Thursday, December 15, 2011

Out of sync with the season

Call me old fashioned, but I like to celebrate Christmas at Christmastime, leaving Advent as a season of preparation and waiting.

During my childhood, we put up our tree just a few days before Christmas, often on Christmas Eve. Because, my mother always noted, the 12 Days of Christmas begin on Christmas Day, and end on Epiphany, Jan. 6, the feast honoring the arrival of the Wise Men from the East in Bethlehem. This is the day that the tree is traditionally taken down. This is the English custom, or it used to be, though increasingly things are changing in Britain.

In America, many people put up their trees just after Thanksgiving -- or at least in early December. The trees remain in place until Christmas Day, and are usually taken down soon after. They're either shedding by then or people are ready to move on. Or both.

But I'm just getting started...

And I like doing it my way. I like the anticipation, the building excitement. I like tapping into those Christmas Eve memories from my childhood -- struggling to prop up the tree, rediscovering the angels and the carefully wrapped egg-box bells and the glittery pinecones -- and having it all be fresh and magical and piney-smelling on Christmas morning.

But I've started to wonder lately if it might be time to change. I'm so out of sync with the season. By the time I get ready to enjoy my decorations, everyone else has taken theirs down. My son sees trees in other people's windows and wants us to put up ours, too. And I wonder if I'm selfish to keep to my traditions.

I get tired of being different, it's true. But I don't get tired of being true to myself.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

I am a piece of wood

"No matter how long a piece of wood stays in the water, it will never become a crocodile." -- the Rev. Prince Decker, quoting a Sierra Leonean proverb.

It is Thanksgiving in the United States today, and I am a piece of wood.

My building has been filled with the smell of roasting turkey and the sound of clattering pans. And though it smelled delicious, I microwaved some Indian food for lunch, instead, and I was fine with that. (And by Indian food I mean food from India, not American Indian food which would have been more appropriate, perhaps, given that the holiday commemorates a harvest feast shared by the Pilgrims -- English immigrants -- and members of the Wampanoag tribe in 1621 at Plymouth, Mass.)

Though I confess to some deep cynicism about the First Thanksgiving narrative -- I've shared some of my feelings on the subject here -- I do appreciate the focus on family and gratitude that the holiday inspires.

It's just not for me.

I didn't grow up celebrating Thanksgiving and haven't really embraced it, though, like the Pilgrims before me, I did move here from England and have much to be grateful for. I have no emotional connection to the holiday and cannot muster much enthusiasm for preparing a big turkey dinner just a month before Christmas. One such meal is enough, really. And the other cultural components of modern-day Thanksgiving -- football and the Macy's Parade -- interest me about as much as a boat of cold gravy.

So today while others were cooking, I slept in. Then I took advantage of the building's empty laundry room to get some chores out of the way in peace and quiet.

And I was thankful.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Lebkuchen and other loves

On a recent visit, my father brought me a gift of spice tea and lebkuchen from Germany. When my mother comes, from England, she often packs a giant jar of Marmite into her suitcase. When friends visit from the Middle East, they sometimes bring regional delicacies like bokharat (seven spice mix) or za'atar.

Not that you can't find these things here, in the great cultural melting pot that is America, with its international grocery stores and restaurants. Just that they are sometimes hard to find, and, quite honestly, not as good as the stuff from home.

This traffic in coveted goods goes both ways, of course. My dad likes to receive barbecue sauce and English-language books. My mother likes American cotton sheets and towels. Middle Eastern visitors often ask for sneakers, or electronics.

While we sometimes grumble when our baggage allowance is consumed with these items, these small exchanges are as much a part of travel as the joy of arrival and the pain of departure.

After my dad left, I brewed a pot of the spice tea and took one of the lebkuchen out of the package. I ate it very slowly, savoring each bite, and breathed in the aroma of the tea.

When these goodies are gone, it will be many months before I am able to enjoy them again. They are a finite pleasure, not to be taken for granted, and they remind me to savor my family and friends, too: to slow down when they are here, inhale, and treasure each moment, every shared cup of tea.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Useless Money

When it's not busy being the root of all evil, money is actually kind of useful.

But there's one kind of money that is no good at all, and that's the kind I find when I'm scrabbling around in the botttom of my bag for quarters to feed the parking meter, in the change jar for emergency bus fare and in the line at Starbucks for the few extra cents that will save me breaking a big note: Foreign coins.

As any regular traveler can attest, foreign currency has a way of turning up just when you don't need it. And while it can occasionally stand in as a substitute for legal tender -- DC parking meters are apparently filled with the stuff -- it is mostly pretty useless.

So why do we hold onto it? Something about discarding cash just goes against the grain, but sometimes more complex reasons come into play:
  • It signals a plan to return. We hold onto the currency of a country we love because we plan (or hope) to go back soon. Having coins from a particular place in my wallet allows me to believe it will not be long before I will be there again. It's a form of connection and a way of coping with the grief of departure.
  • It will someday be useful. I have a handful of outdated English coins that have not been in circulation since the late 80s. They were given to me by someone at work who had saved them "just in case" they ever came in handy. Although they are no longer legal tender, and the window to trade them in for such has long since expired, I haven't thrown them away either and I'm not sure why not. They still occupy the bottom of my drawer at work. Maybe one day a museum will want them... but certainly not in my lifetime...
  • It has conversation/collector value. While some people collect coins, others just like to pull them out from time to time, study them and muse about them (who is pictured on the coin? what is the motto? how much is it worth? what memories surface?). It's like having a miniature portrait gallery in your pockets.
At a recent wedding, my brother put his hand in his suit pocket and pulled out a Mexican coin; gold in the center with silver edges. In my bag I found two coins of similar coloring from Turkey and Israel. We compared them, talked about our travels and then put them back where we found them.

Why? Regular money can't buy you love, but this kind of currency can't buy you anything. Though it's just a form of metal clutter, why do we resist throwing useless money away?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Darkest Peru

While our children were swinging happily on the monkey bars at a neighborhood playground, I asked my Peruvian friend Araceli if she had ever heard of Paddington Bear.

Beloved of English children since his creation in 1958 by author Michael Bond, Paddington is a small brown bear who sports a duffel coat, hat and wellington boots. He lives with the Brown family and his favorite food is marmalade.

Named for the London train station where he was found, Paddington originally hailed from Darkest Peru. But these days he is more often seen in the shops at Heathrow Airport, where tourists eagerly snap him up as a quintessentially British souvenir.

Sitting with Araceli it struck me as odd that this bear who has come to symbolize what it means to be British (duffel coats! marmalade! wellington boots!) is in fact Peruvian. And that in his home country, where his Great Aunt Lucy resides in a home for retired bears in Lima, he is not such a household name.

Like Billy Idol and countless Hollywood celebrities, sometimes you have to leave home to make it big.

But where is "Darkest Peru?" Araceli wondered.

In the England of the1950s, Michael Bond probably chose "Darkest Peru" as Paddington's birthplace because it was far, far away and sounded impossibly remote and exotic, I said. Like the legendery Timbuktu.

Araceli laughed. And I asked her: "Where is Darkest Peru for you?"

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Weddings as cross-cultural bridges

This has been a year of fabulous weddings -- four to date -- and though a priest of my acquaintance once quipped that marriage is the ultimate cross-cultural experience (hello -- in-laws) in these cases it was an actual cross-cultural experience.

Earlier this summer the Syrian/American daughter of a friend married her Romanian fiance. The reception was a rollicking celebration of both cultures in music and dance -- a belly dancer who balanced a candelabra on her head and later performed in golden wings and a troupe of folk dancers from Romania.

Then an Ethiopian friend got married in a traditional Orthodox ceremony. A drummer led the wedding procession into the church, where the couple were decked in royal robes and crowns. Later the guests feasted on injera and wat and danced the Ethiopian shoulder dance while the women ululated in celebration.

A wedding at the Maryland Renaissance Festival was like stepping into a time machine. The bride and groom danced to Greensleeves at the Dragon Inn while knights, kings and courtiers stopped by to pay their respects. (And then the newlyweds, dressed in Medieval finery, rode into the sunset on... an elephant!)

Next up is my English stepbrother's marriage to a Texan. In this cultural mash-up there will be barbecue, croquet and elaborate hats.

Cross-cultural marriages can be incredibly challenging, requiring a high level of commitment and accomodation. There are logistical as well as cultural differences to navigate, different customs and a whole set of thorny issues that can arise when children are involved.

But weddings like these are shining moments: reminders that our global family is just that -- a family -- and that we all love to come together to witness happiness and be joyful and dance -- no matter what the music.

Monday, August 29, 2011

A cultural mulatto moment

Identity is such an elusive animal for us Third Culture Kids.

When I first moved to England from the Middle East as a young adult, I became "the American girl" even though I had not lived in the U.S. for a decade.When I moved to the U.S. 10 years later, I became "the English girl," even though I had only lived in England since I was 18.

When people ask me where I'm from, I have to give my life story. Sometimes I just say, "It's complicated," or, "It takes too much time to explain."

But usually that just piques people's curiosity.

"Why is it complicated?"  "I've got time."

I can tell my life story quickly and I've done it a million times. I get bored of telling it, rattle through it to get it out of the way, yet it is a formality that cannot be dispensed with -- and the essense of who I am.

The older I get the more comfortable I am with being out of sync, with being a perpetual foreigner. But ever so often, something reminds me that, as a TCK, I belong everywhere and nowhere. And sometimes that hurts.

The most recent incident was in Cambridge a couple of weeks ago. I worked at the Cambridge University Library for three years when I first moved to England, and spent many more years in and around that city. It's one of my "homes." So I was in the market, happily browsing a photographer's stall. I asked him if he had any photos of the University Library, and he asked me if I had been doing some work there.

I said "yes," thinking of my job, then realised he had assumed I was a foreign graduate student... Then he asked me where I was from. I said "Washington" which is where I live, but of couse I'm not from Washington; I only moved there in my 30s... But I didn't want to get into my whole life story with some guy on a market stand who had me pegged as an "American girl" just when I was starting to feel like a local.

Last year, a woman in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul asked me the same question. I was traveling with a Palestinian friend and we were visiting from Jerusalem, where I grew up.

"Palestine" my friend responded, then the woman looked at me. "Palestine," I said.

"No," she insisted. "Where are you from?"

Everywhere and nowhere, my friend. Everywhere and nowhere.

Monday, July 18, 2011


This week I’ve been cleaning out my files. It’s a task I’ve been putting off, not because of the time, labor and tedium involved, but because of the emotions that surface as I sort through the previous chapters of my life.

Amid the usual flotsam of domestic paperwork – bills, receipts, pay stubs, manuals, medical paperwork and the like – I unearth business cards proffered after chance conversations, tickets to events I’ve attended and enjoyed and programs from the funeral services of friends.

I sit cross-legged on the floor among the papers, remembering.

Sloughing through a stack of old bills I find boarding passes, postcards from family members and photos that didn’t make the cut for the album, but were somehow worth saving.

I scan newspaper clippings of stories I found interesting enough to keep, and sometimes find them interesting again. I find birthday cards from friends and love notes in wobbly writing from my sweet 6-year-old.

Should I save these things? Will I remember them without the visual cues they provide?

I started this project to offload some ballast; to remain within my baggage allowance. I’ve been telling myself that I don’t need papers to remember people by; that my mind is a good enough filing cabinet for my memories.

But after the culling is done and the bags have been taken out, I’m left with things I can’t bring myself to part with. The stack is smaller now; it doesn’t tilt so precariously. And though some of the items are starting to fade, the foundation they provide will be firm, I feel: strong enough to support the next chapter.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Wright Stuff

This summer my son will cover thousands of miles without setting foot on the ground. He’ll visit family in California with his father and in England with me on trips that will take him roughly halfway around the world.

My head has been in the clouds since I took him to the airport for the first leg of his journey this morning. I am waiting like any/every mother to hear that he has arrived safely.

I am of two minds about all this air travel. Part of me bemoans the fact that our modern way of life has scattered families to the four winds. The other part of me acknowledges that without air travel, at least in my case, there would be no family to scatter.

My American father met my English mother at a party in London. Without air travel, their meeting and subsequent decision to marry would have been unlikely, at best.

I owe my very existence to air travel. Without it, my life melts away like clouds; like in the movie Back to the Future, where the children fade from the family photo as the parents bungle their initial encounter. No meeting of my parents = no me. No me = no son to fly between two families who would be unconnected by blood or marriage without us.

This thought hit me like a first-model flying machine in freefall when we took a family vacation to the Outer Banks of North Carolina a couple of years ago. Here, at Kitty Hawk, the Wright brothers made the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight on Dec. 17, 1903.

Not much more than a century later, air travel is a well-established means of transportation. I have taken it for granted my whole life, and today I saw my son doing the same.

Standing on the sandy strip at the foot of the hill from which Orville and Wilbur Wright pushed off time and time again, determined to conquer the air, I found myself in tears.

I cried for the enormity of their accomplishment; for its unquestionable impact on my own life and on life in general. And I cried for its relentless inevitability.

Progress runs out to meet us on winged feet like Nike, the goddess of victory. And the past, that lovely, distant country, recedes before our eyes and is gone.

The phone rings. My son has landed.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Rock the Casbah, not your clothing!

OK so perhaps I’ve been reading too many fashion and entertainment blogs lately, but some of the clichés are beginning to get on my nerves.

“Rocking,” for starters.

As Miley Cyrus sings that annoyingly catchy song, “Who’s that chick that’s rocking kicks, she gotta be from out of town” and I try not to sing along, my inner voice screams: OMG Miley! Do we have to “rock” everything now?

“Heidi Klum Bad At Reading, Good At Rocking A Short Skirt” states a recent Huffington Post headline.

“Jennifer Aniston, Justin Theroux Rock Matching Rings” announces another at ABC News/Entertainment. (Seriously, is this news?)

“Would You Rock Kim Kardashians Leopard-Print Jumpsuit?” asks the OMG blog at (Well maybe if I lost a few pounds.) And, look, there’s little sister Khloe Kardashian showing off her “rocking legs and great figure” over on

Oh and here’s Heidi again, this time on Glamour’s daily beauty blog: “Heidi Klum Remixes Her Bob By Rocking ‘The Chobb.’ Let's Discuss.”

Yes, let’s.

Heidi, liebchen, aren’t you rocked out by now? Why, just this year your “rockin’ bod” has been praised on, you’ve “rocked insane leather boots/pants by Alexander McQueen” for German Vogue, and, according to, you’ve “turned the sand into a catwalk by rockin' a two piece.”

You must be worn out. We are. So why don’t you settle into a nice rocking chair and rock for a while, and give the poor fashion and entertainment writers a chance to think up some new adjectives.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Walking in Memphis

With the mercury rising into the upper 90s here in Washington, D.C., I am reminded of a lesson I learned in my 20s about walking in Memphis.

The August I touched down in the land of the Delta Blues -- Memphis, Tennessee -- to visit my dad it was hot hot hot. Temperatures were hovering at 105 in the shade and the air was as thick as stew. I was visiting from London, and accustomed to walking everywhere the London way: briskly and purposefully.

While my dad was at work, I set out, briskly and purposefully, to explore the city. By the time I reached the nearest bus stop on Poplar Avenue, I was feeling faint. As I sat in the glass-roofed shelter like an ant under a magnifying glass, I remembered a story I had heard about a woman in Iceland who had been trapped in a hotel sauna overnight. In this grisly but unverified account, she had cooked like a chicken. I could feel the same thing happening to me.

Please God, I thought, do not let me pass out at a bus stop in Memphis. I held onto the metal seat to steady myself as the minutes dragged by and still the bus did not come. And then I saw him, walking down the median under the full sun. He wore workboots and a wife beater and looked as cool as Christmas. But it was the way he moved which captured my attention: a slow, rolling saunter. I watched him come closer, draw level with me, and head off into the heat.

Just then, the bus pulled up, and I got on. But I had learned an important lesson and I always remember it on hot days:

When in Memphis, walk like a Memphian.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Ramallah Fashionistas

I had a flashback on my summer in Ramallah while reading this post from Already Pretty blogger Sally McGraw on covered up warm weather looks.

Although its summer temperatures can soar into the 90s, Ramallah – for cultural, practical and religious reasons – is a covered up kind of town. It’s also a fashion-conscious metropolis that is becoming known for its burgeoning social scene and is home to some hip new night spots, cafés like Zamn and designer shops such as The Boutique in Al-Tireh. New York and San Francisco have taken note.

So, what’s a stylish woman to wear to simultaneously attract and avoid attention in Ramallah?

Here’s what the Ramallah fashionistas wear:
  • Skinny jeans with sky-high heels or fancy flats
  • Long sleeved shirts or tunics with no décolletage
  • Designer sunglasses and bags
  • Long, blow-dried hair (or hijab)
When your body (and sometimes your hair) is under wraps, the full focus is on your face. Many a song has been written about Arab women and their beautiful eyes, so it is not surprising that many women emphasize their eyes with kohl. “You are killing me with your black eyes” go the lyrics to a popular Dabke song.

Here’s what I wore:

Lacking the figure for skinny jeans and the will to wear platform heels while navigating the West Bank’s steep hills on foot, I found myself relying on these key items to keep cool – and be cool ;) – on the Ramallah streets:
  • Light cotton shirts with elbow-length or long sleeves.
  • Large, gauzy scarves for covering up in the street, for covering my head when entering holy places and to add some interest and variety to my one-suitcase summer wardrobe.
  • Mid-height T-strap sandals that were comfortable enough to walk for miles in and secure enough to stay firmly on my feet.
  • Knee-length dresses and linen trousers.
What not to wear:

While there are no real “rules,” there are certain articles of clothing that should generally not be worn on the street in Ramallah. These include: shorts and short skirts, tank tops and sleeveless or low-cut shirts. It’s about not showing too much skin, which has an added practical benefit – you won’t fry like an egg in the unfiltered Mediterranean sun.

Many ex-pats fall into the trap of wearing billowing crinkle-cotton skirts, which – while culturally appropriate and no doubt comfortable – are still crimes against fashion. You’ll never catch a Ramallah fashionista wearing one of those. And do you really want to look like a tourist?