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Monday Memories – Ready, Set, Go!

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

We moved from Paris, France to Germany in the middle of a cold, rainy January. The holidays were behind us, the trip to Nice and the Mediterranean a lovely memory of Christmas with Americans, the long lavender fields of Provence and the smell of French perfume wafting through the air. Although the trip had been fraught with the knowledge we would be leaving for the US, we had learned of the change in orders when we returned home to our apartment on Boulevard Victor Hugo. We would be moving with all the NATO allies to Germany and not returning to the US as anticipated.

There was a flurry of contact with all my classmates. Where were they going? When were they leaving? We wrote notes between classes, stuffed into our lockers with phone numbers, addresses and contact requests. “Please be sure to remember me when you move.” We begged each other to send letters and addresses as soon as we knew where we were going. And then, one day a friend was  missing from the bus, or another from a class. The lunch table emptied over the several weeks after our holiday break. Orders for the military called for families to pack and leave at a moments notice. Ours, as civilians, were almost the same. We would be moving to Stuttgart, Germany in a matter of days.

I returned from school to find my mother packing our belongings into the large suitcases purchased the previous June. This move would be just four of our family of five. My older brother was in England, attending the University of Manchester. My father returned from the NATO base with a file folder full of information about our new location. Orders to report in one weeks time left us little time to pack up, travel across the country, cross the border and find our new home. As civilians, we had time to pack as a family, say our goodbyes and begin the trip across France to Germany. Our car was filled with our suitcases, household goods purchased during our stay and my mother’s plants. Never one to be without a flower or green plant to add to our home, she made sure the plants were packed into the car. Many years later, I am the same.

I said goodbye to my friends at school, rode the bus one more day from our apartment and then it was time. The box of croissants reminded me of the familiar areas of Paris and hinted of the wonderful breads of the Germans. We would discover the rich bread of Bavaria, beer of the Garmisch region and the  wonderful Black Forest traditions of southern Germany. We were on another adventure. I would learn to appreciate a love of food, entertainment and the outdoors. I would travel by trolley, bus and train to learn the German culture. Little did I know, the adventure was a roller coaster of fun, laughs and good times. Typically German.

I learned later of the beauty of Germany, I studied ballet in a world-famous ballet school. I traveled through the beauty of a rebuilt and occupied Germany, Austria and into Switzerland. As we set off that cold rainy day, I promised myself I would learn German, live fully in the German culture and learn how to be European rather than an ex-pat. The years that followed that trip from Paris were full of adventures and eventful escapades, many laughs and the most fun. Little did I realize the importance of that move, more than any other, it would change my life.

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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.

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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.

 

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Penniless Penalties

A recent disconnect of my electric service brought home the penalties of the impoverished. One mislaid bill set off a chain of events that will ultimately cost well over $500, strained relationships and a heap of self-doubt. How do people without means continue to exist in a society that penalizes the penniless?

Third Person Past Perfect

There is a charge for falling below a certain bank balance, there is a charge for withdrawing money from a “foreign” ATM, there is a charge for paying with each credit card, there is a charge for paying with cash, and there is the charge of your time to run here, there and everywhere to pay the exorbitant amount required to restore service. I live in an all-electric house with septic and well. When there is no power, there is no water, toilet, light, stove or refrigerator. Electricity is all important. So I scrambled, I texted, I borrowed internet and cash and ultimately walked 5 miles to get the bill paid and the electricity restored. And then, there was the reconnect fee. Missing the deadline by fifteen minutes meant an additional $47 to have the person return. Another fee, another penalty added to the others already charged. And there is a 10 day grace period before an additional deposit fee is due because the bill was mislaid. Unfortunately, the five-year good payment history is void now. We are starting over.

With an additional $100, there is no charge from the bank. With an additional $350, there is no charge from the power company. With an additional $150 there is no ATM fee, or charge for credit card use. Without the extra funds, how do others cope with emergencies and financial deadlines?

Yesterday, a woman and her children were found sleeping in their car in the parking lot where I work. Their belongings surrounded them, created pillows for the young children asleep in the rear seat. I was grateful a customer notified us of their presence and grateful to know the phone number of the agency most likely to help them. I was saddened to know the panic the mother must have felt to live in her car to hold her family together.

Emergencies occur every day, people suffer loss of job, home, and belongings. That should be penalty enough without  the outrageous fees added. I am grateful to friends and family. We are grateful to have enough, grateful to live in our home and work out arrangements. We are also committed to helping those who have no other resources, live in their car and are penalized for falling behind.

I wish there were others willing to eliminate the penalties for being penniless.

 

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Fiction at 13

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

Desireeis_paris_burning  I was a reader in transition when I landed in Paris. As a young middle school student, I had been introduced to American authors like O’Henry, Hawthorne, Mark Twain and Esther Forbes. My library card was well-worn from weekly forays into the fictional world of the Young Adult section. When we moved to Paris, there was no longer a willing librarian to recommend new authors or the proper reading material for a young girl. I was on my own, reading newspapers, American magazines and anything I could find written in English. (My French never did allow me to visit the “bibliotheque.”)  During that first summer, I was limited to the books my father brought home from the office, the books circulating among the wives of his colleagues. Since cereal boxes were boring and I needed something more than solitaire to entertain me, I shared the books with my parents. I found more than entertainment, I discovered fascinating history, romance, intrigue and a little known genre called historical fiction. I was addicted.

A recent reference to the Bernadotte family reminded me of those first lonely months in Paris and the book that introduced me to European history. The book, Desiree by Annemarie Selinko, is the story of a young woman in love with Napolean, her adventures in Paris and her later transformation to become Queen of Sweden. Desiree became Queen of Sweden when her husband, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, became King Charles XIV John. They founded the Bernadotte dynasty that produced the modern love story of Prince Bertil and Princess Lilian. A love story for the 21st century. No wonder I was so intrigued. Thirteen years old, a French love story that was “real” for the reader. I was hooked.

The second book that influenced my present and my future was Is Paris Burning? by Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre. Real history set in the city where I lived. The very buildings I walked past in my Sunday visits to Paris were described in the book, brought to life in details by historical authors. The pockmarks I saw, the landmarks I visited were each described in detail from the days of the Nazi occupation. I lived in the history of the city, ready for the bursts of bombs over Paris, the American troops riding in tanks to liberate the French and the various intertwining histories of the people I met walking along the Seine. How exciting to pass under the very bridge where the Resistance officers traded secrets with the Allies. The book was so descriptive of the moments leading to the liberation, I almost expected to meet Charles De Gaulle en route to a meeting when I turned the corner in the 5th Arrondissement. Living amidst the historical sites, I learned that history and the present intersect on every street corner.

I wasn’t lonely anymore. I was in the middle of history, meeting with Resistance officers, reading telegrams from Berlin. I was living in Paris but each page of the book placed me in the 1940’s rather than the turbulent 1960’s of my present.  I had found a new path, a new way to look into the past and find the present. While my friends at home in the States were talking of “Grotto dances” and “The Rock” I was living amidst the pages of a book, living the history of the ancient city, verifying facts and visiting the buildings with their war plaques and pockmarked facades.

My view of history was forever changed by the realism of my present connected with the living proof of the past. These two book made history come alive, transported me to an age unknown previously and introduced me to a living history I would pursue throughout my life. The authors wrote, described, and set a scene so real that I was allowed to live among the pages of history, right before my teenaged eyes. A history so real that years later, I wondered if I had lived the dream of Desiree, young, in Paris and eager to experience the excitement of a future filled with mystery and romance.

I learned that Paris was not burning nor did young Desiree marry Napoleon but in those months before I started high school, I learned that history is made in each day we live and can be found within the pages of a book. Two books can change a life.

 

 

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Daily Bread

Early each morning children and housewives visit the Boulangerie to purchase baguettes, the long loaves of bread, we associate with French cuisine. The loaves poke from the string bag used by all to carry purchases from the market. Perhaps other treats are purchased from the Patisserie, the pastry shop, but a necessity in every French town is its Boulangerie. My initiation to the wonders of the bakery began soon after my arrival in St. Germain en Laye.

My father sprinkled centimes in my hand, the coin of the realm before the Euro, and gave me brief directions to the shop. He instructed me to ask for one loaf. His French was limited to the pertinent phrases he needed to navigate outside the NATO base where he worked and he struggled to translate the question for me. I left the apartment (another elevator ride to the street) and walked slowly up the cobblestone street, repeating the words he had spoken as a mantra. Bicyclists passed with loaves spearing like lances from the bags hung on handlebars. Housewives returned from the market weighed down with bags of produce and meat, loaves tucked under their arm. The loaves were long and thin, crusty outside with a soft sweet center.

I entered and stood inside the door of the small shop. The yeasty aroma of fresh bread mingled with the scent of fresh flowers perched on the glass case. Women stood near the case vying for the cashier’s attention. The rapid staccato of French gave the scene an urgent feel as I stepped forward to place my order. Suddenly, I was tongue-tied, the mantra deserted me and I stood, a young American girl surrounded by bustling French women. “Un pain s’il vous plaît,” I stuttered. My accent immediately alerted everybody in the shop and the hushed silence caused me to jingle my coins nervously. I stepped to the register, offered my centimes and grabbed the loaf. My face turned rosy with embarrassment as I made my way out the door clutching the bread to my side. Out on the street, I turned toward home and looked at my purchase. Instead of the long, thin, crusty spear of a baguette, I held a football shaped loaf. Clearly, I had made a mistake. Rather than face the same shoppers again, I raced through the alley, down the cobblestone steps and into the elevator. I had no idea what I had ordered, only that the loaf I brought home looked nothing like those common loaves of all the others in the shop.

Fortunately for me, there was a thick Berlitz guide to the French Language available. I admitted to my father the error I had made and searched the pages for the correct term. “Un pain” was an oval loaf, smaller in size than “un baguette” the more typical long thin loaf of every French household. It was a small yet crucial distinction, one I was careful to learn for my next foray into the Boulangerie of St. Germain en Laye. I also learned the difference between the Boulangerie (the bread bakery) and the Patisserie (the pastry bakery) although it would be some days before I developed the courage to explore the sweet wonders of the Patisserie.

Assortiments_de_Pt_11_petits_fours_assortiments

 

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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.

 

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