American Abroad Crying for My Country

On January 6th, I watched violent scenes unfold on Washington DC’s capitol hill on a dark episode in our history and I wept for my country.

Ironically at his “Make America Great Again” rally, Trump’s supporters were incited by his inflammatory speech as he ranted “Stolen election. A fraud. I will never leave office.” The mob stormed the Capitol, breached the police blockage, and ravaged the House and Senate while terrified US representatives donned gas masks and ducked behind chairs.

Fothe Capitol, Washington DCur years under the leadership of this madman ended in this deplorable moment in our history, leaving American citizens shocked, appalled, humiliated and terrified. It degraded our image and lowered our status among other countries.

Is the world’s oldest democracy, a beacon of hope, a bastion of freedom imploding in front of our eyes?

I weep for my country. My spirit is broken. My heart is shattered.

My personal history with Washington DC makes this event even more painful. As a child I used to boast to friends that my relatives - my grandma, uncles, aunts and cousins - lived in our nation’s capitol as if that afforded me special connections.

Washington Metros, WBAIn my twenties I called it home, when I was a player for the professional basketball team, the

Washington DC Metros, a precursor to the Washington Mystics and the WNBA.

Back then, I loved showing off “my city” to visitors, leading them on tours along the majestic National Mall past the Lincoln Memorial and Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument.

Washington DCLong after I moved to Europe, DC remained imprinted in my heart - Fort Belvoir, a US Army base where we practiced, the DC Armory, the national guard training arena, where we played our games, and the Capitol Center where we toured. A kaleidoscope of memories collide warm family meals, heated basketball games, cozy jazz clubs in historic Georgetown, and landmarks of American history.

Growing up, the privilege of American citizenship has never been lost on me. I am the granddaughter of immigrants who sacrificed everything to build better lives on US soil.

Fast forward forty plus years where, as an expat in Switzerland, living in a safe neutral country, I stare at that news report as domestic terrorists, American white supremacists, scale the walls of the Capitol building and rampage after our US President ignites their insurrection by spewing lies, hatred and intolerance.

Though friends, having moved back to the States warned me about the dangerous division infiltrating my homeland, I never believed it could be that bad until I saw the events unreeling on Jan 6.

Yes we must impeach the President, imprison the perpetrators, condemn their actions, but then how do we move forward?

Where do we go from here? How do we reconcile? The world has witnessed with incredulity our values disintegrate on prime time.

How do we, as the oldest democracy, restore the pillars of our foundation — peace, liberty, equality for all — when the essence of what it means to be American has been desecrated?

Washington DCBefore an entire country can heal, we must begin with one person. Reach out. Get to know someone of another religion, race, culture, ethnicity and learn about their universe. What foods do they eat? What holidays do they celebrate? What language do they speak? What deities do they worship? What fears do they face of living in the USA? How can they be made to feel welcome here?

If your neighbors all look, think and act like you, read papers from another country with a neutral viewpoint from another perspective without the biased Democratic/Republican party division.

Not everyone was raised in an accepting family, or experienced firsthand cross cultural living and marriage, or teaching in an international school. I have been lucky to have met, worked with and learned about people from everywhere around the globe.

Tolerance may not be a birthright, but it can be a learned behavior.

It starts in our homes, spreads to neighborhoods, communities, crosses state lines and national borders.

Tolerance begins with the words we speak and actions we take.

Today.

Right now.

In our house.

In our America.

Illustration photos by Praneeth Koduru , Sandy Torchon, and Budgeron Bach from Pexels

Ten Ways to Stay Uplifted and Connected This Christmas

Record highs in Covid-19 cases, hospitals across Europe overloaded, healthcare workers on their knees and hearts breaking from being torn apart from families during the holidays. Due to circumstances we should not travel, but must find unique ways to stay connected.

Virtual caroling: My daughter a doctor in Minneapolis area will be working over the holidays to help stem the tide, but she figured out a way to connect with her grandparents in Illinois. We are going caroling at their virtual doorstep. We practiced a list of Christmas songs on line; I played my guitar in Switzerland and she sang Silent Night, Drummer Boy, Winter Wonderland and other old favorites.

Phone calls have never been more comforting especially with WhatsApp era where we can see one another’s faces on the screen.

Christmas used to be like this

Read books like The Night Before Christmas, Polar Express and How The Grinch Stole Christmas together on Skype with grandchildren, who are quarantined thousands of miles apart from you.

Set up a zoom call where everyone gathers from their own living room. One friend’s family made the Sunday dinner Zoom call a weekly tradition to keep up on her kids in the Carolinas, Massachusetts and Minnesota. Or set up a family games night.

Write an old fashioned card with your own words or better yet a letter. When was the last time you received a real letter in the mail that could be read and reread and cherished forever?

Put up the Tannenbaum. Through the dreary dark days of winter, we wake up to the twinkle of the white lights on our tree.

Light a candle. Say the name out loud in honor of the memory of everyone you have lost this year. Give a word of thanks for each friend and loved one who remains a part of your life even though you may be separated by distance.

Bake cookies – sugar cookies, gingerbread, spritz. Fill the house with the aroma of warm frosting and melting butter.

Hang outdoor decorations. European villages have always put twinkling lights in the chateaus, town halls and corner cafe windows. This year even individual home owners are stringing outdoor lights in neighborhoods to bring joy during this time of darkness where people are confined to homes.

Hold a baby. My niece and nephew-in-law took Covid tests in order to travel safely from their home in Wisconsin to Illinois to introduce their new baby, Hadley Marie, to her great grandparents. My 86-year-old mom, who recently lost her brother to Covid-19, became teary eyed holding her first great grandchild in the circle of life.

In a year where it is especially difficult to feel gratitude, appreciating the giving spirit of the holidays and understanding the value of kind words, thoughtful gestures and strong connections year round has never been more important.

Like so many others, the pain of being apart at this season is especially acute, but it also reminds me of how lucky I am to be loved and to love so much that it hurts.

In the meantime, I focus on the memories of favorite foods, surprise gifts and special traditions from previous get together and practice my singing fa la la la la la la la until we can be reunited again.

Christmas 2018

Happy Thanksgiving 2020 – A Different Kind of Celebration With Same Meaning As Ever

ThanksgivingThis Thanksgiving will be a different kind of celebration with same meaning as ever. Traditionally Native Americans saved Pilgrims from starvation back in 1620 by teaching them to tap maple trees, plant corn and fertilize soil.

T-giving has always been a day of gathering bounty from fields, sharing with others, and giving thanks. However, this year, due to the pandemic, families should celebrate separately, which to Americans sort of defeats the whole purpose of T-day.

Ever since I moved to Europe forty years ago, I have been trying to thank my European hosts for accepting me into their countries. But not matter how I try to explain it, 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.

ThanksgivingMy first year abroad I invited French teammates and they ate the food 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. Another year French relatives replaced the giant Tom Turkey with Chicken Little. Now living in Switzerland off I go again every November on the Great Turkey Hunt through the Swiss Alps.

ThanksgivingLast year I didn’t have to explain anything when Gerald and I celebrated our first extra special Thanksgiving in the states with our kids and sister and her family. My brother in law smoked a turkey, my son and daughter in law made a British speciality Yorkshire pudding, my niece added a broccoli salad. My sister brought the traditional pumpkin pie and my daughter contributed a gluten free apple crumble.

This year still in recovery from brain injury and like so many others dealing with Covid depression; I lament to my psychotherapist, “I am so sad, I can’t see family.”

“But isn’t the meaning of the Thanksgiving holiday to give thanks?” she reminds me. “Can you reframe your perspective and focus on what you do have to be grateful for?”

“Even though you can’t see your family, are they safe? Healthy?” She asks. “Is your husband still with you? Are you recovering?”

So many people have lost cherished family members and dear friends. Thanksgiving 2020 must be marked in different ways. I will start by celebrating with my loved ones in a Zoom call to surprise my parents.

At a safe distance separated from each other one end of an extended to hold a dozen people we will social distance and share a simplified T-Day. We will lift our glasses with a neighbor couple, part of our pod here, and I will whisper thanks for :

1. Health care workers worldwide who continue to battle a devastating pandemic.
2. Family who remain steadfast and loving for the long haul.
3. Friendships that sustain my spirit in hard times.
5. Frenchman – my life partner who picks me and puts me together after every fall.
6. Internet that instantly connects me between continents, cultures and time zones.
7. Words- books, cards, emails, calls that keep us connected especially now when we cannot reach out physically,
8. Summit Lake a place to dream of returning one day where sacred waters restore my soul.

Thanksgiving

This year in our modified Thanksgiving, we won’t dine on a whole Tom Turkey, just a turkey breast and though it will be a small, subdued celebration unlike the big noisy gatherings of Thanksgivings growing up in America, the blessings will be the same. The bird is secondary. It’s the stuffing — family, friends and memories — sharing and caring — that sustains me.

First Time Voting

Even though Biden was officially announced the 46th President of the United States, I remain suspended in space. The free floating anxiety I have felt since the Covid outbreak last March lingers because Trump refuses to concede. In our democracy! Instead he demands vote recounts, shouts election fraud and continues to give free license to supremacist white groups and other dangerous organizations. Militias pop up across the country, protests break out and even though I live 4,000 miles away, I am not sleeping.

Every national news channel here covers the US election in the UK, France, Switzerland and others. As if addicted, I read and reread the headlines - NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, USA Today. Tracking results is even more stressful than listening to my daughter’s former college basketball games on the radio with leads changing back and forth. The stakes are so much higher. My stomach roils. I feel nauseated. I wait. I pace. I WhatsApp family. I hold my breath.

“Biden won, but I am not celebrating until Jan 20 when he actually takes office,” my son says, “cause Trump is acting crazy dangerous and making everybody nervous.”

The election’s result makes me feel proud to be American and especially proud to be a woman.

“While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last,” said Kamala Harris, an African American and Indian American, when she made history becoming the first female VP, "Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities."

"And to the children of our country, regardless of your gender, our country has sent you a clear message: dream with ambition, lead with conviction and see yourself in a way that others might not see you, simply because they've never seen it before. And we will applaud you every step of the way.”

I was once one of those little girls growing up in a sea of white males trying to do something girls never did before, facing discrimination every step of my journey as a pioneer in women’s basketball. When I moved to Europe to pursue a career as a female pro, I was accepted in Europe but not my homeland. I never overcame the feelings of being shunned.

That was no excuse, but it was a great part of the reason I never registered to vote as an American citizen living abroad. I felt left out of the dream. Still I defended my country every time it was criticized and criticized we were, but never so greatly as in the last 4 years when Trump destroyed international relations with European Allies, pulled out of international organization and destroyed everything that represented the very foundation of US democracy, human decency, world health care and respect for our fellow men. I felt ashamed.

But in 2020, I knew that I could no longer feign indifference and abstain. I had to register and vote. As I went through the necessary paperwork, I applauded those suffragettes who came before me and fought so hard to earn the right to vote.

With great trepidation I marked my ballot with the proper pen, checked and rechecked addresses and mailed it to the Whiteside County Courthouse listing my childhood home as the last place I lived in the USA 40 years ago.

On election day, I woke up at 2 am European time to look at the polls. For the next 72 hours I switched between news channels all day checking the results while my husband crunched numbers and tried to assure me Biden would win.

When Biden’s victory was announced, family in the states called me on WhatsApp, their eyes filled with tears, their faces evoking joy.

All around the globe world leaders sighed with relief expressing congratulations to Biden and anticipating stability back in the White House.

Paris mayor summed it up best: “Welcome back USA.”

During this unsettled time of global pandemic spinning out of control, the change of American leadership has restored hope not just for Americans but also all Europeans.

And Biden’s victory and the election of the first female Vice President gave this little girl a voice after all these years.

Covid Fallout- Will We Ever See Our Kids Again?

As Covid rises around the globe, and holiday plans are derailed again, we wonder when we will be reunited with loved ones, but for expats living abroad, the pain of separation is magnified by distance. I ache to be with my family so much it feels like a limb is missing.

When the French talk about missing people, they say “Il me manque”, which means, “I miss him”. But literally translated, it’s “he is missing to me”, as though a crucial part of you has been removed. It has.

When my Norwegian ancestors left their fjords to sail across the seas in search of a better life in America, they knew they would never see their families again. As a young girl, my mom’s father always promised her he would take her back to the fjords when she was an adult. Unfortunately, they never made the trip. He died suddenly of cancer when she was only 18.

I have been lucky. I made countless flights across the Pond between Europe and USA to keep my American ties strong not only for me but also for my children. Yet when I first stepped on that Air France flight 40 years ago, my biggest anxiety was not  about playing basketball in France, a country where I knew no one and spoke not a word of the language, but the fear that I might not be able to come back to the US and see my loved ones again.

I have always been able to make the trip home until now when a global pandemic changed our lives in ways we never imagined possible. Now my adult children live there; we are stuck here.
Our situation is not unique.

When I saw my Swiss neighbor, she lamented, -“I don’t know when we will see our kids again. Our son is in Thailand, one daughter is in Canada, her twin in Paris. Their younger brother was expecting his first child this summer and they were all coming to Switzerland to celebrate the event – that reunion is postponed indefinitely.

My German friend Maria, who lives just across the border in France, has one daughter in Belgium, another in Scotland, a son in England and husband in Somaliland. They are separated by Covid between continents.

Even families living in the same country are unable to plan reunions due to risks.
Parents are separated from kids, grandparents from grandchildren, siblings from siblings. My best friend, a former xpat moved back to North Carolina, but her 3 daughters live in Minnesota, Massachusetts and South Carolina. She talks to me about renting an RV, so she could go see them keeping a safe distance in separate living quarters.

My former student, now teaching at the International school of Geneva, has a brother living in Canada, a sister in Australia and her mom in South Africa. Home was whatever continent she and her family could meet up on their destination holidays.

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As expats the world is our world, but today that kind of global gathering is out of the question.

Rules between and within countries regarding Covid change daily. In the summer no flights from Europe were allowed to land on US soil. For the moment, we can land, but there are no direct flights. There are few options available and each one has constraints. On our usual Delta/KLM flight there is a risk for a 10 day quarantine in Amsterdam. As a U.S. citizen I would be allowed in the country, but my French husband would require a special visa. And then we aren’t sure if or when we could get back to Switzerland.

When will be able to plan trips again?

We wait and wonder and worry as the number of cases of infection reach alarming rates across Europe and the U.S. Our hearts ache with longing for things we once took for granted…sharing a meal, sitting around reminiscing, embracing in a hug.

In the meantime“Ils me manquent.”They are missing to me.” Pieces of my soul vanished.

I am grieving the loss.

Removing Tons of Litter from Lake Geneva on Global Clean Up Day

From a childhood growing up in a river town, to summers spent on a Wisconsin lake, to weekends of young adulthood walking Normand beaches to raising a family in a Switzerland with a view of Lake Geneva, no matter where I have lived, water has been my solace bringing comfort, inspiration and peace.

When you are lucky enough to grow up near water you learn to never take it for granted. We were raised with an appreciation of our lakes, rivers and seas. Even as kids we walked around Summit Lake picking up discarded beer cans to take to the local dump.

Now every morning when I see my jaw dropping view of Lake Geneva surrounded by snow capped Mt Blanc, I feel blessed. Lake Geneva, on the north side of Alps nestled between France and Switzerland, is the largest lake on the Rhone River and one of the largest lake in western Europe (It’s northern shore is 95 km (59 mi), the southern shore 72 km (45 mi) in length)

A pearl of the region, Lake Geneva is of indescribable beauty, so for me it is hard to imagine why anyone would carelessly pollute this national treasure.

As part of Global Day of garbage clean up, my husband volunteered to join Aqua Diving’s club in their 28th year of cleaning only a mile long shoreline in Geneva. This year, due to the pandemic, participation was limited to 150 people in each region ,but over 1000 people helped out across the nation.

Wearing masks and gloves volunteers lined the shore of Lake Geneva’s right bank. Divers hauled mesh bags filled with champagne bottles, beer cans, plastic waste and handed them to strong workers like my husband who dragged them up on shore and sorted them into categories of waste.

“How was it?” I asked when he came home six hours later.

“Exhausting,” he said as he collapsed on the couch, “and disgusting”. Divers found discarded bikes, tires, wagons, weapons and even an entire grill. Last year they hauled 1.5 tons; this year we collected twice the amount.”

In the 1980s the lake was too polluted with waste and chemicals to swim in, so a French- Swiss transnational effort was implemented. Today water-treatment plants recycle waste water around the lake; now the water is almost too clean because there is not enough nutrients going into the lake for the fish to grow. That hasn’t stopped human littering.

Yet even in Switzerland, a pristine country where citizens value cleanliness, people still discard trash everywhere including into lakes and rivers.

I grew up appreciating our natural resources and water is one of the most precious ones.

How can anyone spoil water that we are so lucky to have access to? I love the taste of water, the feel of water, the sound of water rushing over rocks and ocean tides lapping on the shores. I adore the sight of water reflecting in the shimmering sun and changing colors with the winds.

“Every piece of litter discarded carelessly” Gerald laments “eventually ends up in our rivers, lakes and seas.”

What can you do to tidy up the bodies of water near you?