Is Your Passport Valid?

Once, my coaching buddy raced around Athens between basketball games to find an American Embassy when he realized his passport expired and he would be stuck in Greece. I would never let my passport lapse especially in our present political climate. I have feared my French husband will be denied entry into the United States, but I never dreamed that I wouldn’t be allowed out of the country.

On January 10, the ticket control attendant at the gate stopped me from boarding my flight to Amsterdam at the St.Paul/Minneapolis airport.[tagline_box backgroundcolor=”” shadow=”no” shadowopacity=”0.1″ border=”1px” bordercolor=”” highlightposition=”none” content_alignment=”left” link=”” linktarget=”_self” button_size=”small” button_shape=”square” button_type=”flat” buttoncolor=”” button=”” title=”” description=”« A problem? Me? I am American, » I said pointing to my husband. « He’s the foreigner. » « He can go, » the airline attendant barked. « You must stay. Your passport is expiring April 3. » « I know. I will go to the American consulate when I get back to Switzerland. » « M’am I’m sorry, you are not authorized to leave the country. » « But I don’t live here. » « You cannot fly internationally on an US passport if it is within 90 days of expiration. »” animation_type=”0″ animation_direction=”down” animation_speed=”0.1″ class=”” id=””][/tagline_box] The hostess called her supervisor, who called his manager, who called the next higher up in the chain of command. They reiterated the rule and stared at the computer screen.

«But I live in Switzerland,» I pleaded showing my residency permit. More mumbling, more phone calls, more computer gazing.

With a last warning, they finally let me board the plane.

I am a well-seasoned traveler, but rules can change quickly especially these days with heightened security. After having lived in 4 different countries, I fear losing my identity papers because I know the rigors involved in establishing legality as an alien. How could I be unaware of this 3-month stipulation?

To avoid making the same mistake, here are some tips concerning your passport. (For more information go to this page.)

International travel is denied if you passport is within 3 months before expiration. Other countries may deny entry if your passport expires within 6 months. Entry into any of the 26 European countries in the Schengen area requires a minimum of 3 months

US passport photographs are very specific – expats would find it easier and cheaper to take passport photos while in the states at the local DMV or Walgreens than overseas.

Beware, you cannot wear glasses in the photo and you must not smile. Please don’t argue with the photographer (like the lady in front of me at Walgreens did) and demand a retake because you don’t like the way you look. This isn’t a Glamour cover shoot; it’s a passport. Forget vanity. Think safety. Face recognition software works better identifying non-smiling, glasses free photographs.

An adult US passport costs – $140 (or $110 for renewal) but it is valid for 10 years. It packs a lot of punch for your dollar. That little blue book allows Americans free access to over 100 different countries as compared to passports for many Middle Eastern and African countries whose citizens can only enter 30 some countries without visas.

Once back home safely, I filled in the paperwork online, then went to consulate in Geneva and filed for a new passport, which arrived by mail two weeks later. As I admired my new blue book, I marveled at my fortune being born in Illinois instead of Uzbekistan.

All in all it was surprisingly simple especially compared to renewing my American driver’s license, which entailed procuring my French marriage license, finding a valid translator, and five trips to the DMV, but that is another story. Stay tuned.

For more information on traveling, working, and living abroad check this official site.

Annecy The Best Place to Live in France

DSCN3365“If I could live anywhere, I would pick Annecy, the best place in the world. Ahh Annecy,” My friend in Paris would say rolling her eyes and swooning about this city, as though she were talking about a lover. When I visited the Gallo Roman Village in Savoy region of France on beautiful Lake Annecy, I finally understood her infatuation.

Combine water, mountains and historical buildings, throw in a 12th century castle and you have the perfect making of a tourist trap. Yet, there are no lines in this open air museum. Footpaths and walkways absorb the crowds and excursions and sites fulfill every interest.

In the Old Annecy, narrow winding cobblestone streets beckon tourists to step into the past. Lake Annecy’s natural spillway flows through the heart of the city. Artists paint along the Thiou canal in what’s known as the “Savoyard Venise.”

Lake Annecy surrounded by gray cliffs and white peeked Alps is the cleanest lake in Europe, so clear you can see the bottom. The waterfront, lined with parks, benches and boardwalks, is ideal for strolling and lounging. Steamboats excursions offer birds eye views into ports of call on the lake.

DSCN3334Above the lake, the medieval city is wrapped around a cliff where the 15th century castle overlooks the red roofed village. But what I liked the best was wandering the streets lined with arcades. Entering the St. Claire gate with its worn hinges, machicolations and bell turret, was like stepping into another century. I followed the rue St. Claire, a sinuous winding cobblestone lane, which takes the shape of the rock base on which the castle stands, and dates to the origins of the town.

On the pedestrian streets lined with open air cafes, visitors can dine on lake perch and fondue. Even more tempting are the ice cream shops boasting of homemade ices. Each tiny scoop costs $3, but one bite of the fuchsia sorbet will send you to raspberry heaven.

Like the other tourists, I snapped a family picture in front of one of France’s most photographed spots, the Isle Palace, a well known French monument. The Isle Palace’s triangular form in the shape of a ship’s bow evokes a galley anchored in the river whose water it divides. The governor of Annecy lived here in the 12th century, then it became a seat of the justice, the mint, the prison and now it has retired to status of historical monument and houses exhibitions.

Dogs and cats doze in the sunlight. Colorful cafes filled with the clatter of plates and chatter of voices speaking different languages mingle with the sound of street musicians strumming guitars turning this lively street scene into a live film blending modern times with yesteryear.

No wonder, Annecy rates number one in France for the quality of life. It expanded economically, yet despite the influence of industry, it retains its old world charm. Annecy –ever faithful to nature and her past — may hold the secret to the future, a way in which modern technology can exist harmoniously with an ancient village.

Brussels Bombing – Freedom to Fly in the Terror Age

imagesWe knew it was only a matter of time until the next terrorist attack. Yet, when the suicide bombers struck the Brussels international airport and near the heart of the European Commission at Maelbeek subway station, the shock, horror and disbelief reverberated around the world.

Weeks earlier, during a long lay over in the Brussels airport on our way to a basketball tournament in Vienna, my team dispersed to wander in gift shops and buy snacks. Though a few armed guards patrolled, the ambiance remained peaceful. Even so, when my team regrouped at our departure gates, I breathed a sigh of relief as I counted heads. Under my watchful eye, the girls lounged in comfy seats passing time by telling stories, texting friends, taking pictures and giggling, enjoying the last vestiges of youth.

To comprehend the impact of terror attacks, one has to understand how closely we are interlinked in Europe. With low-cost airlines one can fly from one capital to another for less than the price of a tank of gas. We travel through national borders more often than most Americans cross state lines.

My home in Switzerland is a mile from France, so I border hop to shop, hike, and dine out. When I coached at the American School of Paris, Brussels teams were part of our international athletic conference. Presently during our school break in Geneva, some students returned home to the Belgian capital; others traveled through there on route to their homelands.

After I heard the news of another attack, my first impulse was to reach out. I contacted friends whose children live and work in Brussels. Yet even after loved one’s safety is assured, doom prevailed. How can we stop this fatal spiral of violence?

tnPAB3n05I0wkA2AiQM-FGruhag6LKcP3pn1bTkO65ynq_k56sPDvE9sTtq-L95z4GJrSw=s115My family and friends live cross culturally. Our only link to each other is by air travel, so fly we must, but never without trepidation, never without fear.                 .

Thankfully I have never been the victim of a terrorist attack, but I have deplaned on an Italian runway, while police dogs searched cargo after a bomb threat. I have been standing at an American Airlines ticket counter in Paris when security forces cleared the area to detonate an unclaimed bag. And I have taught students who lost loved ones in terrorist attacks. I will never forget the words of one former student who wrote,

«When I found out that my mom died in the Nairobi bombing, I was so shocked,  I ran straight through a glass door. »

In the future, we must continue to cross borders, reach out to others, exchange information and stay united. We must maintain open lines of communication to learn about other cultures, faiths and nationalities.

But today we must mourn. Our hearts ache for Brussels a beautiful capital city in a small, peace32771D1300000578-3505016-Tributes_People_hold_up_a_banner_as_a_mark_of_solidarity_at_Plac-a-21_1458678138603 loving country, resplendent with culture, tradition and charm.

Tomorrow we must spread our wings. Soon, my brother will fly to Brussels for business, my daughter will fly to Geneva for family and my son will fly to London for love.

Fear must never keep us grounded. We must continue to soar free like a bird. And then fight with every ounce of our strength to uphold that freedom.

Basketball Blues and Brotherhood: Remembering Mike Maloy

Mike MaloyEvery February, I celebrate Black History month in the lessons I teach. I know what a travesty it is to be left out the history books by the powers that be. I owe a lot to my African American teammates who overlooked my skin color during our time together. Shared passions, common goals and interdependence out weigh prejudice. But nowhere was the bond greater than when I moved to Paris and joined the expats ball club.

It doesn’t matter if you are blue, green, orange, purple or female when you are flying solo in the Euro basketball league. Only a fellow American can appreciate our love for the game and understand the isolation of living in a foreign land 4,000 miles away from home.

When I first started coaching high school ball at international schools, women coaches were rare, but my male contemporaries – players recruited to play in Europe and who stayed on – accepted me with open arms. At the American School of Paris, Henry Fields, dubbed the Father of French Basketball, took me under his wing in the international coaching “brotherhood.” Another mentor, Mike Maloy, like Henry broke down racial barriers, and left his mark in Austria.

Mike, a tall lean guy with an endearing personality, winning grin and a raspy, heartbreaking bluesy voice, never belied the bitterness that a lifetime of discrimination could create.

He was so non judgmental and unassuming. You would never know by talking to him that he put Davidson College on the map of the NCAA basketball, dominated in the Austrian pro league and sang lead with Boring Blues Band in the Viennese music scene.

Under the leadership of the legendary Coach Lefty Driesell, Mike became the first African American to play at the small southern, predominately white Davidson College where the New Yorker worked as hard to fit in as he did to rebound. In 1967 Mike also became the first African American to pledge SIGMA CHI fraternity, an action that created scandal within a system that had a long-standing tradition of discrimination.

In 1970 Mike was drafted by the Boston Celtics. In 1976 he became the first African American in the Austrian league. He again overcame intolerance and went on to win four national titles with UBSC Wien Basketball team before becoming a successful coach in the league.

In Austria, Mike admitted the he started to enjoy the game again. “It wasn’t about money. It was about chillin out and getting my head straight. I kept staying another year.”

That line echoes the sentiments of dozens of former American players that have befriended me during my decades of living abroad.

After his untimely passing, American International School of Vienna (AIS) named the high school basketball gym in his honor. And it was on his court that I remembered him best.

My fondest memories of Mike were seeing him at international tournaments, sitting at the bar sipping beer after a game, ever ready with a pep talk.

Once while lamenting getting beat out of the final, I asked, “What am I doing wrong?

“Wrong? With your tiny, lil’, raggedy team you got no business being in the same gym with goliath – I saw you coach your skinny butt off to get into the semis.”

When many seasons later, my lil’ raggedy team from Geneva snatched the Sport Council International School (SCIS) championship from the 7-time champion AIS on their home court, I thought I heard my old buddy laughing from the rafters.

“I told you so, girl.”

Thanks for believing in me, bro.

This one is for you.

Terrorism and Refugee Crisis Separate Issues

3200As part of a French-American family living in Switzerland, I recently wrote about the impact deadly attacks in Paris had on my family and friends. My heart was equally shattered after the latest assault on my homeland, the San Bernardino massacre.

Each day new stories evolved about terror in the streets. As France entered a state of emergency and Brussels shut down, our worries escalated. In Europe where everything is a stone’s throw away, we fear for families and friends living in the nations’ capitals.

After the recent attacks, the backlash against the refugees is alarming. European countries build higher fences. American governors refuse Syrian refugees in their states. Do they even know a Syrian? Do they understand that the basic tenets of the Muslim religion, are based on the same beliefs as those of Christianity or Judaism?

Muslim does not mean radical. Syrian is not synonymous with terror.

The FBI insists the biggest threat is not immigrants: it is homegrown extremists. The majority of terrorist’s attacks are not conducted by “refugees from afar,” but by disillusioned youth from within our cities who fall prey to malevolent manipulations of jihadist leaders.

Europeans wonder why American states would forbid “foreign” refugees, yet support the right of any US citizen to carry weapons purchased at the nearest corner shop. Are our fears rational? Why would Americans worry more about being blown up by radical suicide bombers, when they are more likely to be gunned down in the crossfire of gangs, or murdered by deranged lone wolves? We no longer live in the Wild West. Do we really need AR-15 semi automatic assault weapons in our daily lives? And if so, what does that say about our society?

As we gathered in cozy homes, around the soft lights of our Thanksgiving table filled with enough food to feed an army, did we stop to think what it would mean to flee for our lives? Exhausted, starving, hopeless, and helpless.

We all live in fear knowing that somewhere, at any time, another attack will happen. But we must NOT let our fears override compassion and supersede tolerance.

In a blind attempt to thwart the next attack, we beef up security in public places. In this invisible war, we feel vulnerable. We are vulnerable. But in our vulnerability, should we fall prey to prejudging people?

Our daughter, who grew up in an international environment, said it best:

“Like everyone, I was shocked and horrified by the Paris attacks. I am French, I was born in Paris and we lived there till I was 9. My dad’s side of the family is all still living in France, so I will admit that the news hit me differently than reports of other disasters; it felt more personal. But the suicide bombings in Beirut, Baghdad, Nigeria (and so many other before these) were no less evil, the loss of lives no less tragic.The suffering of hundreds of thousands of people, forced to flee their country and finding they have nowhere to go, is no less real and no less deserving of our attention, just because they have brown skin or wear a hijab. When we cannot show compassion across borders, be they national, religious or racial, then we are letting the terrorists win.”

My prayers go out to the families of the victims of the attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, and other places, from the streets of Chicago to the cafes in Cairo, to the hotels in Mali or the villages in Nigeria where lives have been shattered by violence.

Yet I plead for peace. Our biggest challenge today is to remain openhearted. Most refugees are victims, not perpetrators. They are often the first victims of terrorism.

Centuries ago when our ancestors, fleeing for freedom from persecution, settled in the New World, the Natives Americans saved us from starvation by sharing the first Thanksgiving feast.

RegugeesWe are all immigrants.

Half Board and Silent Hotels A Good Combo

IMG_4443_copyIf you enjoy being away from the crowd and love fine dining, booking a night in the Hostellerie de L’Ardève is a win/win situation. Perched at 1350 meters, adjacent to Ovronnaz and Les Mayens de Chamoson, this hotel offers a stunning view overlooking the Rhone Valley and the Alps. The annex to the hotel, le Chalet de Kalbermatten, was built at the beginning of the 20th century and is IMG_4453_copyprotected as a historical landmark.

In 1968, several hoteliers, who believed noise is a social intrusion undermining our health and happiness, created the Relais de Silence. Hotels listed in this guide are often difficult to find, they are hidden in the countryside, by the sea, along the banks of a river, on an island, at the edge of a mountainside or along a side street in a busy city. They are known for their peace and quiet. Located in a natural environment, in comfortable buildings with unique character, Silent Hotels must offer a warm welcome stressing quality of life and gastronomy. Each is reflective of the unique style of the country where it is located.

It is usually a gamble, but to reserve a room with demi pension (half-board), a fixed rate that includes breakfast and the evening meal, is a better deal. Our hotel, a 3 star, also known for its gastronomy, was a good bet. We were not disappointed.

Friday we were served a Russian salad followed by sea bream in lemon sauce with mini potatoes and zucchini au gratin. Desert, an apricot cauflirori, an egg flan with a scoop of rhubard/honey ice cream was served on plates of ardoise, which looked like the old chalk slate we wrote on in grade school. On our walk the next day we found unfinished pieces of slate chipped off the mountain side.IMG_4433_copy

Saturday night, our starter was the traditional “assiette valaisane”, which is a plate of artistically arranged cold cuts – salami, dried beef, cured ham served with pinky sized pickles and baby white onions. The main course was chicken in cream sauce accompanied with risotto and scalped zucchini.

Dessert, a vanilla ice cream soufflé, was the house specialty. The Frenchman charmed the waitress into trading the menu fare for a wild blueberry tart. Why does your husband’s dessert always looks better than your own? Souffléd ice cream – not for me. It was tough and chewy, but Gerald’s tart was exquisite.

We were in the Leytron and Chamoson wine territory, so naturally a glass of Humagne Blanc or Johannisberg Grand Cru, local favorites, were recommended. Every spare inch of soil on the mountain ranges, southern flank was filled with vineyards.IMG_4480_copy

I am not sure what it is about that mountain air the wets your appetite, but, no matter how much you devoured the night before, the next morning you are hungry again.

IMG_4441_copyIn Europe breakfast is often included and in mountains it is usually copious. On a self-serve sideboard an enticing display of cereals, fresh fruits, paper thin slices of salami and ham, and thick chunks of cheese of local cheese as well as a choice of bakery fresh breads and croissants and homemade preserves awaited. All to be savored with piping hot coffee or tea.IMG_4442_copy

Over breakfast, from the brasserie we had a panoramic view of the mountains enticing us to go hiking, if only to work up our appetite for the next gourmet meal.