Happy Birthday Expat Women Worldwide

I was born in Sandwich Illinois at the far, far outskirts of the Windy City, but I have lived by the White House in D.C., the Eiffel Tower in Paris, a 15th century German castle, and Lake Geneva surrounded by the Alps. I moved 12 times in 17 years between four different countries. Even spectacular views cannot erase the bouts of loneliness inherent in expatriate life.

In 1979, as a globe trotting pro basketball player, when I landed in France and saw little women with baseball bats (baguettes) slung lover their shoulders, scurrying down cobblestone streets blowing air kisses, I thought, “OMG, I’ve landed on another planet.”

Back then, in a flat sans telephone, TV, microwave or electronic anything, domestic chores took on new meaning. I washed clothes in the bathtub, shopped daily and my only connection to home was thin, blue, airmail envelops that took ten days to arrive.  Whether living in Germany amongst college co-eds, in Paris as a young mother, or Switzerland as a teacher, friendships with women kept me sane. Throughout my transitions from athlete to coach to teacher to writer, from wife to mom to empty nester, I have depended on a sisterhood of females – teammates, colleagues, friends, neighbors – to help me cope with hard times while living 4,000 miles away from extended family.

My journey would’ve been far less turbulent if ExpatWomen.com Expat Women - Helping Women Living Overseas
, the largest global website helping women living abroad existed when I first moved overseas. Reading the down to earth information on a site displaying over a 1000 content pages, 1600 expat women blogs, 300 readers’ stories, country resources pages, interviews, motivational articles, a blog and newsletter is like sitting down for a cup of coffee with your BFF.

As ExpatWomen.com celebrates its 4th anniversary, I embark on my 32nd year abroad. Happy Birthday to us – women overseas who are raising families, learning other languages, adopting new lifestyles, negotiating internationally and living cross culturally. And a special shout out also to the women back in our homelands who keep us grounded by sharing our past and reminding us where we came from and who we are.

Santé, prost, salud, hälsa, cheers. Here’s to expats worldwide! Bring on the next adventure!

Self-Service Airlines Increase Frequent Flyers’ Frustrations

The worst part of flying somewhere, is knowing you have to also return from your destination.  The round trip ticket is no guarantee you’ll get back home, especially when it comes to international travel.

I flew across the Atlantic  countless times with my fussy French kids, so that they could stay connected to their American heritage.  Imagine Nathalie’s surprise when  our roles reversed at the Minneapolis airport.  Grown daughter consoles infantile mother  throwing tantrum  at the Delta ticket counter,  « Ma’am, I cannot issue your boarding pass when you have no ticket. ».

Like millions of passengers, we were stranded in Geneva due to snow storms, when our KLM flight to Minneapolis was canceled.  Days later we were rerouted on Continental. However, at the time of departure, Continental personnel in Switzerland said, « Madame may board the plane ; Monsieur may not. »

In the catch 22 of 21st century air travel, you may be assigned a seat electronically without a ticket. The same scenario occurred in reverse. Gerald flew home without incident, but a week later  my return ticket disappeared in cyberspace.

Stress begins with on -line ticket purchase, which is subject to change in availability and price during the millisecond from  booking to buying.  Seat reservations may be made 24 hours ahead, but there is a hitch.   Tickets purchased on a European carrier cannot be processed by an American one, even when it’s the same flight.  The KLM website tells you to confirm with Delta ; Delta site sends you back to KLM. Welcome to the pass-the-buck-diplomacy of airline travel.  Due to economic hard times, companies such as Delta, KLM, Air France formed a partnership ; however, they still act like rivals.

Inclement weather, personnel strikes, terrorist threats,  mechanical errors, flight delays are the norm ; what is not normal is blaming the passenger.   Airline staff reprimanded me every step of my journey.  The first KLM agent yelled at me for not using the check-in machine to print my boarding pass.

« YOUR machine is unable to recognize MY booking code. »

After staring at the computer for ten minutes, she says, « You’re on the flight to Amsterdam, but I have no record of a ticket of to Geneva.  Check at the Delta/KLM/Air France ticket purchasing desk. »

There, another Delta employee, read a novel while waiting on hold on the phone  to solve the mystery. « Delta has no record your ticket either . Ma’am, what have you done ? »

Me ?  Blame  the snow, late incoming arrival, maintenance difficulties, but don’t hold the passenger responsible for airline snafus.

« I suggest you fly to Amsterdam and sort it out there . »

You must be kidding me !

I suggest, « You check again ! »

Finally, she confirmed my status through Air France.  However, she insisted she couldn’t print out a boarding pass for my onward flight.  I insisted she could.  « I’ve flown hundreds of times and always been issued a boarding pass for the connecting flight !»

Finally with two scraps  of  paper stating my name, seat number and departure time, I boarded the KLM/Delta flight to Geneva.   The flight was delayed an hour due to mechanical difficulties.  Halfway over the Atlantic,  the captain announced, « Great news, folks.  Even with our late departure, though scheduled arrival was 6 :45, due to strong cross winds  we should touch down at 7 :02. With our taxi time, we should be at the arrival gate at 7 :21. My connecting flight had me on plane boarding for Geneva fifteen minutes before my scheduled arrival time.  Even without the delay, I would never make the connection.  So in Amsterdam,  once again, I was invited to the tranfer desk for rebooking.  There, a sky-blue uniformed KLM agent blocked the guichet entrance and barked like a drill sergeant.

« Use the machine ! »

«  Your machine reserved me a seat on flight without a ticket, and booked me on a connecting flight before my first flight was scheduled to land.  I want to speak to a human being. »

She waved me past, snarling, « Lady, this is a self-service airline ! »

« Yeah, well your self-service sucks ! »

Sadly, the only satisfaction of flying these days is throwing the last punch.

Snow Storms Leaves Passengers Stranded in Europe, Including Me!

Well, that was an interesting voyage. Round trip to nowhere. We left the house before daybreak and ten hours later, returned home in the dark again. We never left the airport, yet felt like we’d travelled for weeks. Since most European countries lack heavy snow removal equipment even a couple, little snowflakes creates huge havoc on the entire continent.

Lechault’s snowed in at home

First bad omen: our taxi got stuck at the stoplight at the corner of our street. While our wheels spun on a patch of ice, a Renault Scenic smashed into the back of a Volkswagen Passat at the adjacent stoplight. Fifty yards further, a Mercedes slammed into the stoplight on the overpass knocking out the traffic signals.

In bumper-to-bumper traffic, we crept toward the airport. As soon as we arrived at the check in gate, a voice announced on the public address system, “Due to inclement weather, the Geneva airport will be closed until further notice.”

Ever optimistic, KLM personnel insisted we check our bags and pass controls to wait at the gate, just in case. But as soon as the Geneva airport reopened, the Amsterdam airport closed. We counted as one after the other flights across Europe to London, Paris, Frankfurt, Stockholm, Madrid, and Moscow were cancelled on the departure board. Our flight was rescheduled for noon; fifteen minutest later the red sign popped up, “cancelled.”

Luckily, Geneva is a small airport, so I felt at home in what turned into a mini reunion of the international school. All morning, I chatted with a colleague whose flight to London was delayed. In the afternoon, I caught up with a couple of 12th grade students who were booked on that same ill-fated, KLM flight. We waited for rerouting in a line that crawled forward a foot every fifty minutes. After four hours, we finally reached the rebooking counter, and I offered hopefully. “We could fly to Chicago instead of Minneapolis.”

Fat chance flying anywhere. During the Christmas holidays, flights worldwide were over booked. Forty-five minutes later the airline agent suggested, “Sunday, we have space on a flight to Paris with a stop over in Washington, then Minneapolis.” I collapsed on the counter!

“Pleeeaaasssee, I have health problems, can you recheck for a more direct flight?”

By then, I looked like I rolled under a cement truck, so she searched the computer screen again. A half hour later, she found a Continental flight to Newark then on to Minneapolis.

Last leg, flag down a taxi and head back to our own bed. Passengers across Europe slept the night in the airports. Since snow is a natural phenomenon, the airlines aren’t responsible for providing meals or overnight accommodations. It could be worse. In light of everything else that could go wrong in life, it is ONLY a cancelled flight. And when it snows, it is best to be stranded at home.

After the taxi dropped us in front our snow covered house, I discovered students had left a bag of homemade chocolates and a bottle of wine on my doorstep. There is a God, after all.

Bonne nuit. But will I sleep? Yikes, in 48 hours, I am flying over the Atlantic again!

Flying into 2010

Flying into the next decade is for the birds.
Literally.  If you are physically unable to expand your wings and catch the breeze, forget flying. Take it from me, frequent flyer extraordinaire; human air travel is perilous in the 21st century.  A normal 7 to 8 hour flight to Europe (depending on tail winds) took a day.

Three factors contribute to today’s aerophobia – natural elements, terrorist threat, and airline
personnel.  Summer storms and winter blizzards make flying in and out of the Midwest challenging any season.  Our flight out of Minneapolis was delayed due to the late arrival of our incoming plane from Amsterdam, which was further detained due to « minor aircraft impairment » during a rough landing due to ground conditions.  Over share.  I would rather not be informed about structural damage. At regular intervals a stewardess announced, « KLM/Northwest/Delta Flight 258
to Amsterdam will be delayed another hour.  Boarding in 20 minutes. Oops, no detained 45 more minutes. Suddenly, boarding in 5 minutes.
Passengers were stressed out before they entered the plane.
In theory, checking in on-line is more convenient, but seats on our return flight were « unattributed » because KLM partnered with Northwest, who was taken over by Delta. KLM on-line sign-in sent us to NWA on-line, who sent us back to KLM.
At the airport’s « easy self check-in, » machine, we were still unable to print a boarding pass, so we requested old-fashioned human assistance. The airline worker at the check-in desk informed us that we would each have to pay $50 for a second piece of luggage and another $50 for seat assignment.  Good try! We argued. In the end she waved us on, claiming an overbooked flight so seating
could only be assigned at the gate.  We joined the long line of anxious flier wannabees at the gate.
After finally receiving our boarding passes, the hostess requested volunteers to take later flights because of lack of available space.  Two hours later, she announced,  « I have just been
informed the plane is bigger than we anticipated, so I invite everyone without seating to report to our desk immediately. »  How can a flight attendant mistake a plane’s seating capacity? Between security procedure updates, airline buy outs and cost cut backs, changes are implemented so rapidly that no one knows what is going on, least of all airline personnel.
As airlines struggle to survive by making major cutbacks, long gone are above-the-clouds open bars. Cocktails now cost $7. Snacks another $3. Thank you very much. Services are replaced by machines.  With on-line bookings, travel agents are a thing of the past.  I miss them, the only earthlings that could decipher the airline jargon. No one understands the lingo- deplane, offload luggage, transit station-all ploys to keep passengers updated without revealing any information
because no one knows what is going on.
But as the Christmas Day bomber reminded everyone, the biggest worry is air security.
Terrorist threats abound. With pace makers, belt buckles and body part replacements setting off alarms, everyone is jumpy.  I look forward to the new full body x-ray machines, so we wont have to strip down at every security checkpoint. While we waited at our boarding gate, CNN flashed Breaking News about Obama’s new Homeland Security measures, while an entire regiment of TSA workers patrolled like in a police state. In air, I added to the excitement by reporting a suspect, a green hooded, fidgety young man who remained in the toilet for over 15 minutes!
Alas, 22 hours after leaving Minneapolis in a blizzard and missing our connection in Amsterdam, we landed in the snow at Geneva where, miraculously, our baggage arrived in one piece in spite of the
baggage-handlers’ strike at the airport.
Murphy’s law best describes air travel in the 21st century: what can go wrong will go wrong. My advice: Take knock out drops before boarding.  Squeeze into spouse’s carry-on luggage. Wake up only after arrival at the final destination. Enjoy!

Walk away worries !


When I was growing up, I abhorred walking. Walking was too slow, too boring, for old people. I would bike, run, skate, even parade around the block on stilts to reach my destination. After a car accident ended my athletic career, I aged overnight. Forced to give up the pavement pounding I once loved, I concentrated on being able to put one foot in front of another and walk again.

In the beginning, I still hated walking, too slow, too boring, for old people. But now that I am old people, I have learned to appreciate it. Europeans helped me acquire a taste for walking. My German friends insisted on “spazieren gehen” through the woods surrounding Marburg. In Paris, like the French, I escaped my tiny apartment by heading outdoors, rain or shine, to a “promenade” in the park. In Switzerland, walking is as natural as breathing, especially in this nation of hikers, where every mile is beautiful.

In our techno, fast-paced, modern world, walking has become a lost art. Yet walking, which combines fitness, relaxation and meditation, is the safest sport. It costs nothing, wastes no energy, burns calories, builds muscle, fights fatigue. When I feel anxious, angry or depressed, I walk until worries slide off my shoulders.

I step outside my door into orchards and vineyards on the fertile slopes above Lake Geneva. While the sun slinks behind the Jura Mountains over my right shoulder, light shimmers around the white-peaked Mt Blanc to my left. The fields flame in amber, gold, rust of autumn marking the harvest in earth’s last hurrah before lying fallow for winter.

Walking forces us to slow down long enough from our hectic lives to appreciate the beauty of the moment, to take stock and count our blessings. Even though I live thousands miles from loved ones, I picture them walking in their daily lives. My sister paces around Yorkville’s newest subdivision at dawn, my daughter strides the halls of Minneapolis hospitals during morning rounds, my parents meander around Northland Hills mid day, my son dashes through Macalester quad to ball practice early afternoon, my niece marches in the band across Shaker Heights football field after school, my sister and brother-in-law stroll oak-lined streets of Golden Valley hand in hand at dusk.

Somehow when I walk, I am closer to family, matching each footfall step by step round the clock. Every hour of the day someone I love, somewhere, is walking to work, school, or practice.

I once dreamed of running marathons and skiing mountains, alas injury and illness prevented those goals. Though each year it is harder to roll out of bed, instead of lamenting what I can’t do, I focus on what I can do – walk. No matter how badly the rest of the day has gone, I am filled with wonder and wellbeing. Suddenly all is right with world.