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

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??

 

Victory Day Moscow

May 8th, Victory Day or VE Day, marks the end of World War II in Europe.  Due to the time changes, the Russians celebrate this occasion on May 9th.  They have military parades on Red Square, civilian parades down city streets, run old war movies all day on TV, and they gather with family and friends to eat and make many toasts. The USSR suffered the most casualties of any country during World War II, estimated at 27 million.  China comes in a distant second with 10 million. Indeed they have reason to celebrate.

I was in Moscow in 1995 when Boris Yeltsin pulled out all the stops to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this day. Celebrities from all over the world attended including US President Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister John Major, French President Francois Mitterrand, and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

We were living in an apartment on the 5th floor right on Tverskaya, one of the main streets downtown that led right into Red Square and on the parade route.

One night we were shaken out of bed in the middle of the night. I thought it was an earthquake, but it kept going and going and after a while I thought we were being invaded because it sounded like large trucks. I looked out the window and there were huge tanks rolling down the middle of our street in the middle of the night. What was going on? Turns out they were practicing for the big military parades on Victory day. This went on for several weeks.

On May 8th, we were glued to the BBC watching the celebrations in the UK including the church service at St Paul’s Cathedral and Buckingham Palace with the Queen and the Queen Mum. From there BBC took us to Paris and we saw the parade around the Arc de Triumph and down the Champs Elysees.

We took the video camera and went down to Red Square and saw the big banners and the stage set up. The Hare Krishnas placed a wreath on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier (very surreal). We ran into some high school students from Wisconsin who said they were part of a marching band. We figured they were just on some school trip.

On May 9th we didn’t have to leave our apartment. First we watched the parade on Red Square on TV. Then the Communists paraded down our street so we watched them from the balcony and later in the day those tanks came rolling down in formation.

The last parade of the day was the marching bands. And in the middle of all the marching bands was the McFarland High School Band from Wisconsin playing “On Wisconsin”.

Unbelievable.

 

The 70th Anniversary celebrations last week were the largest in Russian history but President Obama and the EU leaders chose not to attend this time.

Any gathering in Russia starts with Zakuski.  These are the warm ups, the small plates, the appetizers.  They can include beet salads, potato salads, cabbage salads, pickled mushrooms, pickled herring, dried fish, caviar, or any other thing you can think of.  Just so there is lots of it.  For the toasts, vodka is the staple, followed by cognac for desert.  Sometimes champagne precedes the vodka.

Here are a couple of my favorite Zakuski (they are easy to make):

Julienne (Mushrooms in Sour Cream)

1 lb mushrooms

3 Tbsp butter

1 ½ Tbsp flour

1 cup sour cream

½ tsp lemon juice

salt and pepper

Slice the mushrooms.  Sauté in butter for 10 minutes.  Sprinkle in the flour and continue cooking for another 5 minutes, stirring.  Add sour cream and lemon juice.  Keep the heat low and cook for 15 minutes more.  If the sauce seems too thin, sprinkle in a little flour or if too thick add water.  The sauce should be like thick cream.  Season with salt and pepper.This can be served in individual cups or all together in a large dish.

Cucumbers in Smetana (Sour cream)

2 large cucumbers, peeled and thinly sliced

3 Tbsps chopped fresh parsley

2 Tbsps chopped fresh dill

1 ½ cups sour cream

2-3 Tbsps fresh lemon juice

1 Tbsp olive oil

3 large cloves garlic, pressed

½ tsp black pepper (or to taste)

¾ tsp salt (or to taste)

Toss and chill

 

From DC to Rangoon, 1952

Fourteen hours from New York to London. Things have change a bit since then. But they did travel in class….

 

Sunday, Oct 26, 1952

Dear Folks,

Our time in Washington is rapidly slipping away. I hope you got my telegram saying we were cleared and would be leaving soon. They have asked for our plane reservations to leave on Wednesday the 29th. Seems like there are lots of last minute preparations to take care of. 

The following is the schedule we have asked for but won’t know about reservations until Tuesday morning.

Leave Washington      1/29    12:24 pm

Arr New York             10/29  2:15 pm

Leave New York         10/29  4:00 pm

Arr London                 10/30  11:00 am (London time)

Leave London              10/31  5:55 pm

Arrive Beirut               11/1    5:40 am (Beirut time)

Leave Beirut                11/4    4:35 am

Arrive Calcutta           11/4    11:40 pm (Calcutta time)

Leave Calcutta            11/6    6:30 am

Arr Rangoon               11/6    10:55 am

Will go from here to Calcutta on Pan American Airways and from Calcutta to Rangoon on India National Airways.

With the rest stops in London, Beirut and Calcutta it should break up the trip and make it more enjoyable. In Beirut, especially, we will have a chance to see a few things.

I think the least expensive and fastest mail service for you to write us will be on the airmail sheets such as I’ve enclosed. They go for 10 cents and come with the stamp on them. You can buy them only at the post office.

We are sitting on the banks of the Potomac doing our letter writing today while the boys run and play. It’s a nice sunny day just a little on the chilly side.

On Friday evening we took the boys to Bob Wilson’s to watch TV while went to a reception at the Burmese Embassy. We thought it was to be a small reception for a delegation of Burmese who have been here about three weeks and are now returning. It turned out to be this but in addition a most delicious buffet supper. Lots of prominent people there as well as those of small importance such as us. We did have an enjoyable time and I had met most of this delegation at the Dept. of Agriculture so didn’t feel too much out of place. It gave Virginia a chance to meet several of the Burmese people with whom I’ll be working in Rangoon.

 

…  I assume there was more to this letter but that is the end of what I have.

Here is an interesting film promo from 1950 for Pan American Airways.

 

 

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

15

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

Antigua

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.