Tag Archives: memoir

Monday Memories – The New Kid (Again)

The continued chronicle of a young American teenager living in Europe during the mid 1960′s.

North Carolina

My daughter will graduate from high school next month, the second high school she has attended.  She has a great circle of friends in both places, great academics, work she loves and memories of being the new kid. Although the change has been great, the learning experience that “being the new kid” provides will be most beneficial throughout her life. I know. I was the “new kid” five times in three years. That’s a lot of introductions, cracking the social codes and making friends for a young teenager. I learned how to start over, condense my life story to a paragraph and enter a room full of strangers without committing a social faux pas. It was a “great experience” I could pass along to my children.

My high schools were large, small, private and public. There were Americans in each of them, every race, religion and nationality. In one, English was the second language, in another, military rank created the social order. I rode buses to several schools, walked to another and lived in several dorms for a year. Each school presented its own social obstacles, academic emphasis and “new kid” hazing.  Each new school presented the classic “first day” nervousness and stress. The perceived benefits were few while I attended and like many experiences became more valuable as life unfolded. I learned that roots are important and yet you carry them with you. I learned you can have friends close by and maintain friendships with hundreds of miles separating you. I learned that academics can center on the same subjects with vastly different curriculums. But most important, I learned how being the “new kid” doesn’t last long because at some point, everybody is the “new kid.”

Paris

We moved from Paris, France to Stuttgart, Germany after a brief six months in France. I had learned to navigate the multi-building campus at Paris American High School with ease. I knew where the cafeteria was, the menu for each week and where the locker room was in the huge gym. I had friends who shared slumber parties, lunch tables and homework assignments. We giggled a lot and shared hopes and dreams of the American teenager of the ’60’s. They taught me readiness. Fathers of military dependents get transferred frequently. New orders give brief adjustment time and often, the father left before the family, who followed after packing their belongings and saying goodbye. Although friendships would survive with distance, they were ready to move and start over at a moment’s notice.

I was fortunate with the move from France to Germany. Most of my new friends in Paris moved to the same area in Germany. Attending a new school was easier because there were friends from Paris to share the experience. We compared notes when we met on the weekends. Three of us attended different schools in Germany yet managed to find time for roller skating, swimming and hiking German trails on the weekend. We still shared slumber parties, we still giggled a lot and we all made new friends. They helped me realize friendships can continue despite the miles between friends. Reunited in yet another school, we shared homerooms, English assignments and Home Ec. We went to the local “gasthaus” and Oktober Fest with older siblings, went to movies and the AYA (American Youth Association) dances. We rode buses to school and gossiped about the latest Beatles trivia. Those friends taught me to savor the moment, to live fully today and enjoy the present. Tomorrow may bring change, but we were together today and we made each day count.

Institute auf dem Rosenberg

I had a different experience when I changed to my fourth high school. This time there were no familiar friends or even family to ease my transition. This new school was in a different country, away from all of them. I was on my own, living at a boarding school where German was spoken at every meal and kids from all continents shared rooms down the hall. Whether privilege or punishment, this change in schools presented new challenges I hadn’t dreamed about when I wished to “live away” at age 13. Suddenly, I learned I could live in a house with 40 teenaged girls who spoke different languages than mine. I learned I could succeed academically without my parents’ reminders to finish homework. I learned I could be accepted in an international social group, sharing experiences that would make my mother cringe had she known. They taught me that change was possible and positive, that there was another world outside of America and that teenagers shared similar concerns everywhere in the world. I learned I could be separate from family and through trial and error, I could make good decisions on my own.

Chatham High School

The “new kid” status changed at my last school. I returned to my hometown after three years away. I was a “new kid” with my former classmates and friends, back “home” in the US. I returned a different girl, to a group who had no idea of who I was, where I had been or what I had experienced. They were different, too. Older, more confident, more knowledgeable about social issues, and more experienced in life in the US.  Most had lived in the same town since elementary school and knew all the faces in their small high school. Friendships were cement solid, grown together throughout their early high school years. Although they looked familiar, lived in their same house, they were as different from the person they had been at 13 as I was. It was a time of wary reconnection. I went to the same church, library and grocery store yet it seemed different from the town I had left. My school was American, I had the same teachers that my siblings had and we lived in the same house we had left three years earlier. I learned that you never “return” home. Different experiences, places lived and new histories prevent you from “picking up where you left off.” I did make new friends, I reconnected with former classmates and I earned my diploma. I shared confidences and dreams and developed friendships that continue today. I recognize many names on Facebook but have no memory of many of their recollections, I wasn’t there at the time. But, I learned that moving on is better for me, to be a “new kid” is easier than being “the returned” and that you have to look ahead for your future rather than dwell on the past.

I know we are the “new kid” throughout our lives, the new employee, the new roommate, the new neighbor, the new  student. I know what my daughter experienced and the confidence given her for the next move, when she is the “new kid” once again. I hope she carries her friendships with her as she looks forward to her future. I hope she recognizes the value of being the “new kid” and shares her positive experiences with the “new kids” in her life.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Memoir, Travel, Women, Writing

Monday Memories – Holidays

The continued chronicle of a young American teenager living in Europe during the mid 1960′s.

Christmas tradition in our family changed radically from the central focus of home and family to travel and adventure. We now lived in Paris France and were comfortable with our new routines and apartment living. We observed the understated preparations of our neighbors for the holiday season, and remembered our American neighbors’ lights and outdoor decorations. There were wreaths on the doors, pine boughs in planters near the gates and ornaments hung from the lamp posts on the streets but no lights or grand displays in public places. We began to discuss how the family would celebrate our first Christmas in Europe and my parents’ twenty fifth wedding anniversary. My mother wanted to travel and so it was decided, we would travel through France to the Mediterranean Sea and spend our holiday in the French towns of Cannes and Nice, on the Riviera.

A trip at Christmas was a departure from the family oriented, small town celebration I knew for the past decade. Christmas Eve was my parents’ anniversary and always spent with my mother’s extended family. Christmas morning was at home and later, a trip to my father’s family for another celebration. That all changed in 1966, as my mother researched our route and planned the many chateaus and cathedrals we would stop and visit along the way south. The excitement began to build as we planned gifts to pack, ideas of silver anniversary celebrations were discussed and the maps appeared outlining our route. We would stop in Rouen, Avignon and explore Chenenceaux, Chambord and the perfume farms in coastal France. Cathedrals attended by Joan of Arc were on the list as well as the renowned bridge in Avignon. We shimmered with anticipation.

Disaster struck the day we were to leave on our 10 day adventure. Due to a delayed departure, my father discovered a change in plans with his job. De Gaulle had withdrawn his agreement for American forces, NATO and SHAPE headquarters were no longer to be in Paris but moved to Belgium and Germany. Many of the employees were being sent back to the US and that day, my father was included in those to return to the States.  The trip that had been long anticipated was now a diversion from the inevitable move back to America. Reluctantly, we left our apartment and set off to savor our one and only trip through France before packing our belongings for another move. We were disappointed but resigned. The car was packed, the excitement diminished but not gone and we set off.

The change in plans added a new quality to our visits en route to Provence. The chateaus were magnificent and free of the summer tourists that crowd each one in the Loire valley. We walked the paths of the French aristocracy, viewed the portrait galleries in each home and walked through the maze of the cathedral in Rouen. Arriving in Nice, we were weary tourists ready to share the holiday with US sailors in port for Christmas. My brothers and I went in search of a memorable anniversary gift while my mother planned our Christmas Eve adventure. Of course it included a “short walk to the top of a mountain for the table of orientation” which would highlight the distant landmarks. We discovered a centuries old silversmith while my mother read the Michelin guide to glean the area’s history.

After a “petite dejeuner” of croissants and black coffee, we set out for our morning walk. The path was rocky, through dense undergrowth and poorly marked. We wandered off course and three long hours later discovered a cement marker, the table of orientation, at the top of a goat field. The goats were our only companions as rain began to fall and we wearily set off down the mountain. This was not the Christmas Eve tradition of our past, but a test of our endurance. The quick thirty minute climb had turned into a multi hour-long hike. When we finally found our car, we discovered my father had carried a pine branch found on the ground near the top. It became our Christmas tree when wound through the chandelier in the hotel room and decorated with jewelry.

Later that evening, my mother asked about Christmas Eve services at a local church. Yes, she was told, there is an English church within walking distance but you must hurry. We hurriedly gathered our coats and walked the short two blocks to a small church tucked between shops near the waterfront. Entering the old stone building, we heard the familiar carols played and saw the many sailors scattered in the congregation. My memory of the service centers on the sound of “Silent Night” sung by so many Americans far from home, yet celebrating a beloved holiday together.  We were all Americans sharing our traditions in a small church in France, a true congregation.

The remainder of the trip was less eventful, a trip to Cannes, to Italy and then the long trip back to Paris. Our return was somber as the move to the states in January returned to our conversations. We returned to school and work determined to enjoy whatever time was left. Imagine our surprise when my father announced the sudden change of plans he had learned that day. “Pack your bags, but not for the US, ” he said, “We will be moving to Germany.” And so, the adventure would continue.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Memoir, Travel, Writing

Monday Memories – School Days

The continued chronicle of a young American teenager living in Europe during the mid 1960′s.

Out the door, into the elevator and down the walk to the gold tipped iron gate at the street, we raced to be on time. My brother and I were to ride the bus to school, a great army green hulk of a bus, a relic of the post war years. There were no bus routes in my small American town, we walked the few blocks to and from school.  Our new home in St. Germain was miles from the American school provided by the military for dependents. The bus would wind through the narrow local streets, drive over the motorway and deposit us at the sprawling campus of Paris American High School. The sound of grinding gears preceded the bus as it rounded the corner and stopped at our gate. I hoped I’d remember the seat hierarchy outlined by my new friend, Carmen. Elementary up front, junior high behind them and the last four rows for the high school students. Bus seats were as important as the lunch table chosen in the cafeteria. New to bus rides, I found the fifth seat from the rear and grabbed the “chicken bar” as the driver roared away to the next stop. We stopped countless times, sometimes waiting for several minutes for the latecomers to race onto the bus with toast, books, and jackets flying around them.

The ride to school was 45 minutes from our gate and would be reversed at the end of the day. No late buses for sports or after school clubs, there was one bus for our area and everybody would start school at the same time. We arrived at the campus, entering through the gate with guards standing at attention and barbed wire surrounding the complex. There were so many buildings, the elementary school, the three-story high school with its junior high wing and the sports center behind. Two gated entrances were guarded by MP’s who ensured our safety in the middle of Paris. The students were “Army Brats”,  kids of NATO members, civilians with military clearance and the children of diplomats assigned to SHAPE headquarters. We all rode the same army green buses, all felt the first day jitters and all entered the typical American brick building for the start of the school year. No segregation due to rank, race or culture, we were American dependents continuing our education.

I was the new kid in class yet most there were new to the area. Military families moved often and starting at a new school was common. My school in the US was small compared to the multi level, spidering hallway building I entered. There was the challenge of finding the room, the locker, the gym and especially, the cafeteria. I was amazed to survive that first few days, amazed to find the gym locker rooms where I changed clothes from mini skirt to midi blouse and bloomer shorts, amazed to find the cafeteria with the trays and food lines and hundreds of kids. I had walked home at lunchtime throughout my early school days, but now encountered lunch lines, cafeteria food and keeping lunch money; I learned a whole new way of life. It was a full day of new experiences without opening a book.

At day’s end, the process reversed and we swarmed the buses lined along the sidewalk. No stenciled numbers, rather the overhead sign illuminated the bus routes. I searched for familiar faces and assured myself I would find the correct bus. I sank thankfully into my appropriate seat across from the other bewildered students and watched carefully for my brother and his friends. Fortunately there was a stop at the army base before my town, I could always stop there and wait for a general transport bus if I had boarded the wrong bus. The ride home was loud with daily recaps of schedules, mistaken classrooms and late notices and the singing from the front seats. Our driver, a seemingly ancient Algerian, smoked Gauloise cigarettes and winked at the girls, he would mutter in French as we neared each stop. Later in the fall, he would make a quick pit stop before my stop and relieve himself on the rear wheel of the bus before continuing on to my gate. The afternoon ride was comedy in action with the personalities involved.

I was a Paris Pirate for 5 short months. The lessons learned were varied and basic, more learning of life than academics. Memories of French bubblegum chewed secretively in gym class, the long lockers crammed with coats, sneakers and texts, the smell of the cafeteria on spaghetti Friday and the posters for Prom at the Eiffel Tower revolve in my mind. Those memories provided confidence for every job and school change when being the “newbie” could never be quite as terrifying as that first day, that first bus ride to a sprawling school campus dropped in the middle of Paris.

Leave a comment

Filed under Memoir, Uncategorized, Writing

Dinner Out

The continued chronicle of a young American teenager living in Europe during the mid 1960′s.

I left the small suburban town in America and moved to Paris at age 13. Our family had shared many happy family meals around the small oak table in our home yet I had yet to experience a restaurant like the Officer’s Club in Paris. The night was magical, the setting from a movie set. Red velvet draperies, crisp white linen tablecloths, silver table settings and a young girl set on living a dream.

My father had been living in Paris for several months before the family joined him. His daily routine had included many evenings at the Officer’s Club, with colleagues from his office, sharing a meal, ending a workday and our arrival did nothing to change that. We were going “out to dinner.” For some, this is a usual event, nothing special, yet for me, it was a magical night complete with a display of Paris couturier finery and a drive along the Seine.

The room was in an old pre-war building with high ceilings and long windows open to the summer evening. The maitre ‘d met us at the entrance and escorted us to the table. Silver service sparkled on the table, the linen napkins crisply folded at each seat. We were seated at a round table on the edge of the dance floor. My eyes were wide with anticipation, I had never been in a restaurant like this, there was a dance floor, four piece band and the lights of Paris outside our window. Seating us, the maitre ‘d snapped our napkins open and spread them on our laps. My father’s eyes twinkled with amusement and anticipation of sharing this experience with us. My mother leaned in and whispered her excitement.

We had dressed for dinner in our “best” clothes, a simple habit from my father’s youth. My lace dress seemed too drab for the elegance surrounding us, there were officer’s wives in evening gowns. Seated at our table we peered out at the room. Soft conversation surrounded us, the drapes absorbing the sounds of the diners. The tuxedoed waiters brought a basket of fresh French bread to the table. Oh glorious, it smelled like heaven, yeasty and crisp, the crust mad e crumbs on the tablecloth. My father reached across the table to show me how to rest the broken bread on my knife after buttering each bite. Such a small thing to remember all these years later.

We ordered the filet, a delicacy I had never experienced. Filet mignon, served with new potatoes and French string beans. A simple American dish, prepared by a French chef for newly relocated Americans. I’d never heard of the dish let alone had it prepared to my instructions. The waiter filled water glasses, scraped crumbs from the tablecloth and hovered attentively at the edge of the room. I absorbed every detail of the evening, from the taste of the food, the service of the wait staff and the sounds of the small band playing for the dancers. My parents left me at the table and headed toward the dance floor in between courses. Where had they learned to dance so effortlessly? When had they learned the etiquette of an elegant evening? I was learning every moment.

The evening wound on, the meal was complete with an eclair, served with powdered sugar on a lace doily. I wasn’t in New Jersey anymore. The wine, the sounds of other diners and the lateness of the hour had me nodding at my place. And then with some excitement, the room came alive as rack after rack of clothes were wheeled  on the square dance floor on display for the women in attendance. The waiters hovered expectantly as the wives rose and perused the offerings. Coats, jackets and gowns were offered to the women, all Paris originals and dazzling to my eyes. I asked my father, “Does this happen all the  time or is this a special occasion?” “It happens every night,” he replied. Oh my, Paris originals at my fingertips. First, filet mignon, now designer clothing. Would the evening have any more magic?

I learned to expect the Officer’s Club on Thursday nights. I learned the magic could include a moonlit drive along the Seine, a soft summer walk along the banks. I learned we had begun a new life in Paris that would change my way of looking at life and I would never forget that first restaurant experience. Designer clothes, crisp linens and a hovering wait staff serving a meal I couldn’t have imagined. Magic could happen, it was up to me to decide if it could last.

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Memoir, Uncategorized, Writing

Even Young Girls Get The Blues

Shells 6

The familiar sights and sounds of my neighborhood were far away, 3637 miles to be more exact. The games of SPUD and Kick the Can played after dark in the deadend circle of my street were only memories. My new apartment building fronted a busy roadway and there was no neighborhood gang to whistle up for a game of Flashlight Tag. I began to feel the pangs of homesickness, the ailment of the ex-pat tired of being alone.

Relocation is commonplace in 21st century America. Companies transfer employees from East to West, retirees leave hometowns for warmer climes and college students settle in their chosen cities after graduation. Americans love to move.  The agents find houses, locate schools and transportation and with minimal disruption, children enter a new school, parents commute via new routes and the families settle in. Now there is the internet for Skype conversations, cell phones send pictures and messages and email zips a letter across the ocean in less time than it takes to tie a shoe.

I moved before all that. I moved from New Jersey to Paris in 1966, when a letter written on onion skin paper was sent via Airmail and still took a week to get to my friends. I was a new teenager, alone with my family 3637 miles from my friends, school, church and community. I learned about homesickness. I learned about loneliness and I learned about making a fresh start. I later learned the relocation process can be habit-forming but that’s in retrospect.

We left New Jersey after a whirlwind month of dance recitals, house renovations and bon voyage parties. Although  we were dizzy from the anticipation and excitement of leaving a small suburban town for the ancient city of Paris, France, our new life was a blank slate, a grand adventure and a flat-out mystery. “Keep a journal” one friend advised. “Write a letter home every week and tell us all about it” said another. We were determined to stay connected and never thought of the effect time and distance would have on our friendships.

There were daily letters to and from several friends during those first two months. Exciting descriptions of our new city, life in an apartment and the daily challenge of learning a new language filled page after page as I tried to describe my new life. I eagerly awaited my father’s arrival each day with the bundle of mail he brought home from the NATO base where he worked. At first, there were long detailed letters filled with details about parties and boys, summer romances and vacation plans.  I saved them all for that lifeline to my home and friends, my antidote to loneliness. My education about homesickness, loneliness and living abroad had begun.

Homesickness

2 Comments

Filed under Memoir, Travel, Writing

A Young American in Paris

St. Germain En Laye

I was awake at dawn, ready to explore my new territory. I dressed in cut-off Bermuda shorts, a sweatshirt and my moccasins, the all American outfit of a thirteen year old. Through the hall, down in the elevator and out through the wrought iron gate to the wide sidewalk. To avoid getting lost, I decided to go around the block. Setting out, I noticed the high fences and walls surrounding the properties along Blvd. Victor Hugo. The streets were cobblestone and the sidewalks wide expanses of slate. Each building was right to the edge of the sidewalk with shutters closed against the morning light. My footsteps echoed as a sauntered past.

I arrived at the top of the hill and saw a small alley with a street sign indicating it was a real street. Narrow, with room for one car, the alley had a red sign with a big white dash in the middle. I had found the first of many international traffic signs. I later learned the red sign meant “one way, do not enter” but at the time it was merely a fascinating change from my former small suburban town. I walked around the block, past walled homes, peeking in the gates at century old buildings with cobblestone courtyards, past wrought iron gates painted black with gold leaf. I saw terra-cotta roofs, sagging forest green shutters and not one person. As I rounded the corner to return home, I met a woman carrying string bags filled with produce and long loaves of bread sticking out the top. Suddenly the sidewalk came alive with people, women sweeping their stone steps, men riding mopeds up the hill and a few girls watching from upstairs windows. Nobody smiled, nodded or acknowledged me in any way as I walked past but there were rapid exchanges in French after I moved along. My ears heard “American” and “fille”, “the American girl,” thanks to my 7th grade French teacher for that little bit of understanding.

I learned from my short walk around the block. The Bermuda shorts and sweatshirts were once again packed away, only to be worn in the comfort of our apartment. Never again would I venture forth without careful attention to my wardrobe. Shorts were not worn by anybody at any time. Sweatshirts were for sports players and not acceptable for young girls, American or not. During the following months, I walked along those same sidewalks on my way to the bus bound for Paris. I met many of those same people I had seen that first morning and after giving a long look at my outfit, I would receive a nod or a smile of greeting. I had been initiated into the world of French appropriateness and had learned a valuable lesson. Clothes were important and first impressions were lasting.

The French dress impeccably when going out and about. Tailored suits, caps and jewelry are seen on young and old, regardless of employment. It is later, when entering a shop and the same woman who was dressed in tailored cashmere now assists from behind the counter, covered by a royal blue smock, the attire of every working Frenchman. I learned that day to be aware of different cultures and traditions. I was no longer a small town American girl, I was now a young American in Paris and I wanted to blend with the nationals. It was an eye-opening experience.

The hanging gardens of St. Germain en Laye

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Photography, Travel, Uncategorized, Writing

Continuing to Walk

Walking near trees at Ft. Fisher, NC

My brother and I were first time flyers when we boarded the Pan Am jet at John F. Kennedy airport in New York. We were fascinated by the little bathrooms, small soaps and the fold down lap tables attached to the seats. Looking out the small porthole windows we watched the Statue of Liberty fade into the skyline as we soared north toward Nova Scotia. The flight was long, six hours aloft, with only a meal and snack to break the tedium. The attendants were kind, offering gum to chew as we climbed to our cruising altitude. My mother had wisely packed books and magazines for us to read during the flight. These were the days before in-flight movies and there was only radio available with expensive ear phones for rent.

I remember wearing a new dress made of lace, a garter belt and stockings with patent leather flats. Those were the days of elegant travel for all passengers and of course, we were en route to Paris, we had to be fashionable. The flight boredom set in and I tried to nap under the miniature blanket provided. Just as today, the meal arrived as I dozed off. Excitement warred with exhaustion as I realized it was a flight to the unknown. Here I sat on an airplane bound for Paris with every possibility before me and yet, I had no idea. My father waited for us at the airport to drive us to our new home but he was the only link to the United States. My mother and brothers were eager to begin a new life, but I had no idea what to expect at the end of that flight. I  left a small suburban community in New Jersey, all my friends from childhood and our extended family. I left the sordid and the good. It would be many years after that first flight before I realized the past is carried with you until you let go of the baggage.

Our arrival at Orly airport was a noisy confusion of baggage claims, hugs and tears. Exhaustion began to set in as we gathered belongings, suitcases, purses, briefcases and the myriad souvenirs of the flight. Everyone spoke at once when we greeted my father at the arrivals gate. Clearing customs was a blur of passport stamps, rapid French and a long line to the baggage area.  I remember a long walk with a heavy suitcase to the rental car, a crowded seat and a long ride in the twilight to our new home. No house for us, we were now apartment dwellers at Boulevard Victor Hugo.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Travel, Uncategorized