when I was on top of it, I would always imagine the priests ripping the hearts out of young virgins as the sun came up over the horizon to ensure another sunrise.

Popo and Ixta

We traveled extensively around Mexico. We picnicked at the base camp of Popocatepetl and waved goodbye to the people on their way up to the top. Popo was one of the snow-capped volcanoes that you could sometimes see from Mexico City and still erupted from time to time. There was another mountain nearby called Ixtaccihuatl, which means White Lady.

There was an Aztec legend about these volcanoes that had many variations. The gist of the story was that Popo and Ixta fell in love, but she was a princess and he was a commoner. Her father said the only way they could get married was if he went to war and came back victorious. Off he went. One of his enemies reported back to Ixta that Popo had died in battle and she died of sorrow. When Popo returned victorious to find her dead, he carried her into the mountains and laid her to rest where he watches over her to this day.

Taxco was a small tourist city built on the side of a mountain. Besides having a few interesting churches, it was mainly known for its silver and had shop after shop of silver jewelry. We would go there for a weekend and walk the steep, narrow streets. The hotel we stayed in had a back patio where cockfights took place after dark. The cocks screamed in anger and pain as they killed each other or maybe it was just the crowd I heard screaming. I thought the whole thing was disgusting. My brother, Tom, loved it. He would spend hours on the patio, cheering the victorious rooster.

On Sunday afternoons we would drive over the mountains to Cuernavaca which was at a lower altitude and thus, often hot and sunny. We would stop at the Benedictine Monastery to see what they had for sale and then head for Las Mañanitas. Las Mañanitas was a quintessential Mexican hotel and restaurant. At the back there was a lawn with chairs and tables set up where people had drinks and appetizers while looking at the menus presented on chalkboards. Peacocks and parrots wandered freely around the yard. There was a small fountain at one side.

The only food I remember having was a fancy chopped beef thing that was the closest I could get to a hamburger. But I remember going with a friend of ours one time who actually ordered and ate eels. I sat there shocked and amazed while watching him devour shiny eels with their eyes staring out at me. We always had a small glass of crème de cacao with a layer of cream on top for dessert. It was their trademark. I remember we used to practice balancing the cream on top of the liqueur at home. Not an easy task.

One year we took a trip to Veracruz and Fortin de las Flores. We stopped on the beach at Veracruz for a lunch of fresh fish and I went for a swim. I was happily swimming away enjoying myself when some guy way out in the water started to swim in yelling “tiburón! tiburón!”. I knew to immediately get out of the water! Sharks are no fun.

In Fortin we stayed at a hotel that filled the swimming pool every morning with fresh gardenias. They really perfumed the swimming area but they were obstacles that got in the way of my vigorous swimming. On the way back to Mexico City, we stopped in a resort that had the biggest swimming pool I had ever seen. Hacienda Vista Hermosa had first opened to the public in 1947 and was reconstructed from an old hacienda that had been destroyed during the revolution. The pool had fountains and arches.

My brother, Tom, decided to go to college in Tucson, Arizona. After we dropped him off there we took a trip down the west coast of Mexico stopping in Mazatlan and Guymas. At that time Mazatlan was just a big fishing village. Now it is a popular tourist resort. There was nothing there but a large, pristine beach. In Guymas we stopped at a restaurant and in the bathroom the floor was covered wall to wall with crickets. From then on we had a cricket in the car with us and listened to him all the way back home.

One winter we were invited out to a hacienda in the Mexican countryside. We had a tour of the farm and afterwards we were invited to have lunch with the family (the mid-day meal is always the largest in Mexico). The owner’s son was a friend of my father’s and that made my father the guest of honor so he sat to the right of the head of the household, Don Alvaro. I think my father’s friend was the only one who spoke English and I have no idea who all the people were at the table but there were a lot of them.

The main thing I remember eating that day was ‘cabrito’ for the first time. Cabrito is baby goat meat and it is delicious. I think we must have had soup first and then they brought out the main course. A woman came out and placed a plate in front of my father. Because he was the guest of honor he received the goat’s head – skull with eyes and brains in it. I just sat there and watched, wondering what he would do.

He sat in silence for a few minutes looking at the thing and then he turned to Don Alvaro and said “I thank you very much for this honor but I am sure that you would appreciate this delicacy more than I” and handed over the plate. Of course Don Alvaro was thrilled and devoured the whole thing with gusto. I was amazed, but that’s the kind of guy my dad was. Always able to cope with any situation with grace and style.

One of the down sides to living in Mexico City was the frequent earthquakes. It seemed like the temblores usually came at night or in the morning. I would wake up suddenly to see the ceiling light swaying. People came to visit and did not know what to do. Usually people would sit in bed trying to decide if they should get up and stand in the doorway or get under something, but by the time they had decided, the earthquake was over.

We had one big earthquake when we were in Mexico. I was sitting at the breakfast table and the room started to shake. My father immediately got up and ran out into the yard. My mother was climbing the stairs and didn’t feel a thing. I sat mesmerized by the water in my glass swaying back and forth. Like monsoons, blizzards and other natural extremes, one does become blasé about such things when they are ever present. I think it is probably the only way one can live in a place where they happen so often they are normal, not unusual.

Mexico City was originally built on top of a lake. Many of the older buildings frequently sank into the soft soil. One such building was the Palacio de las Bellas Artes. It was a fabulous Art Deco building that sank about 13 feet. It housed famous murals and had a big theater. It was the home of the Mexican Ballet Folklorico, which celebrated the diverse Mexican culture through dance. If we got there early we could see the Tiffany glass curtain that portrayed the two volcanoes Popo and Ixta. The whole time I lived in Mexico I took ballet lessons and every year the Russian Bolshoi Ballet would come to town and perform at the Bellas Artes Theater. I was lucky enough to go more than once. When I lived in Moscow many years later, it was a very special experience to go to the actual Bolshoi Theater.

While we were living in Mexico, the National Museum of Anthropology opened. It was a huge deal. My mother took me, my friends’ mothers took me, my school took me, and visiting houseguests took me. I have to admit it was a very cool museum. I saw the real Aztec calendar and learned all kinds of things about the history of the area. It was a large museum and required many visits to see it all.

(This is an excerpt from my book, Expat Alien My Global Adventures)

Expat Alien is Back…

I had a bit of an hiatus. I got hacked and then I got frustrated so I’m back on WordPress having resurrected the remnants. In the meantime my domain expired so now I’m using expatalien.blog. Such is life. I started a new blog over at postcardbuzz.com featuring my large postcard collection.

My last trip was in January to Egypt. What a fabulous place that is. I recommend it if you haven’t been. Here are a few tidbits.

One comment. The Sphinx was smaller than I had imagined. But otherwise my expectations were met.

Fifty years ago my father visited Egypt and went to Giza and rode a camel. My son went with me on this trip and my father told him he should ride a camel. We tried to re-create the scene.

Cairo had really bad smog. A city of over 20 million people. Big noisy smoggy dirty. But not as dirty as I expected. Actually, pretty clean. No open sewers, no piles of trash, no stench. Quite nice, really. In the evening I met up with an old friend I hadn’t seen in ages. He has lived in Cairo for 40 years and loves it. I have to admit, I’m a bit jealous. If you haven’t been there, I highly recommend it. I think I need to go back sometime…

That morning on our way to Giza, we stopped in a parking lot across from the Pyramids to rendez-vous with a physician. He diligently swabbed all of us and went off to do our Covid tests. This was required for us to re-enter the USA. Later that afternoon I received an email with my official document, photo and all, proclaiming I did not have Covid. That was a relief. On the way out of Egypt, the airlines did check to see I had the document but on returning to the homeland, nobody even mentioned it. All they looked at was my passport.

The Cairo Tower in the smog

Theater in the Twin Cities

The Orpheum Theater opened in downtown Minneapolis in 1921. It was designed after the Beaux Arts style and seats about 2,500 people. The first performers included the Marx Brothers, Jack Benny and Fanny Brice. In the 1940’s it became a major cinema theater. Over the next thirty years it showed movies and touring productions such as My Fair Lady and Fiddler on the Roof. It became run down and eventually closed.

Bob Dylan and his brother David purchased it as an investment in 1979. They gave it a light facelift and then brought A Chorus Line to be the opening show. In 1988 they sold it to the Minneapolis Community Development Agency who spent $10 million to restore the theater. It re-opened in 1993 and in 2005 it was transferred to the Hennepin Theatre Trust.

During the renovation they found some gems including six Pompeiian friezes that had been hidden under fake window grids and a false wall. The chandelier that dominates the main auditorium is 15 feet high and weighs 2,000 pounds. Today the Orpheum shows theater productions and concerts.

IMG_4079-300x300[1]The hallway ceiling at the Orpheum We went to the Orpheum recently to see the Book of Mormon, a funny musical written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame. It irreverently pokes fun at the young Mormons who are sent out into the world to proselytize without really knowing anything about the places they are being sent to. This particular group ends up in Africa and is faced with war lords, aids and female circumcision.

It has some dark moments as most satire does but everything turns out okay in the end and lessons are learned. During one scene a missionary has a dream about Hell and my favorite part are the two dancing Starbucks coffee cups.

The following week we saw something very different.

Continue reading here

American Swedish Institute in Minnesota

IMG_3869-630x310[1]

Six major Swedish-American museums and institutions are in the United States, according to the Consulate General of Sweden in New York. The American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis is number three on the list after New York City and Philadelphia.

Christina Nilsson Turnblad was born in Sweden in 1861. Her father left Sweden with one of his sons in 1875 and settled in Murray County, Minnesota. He sent for Christina and her brother, Simon, a year later. At age 15, she went into service for a banker named Smith where she received no pay but was compensated with instruction in language and domestic chores. From 1879 to 1880 she worked as a dining room girl and moved to Minneapolis in 1882. She married Swan Turnblad in 1883, and their only child, Lillian Zenobia, was born September 2, 1884.

Swan Turnblad was born in Sweden in 1860 and emigrated to the United states when he was 8 years old settling in Vasa, Minnesota. In 1879 he moved to Minneapolis and started working at a newspaper.

In 1885 the Swedish American Publishing Company (Svenska Amerikanska Posten) was incorporated. It was a Swedish language newspaper focusing on temperance. Turnblad started to buy up the stock as the paper neared bankruptcy. He quickly became a Board Member and soon after was appointed Manager. He was an early adopter of the Linotype machine and the use of color printing for illustrations. Under his management he increased the circulation from 1,400 to 40,000 and changed the focus from prohibition to independent Democratic. He also became the major stockholder.

Turnblad was a prominent member of society often reported on in the Minneapolis Journal. He served on several Boards and was a delegate at large to the Democratic national convention in 1904 and again in 1908. He was a Mason, a Shriner and an Elk. In 1892 he built an apartment complex call the Cecil Flats and lived on the first floor, renting out the other apartments. A barn was built to house the first automobile in Minneapolis, an electric Waverly he purchased around 1900.

InIMG_3844-225x300[1] 1908 their 33 room mansion was finished and soon thereafter the stockholders filed a lawsuit against the Turnblad family. Swan was accused of using company funds to build his new house. He denied this saying his wife had inherited the money from her father’s investments in Sweden, something they were never able to prove. The appeals went all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court but ended in a settlement.

Christina died in 1929 from cancer and later that year Swan donated the mansion to the American Swedish Institute. Today it is a cultural center, museum, art center, and gathering place for anybody interested in Swedish and Nordic culture. It also houses the Minneaplolis based Consulate General of Sweden’s offices and provides Consular services by appointment. The mansion is a landmark that has been placed on the national, state and city registers of historical places.

In 2012, a 34,000 square foot addition known as the Nelson Cultural Center opened. It is a gathering place that houses the café, the art gallery, studio and crafts classrooms, and event spaces.

The mansion was designed after the French Chateauesque style and took five years to build. An artist trained at the Chicago Art Institute was commissioned to do the plaster details on all the ceilings.I recently spent the day lunching in the café and touring the mansion. The café’s name is FIKA which means a daily break with coffee and small dishes. It gets rave reviews and I have to say the food was very good. The menu is inspired by Nordic traditions and did include Swedish meatballs which of course we compared to Ikea’s meatballs. These were better.

IMG_3855-300x225[1]

Eighteen craftsmen woodcarvers worked on the interior as well.

Some of the woodcarvings are highly detailed and required special artists. Eleven porcelain stoves were shipped from Sweden, no two alike. These were probably decorative since there was central heating in the house.

The house has 33 rooms including a large dining room and a ballroom with an elevated stage and skylights. The three Turnblads lived in the mansion from 1908 to 1929. They entertained once.

My favorite room was the large glassed in sun room above the entrance.

My Year in South America

CatedralPrimadaBogota2004-7

When I was 15, my family moved to Bogota, Colombia. That first summer my parents and I took a trip to the coast by car. My father was a beach fanatic and somebody in his office told him he would find the most beautiful pristine beaches imaginable at the coastal village of Tolu. Since he had to go to Cartagena on business anyway, he decided to make a trip of it and stop in Tolu and the resort town of Santa Marta as well. The trip was almost entirely through the Andes Mountains with hair-raising drop offs on the side of the road. We stopped for a couple of days in Medellín, a city that was later known for its drug cartel. At the time, it was a small city nestled in the mountains with a lot of old churches. My mother had a thing about Catholic churches. If there was a church anywhere nearby, we had to go see it. It wasn’t a religious thing; it was a tourist thing. She wanted to see the architecture, the windows, and the statues. It used to really embarrass me to have to go into all these churches where people were praying just so we could snoop around. That was my teenaged view of it anyway.

San Ignacio, Medillin

San Ignacio, Medillin

The morning we left Medellín, we stopped in a small corner restaurant for breakfast. All we wanted was some orange juice, coffee and rolls. I spoke Spanish fluently with no accent. My father spoke Spanish fluently but with an accent. We went up to the counter and I asked for three orange juices – jugo de naranja. Blank stares answered my simple request. I could not make them understand what I was saying. I had to resort to pointing and acting in order to get three orange juices. We decided that they saw so few foreigners they just assumed we did not speak Spanish and could not process the fact that we did.

On the way down from the mountains, we had to follow a riverbed where much of the road had been washed away by flooding. There were cliffs going up on either side, with the river in the middle, and the road was to one side of the river. Where the road was washed out, there was no place else to go but in the river or hug the cliff. Fortunately there was almost no traffic and we were able to manage it, although we all had white knuckles by the time we passed through the mountains.

As we got to the coastal flatlands we started looking out for the road to Tolu. We were all very excited. The road turned out to be a narrow rutted lane with overgrown vegetation on either side. We said, no problem, this was good, it meant it was unspoiled by the overuse of tourists. The village of Tolu was small. There was a small square in the middle of town but the main road was just past the center and ran along the ocean on the beach. Yes, the beach had become a road with buses barreling down it at high speeds. There were no swimmers or sunbathers – they would have died from the exhaust fumes first and a car accident second. Since it was late in the day, we realized we had to stay the night, so we found a small hotel on the beach that looked passable. We were shown to a “suite” that had two rooms and five beds and a huge bathroom that only had cold water and a millions cockroaches. My father got up several times during the night to spray his mattress for bugs. We left early the next morning. When we got back to Bogota my father told the person who had recommended Tolu all about our experience. Of course, the person had never actually been there. So much for pristine beaches.

From Tolu we drove to Cartagena, the old Spanish outpost. There was a fort on the hill that had tunnels going down to the water. Niches were cut into the tunnel for soldiers to stand with their rifles and shoot people as they ran down the dark and claustrophobic tunnels. It all made me very uncomfortable. Cartagena was often visited by pirates as well as by Spanish ships. Under the water was a heavy chain strung across part of the bay to keep the boats from entering. Those who didn’t know about the fence, sank. Cartagena itself was a beautiful colonial town.

Our next stop was Barranquilla, another big port and more of a vibrant busy bustling city, and our final stop was Santa Marta, a small resort town. Luckily we flew home from Santa Marta so we didn’t have to repeat the treacherous drive.

Monserrate

Monserrate

Bogota was 8,600 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains. Lush and cool, it rained almost every day for a short while. It is nestled right against the mountains and above the city at 10,341 feet is the mountain Monserrate where a small church was built in the 17th century. Now there is a funicular that takes people up there and the view is amazing. One of the biggest tourist attractions is the Gold Museum. Its mission statement states: The mission of the Gold Museum of the Banco de la República is to preserve, research, catalogue and exhibit its archaeological collections in goldwork, ceramics, lithics and other materials as the cultural heritage of present and future generations of Colombian citizens, to strengthen the cultural identity of Colombians through enjoyment, learning and inspiration. It is definitely worth a visit.

Musica Raft, Gold Museum

Musica Raft, Gold Museum

On the weekends sometimes, we would drive down to the hot country and stay at fincas. They could be working farms or just small “summer” houses where people went to relax and get out of the city. We stayed in one that had bungalows around the compound and a big house at the center. We all gathered in the big house for meals and ate at long tables. The landscape was tropical and kind of rugged. There wasn’t much to do but eat, sleep and take walks. On the way home, we would stop in a small village and buy rolls made from cassava flour that were filled with cheese.

Growing up as a Third Culture Kid, or TCK, meant constantly adapting and adjusting to new places and new people. After a while I became a chameleon, able to blend in to any background. I learned to hone my power of observation and I would spend the first few weeks in a new environment reserved and quiet, watching everybody else. Then once I built confidence, I would break out like a phoenix, and my new persona would emerge, reinvented for my current surroundings. One of the hardest things about growing up the way I did was saying goodbye. Constantly having to leave friends behind or see them leave did take a toll and as I grew older I became more discriminating about who I opened up to and became close to. In spite of that, I looked forward to new places. It was an adventure, a challenge.

The Hat

The Hat

My uniform that year was a ruana (a wool cape) and a hat that was very common among the people who lived in the mountains (a man’s stiff felt hat). I also had a swell pair of suede lace-up boots and I wore rings on every finger. I had long hair and long sharp nails and when I first arrived at school people thought I was some kind of witch. I loved it there. The people were either Colombian or, for the most part, expat kids who had grown up overseas. Everybody was mellow and easy going.

I went to the American school in Bogota. During study hall, we would go to the recreation room and have really superior games of table tennis. At lunch, we would walk to the other end of the football field to eat our sandwiches. I ate peanut butter and jelly on toast every single day for a year. Some people would bring chessboards and we would gather around and watch them play.

My best friend lived near a small shopping center and park area called El Lago where a lot of the “street people” hung out. These were the Colombian hippies and the American drifters who gathered to generally laze around and look for action. People would play frisbee and talk and eat and gather information on parties. We would go there and hang out and try to be “cool”.

One day it was raining (as usual) and I was standing under an archway listening to a Jesus freak proselytize and a guy appeared who had long black hair, a beret, lavender tie-dye shirt, lavender pants, and belt, with bells on his black leather boots. He walked right up to the Jesus freak, took off his hat and in a large swooping movement bowed to him and said “And I am the Devil”. This infuriated the Jesus freak and set him off on a long tirade, which was completely ignored. The “Devil” came up to me and asked me for a light and introduced himself as Giovanni. He was a wonderful character who loved to talk non-stop and tell stories of his escapades under the influence of magical mushrooms.

A few weeks later, Giovanni arrived dressed in a three-piece suit. I almost didn’t recognize him and when questioned he told me his grandmother had died. He had started his day with a large magical mushroom omelet and then set off for his grandmother’s funeral. He went to the church all dressed up, greeted all his relatives and joined the procession to pass by and view the open casket. As he reached the casket, the mushrooms must have kicked in, because he swore to us that his grandmother moved, at which point he had apparently created a scene and was asked to leave.

Giovanni had dreams of moving to Miami to be a hairdresser or a model. When he suddenly disappeared, I wondered if he had actually made it to Miami. A few months later, I ran into his sidekick, Fernando. I had to drag it out of him but he finally told me that Giovanni had been down in the Amazon playing “witch doctor”. He was expected back soon so I told Fernando to pass a message to him to come by because I wanted to see him.

He showed up one afternoon dressed again in the three-piece suit and all his beautiful long hair cut off. I asked him who had died this time and he was furious. Fernando apparently was supposed to have rescued all of Giovanni’s clothes from his mother’s house but didn’t get there in time, and his mother had thrown out all his lavender tie-dyes. It was obvious that at his age, he was expected to get a serious job and be respectable. It was the last time I saw him and I like to believe he really did become a real doctor but for all I know, he is still in the jungle playing witch doctor.

People from the States or England or Venezuela would drift in and out of El Lago. One fellow from England wore only green and we called him Limey. There was an African guy who had lived there for a long time with a Colombian woman. He was famous all around town and known just as “Blackie”.

I want to say those were more innocent times, but maybe I was just lucky and never got into anything I couldn’t handle. I cried all the way to Miami when we moved. I wasn’t ready to leave; a year just wasn’t long enough. Now not only was I moving to a new place with new people but I would have to adjust to a whole new continent and culture plus I was going back to boarding school.

Sometimes people think TCKs are whiney. We grew up in exotic places and had all kinds of interesting experiences. And most people think children are very adaptable and resilient. So the combination of new adventures and the ability to constantly adapt to them must be fabulous, no? Sometimes I think it seems that children are super adaptable because they are better at playing make believe than grown ups are. Sometimes I think that is why it is so hard for TCKs to grow up. They get too good at playing make believe.

Within months I was at a new school reinventing myself once again.

 

Adventurous Women

I recently read ‘Too Close to the Sun’ about Denys Finch Hatton and it reminded me of the amazing women through the ages who chose to spend their lives in foreign lands. Here area few of my favorites.

Karen Blixen and her brother

Karen Blixen and her brother

Karen Blixen was Danish.  She married Baron Bror von Blixen and moved to Kenya in 1914.  Unfortunately he gave her syphilis and she returned to Denmark after only one year for arsenic treatment.  She lived through it, however, and returned to live in Kenya for another 16 years. She ran a coffee farm for a while but always struggled with it and eventually was forced to sell the land.  Her lover, Denys Finch Hatton, was a big game hunter who died in a plane crash just as she was dealing with the loss of her farm.  She returned to Denmark and lived there for the rest of her life.  She wrote under the name Isak Dineson as well as a few others and a couple of her more famous books are:

Out of Africa  (1937); Anecdotes of Destiny  (1958) – includes Babette’s Feast which was made into a movie; Letters from Africa 1914-1931  (1981 – posthumous)

 

 

Beryl Markham

Beryl Markham

Beryl Markam was English.  Her family moved to Kenya when she was 4 years old in 1906.   She became friends with Karen Blixen even though there was an 18 year gap in age.  Beryl also had an affair with Denys Finch Hatton and was due to fly with him the day he crashed.  She had some kind of premonition and did not go.  However she did go on to fly extensively in the African bush and was the first women to fly across the Atlantic from East to West.  She briefly lived in California married to an avocado farmer but eventually retuned to Kenya and became a well known horse trainer.  There is a new book out about her life called “Circling the Sun”.

Her memoir (a very good read) is: West with the Night  (1942, re-released in 1983)

 

 

Alexandra David Neel

Alexandra David Neel

Alexandra David-Neel was French.  She became an explorer at a young age running away from home at the age of 18 to ride her bicycle to Spain and back.  In 1904 at the age of 36 she was traveling in Tunis and married a railway engineer.  That didn’t last long since she immediately had itchy feet and set off for India.  She told her husband she would be back in 18 months but did not return for 14 years.  Her goal was Sikkim in the northern mountains.  She spent years studying with the hermits and monks of the region and eventually, dressed as a man, snuck into the forbidden city of Lhasa.

Her account of her trip to Lhasa is a fascinating read: My Journey to Lhasa (1927)

 

 

 

Gertrude Stein by Picasso

Gertrude Stein by Picasso

Gertrude Stein was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in California, attended Radcliff and Johns Hopkins University, discovered her sexual awakening while in Baltimore and fell in love with another woman. She moved to Paris in 1904 where she collected art and held “Salons” promoting modern unknown artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Cezanne.  During World War I she learned to drive and drove a supply truck for the American Fund for French Wounded. Her writing was revolutionary and influenced many modern writers including Hemmingway.  She was a strong, opinionated woman and a copious writer with a great sense of humor.  Her lifelong companion, Alice B. Toklas cooked and ran the household. Two of my favorite books by Stein are:

The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas  (1933); Ida, A Novel (1941)

 

 

James Joyce and Sylvia Beach

James Joyce and Sylvia Beach

Sylvia Beach was a contemporary of Gertrude Stein and also lived in Paris.  She was born in Baltimore, Maryland.  Her father was a minister and she grew up in Europe.  She owned the bookstore Shakespeare and Company and published James Joyce’s Ulysses when nobody else would touch it, even though she had no money herself.  She lived in Paris most of her adult life.

Her memoir is: Shakespeare & Company (1959)

 

Catherine II by Johann Baptist von Lampi

Catherine II by Johann Baptist von Lampi

And just for fun… Catherine the Great.  She was born in Stettin, Prussia (now Szczecin, Poland), and traveled to Russia in 1744.  In 1745, at age 16, she married Grand Duke Peter of Russia and became the Russian empress in 1762.  She did not get on well with her husband and managed to “convince” him to abdicate so she could take the throne.  Soon afterwards he was mysteriously killed.  She continued to rule Russia until her death at age 67.  I visited her palace outside St Petersburg a couple of times when I was living in Russia.  One room I particularly liked was the Amber Room.  The walls are covered in amber and other precious jewels.

A good book about her life is: Catherine the Great by Robert K Massie (2011)

 

Who are your favorites??

 

First American Woman on Top of the World

I met Fran Yarbro when I was 17 and she was 15. We were both on the varsity volleyball team at The American School in Switzerland. We spent two hours together every afternoon at practice. She was a natural athlete and good at volleyball as well as all the other sports she played and an excellent skier. She was beautiful. But she was tough. Nobody messed with Fran.

From high school she went on to get a Masters degree from the International School of Business in Arizona. She lived most of her life in the mountains, mainly in Colorado. She was also a mountain climber. When she was 33, she was climbing Annapurna and met Sergei Arsentiev. Sergei was famous in Russia for being one of the best climbers ever. He had climbed all the major mountains in Russia as well as Everest. In 1992 they climbed Mt Elbrus in the Caucasus and Fran skied down. They were married that same year and soon moved to Colorado together.

Fran had a dream. She wanted to summit Everest without oxygen. On May 22, 1998, Fran became the 8th woman to summit the north face of Everest, she was the first American woman to summit the north face of Everest, and she was the first American woman without oxygen to summit the north face of Everest. Fran was 40 years old and she had realized her dream.

And then it all went wrong.

– Continue reading HERE

 

 

 

Patient Women

41fWks8wUXLReading Larissa Shmailo’s new book, Patient Women, is like riding a wave. It easily flows from one thing to the next and you want to keep reading and reading. This book has it all. Sex, drugs, alcoholism, suicide, incest, tragedy, love, despair, hope, rebirth. What will the main character Nora do next? She compels you to find out.

Nora starts out as a juvenile delinquent who runs away from home and loses her virginity. From there we see her easily get into two highly respected colleges only to lose interest and drop out. She is a brilliant woman who can’t figure out who she is or what she should be doing. So she tries everything. 

She keeps getting derailed by her own mental illness and her dysfunctional family. She has a therapist who she hates and he really doesn’t seem very helpful. He loads her up with one drug after another. Her parents survived the holocaust and that still haunts them and plays out in several dysfunctional ways throughout her life. They are not a very good support system for her. It isn’t until she joins AA and reunites with an old friend that she starts to understand the meaning of love.

In the end we don’t know if she lives happily ever after but her demons seem to be at bay and she finds her way as a poet.

I first met Larissa in high school. She was intelligent, funny and a wonderful actress. Now she is a brilliant writer as well.

 

 

About the Author

Larissa Shmailo is the editor-in-chief of the anthology Twenty-first Century Russian Poetry, poetry editor for MadHat Annual, and founder of The Feminist Poets in Low-Cut Blouses. She translated Victory over the Sun for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s landmark re-staging of the Futurist opera; the libretto is available from Cervena Barva Press (2014). Larissa also has been a translator on the Bible in Russia for the Eugene A. Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship of the American Bible Society. Larissa’s collections of poetry are #specialcharacters (Unlikely Books 2014), In Paran (BlazeVOX [books] 2009), the chapbook, A Cure for Suicide (Cervena Barva Press 2006), and the e-book, Fib Sequence (Argotist Ebooks 2011); her poetry CDs are The No-Net World (SongCrew 2006) and Exorcism (SongCrew 2009), for which she received the New Century Best Spoken Word Album award .

Available on Amazon

 

 

Cooking in Colorado

IMG_2962

I recently spent some time in Boulder, Colorado with an old friend of mine. We both have frequented the Indonesian restaurants in Amsterdam and gorged ourselves on Rijsttafel. I hadn’t had Rijsttafel in ages and when he volunteered to make it, I was very excited. After a quick trip to the Asian store he assembled all the ingredients and spent the afternoon cooking.

Many many ingredients

Many many ingredients

Rijstaffel means rice table. It usually consists of rice with multiple small dishes, appetizers, and condiments. The dishes can come from anywhere in Indonesia from spicy curries to dishes with Chinese influence. The Dutch colonists who had been living in Indonesia brought the Rijstaffel back to the Netherlands. Today it is virtually unknown in Indonesia but is still going strong in the Netherlands.

We had beef in red sauce with tomato chili and coconut cream, chicken Bali with lemongrass and coconut cream, Gado Gado (vegetables with peanut sauce), two kinds of Satay, rice and multiple condiments.

It was a feast and all delicious. I am going t have to try to make the chicken one day soon.

Toasted coconut and peanuts for sprinkling on dishes

Toasted coconut and peanuts for sprinkling on dishes

Beginning of beef in red sauce

Beginning of beef in red sauce

Starting chicken Bali

Starting chicken Bali

Chicken Bali almost done

Chicken Bali almost done

Condiments with Gado Gado

Condiments with Gado Gado

My plate is full!

My plate is full!