British Life Begins and Ends at the Pub

On a recent visit to England I discovered that British life begins and ends at the pub. The centuries old custom of pub going means more than frequenting the local watering hole where you can wet your whistle. The pub, a center of community life, is a place where social barriers break down, class distinctions disappear and everyone is treated equally. Even dogs.

Visiting a traditional pub with a native helps you interpret the pub going protocol. We would still be waiting to be served if it weren’t for Larissa our son’s British girlfriend. When she took us to her hometown favorite The Embankment, a trendy place in Bedford, she explained that you must go to the bar to order and pick up drinks.

This renovated, wood-timbered Victorian era pub built in 1891 across from the River Great Ouse down from the Rowing Club reflected its roots. Though it retains its old world charm, there is nothing stuffy about this place. Divided rooms cater for dinner parties and crowds, but the heart and soul of the establishment remains the front room’s long wooden bar.

A local patron, a jovial mate stood there reading a newspaper knocking back his first beer at 10 am. He greets the steady stream of clients by bending to pet every pooch that entered the premises while his own dog dozes in a stuffed chair by the door.

The family friendly pub welcomes kids and pets. Everyone can lounge around over breakfast, lunch or dinner on cozy banquettes and sofa chairs in front of a log fire. The din of adult’s chatter, children’s laughter, and dogs’ barking, creates a convivial carnival like atmosphere.

“It is the opposite of America,” my Frenchman quipped, “In England dogs are welcome, but no guns allowed.”

With people watching at a premium I reveled in the view. At the round table next to ours, a posh couple coddling a poodle ordered a morning whiskey and Baileys on ice with a side of coffee. I nudged my husband and whispered “They brought dog biscuits in a mini Tupperware.”

“That’s nothing,” Gérald said. “The local chap at the bar has a box of kibble that he hands out to visiting pets.”

For the price of a drink you can linger and savor the show all day.

After our morning coffee, as soon as a table freed up in front of the fire, Larissa ushered us to comfier seats where we ordered lunch. The menu? What else – fish and chips. In keeping with British tradition, we doused our thick-cut fries and fried cod with a dash of cider vinegar.

But by far the biggest celebrity to parade into the pub was Guinness, Larissa’s sister and brother-in-law’s dog. The fluffy, black labradoodle stole the show when he loped in on gangly legs while everyone cooed in delight.

Dining on fish and chips in a real pub made us feel ever so British. In addition to greeting new arrivals, the man at the front of the bar put a fresh log on the fire as soon as the flame grew low. As if we were royalty sitting in his front parlor, he shared a kind word with each of us on our way out.

We felt like honorary guests in a British private home… until it was time to pay the bill.

Explaining Thanksgiving to Europeans

Americans know the story of how Native Americans saved Pilgrims from starvation back in 1620 by teaching them to tap maple trees, plant corn and fertilize soil, but I have been trying to explain Thanksgiving to Europeans for decades. They remain bewildered by our Thanksgiving, a journée de remerciements. They think it is the only day of the year where Americans prepare a hot meal and eat slow food.

Decades ago when I moved to Europe, I was a pilgrim at the mercy of my French teammates who taught me their language and customs.

A year later, I became indebted to German friends who shared their homes and meals. Accepted by marriage into my French family, adopted into Swiss culture where I now live, I have always been a guest in someone else’s country.

Yet I remain loyal to my roots. Though every feast I have prepared has been a fiasco, Thanksgivings with my Franco American family has always been sacred.

“Are any European celebrations similar to Thanksgiving,” I once asked my husband. He looked at me incredulous.

“Of course not,” he said. “Native Americans are the only people on the planet gracious enough to thank their conquerors.”

No matter what the circumstances or who shows up at the table, T-day is one tradition I cherish.

My first year abroad I invited French teammates to dinner and much to my chagrin they ate the meal in courses, one dish at a time. The next year in Germany, the team turnout was so great, there was standing room only; we never sat down to dine.

When I introduced the custom to my French family, my mother-in-law served raw oysters first and insisted a turkey was too big; chicken would suffice.

If left to their own devices, Europeans could butcher our day of thanks.

What American celebrates Thanksgiving by eating an seven-course meal standing up? Who replaces Tom Turkey with Chicken Little to eliminate leftovers? Leftovers are Thanksgiving.

Born in the Land of Lincoln, I consider it my patriotic duty to give thanks on the fourth Thursday of the month, the day Abe appointed as a national holiday in 1863 when he gave gratitude for an instrumental Union Army victory at Gettsyburg.

Expats everywhere create their own special ties to their heritage.

When my Norwegian grandfather immigrated to America, he insisted on keeping the Norwegian tradition of eating lutefisk and lingonberry on Christmas Eve.

“My dad brought strangers home to dinner,” my mom said. “He’d say ‘so many people helped me when I arrived in the United States, I want to return the favor.’”

Every Thanksgiving, I gather family, friends and “foreigners” in a feast honoring my Norwegian ancestors, my American homeland and my host country. To avoid offending guests, I whisper thanks to the Great Spirit who watches over all of us regardless of our religious, national, or ethic affinity.

Apparently, like our Native American friends, she sees the good in man, even in the conquistador.

Adapting to Empty Nest Again

Adapting to Empty Nest AgainI started writing my blog 9 years ago, after our son left to attend university in the USA, and we had to adjust to an empty nest. With both children living 4,000 miles away, I felt bereft, but soon adjusted keeping connected with family through Internet. Nearly a decade later, our son disillusioned with his job, and the lack of leadership in the US government, moved back to Europe to look for work in Switzerland.

The only problem he couldn’t find a job here. Now after landing employment in London, he flew off again to live with his British girlfriend.

Adapting to Empty Nest AgainInitially having him home was an adjustment, but we soon looked forward to seeing him at mealtime. Like having live in house help, he pitched in to help cook, clean, shop, and do yard work. Every few weeks Larissa would fly over from London, so we got to know her better too.

They had hoped to settle in Switzerland, but jobs were scarce, so when hired by Michael Page, a professional recruitment agency in England, we were happy for him.

Yet I was stunned by the sadness I felt when he moved out again even though I know kids are gifts on loan. We raise our children to be independent and self-sufficient. Successful parenting means working ourselves out of a job.

Still our home will always expand to accommodate grown children and grandchildren one day. They will always have a safe haven to recharge their battery for the challenges ahead.

Now our daughter lives in the Minneapolis area, our son resides outside of London, and we are located near Geneva. For someone growing up in small town USA, this situation is unimaginable. But for international families living cross culturally raising bilingual kids the reality is not so different than our own. Siblings are scattered across continents and the global generation thinks nothing of living between worlds.Adapting to Empty Nest Again

Even knowing wonderful adventures await my son, I still feel pangs of grief. I miss hearing his witty humor, sharing his ideas and having his empathetic ear. Most of all I miss coaching basketball with him where I witnessed firsthand his knowledge of the game and his gift for motivating teenagers.

Now I will gladly visit him in England. I look forward to discovering a new country, learning about another culture, and maybe even picking up a posh British accent.

Just as my parents opened their doors for us every summer so that our children could grow up learning English and understanding their American heritage, our home will remain at the ready to encompass family needs at every stage of the life cycle.

As every parent knows the nest is never truly empty. Our rooms’ resound with memories, our halls’ echo with laughter, and our ceilings’ reverberate with stories.

Our children move far away, but remain as close as ever, only a heartbeat apart.

Giving Thanks to Each Caregiver

Giving Thanks to Each CaregiverMany of us have reached an age where if we aren’t overwhelmed attending to our own health demands, we are busy taking care of aging parents or other ailing friends and relatives.Being a caregiver is a taxing physical and emotional roller-coaster where ones roles are reversed.

The list of tasks grows …downsizing homes, scouting assisted living facilities, balancing check books, filing tax returns, investigating financial investments, paying bills, understanding doctors’ visits and navigating the medical field as loved ones begin to struggle more with the challenges of aging.

Caring for our elders may be learned from example.

As a child, I watched my parents take care of their parents. Although my grandfather lived 2 hours away, my dad made sure Grandpa was with us for every family occasion. My mom helped my maternal grandma relocate from Baltimore and settle in Sterling, where she became a part of the smaller community.

With our mobile families, so much of the burden falls on the shoulders of the sibling living closest in proximity.

Giving Thanks to Each CaregiverUsing all the skills she developed during her career as a special education teacher, my sister now applies color-coding, list making and other techniques to help make life easier for my mom and dad. My sister-in-law made the same sacrifices in her family. She moved her mom and older sister from Chicago to Cleveland where she cared for them and certainly added years to her mom’s life.

Often times it is a thankless job especially when others assume that the caregiver will come to the rescue in any emergency. But caregivers have bad days too where they may feel ill, exhausted, and overwhelmed. A caretaker’s number one responsibility is taking care of his/herself. This can be difficult because by nature they are the most giving people on the planet. They have made putting others’ needs first an art form.

Not every family is like us and blessed with a guardian angel named Sue.

Here are just a few ways you can help share the burden and the gift of care giving.

  1. When it becomes easier and faster to perform tasks for the loved one try not to usurp their independence. Let them do as much as they are able.
  2. Help count and cut pills – use a pill dispenser.
  3. Keep records of medical procedures, medicines, and dosage times.
  4. Prepare medical questions ahead of time and take notes at doctor visits.
  5. Help seniors remain as active in the community as possible.
  6. Buy groceries, run errands, cook dinners ahead that can be frozen and reheated.
  7. Offer to help drive elders places even if only to go for a ride in the country.
  8. Share a meal, sit for a spell, slow down just be in the moment with them.

Giving Thanks to Each CaregiverIn today’s society where so many families are separated by distance, it is even more important to take steps to keep in touch. Enlist the help of children and grandchildren living far away. They can contribute by making phone calls, sending cards, and planning long weekend visits.

You don’t have to be in peak condition to offer aid. Some days I can’t do much to help even when I am physically right there. During those times when I am flat out on the couch, my dad resting in his recliner and mom snuggled in her armchair, I ask questions. My parents share invaluable stories of what it was like to grow up just after the Depression, during WWII and through the Civil Rights Movement. Or we reminisce and play the “remember when game” retelling the stories of favorite sporting events, family trips, and special occasions.

Repeating the stories of yesteryear brings no greater joy. Remember the best gift you can offer is your undivided attention.

By honoring our elders, we enrich our own lives.Giving Thanks to Each Caregiver

Like Julianne and Sue so many other caregivers deserve our gratitude and support as they provide an invaluable service to society.

Take time to make time to thank a caregiver today.

Sterling Memories – Hometown Imprinted in Heart

Sterling Memories - Hometown Imprinted in HeartNo matter how far we have moved away, those stellar Sterling memories of our hometown remain imprinted in our hearts forever.

We grew up in a blue collar town founded on the Rock River and fueled by the steel industry. From Hezekiah Brink’s simple log cabin built in 1834 in one of the most fertile areas on earth, the small farm community grew to a bustling metropolis, a bedrock of manufacturing and steel once nicknamed the Hardware Capital of the World. During the late 19th and early 20th century, Sterling expanded quickly with the founding of Northwestern Steel & Wire, Lawrence Brothers Hardware, and the Wahl Clipper Corporation.

Most of us kids raised in the 60s and 70s came from modest families. We grew strong raised on powdered milk, baked potatoes, string beans, tomatoes, and whatever else we could grow in our garden. Everybody’s mama knew how to make hamburger a hundred different ways. Baloney on day old Wonder Bread became a lunch staple.

We obeyed rules. We never skipped school. We rarely swore. The only thing we ever stole was third base in sandlot baseball. We attended church on Sunday, said please and thank you for every little thing, and politely requested to be excused from the table. We were never dismissed from dinner without finishing our milk and clearing our plates.

Newly invented black and white TVs became popular during that era, but the picture was so poor and choice of channels so limited that no one became a couch potato. Too many more interesting adventures awaited outside our windows. Back yards were for ball games; neighborhoods became parks where we explored. The only bullets we dodged were imaginary ones from our cowboy rifles. Playing outside was safe even after the street lights came on.

Like food and clothes, toys were limited too, so from an early age we learned to take turns and share. Riding a bicycle was a rite of passage. A driver’s permit a sacred privilege. As soon as we were old enough to push a lawnmower or babysit a toddler, we were earning our own money and learning to save our pennies.

Sterling Memories - Hometown Imprinted in HeartThe highlight of our childhood was entering the halls of the Sterling High School, a red brick building that looks every bit as stately as an Ivy League School. The SHS sports facilities put small colleges to shame.

We were proud to fill our trophy cases with championships and cover our fieldhouse walls with conference banners. Although half of us were forbidden to play competitive sports pre Title IX, once that law passed in 1972 our school became one of the first to provide equal opportunities regardless of gender and race.

Between Westwood, Duis Center, the YMCA, Sinnissippi and a dozen other Sterling Memories - Hometown Imprinted in Heartparks we learned to play early on. We never realized how spoiled we were in terms of public recreational centers. Today our high school sports facilities are so outstanding opponents kiddingly call us Sterling U. The recently renovated stadium looks stunning.

Traditionally we catered to our strong football teams of boys who now have the luxury of playing under the lights on astroturf. Back in my day we ran on a cinder track but today, local kids continue to break records on DuWayne Dietz all weather, royal blue running track. But no thrill was greater than watching those Golden Girls basketball players making history as Illinois 1st ever State Champions back in 1977. With the steel industry dying, the economy failing, the town struggling, that team united the community and inspired hope.

Sterling Memories - Hometown Imprinted in HeartNow half a century later walking down the streets of my childhood, the single story ranch homes with one car garages look like match box houses.The soil has settled and the foundations appear to be sinking, the sidewalks shrinking. Trees, mere saplings during our youth, now form a canopy over the street.

After living abroad for nearly half a century, it is hard to imagine going back home. So many of us moved away for education, employment, love, and family, but we all look back fondly and agree Sterling was a good place to grow up. Our heartstrings remain strongly attached to our old hometown and a way of life where solid values were instilled and we knew right from wrong. Mainstreet remains the heart of America, and the memory of Sterling still beats strong in ours.

Swimming Hope Laps for Serenity

When discouraged as a child I would play ball until my mood lifted. Now as an adult, as I face down demons and depression from a disease that threatens to defeat me and from alarming, discouraging world events, I swim in defiance. I swim hope laps for serenity. I can’t hurt myself in water. Without the pressure of gravity pulling on my knees, back, shoulders, I glide through the water weightlessly pain free. In my darkest moments, I swim. I would rather shoot hoops, climb mountains, run marathons, but illness and injury make those options impossible. Instead I swim. If I can still swim, I can hang onto hope for a better day.

I would much rather swim with sisters in open water than alone in public pools. It’s boring swimming from one end to the other, so instead of counting laps I say prayers. After a few times down and back, slapping the water in fury, fuming over my personal state and my trials, I shift my focus to others that I know are facing even greater challenges. Each length I think of someone else.

I backstroke down one lap focusing on my French sister-in-law and niece who are struggling, and my uncle who underwent emergency brain surgery after a fall. Then down a lap for my mom who is the caregiver and back one for my dad whose heart and legs grow weaker from neuropathy. Down a length for another uncle who lost his wife and back for my cousin who lost her mom.

I breaststroke for my brother-in-law who still suffers from a car accident that injured his neck. I breaststroke for my student whose mom battles cancer. I swim for my friend on dialysis, for my friend with leukemia, for my friend fighting depression.

Then my circle of thoughts widens to reflect on the world. I swim for the people caught in the crossfire of nature’s wrath. For the victims of wildfires in California, for the folks in Texas, Alabama, Florida, Puerto Rico, whose homes have been decimated by hurricanes, for the Mexicans suffering in the aftermath of earthquakes. And I freestyle harder and faster in frustration and despair for the innocent victims of man made violence, for the families whose lives were shattered instantly in the Las Vegas mass shooting and terrorist attacks in London, Paris, Brussels, Mogadishu and elsewhere around the globe.

I don’t have to look far to see someone far worse off facing even greater obstacles.

Swimming puts my problems in perspective.

I inhale serenity, exhale anger, inhale tranquility, exhale anxiety, inhale calm, exhale hostility.

Maybe we should all take to the water in prayer to sooth our troubled souls and focus on bringing serenity to mankind.

Breath in hope. Breath out hate.

May peace be with you today.