Category Archives: Culture shock

Dystopia Now

I’m in shock. I woke this morning up to find my familiar home adrift in an alligator-filled swamp. Where do I go from here?

Those of you who’ve been divorced will understand this feeling, that hollow thunk as the heavy realization lands on your guts. Someone I trusted, felt safe with, has just done something so out of character, so unforgiveable, that the marriage is irreparably rent.

Only it’s not my spouse, it’s my country. People I believed were smart, sturdy, good-hearted—they’ve voted like a pack of jeering twelve-year-olds, and they’ve elected the playground bully. My country is not what I thought it was. It no longer feels like home.

And the clown they’ve elected is abominably unqualified for the job. I pray that he gathers around him advisors with experience, education, and good will. So far, it’s not looking good.

When the smoke clears and we sweep up the debris, I’ll probably be OK. Even though the resultant stock market plunge will chew up large chunks of our safety net, my family won’t be out on the street. But I fear for my country.

Throughout my career as a teacher, I’ve promised kids that education was the key to a life with choices, opportunities, security. But now the reins have been grabbed by the kids who scoffed at school, who sneer at smart people, who think their white skin entitles them to stomp on anyone who doesn’t resemble them or toe their toxic line.

These are not my people.

And I have it easy: I’m white and, if not prosperous, at least in no immediate danger of losing my home or going hungry. Rabid packs of neo-Nazis aren’t likely to burn any crosses on my lawn. I can avoid the high-crime parts of town—I have that luxury. What about the people who are stuck there?

I’m an action-oriented person. I recover best from a dizzying blow when I can do something. It’s not in my nature to hunker down and wait. As disgusted as I am by the Trump voters, I recognize that they have some legitimate outrage. I don’t know how to fix meth-riddled Kansas, reality-TV-addled Louisiana, rusted-out Michigan—but I can reach out a hand in Tacoma. Divorce isn’t the answer here. Connection, dialogue, compassion—that’s our challenge during the next four years.

Right now, as I stare dumfounded at my computer screen, connecting Trump voters is the last thing I want to do. But there must be Republicans out there who still cherish the ideals of democracy, of opportunity, of respect for our fellow humans—even those who don’t look and act just like we do.

Please, God, let there be Republicans like that

Naked Ladies!

Does she need a towel?

Does she need a towel?

Whilst noodling around on the internet, looking for interesting blogs by women over fifty, I came across a funny bit about nudity in the locker room. Here’s the link, in case you’d like to read it for yourself: http://betterafter50.com/2014/03/10-reasons-to-wear-a-towel-in-the-locker-room/

I wrote a comment in reply and then realized that the original blog post was from March of 2014. This probably means that my comments of this blog post will never see the light of day—but how could I resist this juicy topic?

What the author of the above article seems to be saying, in a humorous way, is that she is very uncomfortable displaying what she perceives to be age-related flaws on her naked body, even in a setting (gym locker room) where nudity is to be expected, and thus she covers up her body with towels while changing, and she wishes we all would do the same.

I get it; I remember being quite shy about nudity when I was a kid and had to change for swimming lessons. I’d build a veritable tent of towels to keep from flashing any bit of my skinny body at my fellow swimmers. And when I joined the army at eighteen and had to shower in front of twenty other women—well, that took some getting used to. But we only had three minutes to shower during basic training, so I got used to it pretty fast. I remember girls who’d been athletes in high school rolling their eyes at our prissiness; they’d long ago gotten over fear of locker-room nudity.

What I don’t get is the idea, presented in the above blog post, that it’s normal to be ashamed of our aging bodies, and to feel bad about same when confronted with youthful bodies. In fact, I say that exposure to naked bodies in the locker room is beneficial to the sanity of all women and girls. Hear me out.

It goes back to swimming lessons—this time my daughter’s. You see, she grew up in Germany, where I worked on U.S. military bases. Germany is a dark, dreary place during the long winter months, but there are many lovely indoor swimming pool facilities available where people can shed their winter clothes and enjoy some warmth and wholesome exercise. And Germans are (wisely, in my opinion) much less hung-up than we about nudity in locker rooms and saunas. In fact, one must be naked to enter a German sauna; of course, one sits on a towel. I wish my fellow gym patrons in the U.S. would remember their towels and not plump their nude rumps down onto the sauna or steam room bench. But I digress.

While in German locker rooms, my daughter and I saw many, many naked female bodies, from tiny children to very old women. There’s nothing like in-your-face evidence to teach you that the human form comes in a great variety; something you’d never learn from looking at advertisements designed to make us feel bad about said variety. I’m glad my daughter got to see for herself, during her growing-up years, that the idealized female figure currently in vogue—slim hips, flat belly, big breasts, long, thin limbs—almost never occurs in nature. She saw that big, round boobs usually occurr on bodies with big, round bellies and butts. Slim hips and flat bellies usually go with slim, small breasts. We saw tall, gangly women; big, strong women; tiny, wiry women; round, soft women—all of them reveling in the joy of movement and the feeling of the water against their skin. I hope that this first-hand learning experience helped her to have more realistic expectations about her own body, and others’ as well.

Another area where all this nudity is helpful is in our understanding and acceptance of what aging does to the human body. Whether carefully groomed or blissfully unconcerned, every woman over 50 or so showed evidence of gravity’s effects, and time’s. But our German sisters seemed less concerned with hiding that as well. It’s normal, after all, for skin to be looser, for breasts to flatten out or hang lower after having nursed children, and so on. And it’s not hideous. In fact, even the bodies of very old ladies were not hideous. My daughter once pointed out how even the oldest ladies had smooth, white skin on the parts of their bodies that didn’t see the sun.

Really, what I took away from my exposure to all these naked bodies is that, underneath her clothes, no one looks quite as good as advertisements would have us believe, and no one looks quite as bad as our prejudices would have us believe. These naked ladies in the locker room just looked human. And I think it’s very good for girls and young women to understand what’s coming—not so they’ll be depressed, but so they’ll understand that youthful beauty is fleeting, something to be enjoyed when it’s here, but not something whose absence leads to despair. We have so much more to offer than our youthful beauty, and there are so many forces at work trying to convince us, and our daughters, otherwise. And so I say, here’s to naked ladies!

In search of Je ne sais quoi

 

Nancy, France, spring 2014

Nancy, France, spring 2014

I’m on a French kick. Lately, I’ve been muttering to myself in French – perhaps because my efforts at learning Spanish are kicking up the French-language debris that lines the foreign-language portion of my brain. And I’ve been looking in my closet and dreaming of simple, elegant, chic ensembles. I yearn for a smaller, well-organized wardrobe based on classic, good-quality pieces like a tailored jacket, a cashmere sweater, a crisp white blouse, ankle-length jeans, ballerina flats, and the all-important LBD. Of course, I’ve seen few Tacomans who dress like that, but so what? Isn’t retirement all about going my own way and discovering my own preferences? I already own enough scarves to bedeck a city block of Parisiennes, and a genuine beret Basque. The classic, slim silhouette of a French femme d’un certain age – that’s what I need to feel bien dans ma peau – at ease, confident, and full of joie de vivre. (See? What did I tell you? French phrases littering the place like autumn leaves.)

This yearning for all things French is largely due to homesickness – not only for Europe, but for who I once was – Madame S., prof de français. Even after I changed jobs and ceased teaching French, I continued to live near France (in western Germany) and travelled there frequently. I’ve been sorting through some photos this week, which is a much more time-consuming process on the computer than it used to be when we just printed up our snapshots and put them into an album – or into a shoe box with the promise that one day we’d put them into an album. In any case, I keep running across shots of the Loire valley, of châteaux I’ve visited there, of my daughter and me in Paris during her senior year of high school, of a long-ago me shepherding students through Paris, or Strasbourg, or Verdun, or even Hagenau, a cute little town in Lorraine that was an easy day’s outing from our school in northern Bavaria. And I found dozens of photos of my mom, daughter, husband and me in Colmar, one of the most beautiful towns in Alsace – crisscrossed with canals, the half-timbered houses with drunkenly-sloped tiled roofs, and windows bedecked with explosions of geraniums – so lovely, so comfortable, so far away.

Colmar, summer of 2012.

Colmar, summer of 2012.

But part of this French kick is also a reaction against the sloppy aesthetic of so many women my age. OK – at the family literacy program where I’ve been volunteering, some of the instructors dress up for work in proper dresses or nice slacks and blouses. Aha – my use of the word “proper” is a clue – my inner snob is pushing back against the laissez-faire approach to personal grooming that reigns here in my new home. I yearn to find a sidewalk café where I can sip espresso and read or write or contemplate deep, philosophical questions while watching interesting people stroll by. I want to be called Madame by a black and white-clad waiter with a cool attitude – instead of being chirped at by a cheerleader type: “Hi there! How are you today? Are you having a fantastic day? What can I get started for you? An Americano? Perfect!”

No honey, it’s not perfect. Perfect would be a place where I could sit comfortably and the waitress would come to me, take my order in modulated tones, and not insist on chirping at me until the coffee is ready. I loathe, despise and abominate chirpiness. And I’m not a cranky pants most of the time – really, I’m not. I find people fascinating – all sorts of people, but I just want a peaceful pause in my day to sip my caffeine and read a bit, or perhaps just stare out the window and watch the passers-by, as they do in France. Sigh.

Loire Valley, Spring 2014

Loire Valley, Spring 2014

A few days ago, I was in a restaurant with my husband. At the next table were a gaggle of women about my age – 50s, some perhaps in their 40s. They were drinking wine and laughing –well, braying and cackling – very loudly. Perhaps they were having a girls’ night out, having a few (loud!) laughs after work. But I got the strong feeling that they were all single – perhaps divorced? They were all well-groomed and dressed in work outfits – expensive-looking, snug pants with dressy blouses. Each one had obviously colored, streaked and styled hair – rather stiff, and plenty of makeup. Each one looked a bit anxious, checking out the room – for possible dates? For the impression she was making? Even though they were having (loud!) fun, they didn’t look at ease, confident, comfortable. They were a bit on edge, checking out the room for the impression they were making.

There’s a sexiness to the French woman that comes from being comfortable, from a firm sense of who she is. She knows herself, and dresses to please; a Frenchwoman always aims to seduire (to charm, to please) – not just men, but all the people with whom she comes into contact. But she has a basic confidence that this table of attractive-but-trying-too-hard American women obviously lacked. And that confidence is sexy.  Even – or especially – older French women, les femmes d’un certain âge, project this sexy, effortless (or seemingly so) confidence, and that’s what I’m aiming for – even here in my new home. Vive l’esprit français – even in Tacoma!

Shopping in the Galeries LaFayette, Paris, 2011.

Shopping in the Galeries LaFayette, Paris, 2011.

Here’s a list of books that I’ve enjoyed on French style and the French lifestyle, just in case you’re feeling a bit Frenchie yourself:

  • Parisian Chic: A Style Guide by Ines de la Fressange, with Sophie Gachet. Such lovely photos! A quick read for a rainy day, with excellent recommendations for a simple, classy French wardrobe, styling tricks, grooming advice, and pages of Ines’s tips for your next visit to Paris – good fodder for daydreaming.
  • Chic and Slim; Chic and Slim Encore; Chic and Slim Techniques by Anne Barone. Thess slim volumes by a Texan show how French techniques can be applied to the U.S. lifestyle with splendid results. Oh, and she has another book out: Chic and Slim Toujours, which contains advice for aging gracefully à la française. I must buy this! Check out her blog at annebarone.com.
  • French Style by Veronique Vienne. Another slim volume with lovely vintage photos and philosophical inspiration.
  • All of Mireille Guiliano’s books: French Women Don’t Get Fat; French Women for All Seasons; and I’m currently reading French Women Don’t Get Facelifts. Her voice is delightful, and her advice practical and oh-so-applicable. Guiliano lives part-time in the U.S., so she knows the cultural and practical barriers to applying French techniques and attitudes here.
  • Fatale: How French Women Do It by Eduth Kunz. Her chapter “Of a Certain Age” is particularly inspiring.
  • French Women Don’t Sleep Alone, by Jamie Cat Callan. Erica Jong called this book “Adorable!” – and so do I. She analyzes that supreme confidence – not arrogance, just self-knowledge and self-acceptance – that makes French women so alluring.
  • All You Need to Be Impossibly French, by Helena Frith Powell, an Englishwoman who makes very perspicacious comparisons between the attitudes and practices of her countrywomen and les françaises. Sharp, funny, realistic.
  • French Toast, by Harriet Welty Rochefort. An American marries into a French family and learns volumes about the puzzling, wise, mysterious ways of the French. Very funny, full of illustrative anecdotes.
  • Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl, by Debra Ollivier. A well-rounded look at the attitudes and lifestyle of French women, with many fascinating historical vignettes.

And of course, this list doesn’t even begin to touch on the many French cookbooks that have inspired me, nor on the many delightful works of fiction about U.S. or English women who made the transplant to l’hexagone. Hmm – perhaps my next novel should be about a middle-aged woman in the U.S. who decides to polish up her lackluster lifestyle by living like a Frenchwoman? That could be très amusant.

 

Winter Solstice – Time for Reflection and Homesickness

Trier Christmas Market

The Christmas Market in Trier, my former home.

It’s eight-thirty, and the morning light is feeble and steely gray. The trees outside my kitchen window are dancing in the wind off the Puget Sound. Today is the shortest day of the year, mild and blustery. It’s also been about six months since I started this new life: retired after twenty-six years of teaching in Germany, back in the U.S. in a new town, new friends – just a few, but meeting more and more interesting people – and a completely new lifestyle: nearly every day is a Sunday! What I mean by that is that I have the gift of time, and no more excuses for not going after my goals and dreams that I’ve nattered on about throughout my working years.

I recall that after my last big shake-up, moving away from my longtime home to start over in a new community, the shock and homesickness and regret hit me hard right at the six-month mark. And it’s happening again – how I miss my old life in Germany, my old friends, and especially the German way of celebrating Christmas! Yesterday at Doug’s lovely Christmas party, we all sang Christmas carols to the accompaniment of some very talented musicians. When the piano player led us in a chorus of Stille Nacht in German, I launched in enthusiastically, but couldn’t finish – my voice choked by tears. My homesickness is still too raw for me to sing German Christmas songs. The mourning for my life in Europe comes in waves, as was predicted by other returning ex-pats, and Christmastime is a big wave indeed.

Trierer Weihnachtsmarkt

Christmas market in front of the Trierer Dom (cathedral).

There are no Weihnachtsmärkte in Tacoma – those wonderful German Christmas markets in the historical city/town center, with booths that look like little alpine cabins. I’d visit as many of those as possible each year, soaking up the atmosphere, and the Glühwein, steaming mugs of sweet red wine spiced with cinnamon, anise, nutmeg and orange rind. Nothing drove away the bite of the winter cold like Glühwein, and nothing made me feel instantly Christmassy like a stroll through the booths where artisans sold all manner of hand-crafted gifts and decorations: carved wooden tree ornaments and nativity scenes, hand-made soap and candles, gingerbread and fruit cake (The German version is really delicious!), knit hats, scarves and gloves, jewelry made of semi-precious stones and silver, or sparkling glass beads, fluffy slippers made of sheepskin and fleece – I could do all my Christmas shopping right there, outdoors, and then fortify myself against the cold with a sizzling Bratwurst, a paper boat of mushrooms swimming in creamy garlic sauce, a flatbread hot from the wood-fired oven and topped with goat cheese, bacon and walnuts, or perhaps a Dampfnudel, a steaming, fluffy wheat bun filled with sweet cherry goo and topped with hot vanilla custard sauce. And don’t forget the candied almonds! All the delicious smells are drifting back to me on the winds of memory.

Sure, there were stores in Germany, big and small, over-decorated for the holidays and offering the usual gift items, both useful and useless, but to get to these stores we strolled down the streets of the pedestrian zone at the city center, past beautiful historical buildings, past buskers of all sorts, past tents and booths where this church group or that civic club was selling hot chocolate, more Glühwein, and homemade German Christmas cookies – the kind made with ground hazelnuts and dipped in dark chocolate or kissed with jam and powdered sugar. Here in Tacoma we have some pleasant shopping streets, but they’re plagued by traffic, and no one has set up booths outdoors so that we can enjoy the winter weather – which is mostly rainy, so what would be the point of an outdoor market? And we have the mall, which I avoid at all costs. Nothing cheapens the holiday mood like a mall, with its too-loud Muzak and its too-tacky decorations and its schlocky merchandise. Ugh!

And so, for me, this Christmas is a time for regret and longing for Christmas past. You can’t live in another culture that long and not have its ways seep into your soul. But it’s not a bleak Christmas for us – far from it! The invitations and holiday concerts have been coming thick and fast. Tacoma has a lively theater and music scene, and we’ve enjoyed two lavish Christmas shows: the Seattle Men’s Chorus presented Our Gay Apparel, and the Tacoma Christmas Revels took us back to the Italian Renaissance. The former was just as fabulous as you’d expect, and more. My favorite number was “Marvelous Holiday Sweater,” in which dancers paraded across the stage in the most outrageous Christmas outfits you can imagine while the chorus (very large and very talented) sang the glories of dressing up for the holidays. The latter show – well, when I saw the program, I braced myself for a long afternoon of dreary madrigals, but I could not have been more wrong! The large, gorgeously costumed cast presented a lively progression of Renaissance music and funny skits that had us singing along and dancing in the aisles. It was great fun! And generous friends, old and new, have been including us in their celebrations. There’s lots to do here, and lots of holiday spirit – as long as I stay away from the mall. And we’re nearer to family now. I was able to spend Thanksgiving with my mom and daughter, and we’ll spend Christmas with D’s brothers and their extended families here, which means I’m able to borrow some grandchildren for the holidays. (Take your time, dear daughter. I’m content to borrow grandchildren until you’re ready to produce some.)

And so, dear friends and family, I wish you a Christmas steeped in whichever traditions are dear to you. May you enjoy a blessed yule, a reflective solstice, and the warmth of friends and family. Frohe Weihnachten!

Culture Shock?

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another. ~Anatole France

I’ve been back in the US for two months now, after having lived in Germany for over 28 years. People have been asking me, “So, are you experiencing culture shock?” The answer’s not as easy as I’d anticipated. Yes, there are things that I miss about Germany and about living in Europe, but I’ve been too busy settling into my new home and new life to focus much on that. I’ve read that expats who return to the US often go through a period of mourning. Wow – mourning. Will readjusting to live in the US really be that difficult? For the time being, I’m trying to focus more on what I enjoy about this new situation than on what I miss about “home.”

Here are some things I love about living in Tacoma:

  • The weather. Really – it’s hardly rained at all! I know that I can expect some serious dampness in the coming months, but summers up here are warm and lovely. Right now I’m sitting in the back yard, listening to the patter of the lawn sprinkler and enjoying the late-summer warmth. And back “home” in Bitburg, my loved ones are starting their school year in the high 50s. Blech.
  • The huge, mature trees. They’re everywhere, soaring over even the dumpiest neighborhoods. I’m sitting under a tall ornamental cherry tree, and over my shoulder is a magnificent magnolia. The evening air is still, but when the wind blows, the tall firs down the street wave hello. And there’s a mimosa tree across the way – I thought they only grew in hot climates. Living in the Pacific Northwest is like living in a green, well-planted park.
  • The parks! Tacoma has several, and we’ve only begun to explore them. Today we walked along the Puget Sound in Point Defiance Park. The Tacomans (Tacomites? Tacomians? Tacomazoids?) of the 1800s and early 1900s gifted us with some lovely green spaces in which to relax. Thank you!
  • The sea. OK – it’s the Puget Sound, but it’s salt water, and it smells like the sea. This will be the first winter since my childhood that I’ll be able to visit the sea; that was always a summertime treat, living in landlocked Germany. The sea speaks to me, and I can visit her every day if I wish.
  • Friendly, helpful people. Now, I’m not going to start in on German standoffishness. Most German people I met were at least pleasant, and many were salt-of-the-earth, warm-hearted, generous people. But there’s a certain correctness, a certain distance in everyday dealings with German strangers and acquaintances. Sometimes I like that, such as when waiters are not overly chummy and intrusive. (For goodness sake, let us eat a few bites before asking, “How are we doing? Anything else I can get you guys?”) On the other hand, I find most people here to be relaxed, friendly and helpful in a way that’s very welcoming. And even though I value learning other languages, it’s a relief not to have to constantly think about how to phrase what I want to say. It’s so relaxing to be a native speaker.
  • It’s fun to work out at the Y!M!C!A! Oh my gosh, I love this place! The Morgan Family Y in Tacoma is a huge facility with great equipment, a big pool, a plethora of fun exercise classes, and the members are so diverse – everyone from little tiny kiddos to very elderly people can be found working out and playing at the Y. This is what fitness should be about – it’s a welcoming place for the whole community. And now that we’re retired, we’re working out pretty regularly.
  • Sixth Avenue, Proctor Ave, and the theater district in Tacoma – all full of funky, quirky little shops, cafes, nightclubs, restaurants. The walkability of these areas and the attractive old buildings give these parts of town a “European” vibe, so we can get a bit of the feeling of “home.”

On the other hand, there are some strange foreign ways here that puzzle me. For instance:

  • My fellow Americans, your wardrobe choices are often perplexing. I’m all for freedom of expression, but do y’all look in the mirror from time to time? For example, what’s with the knit caps, young people? The weather’s been in the 80s most days, and yet I keep seeing young people wearing warm knit hats. Today I saw a young woman at the beach, standing in the water, wearing a bikini and a knit hat. ????
  • No umbrellas? We’ve only had a few rainy days, but the other day when I entered a coffee shop I looked around in vain for a place to put my dripping umbrella. You see, in Germany, where it rains a great deal, every café, restaurant and office has an umbrella stand right inside the front door. That way you don’t dribble all over the floor. But a few natives have already informed me that “We don’t use umbrellas around here.” Well, y’all go right ahead and get wet if that makes you happy, but I’m going to carry an umbrella. I don’t obey silly rules.
  • Wow, groceries are expensive! I’m learning how to shop all over again, and I’m afraid it’s going to involve a lot of driving back and forth across town. This place offers a decent price on fish; that place way over there has affordable produce, and Trader Joe’s has all sorts of culinary treats – but it’s way over on the other side of town. Grocery shopping takes strategy around here!
  • Speaking of prices, how do they get away with charging so much for very ordinary restaurant meals? Just sayin’ – as the young people in floppy caps (and bikinis) say.
  • It’s spelled Puyallup, but it’s pronounced “Pew-allup.” How come? Either spell it like it sounds, or say it like it’s spelled! But I’m looking forward to going to the state fair there next month.
  • Noisy people. In Germany, anständige Leute (respectable people) do not yell in restaurants. But here? With your tasty lunch you get a free side of – pandemonium! We went to a “nice” pub-style restaurant the other day, and the people at the next table over, well-dressed middle-aged people, were shrieking and hollering at each other! And the general noise level was what I’d expect to encounter at a football stadium, right after the home team scores a winning touchdown. Hush, people! Use your inside voices! I feel my German sensibilities bristling when I can’t tune out those loud voices. And don’t tell me to just ignore them, dear reader – their noisiness is inappropriate for the setting and occasion, and it’s inconsiderate.

I must admit that I already miss that German sense of Ordnung, a sense of order and occasion that makes daily life a bit less chaotic. Intellectually, I respect people’s freedom to express themselves, but at the gut level, my inner German is having a hard time with some of my fellow Americans.

Well then, I guess there is some culture shock at work here after all.