Tags: Blogging, Children, Family, Growing Up, History, Life, Motherhood, Poetry, Relationships, Travel
This sweater is old.
It’s an odd mottle of colors, like the dollops of paint my son swirls around and around.
It’s Kraft-cheese stripes are an accidental hybrid of funk and tang.
It’s exactly as frayed as it ought to be.
This sweater has been places.
I bought it, cheap, on the beach in France. Hundreds of flip-flopped tourists.
I was the cold one.
When I slip my arms through, I hear the wailing wind as it leaps from the Cliffs of Moher.
The whispers in the Sistine Chapel.
The sizzle of frying calamari at that tapas bar in Madrid.
This sweater reminds me.
My mom. Rocking, rocking. The worn springs strumming a lullaby — woom, woom, woom.
My forehead burrowed in the brown-sugar knits and purls of the sweater she wore, always.
The one that smells like her. Like buttercups and post-its and cherry tomatoes and safety.
It’s exactly as frayed as it ought to be.
This sweater will remind them.
I hold them. I listen to their tales: timeouts, worksheets, noodle soup, ladybugs.
I drink them in. Their longness and leanness. The freckle on her shoulder. His eyelashes.
My God, his eyelashes.
Their synapses churn out data, imprinting this, all of this, onto the endless RAM of childhood.
They will remember.
I hope they will remember.
This sweater is old.
This sweater has been places.
This sweater is time, memory, instinct, life.
It’s exactly as frayed as it ought to be.
Tags: Birthday, Challenges, Children, Conversation, Culture Shock, Expats, Language, Perspectives, Romania, Small Talk
I’m at a place called Boom Party Club.
Pop music blares. The disco ball whirls. Preschoolers shimmy.
It’s a five-year-old’s birthday party in Cluj-Napoca, Romania.
While two child-minders in princess dresses lead imaginary dragon hunts and make balloon swords, the parents — me, a French couple, and 7 or 8 Romanians — relax in the back room around platters of schnitzel de pui and salata de cartofi.
After pleasantries in English and a round of gin and tonics, conversation turns to the usual adult fare: the economy, traffic, chicken pox, and the upcoming class trip to the football stadium.
There’s talk of a helicopter ride over the field.
At least, I think so.
At some point I don’t quite notice, the Romanians switch back to their native tongue, leaving me and the French couple swirling our empty gin glasses and reaching for more meatballs.
I catch words I know: grădiniţă, maşină, varicelă.
I laugh when I’m supposed to.
I chime in with a da, da! every once in a while.
But, honestly, I haven’t got a clue.
And it’s more refreshing than the salt-rimmed frozen margarita with fresh lime juice I haven’t had in 10 months.
Instead of wracking my brain for something to say about the latest Greece bailout, I admire the beadwork on one mother’s purse. I slip pretzels to the two-year-old in pigtails winding her way through our feet. I take a long but inconspicuous look at the woman across the room who I’ve heard has a newborn at home. She’s wearing high heels and mascara. Her hair is freshly blow-dried. I marvel.
Then I realize the room is quiet. Everyone is looking at me. I blink.
“American schools?” one of the dads asks. “Are they worth what you pay?”
I have no idea if he’s talking about preschools or primary schools or massage schools. I pause and say “um, well, uh” a few times before coming up with something vaguely intelligent. Or at least something vague.
Eventually, the English words dissolve back into Romanian ones, and I resume parceling out pretzels to the pig-tailed toddler. I wonder how many grown-ups are sitting in uncomfortable folding chairs in San Francisco and Duluth and Tulsa right this very moment, double-dipping potato chips into ramekins of ranch dressing and talking about the state of education. Or how the soccer team is doing. Or the latest economic bailout.
When the child-minders beckon, we sing to the birthday girl. We eat strawberry cake and bop to catchy Romanian standards like De Zuia Ta.
Under the sparkly shine of the disco ball, I collect kids, shoes, and party favors. We say thank you. Mulţumesc! And goodbye. La revedere! The hostess and I cheek-kiss, as you do in Europe.
And we slip out the door of Boom Party Club, where cultures ricochet off one another like the children moshing inside to the thumping bass.
Tags: Children, Europe, Expats, Five for Five, Gypsies, Minorities, Prejudice, Roma, Romania, Stereotypes
After you’ve been in Romania a while, you can tell who they are.
You look quick. And then you look away. Because staring too long makes you an easy mark.
With their oil-black hair, nutmeg skin, and onyx eyes, they are exotic and beautiful and shrewd. They peddle flowers and glass and potatoes. They stand by the OMV gas station on the E60 and wait for men to pick them up. They make some of the most enchanting music you’ve ever heard.
A mother and her two daughters came up to my car once, while I was buckling the baby in. Bani, vă rog? they asked, their hands reaching over me and casing the black cloth seats. Alimente? Bani? Pentru copii?
With my own hands full of five-point harness straps, I tried maneuvering my shoulders to block them. Nu, nu înţeleg, nu vorbesc româneşte, I said, even though I knew exactly what they wanted.
I managed to slam the back door and slip into the driver’s seat. But not before one of the girls noticed our cache of change for parking meters and shopping carts. Bani? she asked as she stretched across me. I shoved a few silver coins into her hand and pushed her away. She eyed two forgotten Snicker’s bars in the door pocket. Ciocolată, she demanded. I gave her one and tugged the door closed.
She was seven, maybe eight.
I sat there. I watched her. I looked at my grocery list and the cloth bags in the passenger seat. Soon, they would be filled with milk and eggs and bread and yogurt and apples and cookies and pasta and all the things my family consumes in a week. When was the last time that little girl had a glass of milk? I wondered. An apple? A plate of spaghetti and a tomato-sauce mustache?
She stuffed half the Snicker’s bar into her mouth, pocketed the other half, and scurried up the road to join her mother and sister, who were rummaging through the trash cans at the top of the hill.
Without really thinking about it, I started the car and drove up beside her. I rolled down the window and handed her the other bar. She looked at me for a long second before taking it. What did she see? I wondered. A gullible stranger? A “rich” foreigner? A haughty bitch? Or someone who cared, at least for that moment?
As her mother and sister noticed us, they waved their hands and shouted. Bani, vă rog! Alimente! Pentru copii! I shifted into third and turned the corner, leaving that little girl with her 30 cents, her chocolate bars, and the mother who had taught her how to beg so she wouldn’t starve.
What would it take for her life to change? For her to go to college and get a job? For her to one day laugh at spaghetti mustaches on her own children’s faces?
Had I helped? Or hurt?
And who really needed to change? Her? Or me?
Note: I’ve lived in Romania for 10 months. I don’t fully understand or have answers for the poverty and discrimination the Roma face in this country. But I know what I see, what I feel, and how I long for something to change. For me, writing it down is the first step.
Tags: Birthday, Children, Expats, Family, Life, Milestones, Motherhood, Perspectives, Relationships, Romania
My birthday is this week.
Maybe it’s because I’m so very far away from my family. Or because Romania doesn’t have buttercream icing. But I’ve found myself doing a lot of self-reflection as I cross another year off the calendar. It’s like I’m sorting through my mental manila file folders (I love those!) and clearing out my collection of memories. Keep? Toss? Share?
And this question: What’s missing?
In my 34 years, I’ve birthed three children, 943 blog posts, and countless magazine articles.
I’ve sold Girl Scout cookies and magazine subscriptions. I wasn’t very good at either.
I’ve seen Yellowstone and the Parthenon and kangaroos hopping across a golf course.
I’ve stood in the middle of Dachau and been crushed by the infinite sorrow of that place.
I once walked down the Champs-Élysées alone on an August afternoon and felt my soul slip into place. Like all the pieces finally, finally fit.
I’ve ridden a roller coaster and slept in a tent. If I never did either of those things again, I’d be just fine with that. Seriously.
I’ve run a half-marathon. The whole damn thing. Every single hill.
I fell off my bike and broke my wrist when I was 9. I fell off a Vespa and broke my leg when I was 33.
I’ve cleaned puke off train tracks and My Little Ponies and stuffed ducks in the middle of the night.
I’ve avoided more conflicts than I can count, like the time I hid in the bushes outside the library to avoid telling this really sweet guy that I didn’t want to go out with him. (He’s not reading, I’m sure. But just in case, I’m so, so sorry.)
I’ve taken 8,000 pictures and used up probably that many glue sticks.
I’ve spent hours worrying. Hours and hours. About car crashes and cancer and, well, everything.
I’ve never made a diorama or gotten poison ivy.
I’ve looked my children straight in the eye and told them that, no, Mommy is not eating chocolate.
I made straight A’s my whole entire life. And now I think, who cares?
I can’t really cook or sew or grow things. But I floss my teeth every day, and I’m pretty sure that counts for something.
As I type this list, as I think my way through this birthday week, I wonder … Is this enough? What does “enough” even mean?
After the cake is gone and the wrapping paper is in shreds under my chair, what really matters? It it enough that I love my husband? That I love my kids? That I try every day to love myself?
Is that enough? Am I enough?
And how do I know?
Have you ever given yourself the gift of introspection? Did you find clarity? Peace of mind? Renewed sense of purpose? Or did you just want another piece of birthday cake?
Tags: Balance, Challenges, Expats, Holidays, Life, Martisor, Perspectives, Romania, Snow, Winter
Spring is in the Romanian air.
The temperature is still tap-dancing around freezing. The kids still laugh hysterically when they see their breath in the car. And I’m still wearing my beloved YakTrax. But spring? It’s here.
How do I know? Last week, I had an animated discussion about the pile of snow clinging to the roof with the old man who takes care of our building. He spoke some fast Romanian. He gestured a lot and stomped his feet. He made kapow! noises.
I nodded knowingly.
Even though I’ve never seen snow like this in my life. Let alone three months of snow about to fall off a roof. My roof.
We concluded that the deluge would happen in the next day or so … then ricochet off the covered front porch … and then explode right into the spot on the street where I had carefully spent 15 minutes parallel parking.
I moved the car. And seriously considered buying us all helmets. Just in case.
The next morning, there it was. Right where he said it would. In the empty parking spot everyone else had had the sense to avoid.
As I stared at the smashed snow-pie in the road, it hit me. (Figuratively, of course.) I’m a rookie. Winter — real, cold, and brutal — is new to me.
But so is this life, this expat life filled with roundabouts and rolled r’s and purple money.
With spicy ketchup and cherry moonshine.
With holidays like last week’s Mărţişor, which celebrates the women, spring, and the exile of long underwear.
Or I can open my arms and embrace whatever falls into my path.
Right after I put my helmet on.
Tags: Adoption, Challenges, Children, Courage, Family, Fatherhood, Leap Year, Motherhood, Relationships
Thousands of miles and 16 leap years ago, a little boy was born in a hospital in Houston, Texas. He lived and died and knew love in those short 24 hours of February 29, 1952.
He was the second baby my grandparents lost.
The second baby born with lungs that just couldn’t do the work they were meant to do. The second baby my grandmother birthed without meeting, holding, touching. The second baby my grandfather buried under the pecan trees in their town’s small cemetery.
Their children would never live, that’s what the doctors told them.
They went home. They carried on. They tended their crops, darned their socks, and made fresh cornbread. They tried not to imagine little fingers that would never know the satisfaction of a little patch of fertile dirt. Little feet that would never shuffle across their floor. Little mouths that would never holler for second helpings from their kitchen table.
For 448 days, they carried on. 448 days.
Then, they took a leap of faith.
Unblinking, they looked right at the rigid, unspoken, stifling definition of a family in the American South of the 1950s. And they found the courage to look beyond it, to rewrite it with the words their hearts had never stopped whispering.
They adopted a baby girl. My mom.
They dressed her in bonnets to keep the hot Texas sun off her fair skin. They took her on pony rides. They held her and hugged her and savored the scent of her sweet blond curls.
They loved her like she was their own.
Because she was. She is. And so am I.
Have you ever taken a leap of faith? Ever found courage you didn’t know you had? Ever been awed by the strength of those you love?
Tags: Boys, Challenges, Children, Kids, Life, Motherhood, Parenting, Personal, Perspectives, Sleep
Some days, I’m that mom.
The one yelling in the produce aisle. The one refusing to get out the glue sticks because I just can’t handle the mess. The one who gives up and puts on their damn shoes for them because they won’t do it themselves and we have to be there five minutes ago.
Some days, I sing lullabies, tuck blankets, kiss cheeks, and smooth damp, coconut-scented hair on autopilot. Because I’ve been waiting all day to shut that door. To hug the silence instead of my children. To walk through the kitchen without having to hop over toys, refill milk, offer 41 snack suggestions, saute an onion, add three things to the grocery list, sweep up the smashed corn flakes, and wipe the black marker off the table.
Some days, I’m pretty sure I’d get fired from this mothering job if that were an option.
Some days, I wonder where that girl went. The one at the top of her class for 19 years. The one who juggled 23 clubs and concerts and meetings and projects — and was good at it. The one who always looked ahead, always planned on a career, and never imagined wearing the same pair of sweat pants three days in a row. The one with ambition.
Some days, I wash the last sippy cup and collapse into bed, so exhausted that even my fingernails are tired. I dread sleep. Because it’s just a weary stretch of blackness between days that are all the same. Days that end with me pulling used tissues and rejected purple gummy snacks from my pockets. Days with a full laundry basket and an empty heart. Endless, endless days.
And then, in the darkness, the swoosh, swoosh, swoosh of scampering sock feet wakes me. The door hinge I keep meaning to WD-40 creaks and the smallest, sweetest voice I’ve ever heard whispers, “Momma, I’m scared.” The power has gone out. And he’s sure he saw that monster, the mean orange one, in the closet again.
I sit up, prepared to shuffle him back to his room and tuck him in — the blue blanket, then the yellow blanket, then the red blanket. The words “There’s no monster, buddy” are already on my tongue. But he climbs in beside me before I can say anything. His brown eyes droop as he pulls the comforter up to his chin. In seconds, he’s asleep. His soft, shaggy blond hair touches the aqua collar of his Batman pajamas.
I lie back down and stare at him. At his eyelashes, long and lush and brown. At his cheeks, still spotted with pink from the cold he’s fighting. At the tiny smile on his face as he dreams about cookies and race cars.
I love this child so much I can feel my heart squeezing the air out of my lungs to make room for it all.
Some days, I know I am lucky.
So very, very lucky.
Do you have days (or nights) like these? Do you ever wonder what happened to the girl you used to be? When mothering gets tedious, how do you remind yourself that it’s worth it?
Tags: Challenges, Expats, Family, Holidays, Love, Personal, Romania, Valentine's Day, Winter
We’ve hit a rough patch, you and me. And I’m not just talking about that layer of ice at the end of the driveway.
I’m coming to realize that our relationship isn’t a fairy tale. For us? There’s no happily ever after. I mean, we always knew that we weren’t meant to last, that I would be the one to leave.
But there’s still time.
And in the few months we have left together, I want to remember all that I love about you. I want to magic-marker that list on my mental bulletin board and draw your name with curlicue letters that have hearts over the i’s. I want something to hold onto when we’re apart.
I love that there’s something unexpected around your every corner. A woman and her chickens hanging laundry. A basketball goal. A mini Cooper with racing stripes. A snail. A carport vineyard. Every day, always, you make me smile.
I love that everything about you is connected. I walk to the neighborhood market for a liter of milk and hear the mid-morning church bells on the way. I pass the park and stop in so the kids can zoom down the yellow slide and then the purple one. On the way home, we count the taxis lining the piaţa, their bumpers stuck together like a set of checkered magnets.
I love the friends you’ve given me. With names like Liviu and Florica and Horia and Mihaela. From as far away as Jordan and Sweden and Delaware. From as close as three buildings down. It’s equal parts strange and wonderful that our lives have intersected. That we are together, here, now.
I love your nonchalance. Park on the sidewalk? Sure. Ketchup and corn on your pizza? Okay. A hundred fluffy sheep grazing sun-kissed stalks in front of a dazzling onion-domed church? Oh, right.
Romania, you’ve been the adventure that I hoped for. You’ve opened my eyes and my heart to a culture so very different from my own. You’ve offered up decent chocolate and decadent donuts time and time again.
Let’s savor these next few months together. Let’s hold hands and whisper gently and slow down. Let’s sit, quietly, under that amazing apple tree and imagine the snowflakes are tiny buds, fresh and white and new. Because I can see the end of this road, our road, just beyond the unfurled blooms.
Have you ever written a love note to a place? What do you love about where you live? And how do you remind yourself?
Tags: Challenges, Expats, Family, Harry Potter, Magic, Personal, Perspectives, Relationships, Romania, Winter
I’m late posting today. Instead of sitting down to dash something out while the baby coughed and napped and coughed some more, I curled up on the couch with my grandmother’s afghan and my Kindle. I devoured the last 15 percent of the seventh Harry Potter book, something I’d been trying to do all weekend.
I knew how it ends. I’d read it before.
Still, I needed to see all set right in that world. Harry wins. Voldemort loses. Snape is vindicated, and Ron and Hermione finally get together. I clicked to the last page. Sated. Satisfied. Done.
But everything else? Here in Romania? Undone.
It’s still snowing. The heater in the kids’ room is still broken. And our search for decent orange juice and a few measly leaves of spinach continues.
We are still Red-Rovering our way through bureaucratic and corporate red tape, trying to figure out what to do about our improperly processed visas … and whether, if given the choice, we will stay or go. We want to stay. The painted churches, the ice hotel, Euro Disney — there’s so much still to see. But sometimes (and more often lately, if I’m honest) the lure of home calls as clearly as a good, old-fashioned land line.
Frozen waffles. Dryer sheets. Kindergarten registration. Dr. Pepper. These are the things that await us at home, not to mention family, friends, pets, and a frozen margarita or two.
Here, all that’s frozen is our windshield wipers. And the cuffs of our snow-caked jeans as we try, almost daily, to dig our car out of a new white trench.
Yesterday, it happened again. I got behind the wheel to steer as my husband pushed and cursed and sweated in the still-falling snow. The old man who takes care of our building saw me. He shouted and gestured, assuming I’d run us into the bushes.
Me, the woman, the one who’s supposed to work a stove, not a clutch.
It could have been me. Easily. But this time? It wasn’t.
And I yearned desperately for the words to tell him so. For a society where gender expectations are slightly murkier. For, at the very least, a driveway not perpetually covered in layers of ice, frozen dog poop, and slick snow.
I think, like Harry Potter, I need a few good spells to help me prevail through this last stretch of cultural and climatic cold. I could point my wand — 13 inches, cherry, with a core of unicorn hair, probably — at the stuck car and wingardium-leviosa it right out. I could accio some dill pickles and a pack of pre-Easter Cadburys. And I could toss up some floo powder and appear, instantly, at the side of a friend who I am desperate to hug and share pancakes with.
Instead, I’m wandless. Spell-less. Still trying to learn the magic, both light and dark, of this strange place.
What Harry Potter spells would you find most useful? What would your wand be made of? And how do you reconcile the good and the bad of the place you call home?
Tags: Blogging, Challenges, Expats, Language, Life, Milestones, Parenting, Perspectives, Romania
Want to know what seven pillows, gunshots, and a remote control have in common?
I’ll give you a hint: They almost led to my undoing.