A Tale of Two Fourths

As a kid, I used to look up into an inky sky and watch fireworks explode over my neighborhood. This was the 70s. There were no town-funded displays, it was the family down the block whose Dad knew a guy who knew a guy. The backyards weren’t yet fenced off and  the street was one, giant yard; kids cannon-balling into pools and adults cannon-balling into coolers full of Miller Lite. There were hot dog chunks marinating in a gooey sauce and fruit salad in hollowed out watermelons, the tops decorated like an American flag.

Miraculously, no-one drowned while the adults were busy drowning in Budweiser, blue cigarette smoke circling their heads like halos. No one blew off a finger tip or got third degree burns or accidentally torched a house or slipped inside for a cop and a feel with someone else’s wife. At least if they did, I never heard about it.

I didn’t even know what we were celebrating, not really. There had been pilgrims and a war and Betsey Ross sewed a flag. The pool water was slick and cool on my skin, the sting of chlorine sharp in my nostrils. Watermelon juice dripped down my chin. Dusk came down and someone else’s mother would come along and choke you in a cloud of OFF until you could taste the fug of it on your tongue like a fur. 

There were good people in that neighborhood. Hard working. Vans in driveways and fathers that got up early to go into shops and mothers that macraméd twisty twirly pigtail holders for the Christmas PTA sale. The rich family at the end of the street had a heated pool. The kids all  knew they were rich because they handed out full size candy bars on Halloween. When you’re nine or ten, those are the things that counted.

I thought that’s what every neighborhood in the US was like. I didn’t know any better. 

****

Two decades later my husband and I drove down Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, looking for an address. There were new apartments for sale, in our price range, which was stupid expensive then and obscenely expensive now. The building, deep brown brick with brand new Windex shine windows, was on its own on an otherwise barren city block, the kind of abandoned stretch with sun-parched weeds twisting through the buckled concrete. Two or three blocks away were the unmistakable silhouettes of housing project towers that dot the Brooklyn skyline like Soviet-dressed sentinels. We did math in our head while we circled the block in our crappy car; mortgage rates and commuting times, maintenance costs. As we rounded a corner, a sudden phalanx of police cars, lights flashing, sirens wailing like the furies, screamed down the street.

It was the middle of a sweltering New York City 4th, when the city stinks of spoiled milk and rotting garbage. I don’t care where you live, NYC reeks in the summer. It was blazing sunlight afternoon, not yet dusk, not even dark enough to watch a sparkler spritz and pop in the air before it fizzed out. Two, three, four, police cars screeched to a halt sideways and perpendicular, blocking off the street. Doors flew open and cops jumped out, storming up a nearby stoop. Lights flashed, radios crackled.

We drove quietly in the other direction.

It’s taken me a long time to confront my own racism about that day, my reaction, my assumptions, the nifty little racist trick of finding excuse after excuse to forget about that (relatively) affordable apartment.

It never occurred to me that the folks who lived on that street were just having a street party– the same way we used to when I was a kid. Relaxing in the sun on a day off, drinking a beer. Taking a moment to breath in between working their asses off–just like the folks in the white neighborhood I grew up in. They didn’t have one long summer lawn slash of green to run through, but they had stoops connected by sidewalk pavement. Their kids were cooling off in the spray of fire hydrants instead of doing cannon balls because there is no damn pool. And maybe there weren’t hot dogs in gooey, sauce, but I bet there was watermelon because you can’t have a 4th of July without watermelon.

What if there was a girl, popsicle juice dripping down her chin, sitting on a stoop and thinking this is what every neighborhood I know is like. She didn’t get fireworks, she got flashing blue lights and sirens; not even in the dark where if she squinted, maybe they could kind of/sort of look pretty.

No one ever called the cops on our neighborhood parties, even though there were fireworks that no one was supposed to have going off in the night sky. Even though there were at least a dozen other things the folks in my white, working class neighborhood were given the benefit of the doubt about.

There’s a kid who grew into adulthood with a memory of the 4th of July not being cannonballs in pools and rocket pops, but guns drawn and flashing lights and cops storming a stoop.

That’s their version of the United States.

It’s totally different from mine. But…here’s the kicker. My story? It’s pretty. It’s nostalgic and it makes you feel good.

But it’s not right, or better. Those two countries are the same damn country.

My story is not more American than anyone else’s. It’s just one story in a land of 365 million stories. A time, a place, a memory. 

But my story sounds better, doesn’t it? Wholesome and patriotic. Kids running and laughing up into the night sky as bottle rockets exploded in the dark. Still tasting the fug of that OFF on their tongue. Drunk adults hiccuping softly in the night. Like they earned the right somehow to own the story. 

That sure sounds a lot better than the police coming and shutting down your street party, doesn’t it?

So guess whose story you hear? Guess whose story is the one that gets told? 

Don’t let anyone tell you, today, of all days, that America is any ONE thing. It is beautiful for spacious skies and it is dark and ugly and grim. And those polar opposites? They are not always what or where you think they are. It is coastal cities and rural corn fields. It is the good, it is the bad, and oh my God, it is the ugly. It is the kid born in Kentucky as much as it is the immigrant from Bangladesh who just became swore an oath to a country he believes in but might not believe in him back. It is taxi drivers and tractor drivers. It’s a girl growing up in a white, working class neighborhood and it’s another girl growing up in a black, Brooklyn one.

And every one of us has a story. 

You want to truly make America great?

Start paying attention to the stories that are the most unlike yours. 

 

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Care and Maintenance Of Your Brits

Congratulations!

Whether you’ve decided to adopt a Brit, befriend one, or like me, marry and have children with one, I’m confident you’ll benefit immeasurably by the addition.

Having a Brit in your life will enrich it. You’ll learn new words like twee and new uses for old words like fanny. You’ll enjoy hours of endless debate over the edibility of Marmite, and shake your head in wonder at why the Brit in your life can’t just call a line a line and leave Q to rest peacefully between P and R where it belongs. Scrabble is especially fun, like when your husband spells tyre in accepted British English on a triple with a ‘y’.

Jokes aside, you’ll find that proper care and maintenance of your Brits will go much more smoothly if you get used to a few things first.

Bunting

Oh my, do the Brits love bunting, those fabric triangles waving in the Atlantic breeze. A British friend recently asked me how Americans refer to bunting and was gobsmacked when I told her we don’t. Bunting in the US is something that happens in baseball. But in order to keep your Brit happy you must utilize bunting for every occasion deemed out of the ordinary: birthdays, anniversaries, celebrations, royal weddings, and sunny days. Bunting can also be found strung from corner to cornice in twee British villages with names like Mother’s Fat Bottom and Speckled Dick.

Tip: To keep your Brit happy, keep emergency bunting at the ready and whip it out when called for. To avoid disappointment, always err on the side of bunting.

G&Ts

In NYC, G&T refers to ‘gifted and talented’, aka, the program you hope your pre-schooler tests into so you don’t have to shell out 40K a year for private school. But not so in the land of Hope and Glory. Gin and tonic is practically a national pastime in Blighty. A g&t will be appreciated by your Brit at any time of day. After all, it’s five o’clock somewhere in the old empire.

Tip: Don’t confuse g&ts with Pimms, a summer drink made with lemonade (that’s not really lemonade, but Sprite) which will sneak up on you and knock you flat if you’re not careful.

Cuppas, Cossies, and Hols.

Your Brit will feel more at home if you adopt the habit of shortening all your nouns to adverbial sounding nicknames. Football is footy. Cookie is biccy. A bathing suit is a cossie and a television a telly. Umbrella is brolly and when you don’t need one and want to relax in the sun you can chuck a sickie from work. Barry is Bazza, Sharon is Shazza, and Gary is Gazza. Vacations are hols, Bob’s your uncle, Fanny’s your aunt.

Tip: To your Brit, fanny’s a front bottom, not a bum and a bum is not a bum either, but, by process of elimination, a back bottom.

Put the Kettle On

If gin and tonics start at five, every beverage before is tea. There are approximately 500 different types of tea. Lipton is not one of them. There is a right way to make tea and a wrong way to make tea. But…pay attention because tea also refers to dinner, which for your Brit means lunch, which comes slightly after elevenses which seems to nestle between breaky and tea. More than just tea drinking, however, the ritual act of putting the kettle on is a metaphor for community, conversation and problem solving. If Americans stop to smell the roses, Brits put the kettle on.

Tip: Unless you want to send your Brit into fits of unhappiness and risk permanent displeasure, do not microwave tea. Builder’s tea is regular tea with sugar. I do not know why it is not Plumber’s tea or Electrician’s tea except that it is not.

Taking the Piss

Note: this does not mean emptying your bladder. Taking the piss is entirely different from taking a piss. The art of taking the piss, or banter for the posh folks out there, is the British knife-edge between gentle mocking and downright nastiness. Perhaps not surprisingly, most non Brits find the habit peculiar and off-putting, especially as the art is honed on family and friends. There is a complicated value system based upon how much piss one can give and/or take, and after twenty years, I am none the wiser as to how it works.

Tip: None. A twenty year learning curve and nothing.

There you go. If you properly care and maintain your Brits, I’m confident you too will enjoy decades of bunting filled joy!

Now, keep calm and put the kettle on. Unless it’s after five, in which case, crack open the gin.

 

 

 

 

The Breakfast Club

It’s not often I drop my kids at school. The thirteen year-old is in charge of his own schedule and the ten year-old, who almost is, cycles in with his father. On the rare occasions I am in the a.m., I usually spot The Breakfast Club.

On any given school day the mothers of the Breakfast Club are there with boxes of cereal and loaves of bread and pots of yogurt and cut up fruit. Someone is inevitably keeping an eye on someone else’s kids, doling out napkins and juice and spoons. The entire thing is messy and full of spilled milk and crumbs and yogurt streaked faces.

Yet, somehow these mothers have managed to grab hold of an often stressful situation (and oh my God, why is eating and getting ready for school so damn stressful anyway??) and make it into something special and communal.

And really, when you think about it, what’s more communal and tribal than literally breaking fast together?

Many of The Breakfast Club members are sharpening their pencils to write new chapters this summer, and this week we did our ritual goodbyes. I listened as they wept at the idea leaving behind this extraordinary community they’ve been a part of. And then one said something which hit me directly in the heart: she mentioned that by watching the women around her she learned how to be a better mother–that among this tribe of expat women, and yes, it is a tribe, she felt uplifted rather than torn down, supported rather than burdened. That no matter how stressed out or angry or irate she was coming into that school building, whenever she left she always felt better. Someone was always there to shoulder a part of her burden, whether it was feeding her kids breakfast or lending a listening ear.

In the expat world, there are a lot of women and children left behind due to logistics. They have spouses who travel extensively, who commute not just an hour on a train but a few hours on a plane to be home on weekends, or every other weekend, or two weeks every two months. I used to call them lifeboat expats, women and children somewhere safe but slightly adrift. But that’s not accurate, because they’re not adrift, they are moored to the larger community.

When you’re in a foreign country alone with your children, finding a village to anchor yourself to isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.

You need to have someone who is going to pick up your kids from school if you’re felled with the flu, or someone who you can call in case of emergency. You need sustenance and daily nurturing. You need a tribe. You need a village. You need a community, a group who can shoulder some of the burden of doing it on your own in a place where you likely don’t even speak the language or get confused by the currency.

You need a Breakfast Club.

Expats, especially women, fill these roles, mostly without even thinking about it. We form and reform, knitting and re-knitting groups and clubs and clans and tribes. Looking after one another’s kids, feeding them, comforting them, shepherding them around. Supporting and lifting up. Learning and teaching. Listening, nurturing. You lean on the collective village.

The Breakfast Club is just one example of village magic.

The ones who are leaving are, understandably, sad about losing all of that–the connectivity, the tribe, the village mentality.

To those leaving I have this to say:

You’re forgetting the role you played in shaping that community. Yes, you were welcomed into a village which already existed, but you molded it, changed it, and made it into exactly what you needed. And if you’ve done that once, you can do it again.

When we welcomed you in we taught you the words to the spell, and now that spell? It’s bound up in you. It’s a part of who you are.

The beauty is, the magic is portable. It goes with you, wherever you go. When you leave, wrap it up in bubble wrap and put it with the expensive stuff you don’t trust the shippers to handle, the magic is this too precious for international freight. Then, wherever it is you land in this crazy game of map darts, take it out. Unfold the tissue paper it’s wrapped in, pop the bubble wrap, and plant the magic.

You are the seed. Share that wisdom. Lift up instead of tearing down. Ask and offer help. Support rather than dismantle. Remember, you came in and helped to shape a community. You’ve seen how it works. There is no reason you can’t do it again.

Somewhere out there, there’s a lonely woman spooning yogurt into a pot for her kid’s breakfast. Find her. Join her. And then teach her the spell so that she has it written in her as well.

How to Make–and Keep–Expat Friends

And so another season of goodbyes is upon us. I’ve written extensively about the art of saying goodbye to good friends. I’ve walked the walk, talked the talk, and all the rest. Nearly ten years of saying goodbye to acquaintances, friends, good friends, and the ones who feel more like family than friends has left me with lots of feels, many days of runny mascara, and a handful of trite, but true quotes.

Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened, right?

Dr. Seuss-isms aside, when you get through all the coffees and teas and tears and goodbyes…then what? 

Set up a group chat. And USE it. 

When we started this journey ten years ago, I was a social media neophyte. Facebook you say? Nah, that’s for the whippersnappers. What’s App? More like What’s That?

Touching down in Cyprus, little did I know what a huge part FB would play in my life.

At any given time, I’ve got five or six different message groups going. They are the first line of defense in keeping long-distance friendships up and running. There’s an ongoing dialogue: who’s doing what, who’s fed up with their kids, who got a puppy, or a job, or a divorce. It’s casual, like meeting for coffee. You can pop in and say hi, let loose with a rant about how your teenager is driving you crazy, or update the group. It works across countries, seasons, and time zones. My only advice is to make sure you’re replying to the right group before you hit return.

Keep up with the day-to-day 

Those Messenger or What’s App groups? They’re fantastic for  keeping up with the day-to-day maintenance of friendship. By sharing the tidbits and highlights, the everyday stuff,  there is no pressure to do a massive “this is what I’ve been doing for the last year” catchup. And when you do meet up in person, you don’t feel like you’ve missed out–because you’ve kept each other in the loop.

Understand it won’t be the same

When you’ve moved on or have friends that have, the original bond that held you together, being in the same place at the same time, is broken. You’re not experiencing the same endless shitty winter or worries about math class together. You may not be bemoaning the cost of a new pair of sneakers or even gossiping about a mutual acquaintance. Your conversations will flow differently because you’re experiencing different things. The sameness is different-ness. But that doesn’t mean the friendship can’t or won’t survive. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that expat friendships can’t–or shouldn’t–evolve. They can.

Technology isn’t going anywhere so you may as well use it

Skype or FaceTime work great for many expats. I can’t stand seeing myself on video but I have issues, so don’t use me as an example. My kids are actually much better at this than me. Technology allows them to play video games with a friends all over the globe. Social media means they don’t need to reconnect because they never really disconnected. For all my bitching and moaning about technology, this is the upside. And it’s a pretty amazing one.

Make plans

If ten years of expatriation has taught me anything, it is this: the people meant to stay in your life will stay in your life…as long as you make the effort. So make the effort. Make plans to see each other. Put aside an annual weekend to get together. (Hooray for the vajayjay vacay!) Make long-term plans for get togethers and reunions. Use having friends all over the world as an excuse to travel to far away places you might not have gone.

Just do it

Travel to see friends who have moved on is expensive. Traveling back to the place you left friends behind is expensive. Do it anyway.

Make Time

Sometimes friends travel back to the scene of the friendship crime. The timing almost always sucks. It may be a busy time of year. Maybe you’ve had a string of guests and all you’ve been doing is washing bed sheets. Make the effort and put aside the time anyway. If someone comes into town and invites you to lunch or coffee or dinner? Go. In the large scheme of your life it’s an afternoon. Someday you might be the one traveling backwards, hoping your friends will put aside the time for a cup of coffee for you. Karma is a mocha flavored latte, my friends.

It’s ok to make new friends

Not everyone you meet on your journey is going to be your BFF. Not everyone you meet is going to bring you to tears it comes time to say goodbye. And that’s ok. You’re moving on, they’re moving on. You have to live your life, and so do they. They will make new friends, and so will you, it’s the nature of the beast. You can honor the time you spent together and put it in a little special box somewhere. The hard truth is there are people who you meet, maybe even people who you really, really like, who you will likely never see again. It’s ok to be sad about it. None of that takes away from what you shared.

Just because there are new friends filling in the blank spaces doesn’t negate or diminish the friendship you shared. It’s like having another kid. You don’t love the first one any less–your heart expands to love the next one just as much.

Losing friends is never easy, no matter how many times you do it. Keeping those friends, especially when they’re hopping around the globe, is hard too.

But hard is different from impossible.

So as you get ready to say goodbye to good friends or casual acquaintances, or your BFF, whether you’re the one staying or going, remember, don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.

And then go set up that messenger group.