Friends are different

It’s a season of new beginnings, and just like last year I find myself overwhelmed with memories of our first weeks in Jerusalem. It’s odd – I can hardly remember what I ate for breakfast this morning, but I can summon up exactly how my eyes felt, squinting into the bright sun bouncing off the white Jerusalem stone. Or how my legs felt, hauling reluctant children up big hills on a hot Shabbat afternoon when no buses were running. Or how my heart felt, as we had our first tentative and hopeful get togethers with new friends.

Most of the time, I think I’m the only family member awash in memories. Terence studiously avoids nostalgia, and the girls are distracted by starting up their school years. But then out of the blue will come evidence that they, too, remember. photo (6)That some of the many lessons we tried to share, stuck. The other morning Hannah marched down the stairs with two dolls, a Barbie and a slightly-broken, much loved doll that was handed to her, gratis, on the street in Madaba, Jordan. She announced that the girls were best friends, as different as they were. We chatted about Hannah’s own different friends, her kindergarten class that included 16 nationalities including Israeli and Palestinian, and has spoiled me for life as a model of a diverse community. Hannah tried to swap clothes between the dolls before concluding that Barbie’s clothes were not modest enough for a Muslim.

9609017731_6f73639361_bAnd this global awareness pops up in more serious circumstances, too. The other night at dinner, we were going around and saying one thing that surprised us about our day. Terence’s? “I’m surprised that the President is considering military action against Syria.” We talked a little about Syria and what is happening there. Terence and I explained that we weren’t sure what the President should do, but Hannah had a strong opinion. As soon as she finished eating, she went straight to her desk and penned this note. We mailed it off to the President, and I am hoping he will respond. Meanwhile they ask every day for the latest news. I am distraught about the situation in Syria, but glad that Hannah knows where Syria is and cares what happens there.  My girls know it’s a big world, full of actual and potential friends who are nothing like us, and for whom we wish the same peace we want for ourselves.


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Medical Tourism

Almost all better and finally able to swim!

Almost all better and finally able to swim!

The recent New York Times article about American patients seeking medical procedures abroad, where they would be equally effective and much less expensive, rang true for me. Hannah got to experience Croatian health care this week when a little scab on her face blew up into a case of impetigo. In retrospect that should have been obvious, but Terence and I and a couple of pharmacists in Zadar were not sure what was happening. Hannah was a TOTAL trooper hiking around Sibenik and the Krka National Park while feeling lousy and sporting some odd-looking scabs and sores which attracted stares from what felt to her like hundreds of Croatian kids. I tried to tell her it was better to have something like this happen abroad, where nobody knows you anyway and you don’t have to go to school, but I’m not sure I convinced her.

So we needed a doctor. Terence flexed his considerable internet research skills and found us a private clinic that specializes in “medical tourism” especially of the cosmetic kind. One reviewer praised the Botox injection she got there. The receptionist seemed happy to have someone show up who actually needed urgent attention. The attending physician was a surgeon who carried both an iPad and an iPhone. He apologized profusely for the fact that he needed to “call in” a pediatrician, who appeared within 5 minutes. We kept trying to tell them this was by far the most relaxing doctor’s visit we had ever made. They all but offered us cappucino. The pediatrician was a kind old dude who prescribed not only antibiotics but probiotics, as well as strong cautions against any kind of bathing. (Advice which was soundly contradicted by a nun we met the next day in Zadar, who said salt water was just the thing for impetigo).

I realize this is probably far from average Croatian medical care, but here’s the thing — even in this lap-of-luxury setting, the total bill without insurance was less than we would have paid with Terence’s insurance at home. More evidence that our system is broken. And more insight into my first born, who despite some whines and moans is proving herself to be a tough cookie.

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ImageI fear we may be propagating stereotypes about Europe, or Yurp as my niece named it when a toddler. Hannah and Margaret now think of this as a place where people drink wine at lunch, eat a daily gelato, and wear teeny tiny bathing suits. Of course my own ideas about Europe were also shaped in part by bikinis—- the ones our summer au pairs wore (and occasionally removed) on the beach, scandalizing some of the good people of Martha’s Vineyard and I am sure delighting others. Hannah herself made astute cultural observations at the swimming pool in Jerusalem. So when she turned to me on the beach at Korcula and said, accusingly, “I stand out in this one piece!”, who was I to object? Off we went to town to find more appropriate garb, and the nice man who sold them to us gave me a discount and told me to use the difference for ice cream. It’s all part of sweetening the travel experience

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One of my kids loves to travel

Family folklore seems to be repeating itself with my daughters. I have written a lot about how my childhood spent moving back and forth across oceans sparked in me the desire to keep moving. Explaining what probably seemed like an excessive 2.5 week vacation to my colleagues, I simply said: “for me, travel is necessary.” My sister, a far more prolific and eloquent writer, has written about how that same childhood fueled in her the desire — the necessity — to put down roots and create stability for her family. I am not sure I would call Lindsey, as she has, “unadventurous.” Working full time plus writing more or less full time plus a full, wonderful and demanding family life would be plenty of adventure for most. Plus, she and her then brand-new boyfriend tested their relationship with a hike up Kilimanjaro. And she brought her family to Jerusalem. All that said, there is no doubt that our chosen relationship to the idea of travel, away-ness, is one of the major differences between my beloved sister and myself.

9403431060_6b51fcdfeb_bAs it seems to be for Hannah and Margaret. Hannah is still learning how to be a competent traveler. She is only seven after all, so she is not all that resilient yet. But you can tell she wants to be. She can sleep anywhere and eat most anything. She asks a lot of questions and talks a lot (a LOT) about everything she is seeing and sensing and thinking. She wants to be part of every trip. On Monday we arrived in the Slovenian seaside town of Piran in a freak rain and wind storm.(Front page news in the national papers the next day). So we could not swim as planned, but Hannah wanted to get out and see the town and dance in the rain in the main square. Needless to say, so did I.

9374502241_8c55b4ca7d_bMargaret prefers to be snuggled up, safe and warm. She goes along with our travel habit because she has no choice, and once she feels at home in a place, things are fine. But her first moves are all about nesting, setting up the home. I have no doubt that her best memories from Slovenia will not be the jaw dropping Postojna Caves or the perfect turquoise of Lake Bled, but the “hat store” she set up in our apartment in Ljubljana. For Margaret, we have to make the odd and unusual feel very…familiar. Today I played school with her in Bled Castle. Every room was a different “center”: the room with armor was the “dress up center”…the one with the skeleton was the “science room.” Today she asked me, “after we leave Slovenia on Wednesday, can we take a little break from traveling before we go to Croatia?”

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Ljubljana, or Things I Had Forgotten About Traveling With Kids

9377307136_cc05e03c44_bI swear, I did not purposely drop my sun hat on the walk back from dinner at the end of a great, long first day of traveling. But it gave me a great chance to go back and hunt for it, and to walk through the crowds eating, drinking, laughing, listening to music and gallivanting around the Ljubljanica River. And while I enjoyed the rare feeling of going at my own pace with no one to carry or cajole, I had time to ponder the _____experience of traveling with children. I tried to write that sentence with various words: Lunatic? Magical? Gruelling? Humbling? At times today it felt like all those words.

There were definitely times I wondered, “why did we bring them? Why not go to Rehoboth Beach like a normal family?” I am sure my in-laws traveling with us, or anyone who happened to be near us, wondered the same thing. It is hot. Hannah and Margaret have not yet adjusted to being hot and walking a lot. In my memories, they used to be able to do this in Israel, but it might just be that, my memories. Who knows if it was ever true? It was humbling to be brought face to face with the sweaty, annoying reality of traveling with young children. The real deal, not the stuff I had imagined as I lived my regular life in boring Delaware. We had some epic whines and tears. In the penitentiary of Ljubljana Castle, my father in law pointed out the plaque that said the most common crime that used to land women in the clink was child murder. We both laughed ruefully. (Of course, I know this is not funny).

9377289624_fd20e046c6_bBut the day was also loaded with magic. Ljubljana Castle is not only a tourist attraction but also a cultural center for Slovenes. So in between viewing exhibits and climbing the tower we could stretch out in lawnchairs at the Library Under Trees (which was stocked with both English and childrens books). And along the riverfront we met a pair of goofy, friendly artists who had set up a sponteous puppetmaking workshop for kids. And kids notice all the littlest things that we might not, from the different kinds of toilet flushers to the much-more-awesome European scooters and bikes. And that is really why we travel –to show ourselves and our kids that there is no one way to do anything. (For instance, this Slovenian keyboard has a z where my y would be).

9377675041_6275782a00_bAnd sometimes you just to improvise, as when our guide wanted to talk for a while about city history. Terence and Hannah made up a game of “feeding facts.” As she explained it, “we just break things down so we can understand them. Miha says something. Daddy makes it into something I can understand. Then I make it into something you can understand, and then you can tell Margaret.” (I love her rank ordering of our family intellectual firepower). So Margaret and I wandered off to a gazebo that was conveniently located in the square nearby and looks like the one in the Sound of Music. (We are getting some mileage out of the fact that we are near the Same! Alps! The VonTrapps Climbed!). We pretended to be Liesl and Friedrich, dancing around, while Hannah shuttled back and forth feeding us facts about Roman walls and Napoleonic conquests.

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Flying solo

It is true. I am married to a saint.

It is true. I am married to a saint.

One quarter of our family is traveling again. Terence flew to Turkey last night and by this evening had already taken stock of the former protest flashpoint in Taksim Square and engaged in in-depth conversations about the political situation. All of which you can read about on his blog. Green with jealousy, I’m trying to dust off my own blog again. As was often the case last year, mine hews to the personal while Terence discusses “third party issues,” as my father would say. I guess we fulfill gender stereotypes.

Except for the ways we don’t. As anyone who knows him will attest, Terence is an incredibly patient and available parent and spouse. He knows better than to say he “helps” with Hannah and Margaret (or, God forbid, “babysits”). He has been the primary parent many times, including a summer when Hannah was three months old. (That summer taught us both about the different expectations for men and women as parents. Terence got crazy credit for merely keeping an infant alive. I got asked, “how can you leave her?”). In our house, when a kid cries out in the middle of the night, or needs to be picked up sick from school, or has hours of homework to complete, Terence is as likely as I am to respond. And it’s because of all those little and big acts of caretaking that I am freaking out a little at the prospect of several weeks of being home alone. And more, much more, I am missing that feeling that there’s someone who has my back, with whom I can laugh and/or rant about the experience of parenting these particular kids on this particular day.

I know, I know. I sound like such a whiner. Millions of people parent their children all by themselves, every day, and millions more are effectively solo because their spouse works such long hours or travels. My mother wrote the book on that situation; my sister’s first words were “Daddy DC” as she and my mother put my father on yet another train to go away for work. I have so many support systems, including both a mother and a mother-in-law who will be coming to help. And this is after all THREE WEEKS, after which we too will get to go on a traveling adventure. But still, I miss him.

Five years ago, I spent the summer alone with Hannah while very, very pregnant with Margaret. Dealing with many of these same feelings, I became obsessed with the John Adams documentary, especially its heroine, Abigail. “If she can inoculate her kids with smallpox while managing a farm and fending off enemy attacks, then not see John for almost DECADE……I can make it through another week!” It might be time for me to watch it again, though I can also think about my real-life role models, like my friends whose spouses are serving our country abroad. I want so badly to be someone who can just cope, suck it up, figure anything out, but I am not there yet.

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Puzzles from Goodwill

As books are to Hannah, puzzles are to Margaret. It is expensive to keep her well stocked and I have taken to buying them at Goodwill. As well as costing a mere $1, they have the added benefit of coming with several pieces already missing. Pre-owned, pre-lost. When we do puzzles from Goodwill, we know they won’t be perfect. We pat ourselves and the previous owner on the back for every piece we do have. So imagine my surprise when last week’s puzzle worked out like this. IMG_0564

I am working on looking at my life this way too — additive, giving myself kudos for everything I do do, anything I do get right, instead of mentally docking myself for every little thing that subtracts from the perfection I irrationally think I should achieve. The lost puzzle pieces, library books, time, tempers, opportunities.  It’s not easy. My old nickname, “High Standards Hilary,” still sometimes applies. But I also keep making choices to put more — and more contradictory — things in my life, whether it’s trying both to work and have lots of time with my kids, or to keep seeking out new and challenging experiences both at home and abroad. I am choosing to make the pieces fall apart and just hoping it all still looks interesting.


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Strike while the iron is hot

Oldie but goodie: we're going places!

Oldie but goodie: we’re going places!

One year at a time. That’s as far as I can plan. People always expect me to have a five year plan but I never do. I tell myself this is all about staying open to opportunities and responding to the needs of my family, but maybe deep down I’m a flake. Either way, one way that I cut the pressure of culture shock and re-entry last summer was to say, “I only have to figure it out for one year.” “It” meant different balancing acts depending on the day. How to keep our sense of discovery while we returned back to the daily grind. How to search out diversity in a fairly homogeneous, suburban environment. How to stay informed about world events and keep our kids aware too. How to remember, now that we’re back in our comfort zones, how it felt to be so far outside them, and to empathize with those who are new, alienated, alone. How to live responsible, rooted lives and still yield to our itchy traveling feet.

I still don’t know how to do this long term, but we have figured it out for this year. Terence will be going to Turkey for three weeks on an NEH grant, and the rest of us (grandparents, kids, aunt, and me) will be joining him afterwards in Slovenia, Croatia and (some of the adults, not the kids) Bosnia. Goosebumps. Our plan worked. As my father, my mentor in the ways of risk taking, told me: “you have to strike while the iron is hot.”

No sooner was the goal in sight than I did what I always do: pre-emptively freak out and doubt myself. “Is it worth it?” I moaned. Worth the money, stress, planning, the weeks I will be a single parent?

Last year, the same niggling question would sometimes cross my mind. Was that place worth the bus fare or the motion sickness or the sunburn to see? Was that hummus worth $10? Was the life experience we were gaining worth all the tantrums and exhaustion? Was a sabbatical for one of us worth a job sacrifice for the other?

These questions can drive you crazy and take all the fun out of the adventure. Now that I am on the other side, the answer is an unequivocal yes, yes about all of it. It was all worth it. And hard as it is for me to quell the pre-emptive freak outs, I want to trust that it will all be worth it again. I guess it comes down to deciding that international travel is a value for me, something I want to do no matter what. And of course I realize the privilege and the luck involved in a sentence like that. I will take it one year at a time.

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Background Knowledge


Shortly before getting separated

Shortly before getting separated

Last weekend, I was driving a carpool and the conversation turned to the topic that strikes fear into the hearts of all parents: losing your kids. Hannah’s friend regaled me with a story of getting separated from her family at a minor league baseball game. Then she wanted to know whether Hannah and Margaret had ever been lost. 

What I thought to myself was: Yes. Hannah wandered away from us in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on December 23 and was rescued by one of hundreds of tour guides. Margaret turned one way and the rest of us turned the other as we walked out of church in the Old City on Easter Sunday. Our joyous reunion was witnessed by throngs of joyous pilgrims.

What I said to the friends was: yes, they both got lost last year, in places that were crowded with lots of people, just like a baseball game. And we were so happy when we found each other again.

When my kids remember these experiences, will the setting figure into their memories at all? They got lost where Christians believe Jesus was born, and where he was crucified and rose again. But probably all they will remember is the fear of being lost, the relief of being found. That is the important part. Keeping the setting in mind — the uniqueness, the wonder of what we saw and did last year — requires constant narratives from us. And I will tell those stories, just like my father tells how he carried me in a baby backpack up to the top of Mont St. Michel on my first birthday, in the fog.

But I am also a little torn. Why did I not tell the girls’ friends all the details of the story? When I went back to Brittany as a teenager, why did I not tell the other kids on my trip I had seen that abbey rising from the sea before? I guess something in me is a little self conscious at the richness of the world I have been able to experience, and my children have to. “She has a lot of background knowledge!” observed one of Hannah’s new teachers this fall. Indeed.  And for that I am grateful, and I try to get Hannah to be grateful too. I know how lucky we are. I also know that what really matters is the life you are living, not where it happens to happen.


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Still traveling

I was trying to explain my idea for this post to Terence: “it’s like, I now see the positive side of being on the margins of all kinds of different experiences.” He laughed. “Nothing like a year in Israel/Palestine to raise one’s appreciation for interesting alienation.”

Interesting alienation. That could be the motto of our family’s year abroad yet in ways I never would have expected, it’s still resonating in my life even now that we have been home six months. I mean something wider and bigger than the culture shock that hit me hard last summer, when I was stunned by how clean, efficient, cheap, easy and clueless my native land seemed after our year in the Holy Land. Even though I haven’t been on an airplane since our epic trip home in July, I feel like I’ve been traveling to all kinds of foreign lands. Just like last year, I seem to find myself constantly on the edges of new communities and subcultures. Why is this happening? Partly because of my no-longer-new job, which takes me inside all different kinds of educational programs. One day I’ll be attending a conference for professors and post-docs in the hard sciences. The next day I’ll be thinking about how first graders learn to read. There’s also the difference between where I live — one of the most well-resourced private schools in the country — and the high-need public schools where much of my work is focused. To cap off the educational dislocation, I’m taking a class (thank you, educational benefits for university staff!) in which all the other students are undergrads. I’m double their age. I’m learning a lot, about far more than the syllabus.

True, this is a different kind of diversity and conflict from what I saw last year. There is no Qalandia here. But I still often have the feeling, even about different parts of the US educational system, “wow, these people really don’t understand each other’s worlds.” And I also have the familiar feeling, “I have no idea what’s going on here.” Literally and figuratively, I don’t speak all these languages. And while sometimes that stresses me out, more often my reaction is gratitude that I get to peek inside all of these worlds, even if none of them are mine.

Brave New World: cookie sales

Brave New World: cookie sales

Another reason I’m “traveling” is because of my kids. Hannah seems to take after me in wanting a foot in every world, even at the cost of belonging nowhere, so she’s started Girl Scouts, swim team and the school musical — all subcultures, all both scary and fascinating (to both of us). Walking into the Cookie KickOff or my first Delaware swim meet felt like happening upon the Nabi Musa parade this time last year. Strange costumes. Intense emotion I didn’t fully share. Massive crowds. People and rituals I never knew existed. The same sense of watching from the sidelines, curious, confused, unknown.

Am I stretching my metaphor? Maybe. I can hear a voice in my head and maybe in yours too: ‘kids’ activities in a suburban town are NOT the same as major religious and cultural events in the Middle East!” And don’t get me wrong. I miss the real kind of traveling more than I can say. A friend’s recent Facebook photo of an airplane wing above the clouds made me burst into tears. We’re working hard to figure out a way to get out of the country again. But I’m surprised at how sabbatical seems to have stretched and changed me. I am way more tolerant of my own cluelessness and awkwardness. I care less what others think of me. It’s more important to see new stuff, do new stuff, learn new stuff, than….well, than almost anything.

I never expected this kind of mental divergence as I approach middle age. Somehow, I thought your 30s were all about mastery, roots. It’s like I’m living life backwards. I used to be so focused. I tried to declare my major the first month of freshman year, though in true liberal arts fashion they wouldn’t let me. In the heat of last year, I would sometimes think defensively: “this isn’t my field!” “This,” meaning international relations, or Biblical texts, or Middle East history, or all the many stories writ in Jerusalem stone I didn’t know how to read. But on the other side of the experience, I feel so much bolder, like there’s almost no topic I couldn’t tackle — or at least enjoy being confused and intrigued by.



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