La brutta figura

Behavior matters,especially when you’re in a Foreign Service family.

1961-07-03 Bologna, Amerson family on terrace001-wc 2
The Amersons in Italy, 1960. Photo: Tom Fina.

After Dad’s initial four years in balmy Caracas, we moved in 1959 to Milan, where there were strict rules governing how things were done.  Although Dad’s job at the USIA office required my mother to be available for after-hours socializing and cultural events, finding a live-in maid proved difficult.  In the meantime, she did our laundry by hand and hung it to dry on clothes lines my father had strung up in the large marble-floored bathroom. To expedite things, Mom opened the bathroom windows which opened on an interior courtyard. That lasted about a day: the landlord came up to say that the neighbors across the way were offended by the sight of drying clothes. The signora’s ragazza should know that clothes were to be dried on the roof. Mom just nodded. Lesson One in how things were done in Italy.

Lesson Two came via the large terrazza outside my parents’ bedroom which accumulated soot daily from Milan’s dirty air. One rainy day, Mom decided it was time to clean it. She filled a pail, took off her shoes, put on her raincoat and got to work. She looked up from her task a few minutes later to find the Contessa who lived on the next floor down watching her from her own balcony, open-mouthed, a cup of tea in her hand. Mom smiled, nodded and finished the job. The next day, she watched as the Contessa’s maid emerged briefly onto the three-by-five balcony to dust the table and chair, followed by a butler delivering a tray of tea and a newspaper, followed by the Contessa herself. Lesson Two.

Lesson Three was demonstrated by the woman my mother eventually found to be our live-in maid. Maria Pia was a country girl but a social climber in the making. The first morning she worked for us Mom asked her to get some ciliori from the pasticerria on the next block. Maria Pia said, “Va bene,” and went to her room, although her coat was hung on the tacapani next to the front door. She came clicking back down the hall in high heels and she had changed from her blue and white uniform into a party dress. Mom’s eyebrows went up and her lips pressed together into a small smile.

Italy was governed by la bella figura and la brutta figura. No matter ones station in life, women wore the right color coat, the right length skirt, the right poofy hairdo. And it didn’t matter whether you were throwing out the garbage or shopping in Milan’s Galeria Del Duomo.

Tourists in front of us on a recent trip to Europe… add baseball hats and water bottles to American gear.

Behavior mattered. As we moved from Milan to Bologna to Rome between 1959 and 1963, my sister and I learned that in Italy you shake hands, but in America you don’t. You could chew gum at home but not gum or food on the street. You said Ciao to friends and Arrivederci to grown ups. You spoke English with each other and Italian with everyone else. In sum, you acted like our hosts acted. American visitors didn’t know these rules. American tourists and Study Abroad students wore shorts and blue jeans, spoke loudly in English, and stepped over the little iron fences bordering park walkways to have picnics on the grass. We usually pretended we were Italian when we passed them. Brutta figura.

The Amerson family behavior was defined, to some extent, by the rules of diplomacy. In the aftermath of WWII and into the Cold War, David Brooks writes, the relationships America developed “built organizations and alliances to fight communism, create a stable trading system, combat poverty and promote democracy.” Thomas L. Friedman notes: “[t]he world came to rely on an America that, more often than not, [was] ready to pay any price and bear any burden to do the right things, say that right things, model the right things and stand for the right things — when others were unwilling or unable to do.”

Foreign Service officers like my father have served both Democratic and Republican administrations in faithfully carrying out America’s mission. Not every White House has carried the standard as gracefully as the professional diplomatic corps — Dad recalled Vice President’s Lyndon Johnson’s legendary ego translating into American arrogance during his visits to Rome — but the postwar order has prevailed.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel deliberates with President Donald Trump on the sidelines at the second day of the G-7 summit on June 9.PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

But now? We are far from la bella figura. President Trump has taken American arrogance to a whole other level: discarding democratic allies, cozying up to autocrats, blowing off historical partnerships and disregarding advice, he spins chaotically around the globe, arms folded and chin out. According to the White House, the Trump Doctrine boils down to: “We’re America, Bitches.” There’s no amount of diplomacy that can surmount such a statement.

Until Congress is willing to bear the burden and pay the price of standing up for the right thing, la brutta figura rules the White House. Is it too much to hope that la bella figura steps up in November?


Fixing a Flawed Democracy

My husband and I recently spent two weeks in Paris and Amsterdam, enjoying the BBC instead of the litany of talking heads that is now American news. It was refreshing to be reminded that there is a whole lot more to talk about than Trump, and that there is an entire globe-worth of countries that are not the USA. _101984209_337475c4-0723-4b2a-8c2a-6aabd0b5c8ba.pngThe lead story (okay, besides The Wedding) was that underdog Fiji was leading the international rugby field.  Filling out on-line forms while traveling is another reminder that America isn’t at the top of the country list: you have to scroll down to the bottom, where United States of America falls between Uganda and Uruguay. In the listing of languages, it is not the American, but rather the British, flag which represents “English.” Oh, right, that’s where we got it. 

There are other lists that we aren’t first on.The time we spent in Amsterdam also reminded us that the Netherlands and its fellow Baltic countries are among the top ten on the  2018 World Happiness Report . Maybe the happiest of all are those who take a puff or two in Amsterdam’s coffeeshops, and its Red Light District sure makes people smiley: “My, such a lifelike mannequin, oh my God that’s a woman.” The 2018 World Happiness Report focusses on immigration: countries in which immigrants can partake in a country’s quality of life score high on happiness. That’s what get’s you in the Top Ten. With walls at our borders, labelling immigrants as dangerous, and pulling families apart, it’s a wonder that we are even 18th on the Happiness Report. 

The list that I find even more startling is The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2017 Democracy Index .

Ten years ago, we were solidly in the middle of the Full Democracy pack, behind but not divorced from the Nordic countries and our English-speaking allies, England and Canada. Today, we are but one of 50-some Flawed Democracies, a list that includes African, Caribbean and Latin American countries that our Trump referred to as “shitholes.” We are among countries with low political participation, a failing electoral process, diminishing trust in government, and endangered civil liberties.

How is it possible that the United States of America, the country that my father proudly represented for his two decades in the Foreign Service, is no longer the world’s leading democracy, nor, in fact, a Full Democracy at all? What has happened to slide us down the scale to Flawed Democracy?

It is tempting to point the finger at Trump. But he is not the cause of our malaise: he is simply the beneficiary. 

The Economist finds that Americans’ trust in government has been sliding downhill since the 1960’s, taking our political confidence with it. We’ve been worn down by the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, civil unrest, Watergate, disastrous wars in the Middle East, the financial crash of 2008, the gridlock and dysfunction on Capitol Hill. IMG_6852And the pillars of middle America — jobs, churches, labor unions — crumbled. The system had failed us. We stopped going  to the polls.

Then Trump came along, promising to Make American Great Again, and he rode the hopes of the politically disenfranchised right to the White House. It’s been the War of the Red and Blue ever since.

The Netherlands has the opposite approach to governance. Rather than be defined by ethnicity, religious and other strata, the Dutch reconcile theirIMG_6931 differences in order to stabilize government. They consciously develop and maintain power-sharing arrangements in order to reduce strife and promote non-violence. The very survival of democracy trumps all.  Wikipedia calls it Consociationalism.

Yes, the word’s way too close to socialism and hard to pronounce, but the concepts are not foreign. I believe that Americans care more for our country than we do for our separate camps. Recently, two Washington Post columnists spoke of unity: EJ Dionne from the left said: “…we believe in a government that answers to the aspirations of the vast majority…” Speaking from the right, David Brooks said: “Red or blue, we are stuck together permanently in this country. And as the saying goes, the only way to get out of this mess is to get into it.”

We must approach each other without raising our voices to find and built on common ground. It’s a mess. Let’s dive in. It’s the least a full democracy asks of us.


The Medium is the Message

My husband and I just returned from two weeks in Europe: one in Paris and another in Amsterdam. I am comfortable being an American abroad. It is a role my sister and I grew up playing while our parents represented this country as a Foreign Service couple. I still enjoy being the gracious guest, making an effort in the other language, copying the social norms. The days began with Bonjour! and croissants or Goedemorgen! and Nutella-filled beignets, followed by multiple repetitions of Merci! and Dank u wel! 

But it’s not enough. I think being an American abroad may require a stiffer ethical spine these days. Standing up for who we really are has never been more important than under the Trump administration’s callous disregard for the tenets of democracy: the rule of law, freedom of the press, a government by the people, facts.  While we were in Paris, Tillerson asserted that “going wobbly on facts” is “going wobbly on America.” A Herald Tribune columnist was more blunt: “America under Trump stands for nothing.”

The 2017 World Press Photo Exhibition currently in Amsterdam’s Nieuwe Kerk brought home the message.(


The exhibition’s promotion poster was a photograph of a black man weeping in someone’s arms. It was a compelling picture, an African refugee finally on shore perhaps, and I wanted to see more. I expected to be shocked by pictures of Third World refugees, global war and famine victims, and repressive government violence Asia, the Middle East, South America, and maybe even Europe. I was not disappointed.

What I did not expect was that the first panels in the 2017 World Press Photo exhibit would be of Americans committing violence against Americans.

The black man weeping had just finished speaking at a memorial rally in St. Paul, Minnesota, after the police officer who shot him seven times was acquitted of all charges. The picture, which was awarded second place in the reporting category, was in my hometown.

It was the exhibit’s first panel.

It was followed by a photograph of the car plowing through protesters in Charlottesville.


Next, a collage — “Degrees of Rage” — of target practice by a militia group in Maryland;  a neo-Nazi leader in West Virginia; the covered statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville; and a rifle-bearing “patriot” in West Virginia.


And finally, taking first prize in hard news photography, four pictures taken during the killing rampage in Las Vegas.

At lIMG_6847east we didn’t win best photo of the year; that went to the picture of a Venezuelan protester. Still, we can take comfort in knowing we were the winners once during the civil rights era and then, four years in a row, during Vietnam.


The World Press Photo exhibition is shown worldwide in 100 cities and 45 countries, reaching a global audience of 4 million people each year. In addition to Amsterdam, the 2017 show is concurrently in Germany, Iran, Italy, Belarus, and Australia. Later this year, it will be in Switzerland, Japan, Belgium, Russia, Vietnam, New Zealand, Peru, Canada, Estonia, Chile, Mexico, the UK, Ecuador, Finland, Austria, Hungary, Denmark, China, Spain, Singapore, and Taiwan.

The 2017 World Press Photo Exhibition will not be displayed in the United States of America.

So, last year we made it into the World Press Photo Exhibition with police violence, racial violence, and gun violence. School shootings may be the American lead in next year’s contest.

On the train back from Versailles, I was seated next to a Chanel-dressed French woman and we got to talking.  She said: “We do not understand Americans’ obsession with owning guns.”  There had just been another school shooting, leaving ten more children were dead. It was the 22nd of the year. The 23rd would happen while we were in Amsterdam.  The BBC reported that more people have died in shootings this year than have died in American military service.


The Parkland shooting and the kids’ March for Our Lives will surely be contenders for 2018 photo of the year, but it’s early yet.


Josefina’s Niñas


As the only daughter of a Midwestern spendthrift shop keeper, Mom would have found it laughably ridiculous to be told as a teenager that she would one day command household staff. That she would do so in different languages thousands of miles from home would have added to the impossibility of such a notion. Sometimes it’s better not to know what lies ahead.

Funny how normal changes. When my sister, Susie, and I were told we were moving to the United States for the first time in our lives (after twelve years overseas), we fought about who was going to get the romantic assignments of doing the dishes, cleaning the house, and washing and ironing the clothes. I’m pretty sure the novelty wore off shortly after we moved into the split-level in the Washington suburbs, and it felt comfortable to return to normal life with a cook and a housekeeper when Dad got assigned to Madrid.

Anchoring my life as a Foreign Service Kid was Josefina Garcia Romaris. In 1955, Fina was, like us, a foreigner in Caracas; she had arrived from post-Civil War Spain to earn a living for her rural family, joining a post-WWII European servant class. Mom and Dad were brand new to the diplomacy business, with its evening and weekend requirements on both of them. In Minnesota, they’d never even had a sitter for new baby me, so having live-in help in the small Caracas garden apartment was a huge change. Fina was willing, putting away her dark mourning clothes, luto, at Mom’s request, and anxious to impress her new family: the day she put a box of cake mix on the breakfast table thinking it was cereal lived on in family lore. And Fina was ready to love: she created a warm, Spanish-speaking world in which I had her all to myself for nearly two years, and her heart grew even bigger when my sister was born. We blossomed into little girls.

When Dad received orders from the State Department moving us Italy in 1959, our Fina-world ended.

The bonds of love between her and us little girls were as strong as blood ties. She’d spoken of when she’d be with mis niñas, my girls, en Italia, but the State Department budget for transferring our family to the new post did not include her, and Mom made arrangements for Fina to go to work for a new family. Mom asked Fina to not make a scene when it came time to leave.

All Susie and I knew was that we were going on a “wonderful Santa Rosa Boat.” I was ready: as first-born, I’d spent nearly five years doing what my parents said to do, no questions asked. Susie was a different creature.

At dusk, the black station wagon from the Embassy pulled up past our mango tree and stopped at the gate. My mother walked to the car with me. Fina carried Susie, chattering to her about the wonderful Santa Rosa boat.

My sister must have picked up on Fina’s tension, because she suddenly burst into tears and buried her head into Fina’s broad shoulder.“No! No!” she blurted. “I don’t want to go!”

“Sure you do,” my mother said. “It’s that wonderful Santa Rosa Boat!”

“No, no, nooo!” Susie sobbed. She clung to Fina, who by now had lost control and was weeping openly. As Mom ushered me into the back seat, Dad pried Susie’s limbs from her beloved Fina and carried her into the car.
My sister cried all the way across Caracas and halfway down the mountain to the coast, and then fell into an exhausted nap. She groggily walked up the ramp to the boat and to our stateroom. Just before dropping off, Susie stated that she still did not want to go on that boat.

The next day, the boat docked off Nassau in the Bahamas, and the four of us took a tender into shore for a bit of sightseeing. Looking out over the bay, Susie noticed the cruise ship bobbing gently at anchor. “Oh, what’s that?”
“Why,” Mom said seizing the opportunity, “that’s the Santa Rosa boat.”

“Can we go on it now?”

“Great idea.” Classic Mom move.

We boarded the tender back to the Santa Rosa. America, and then Italy, lay ahead.

Mom stayed in touch, sending Fina the annual holiday card and snapshots of mis niñas as we moved from Milan to Bologna to Rome to Bogota, and then to the States. She never married. When we headed back overseas in 1971, this time to Madrid, Fina had retired and moved back to the family farm in La Coruña, a rural area in northwest Spain.

Two years later, I had graduated from high school and had a year of the University of Madrid under my belt, and it was time to head back to America to get my college studies seriously underway. After the usual Home Leave to see family in the Midwest, the rest of the family would be moving to Rome, Dad’s final post.

We made a detour to La Coruña on our way.

The road widened as we approached the largest of the rustic buildings. Hay tumbled out from a covered stable adjoining the house, what in Maryland would have been a carport. Dad pulled to a stop where a steep stone stoop jutted out of the dirt and we clambered out. The front door opened.

A stocky woman started down the steps. She was dressed in black with the sturdy stockings and footwear of country folk, her graying hair pulled into a bun of expedience, her brows thick, her mouth held self-consciously over an uneven set of teeth. “Geni…. Sussi… Señor y señora….”

It was Fina. Fifteen years stood awkwardly between us, the woman old, the babies grown, and the couple young no longer. Mom pushed the years aside. “Querida Fina,” dear Fina, she said, hugging our former maid.

Dad extended his hand as Mom disengaged Fina. “Hola, Josefina.”

“Bienvenido, Señor Amerson,” Fina said as she pumped his hand. She dipped her head in a noble nod. “Mi casa es su casa.” My home is your home. She looked over at Susie and me. “Mis señoritas,” she said, hiding her teeth behind one hand as she smiled.

Her strong arms pulled us to her dark padded bosom. She smelled of smoke and sweat. She released us with an extra squeeze and walked us up the high stone steps and into the house.

The morning sun glanced off the rough beige walls of the kitchen, where a tiny old woman swathed in black stood hunched over a bubbling vat. “Mi tia Maria.” My aunt, Fina said by way of introduction.

Aunt Maria gave us a shy gummy smile and kept stirring. “Conejo,” she said.

Rabbit. I hoped that what they said was true, that it tasted more like chicken than like bunny. Mom and Dad sat on one side of the large wooden table that took up most of the room. Susie and I eased into the chairs on the other side as Fina took some small glasses from the shelf above the sink. She placed them in a row on the table.

A man with a weathered face and a sturdy jacket came through the front door carrying a couple of jugs. “Muy buenos dias,” he said by way of greeting as he entered the kitchen. He put the jugs on the table and extended a clean but rough hand toward Dad.

Mi hermano Manuel,” Fina said, introducing her brother.

Mucho gusto,” Dad said. My pleasure.

Señora,” Manuel nodded and shook Mom’s hand. He uncorked one of the jugs and filled the small glasses with a sherry-colored liquid. “Vino para celebrar,” he said as he set a glass down in front of each of us. Wine for celebrating.

A familia,” Dad said, raising a glass toward Fina. To family.

A familia,” Fina echoed as we all lifted our glasses.

The wine was fruity and sweet and left an acidic tingle on my tongue. Fina brought two long baguettes to the table and cut each into chunks. I reached for a piece and bit in, feeling the crust poke at the roof of my mouth as the soft insides wiped clean the wine’s remnants. The chewy mouthful went down smoothly.

At the stove, Tia Maria ladled steaming spoonfuls of meat onto plates, the juices shiny with oil and tinged saffron orange. Fina brought the first plate to Dad. In Caracas, the men always ate first.

Gracias, Fina.” They exchanged a look.

Señor,” she said.

I watched my parents as the rest of us were served. Fifteen years before, Mom, Dad and Fina had stood in the little living room in Caracas in the pre-dawn hours, listening for the roar of Perez Jimenez’ airplane overhead as the dictator left the country. We’d logged a lot of Foreign Service miles since then, yet here we were under the same roof once again.

Te gusta, Geni?” Do you like it? To Josefina, I was not Juanita or Giovanna but her own version of little Jane. She set another loaf on the table.

Oh, sí,” I said, putting a forkful of meat into my mouth. It did taste like chicken. “Rico.” Tasty. I soaked a chunk of bread in the amber juices and packed my fork again.

Manuel poured more wine. Tia Maria ladled out more rabbit. Fina added more bread, until we slowed down and leaned away from the table, too full for more. Mom stood to help clear.

Fina protested. “Ay, no.” She moved our dishes to the sink and retrieved a small paper bundle from a drawer in a nearby cabinet. “Sus cartas,” she said, and lay fifteen years-worth of Christmas letters on the table. She pulled a photograph out from the bottom envelope, and there were Susie and me on the terrace in Milano. “Mis niñas.” We were still her girls.

Mom and Fina sorted through the envelopes, arranging Dad’s photographs that chronicled us girls: ice-cream lipped on the stony beaches of Capri; hugging our dog in our Bogota backyard; sitting at attention in five years’ of Maryland school pictures; Susie as a cheerleader at Torrejon Airbase outside Madrid and my Torrejon graduation picture.
Mucho tiempo,” Mom said at last. A whole life of time

We stood to go. A round of handshakes with Manuel. Stooped little hugs with Tia Maria. A last long hug with our Fina.

They stood in the dusty farmyard as we drove off, waving until we rounded the curve and hit the blacktop.

We were on our way again.


Making a (Little) Difference

I’d like to think that, as a kid, I would have been like the Parkland students leading the  march for gun control in Washington, DC: passionate about justice, and empowered by truth. Probably not: it’s a high bar. Still, Mom and Dad raised my sister and me with the belief  that people’s actions could make a difference. Here’s what happened in 1964, when I was in fifth grade in Bogota, Colombia.

There were lots of Colombian children wandering alone iimages-1n the streets of Bogota. They called them cochinos, filthy pigs. I’d seen them from the bus on our way home from school as they begged at the windows of cars stuck in traffic, but rarely in our tree-lined residential neighborhood of Teusaquillo.

One Sunday, I was doing my homework in my room when I heard a clanging coming from the street. I pulled aside the sheer drapes covering my window and saw a small group of cochinos in front of the closed candy and newspaper store across the street going through the contents of some garbage cans. One of the older kids handed a piece of something to a very small boy who put it in his mouth and sat down against the building, slumping like an old man. Garbage for lunch.

No one should have garbage for lunch. Not today.  I ran downstairs to look for Mom and found her reading in the living room.

I made my case. She listened, pressing her lips together, then took a deep breath. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s ask Rosanna to put some food together for these children.” She never called them cochinos.

Our cook, Rosanna, frowned and shook her head, but placed some leftover roasted lomito and yucca on one of our older plates.

Unknown“Y arequipe,” I said, reaching for the carmel syrup that we kept in the pantry. Rosanna pulled out a loaf of bread we’d started Friday night and sliced off three solid chunks. I poured a ribbon of carmel across each piece. “Y arequipe,” she said with a nod. I bet she was thinking “crazy Americans.”
I carried the plate down the hall to the front door and then down the driveway and through the iron gate, Mom following. As the gate clanged shut behind us, the children turned, ready to run.

Ninos,” I said, extending the plate. “Comida.” Food.

The four children looked at each other for a moment; then, the older boy gave a small nod and the younger children ran across the street to where I was standing, their leader following. As they approached, I saw for the first time up close why cochino was the right word. Their clothes were ragged and caked with grime. Their shoes were cardboard wrapped with some old string. Their faces were lined with dirt, their hands and legs filthy. You could smell them.

I handed the plate to the older boy and our eyes met: he was the tiredest person I’d ever seen, deep circles under his eyes, his lips cracked and dry, his cheeks hollow. He was about my age. He lowered his eyes and took the plate, our hands only inches away from each other. He turned and sat on the sidewalk, the other three huddled around him. He handed out the food, starting with the littlest boy, who couldn’t have been more than five. His nose was runny, as were his eyes, and his belly was bloated by hunger, protruding above pants that were way too big for him, held together by a safety pin. There were cuts on his right cheek, as if he’d fallen.

I looked at my mother, who was standing against our wall, hands clasped in front of her. “Mommy, he’s hurt.”

“Yes, honey,” she said, nodding. “Let’s do what we can.”

She stepped toward our gate. The children’s heads turned as the hinges squealed, their eyes wary.

Esperen,” she said to them, holding her hand up. Wait.

We brought out a basin of soapy water, an old washcloth, and band aids. The group was still there, but standing and looking nervous.
Senora,” the oldest boy said, lowering his eyes as he handed our empty plate to her. Mom took the plate as if it were a gift from a visiting dignitary.

I knelt next to the water and motioned to the little one. He approached as if he were in a trance, his eyes empty. He barely registered the feel of the washcloth on his face as I wiped at the dirt, the washcloth coming back brown. I patted at the scratches on his face and lay a band aid across his hot dry cheek.

“Okay,” I said, standing.

The leader looked at me directly for the first time.

Gracias,” he said.

I nodded. They wandered away down the sidewalk. I knew that we’d never see them again.

That night at dinner, Mom and I told Dad and Susie what had happened that afternoon while they were out: Susie, playing at an American friend’s house; and Dad, playing golf at the country club.

“I knew we needed to help,” I said, recounting how I’d wiped some of the dirt off the little boy’s face. “But I’m not even sure what difference it made.”

“Anything at all was a good thing to do,” Mom said, passing the mashed potatoes to Dad. “And you’re right: this tragic situation is somehow tolerated by society. I mean, that’s what the Y was all about in Winona: giving kids a place to belong, and that was important even when families were intact.”

“Making a difference is why we are here, after all,” Dad said, scooping potatoes onto his plate.  He looked at us, the platter paused in mid-air.  “No person is unimportant in a democracy.”

He nodded at his own pontification and lowered the potatoes into Susie’s waiting hand.  Dad looked across the table toward me, but not quite at me. I followed his gaze and passed him the peas.

“Isn’t that what the Embassy wives are working on, Nancy?” Dad said, adding a slab of butter to his peas. They put lots of butter and cream and milk on everything in South Dakota.

“Well, sort of. We’re modeling volunteerism. There’s a great group of Colombian women that are picking up on it.” She chewed on a piece of ham. “The March of Dimes,” she said.

“Who?” I said.

Unknown-2“The March of Dimes, that’s who is helping kids all over the world get a better start in life, including here in Bogota. Mrs. Dearborn is on the Board. Maybe we can’t help every street child, but maybe we can help the organization make a difference to kids. Kids like Henry.” Francesca’s son came with her on ironing days, sitting on a chair with his braces unlocked. “His polio could have been prevented with better education and better health care. That’s what the March of Dimes is all about.”

“Polio?” Susie said, looking at Dad. “Didn’t he get the sugar cubes like you brought home?”

“You got those because you are a very fortunate American child,” Daddy said. “We are all very fortunate. And, yes, I think that supporting the March of Dimes would be a fine thing to do, Janie.”

The school week left us with little time, so it wasn’t until the following Friday that I announced the project to our best friends, the four Cardenas kids, when we met up on top of the cement wall that separated their property from ours. We had created a neighborhood play together. Now, we were going to raise money for children. As the two oldest kids, Luis and I planned out our approach.

The next day, we went down the block, door to door. Mom waited on the sidewalk while the six of us climbed up and down the stoops, smiling at the baffled maids that answered the door as they looked around us, trying to figure out our scheme: why was this group of well-to-do children begging like cochinos? They all shook their heads no.

We needed another way to get money.  Luis came up with the idea.“Vendemos cosas viejas.”  Sell our old things.

Si!” I said. This was exactly the right thing, from what I’d read in American books: it was what Honey Bunch and Norman did when they helped the old farmer keep his farm. “A yard sale.”

Un llard esale,” Luis repeated, looking pleased.

The following Saturday, the front wall of our house was covered with items for sale: Dad donated an old electric razor and drawing pencils; Mom sorted through the pots and pans to find a few we could do without, and she gave us several scarves and some old jewelry she said was ‘paste’; Susie and I put in toys we had outgrown and hand-me-down dresses to be handed down again; and even Julia, our housekeeper, joined in, giving us some little figurines that she’d collected. Luis and his siblings added books, some sweaters and other things, including the fake flowers Mrs. Cardenas gave us from their dining room.


It was a good thing that Mr. Cardenas was away on business that weekend, because he would never have approved his children selling their household items like some street vendors.  I’m pretty sure proper Teusaquillo had never seen anything like it. Leave it to the Americans.

We raised $50, mostly in coins. I put it in a glass jar and proudly walked in into the March of Dimes office on Monday afternoon with Mom while Dad’s driver waited at the curb.

It was a good start in civic engagement.

Be a Citizen, Change the World

Dr. Benjamin Barber, an American political theorist, believed that communities could be built of trust, connection and cooperation, and that engaged citizens would change the world.


In 2013, he wrote: “…When democracy works, gun control legislation will pass. It’s that simple.”

Barely two weeks after 17 of their schoolmates and teachers were killed in yet another a school shooting just 40 miles south from me, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida have taken the moral high ground, demanding action on gun control. On the steps of the state house in Tallahassee,images

images-1at a CNN town hall, and in a televised meeting at the White House with the President, these kids and their supporters have refused to be satisfied with the standard political reaction: “hopes and prayers” followed by shrugs, excuses and inaction.

We can agree that there should never be another mass shooting. The Parkland students’ cry makes this a demand: #NeverAgain.

When I was the age of the middle school children who were killed in Parkland on February 14, Dad was about halfway through a five-year assignment in Washington, DC. Terrorism hadn’t followed us to America from Colombia, where Bogota was living through La Violencia. My biggest school worry in the Maryland suburbs was Mrs. Meyers’ glare in math class.

While I worked on my A-line shift in Home Economics, the older brothers and sisters of my schoolmates on college campuses across the country created an anti-war movement protesting the Vietnam War. They made a movement, saying: “Hell, no, we won’t go.” These young people, the age of American soldiers, forced an end to the Vietnam War.

#NeverAgain. Hell, no. This is the cry we must all take up from now on.


These kids have made waves, and the waves are washing up more than platitudes. Many elected officials, including Trump, are going on the record for the first time with ideas that might actually reduce school shootings, and maybe even gun violence as a whole. While the talking heads debate the more radical proposals — like arming teachers on the one hand, or taking guns away from law-abiding citizens on the other — there are some middle-ground ideas that may stick.

One that should make sense to both gun-control advocates and Second Amendment advocates is the “gun violence restraining order” which removes guns from those who pose a danger to themselves or others. California, Connecticut, Indiana, Oregon, and Washington have such a law on the books. Another nineteen states are considering similar legislation. Florida is not among them.

Barber wrote: “Strong democracy … means citizenship as a way of living: an expected element of one’s life. It is a prominent and natural role, such as that of ‘parent’ or ‘neighbor.’”

My parents thought of themselves as ordinary Americans given the extraordinary opportunity of representing their country abroad with the US Information Service. Dad promoted democracy — freedom of the press, fair and open elections, the free exchange of ideas — in his daily dealings with newspaper editors, business leaders and government officials. Mom, whose father ran her small town’s hardware store, grew up as part of the town’s community: in the church, at the library, at the local YMCA. It’s what was expected, but it was not always easy to find opportunities in countries where social status defined behavior.

fullsizeoutput_57eBut in Colombia, volunteerism was at work, and she became part of a group of women engaged in supporting the YMCA and in running a nursery school. Her work was publicly praised by the Ambassador, a rarity for Foreign Service wives. More important to Mom, however, was her relationship to these remarkable Colombian women, who she would have considered friends in any country. Community participation is what a person did. When Dad retired to Boston, Mom volunteered at the United Way, and she was an engaged supporter of the Brewster Ladies Library when they moved to Cape Cod.

I continue to donate to the Library. We raised our daughter in the public schools, at public libraries, in church communities during our 30 years in upstate New York. She helped clean up after Katrina, painted housing in West Virginia, and fed the homeless in Washington, DC. Being with community is how this is all supposed to work.

The Parkland children have called us to March for Our Lives on March 24 in Washington and across the country. If we act like members of a community we value, we will not just march but also work to elect men and women who support gun-control. The November mid-term elections could be our country’s watershed moment, when we voted for our lives.



The Year We Forgot Birthday Breakfast

My mother, Nancy Robb Amerson, would have turned 90 last Sunday. Although it is now nearly 10 years since she passed away, there is not a February 4 that goes by without me remembering the year we all forgot her birthday.

It was a Friday in 1972. We’d been in Madrid just six months for Dad’s Embassy assignment running the US Information Service country-wide operation. I was doing my senior year at Torrejon Air Base High School, trying out for the production of Lil Abner without understanding that it had been picked for roles suited to the long-term “military brats.” Susie was in her sophomore year at Torrejon, a cheerleader and girlfriend of a senior on the football team. We rode the same Base bus each morning but lived in different strata. This doesn’t excuse our lapse but may be how we managed to be so individually-centered that year. Dad was immersed in the job. We were all up and out the door with scarely a bye, and without any of us giving Mom a single birthday hug.

In some families, the absence of celebration wouldn’t be noticed early in the day, and we might have recovered from the lapse by, say, a birthday dinner. But in our home, birthdays were celebrated at breakfast, a tradition born of Dad’s late working hours and our parents’ frequent evening engagements representing the Embassy.

Birthday Breakfast involved festooning the chosen one’s chair with streamers and balloons and piling cards and presents on the designated placemat and decorating the table with a fresh bouquet, and keeping the Birthday Girl (or Dad) away from the table until the candles on the coffee cake were lit. There was a Birthday Crown.

That Friday morning, Mom’s breakfast chair was bare, her plate was empty of home made cards, and the table wasn’t festooned with a birthday bouquet. We were clueless that we’d just broken Mom’s heart.

It still astonishes me.

And, worse, Mom said nothing. Her eventual “I’m disappointed” — the understated Norwegian version of yelling — still resonates.

There were no family or close friends to make up for our omission. Mom’s mother was 5,700 miles away in Sun City, California, where she had moved to live with her sister after Grandpa died. Mom’s brother, now running the family store in Minnesota, was unpredictable. Her circle of childhood friends would have surrounded her with laughter and cake, had she not left Winona more than two decades before for a different life, choosing, unknowingly, a life without the kind of friends who would call after the family left for their day to wish you happy birthday and be outraged with you at your selfish husband and children.

The life of the Foreign Service wife in the Cold War era was regulated by hierarchical relationships: your husband’s position and tenure in each short-term assignment dictated your position among the spouses. Upon arriving at a post, you “called on” the Ambassador’s wife and the spouses of the senior Embassy staff who, in turn, would pull you into activities designed to integrate you into the entire Mission team. You’d become well acquainted with your peers and even friendly with those you liked best, but it was all at arm’s length. These were short-term relationships with people in the business; even if you could establish more intimate friendships, it was business.

Mom was initiated in the role in the 1950s as the junior spouse in Caracas, recruited to make finger food for receptions at the Ambassador’s Residence. In that era, helping to hostess a party was a reasonable assignment that helped your husband do his job. Post by post, she and Dad became a team: accompanying visiting dignitaries to La Scala in Milan, to a papal audience in Rome; attending the Marine Ball in Madrid.

You would not be paid. You could not get a job that did pay.

But, mostly the role of the Foreign Service wife was to establish, and re-establish, and re-establish a serene home for her family. The State Department put it this way:

…the Foreign Service wife is instantly thrown into a strenuous intercultural situation requiring much energy and rapid accomplishment in establishing her household and family in a new situation…Hardly any wife has chosen this as her own way of life; most have accepted it gracefully as a by-product of their choice of mate….
Guidelines for Representational Responsibilities of Wives in our Posts Abroad, Management Reform Bulletin No. 20, June 3, 1971, US Department of State

So, the least “her household and family” could do was remember that 4th of February was The Foreign Service Wife’s birthday. But the weekend went by and nothing.

On Monday, the clue arrived in the Embassy Air Force Post Office box: the annual “astral twin” Snoopy birthday card from Mom’s college friend Dot Wortman. Dana, Dad’s secretary, lay it on the top of the pile. The envelope and Dot’s distinctive handwriting tipped Dad off. He composed a poem on his lunch hour, drafted it in his best calligraphy before he left the office, and stopped by the florists around the corner from the Embassy on his way home. My cheeks remember the hot flush of embarrassment when I saw the flowers in the center of the table, the cream-colored stationery of Dad’s poem propped up against the vase. I don’t remember what I said, or how I tried to make it up to Mom. Or Susie’s reaction.

What I do remember is Mom’s disappointment.

When I told my 25 year-old daughter about this incident the other day, she was appalled. She was raised in the Birthday Breakfast tradition. She had good reason to be appalled.

And on my own birthday the next year, when I had been set adrift at an American college while they went on to Dad’s next post, the Birthday Crown magically appeared at the foot of my dorm room bed. Mom and my roommate had conspired to transport Birthday Breakfast across the Atlantic from Italy to Ohio.

Which makes February 4, 1972 that much meaner.








Enough Trump Mierda

“Shithole” is now a printable and sayable vulgarism.

“A day after meeting with Norway’s prime minister in Washington, President Trump told members of Congress that the United States needed more immigrants from places like Norway …and fewer immigrants from countries like Haiti …which Trump called shitholes…” (The New York Times, January 12, 2018)


By calling Norway “good” and Haiti and African nations “shitholes,” Trump has once again put himself at the center of attention. This time he has played to a global audience and international consequences are mounting fast. Norwegians have called Trump out as a racist, venting their outrage and disgust not only at Mr. Trump’s vulgar language but at using their country to make a racially tinged insult. The African Union has called for an apology for a remark that “flies in the face of all accepted behavior and practice.” The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights calls Trump’s remarks “shocking and shameful … opening the door to humanity’s worst side … the single most damaging and dangerous consequence of this type of comment by a major political figure.”

And some countries understood the Trump quid pro quo: disagree with me, and I’ll come after you, whether it’s the press, or a judge, or a political foe. It’s a zero-sum game to him. Rather than risk being unfunded, a South Sudanese government official stated: “Unless it was specifically said about South Sudan, we have nothing to say.”

Trump has unleashed a … oh, hell, it’s a shitstorm, and we hear that he is delighted with the response.  His words and his response show Trump to be a bully and a bigot who cares not for the country he was elected to lead, but for himself alone.

And here’s some good news for the President: Norwegians are already here!  The bad news? They looked like “undesirables” to people like Trump when they got off the boat.


My parents were descendants of Norwegian farmers who had suffered through famine and had seen their livelihood erased by industrialization. They arrived at our shores poor, huddled, and yearning for a new life like millions of others who braved the dangerous voyage with no assurance of a future in this unknown place. The masses that teemed into Ellis Island at the end of the 1800s were the lucky ones who survived weeks at sea, poorly nourished and surrounded by disease.

We Norwegians had nothing to offer back then, except for the willingness to work hard. The Amundons made their way west to establish homesteads on the prairies of South Dakota. Michael Landon made this look like good family fun on the Little House television show, but it was a dangerous, exhausting and lonely life. Read Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth.

Today, immigrants continue to risk the ocean journey in the pursuit of a better life, but now their skin is brown. Some of the skin is shit brown.

Haitians are marching on Mar-A-Lago a few miles from my home tomorrow morning, on Martin Luther King’s birthday, in protest of the slur. They will be risking their menial jobs cleaning hotel toilets in order to tell their story.  Around Palm Beach County, crews of Latino immigrants from Central America will fan out tomorrow to wrestle our gated community green spaces into shape, or to install roof tiles, or to pick strawberries. Men will stand on the corner by the Home Depot hoping some contractor needs an extra back. This is hard, hot, humiliating work – what we called “shit jobs” before getting “real jobs” – and it’s keeping their families alive back in El Salvador or Guatemala.

The Norsky’s efforts paid off, too. Two generations later, the Land of Opportunity and the post-World War II GI Bill opened college up to the grandsons and granddaughters of these pioneers, and college introduced the world.

My father left the Norwegian homesteaded farm in South Dakota for the War, then a liberal arts education, and finally an offer to join the United States Information Agency.  Eisenhower, the victorious general, saw USIA as the structure through which America could rebuff Communism, not by condemning and threatening — like Trump —  but by “winning hearts and minds.” Democracy was built on open elections, the freedom of assembly and the open exchange of ideas, and freedom of the press.  Telling America’s story through free public libraries, visiting artists, and educational exchanges built relationships for the United States would use to keep the USSR at bay.  Dad proudly represented the land that gave his Norwegian ancestors a new life during his 20-year Foreign Service career, serving under both Democrat and Republican administrations.

Dad retired before the end of the Cold War caused a paradigm shift away from the dual balance of power. The proliferation of nuclear arms and the emergence of radical terrorism around the world have created multiple players in the game of world domination. Putin is snaking Russia into the most sacred of American institutions, our elections. China is filling the space once held by the United States to fund initiatives in Latin America and Africa. It is exporting Artificial Intelligence systems designed to keep totalitarian governments in control. Democracy is no longer the obvious model.

But American values haven’t changed.  Today, more than 16,000 Americans — descendants of slaves, descendants of immigrants, sons and daughters of refugees  — represent our country in 270 Foreign Service posts throughout the world, promoting tolerance, fairness, equality, the rule of law, the freedom of the press. They do this despite a president who their foreign counterparts call ‘catastrophic,’ ‘terrifying,’ ‘incompetent’ and ‘dangerous.’

The Council on Foreign Relations concludes: “The president is not playing the leadership role the rest of the world has come to expect from the United States, and the consequences are piling up….when it comes to Trump and the world, it’s not better than you think; it’s worse.” And that was before Thursday.

Trump does not speak for me. He does not speak for my country.  Americans must call Trump out, loudly, consistently, and resoundingly now and all the way to the mid-term elections in November.

And “shithole” would be a contender for 2018 Word of the Year, except we know that the long months ahead of us will add competing crap.

Playing Presepio

I am not ready for Christmas until the manger scenes are unwrapped and assembled. It’s a tradition that began in the late 50’s in Dad’s first post, Caracas, the first of the three Catholic countries we called home in which the creche is the center of Christmas commemorations. During the early 60’s in Italy, our presepio collection grew to include shepherds, farm animals, bridges, elements of an entire diorama that took us hours to create: newspaper hills covered in moss, streams of tin foil, the place at the edge of the scene from which my sister and I would progress the Wise Men, clay step by clay step, until they arrived to give the baby their gifts on January 7.


My Nativity elements today are an amalgam of home-grown, handcrafted and mass produced pieces. My uncle Glenn Goodroad built the manger in South Dakota a quarter-century ago. The little black and white dog gazing at Baby Jesus is from Caracas and is IMG_5442nearly as old as I am. He’s down to two stumpy legs so I lean him up against the manger: he’s earned a place of honor, as do the Caraqueno standing angels whose glitter has all but worn off.

The clay pots are from the ‘60s in Bogota, as was a folk art manger made of a Fab detergent box that I treasured for 50 years, far longer than its useful life. The trees in clay are from Madrid’s Plaza Mayor in early 70’s, as are the Wise Men.

My dad brought me back the “manger in a box” from a visit to the Middle East before his retirement from the Foreign Service in the early ‘80s,

and somewhere along the way I found this Mexican version of the trinity, carved wise men and sheep. When my husband and I were in Sorrento two years ago, I added a shepherd and a new Jesus, bringing my total to three: as my Aunt Snooky said, we can all use more Jesuses.

Ray and I also visited Rome’s Piazza Navona. The Bernini statues are as iconic as the ristorante Tre Scalini, but none of the summer scene captured the intoxicating Christmas magic that eminates from Piazza Navona in December. DSCN3192DSCN3188

Here is how I recall one Sunday noon in December, 1961. I had just turned seven.

It was a cold four-block walk, even in the noonday sun. Everyone was home on Sunday, their cars parked on the sidewalk, so we went single file alongside the rough walls of the old palazzi. The smells of garlic and olive oil drifted out from behind the barred windows. A man scuttled by with panini for pranzo, pushing his way through a heavy wooden door; I got a glimpse of the stone courtyard and the broad stairway disappearing up into the gloom as the door slowly swung closed. A ribbon of bright blue sky ran between one side of the street and the other, interrupted only by laundry hung like flags.
My father wandered into the street with the movie camera on.
“Okay, Nancy, now you and the girls walk ahead. No, don’t look back at me. Just go ahead. Act natural.”
We heard this a lot.

The sticky sweet smell of fried dough and tangy sausages curled around the next corner, and there was Piazza Navona. A sea of canvass booths ran all along the inside track of the oval. People were everywhere. Bunches of balloons floated in the center of the crowd.
“Wow, it’s really full,” I said. “You can’t even see the Bernini.”
Dad asked me to repeat that for the camera.
Mom steered us into the crowd, with a kind of drawn out “Bob,” that meant please cut out the filming and take one of the girls. Susie reached back for his hand. We wandered from booth to booth, the four of us reflected in huge golden balls, pink balls, red balls. A bunch of grapes in silver glass shimmered in the sun, the light trapped inside like Tinkerbell. Birds with tails of spun glass were stopped mid-flight. Clear big glass bells hung quietly. Twirling stretches of green tinsel spiraled up endlessly. The sun danced in red and blue and green from booth to booth, marking the path like an airport runway at night.
As Mom paused to touch special pieces, the vendors would start in.
“Signora, un bell’ prezio.” The negotiation would begin with an opening price.
“Eh.” she’d answer.
The price would drop a bit.
“What would she offer?”
“I could pay…” she responded, loud enough for Dad to hear how good her Italian was now.
Done. The knotted string bag she’d stuffed into her purse began to take shape as it hung off her arm, round with bundles of newspaper protecting new ornaments for our tree.
“Prego, Signora, e buon’ natale.”
I knew these new pieces would be great additions to the ornaments Grandpa and Grandma had sent us from the Store in Winona, and to those Mom had packed up last Christmas when we lived in Bologna, along with the tinsel she had carefully peeled off the tree and wrapped in tin foil to be used again.

On the other side of the piazza, in the deep cool shadows under the canvas, was a whole new Christmas universe: the presepio. Hills of spongy green moss, sandy paths, rocky ledges, gnarly clumps of wood stuck in clay bases, tin foil waterfalls springing from cork mountain walls and wooden bridges crossing rivers of glass. An entire village with a winding street of little stones and houses and even some laundry hanging, and then down in the valley shepherds with their lambs slung across their shoulders, and a farm with pottery mules and oxen and white chickens and little yellow chicks, and the three Wise Men climbing a far hill in brilliant robes all gold and ruby and emerald, and silver angels spreading their wings to protect the little straw covered hut, the Madonna seated on her invisible chair and Joseph standing in the hay gripping his staff, both gazing at the empty cradle. No one puts Jesus out until he is born Christmas Eve.
“Well, girls, it may not be South Dakota but how about a little farm of your own?” Dad said.
Susie helped me choose the best pieces for our own presepio and soon Mommy’s bag was bursting with moss and bark and figurines, and I had figured out the best way to build. Susie had other ideas.
“Let’s make it under the tree,” she said.
“No, no, it needs to be up high,” I said. “On the trunk.”
My father had brought home from the office a big square of cardboard for art projects. It would fit right on top of the big trunk from Winona, ready for newspaper hills under a draped sheet.
“No,” Susie said.
My sister needed a lot of explanations, it seemed to me.
“Look,” I began, but my analysis was cut short by a squealing sound at the far end of the piazza.
“Bagpipes!” Mom smiled at us. “Just like your Robb ancestors in Scotland.” She took us each by the hand and strode off in the direction of the noise. My father followed. I bet he had the camera running again.

The squealing dimmed to a long whine that reeled us in. A wavering tune balanced on top of the hum. Scotland. I wondered if the musicians would be wearing the plaid skirts like the ones Mommy showed us in Winona.
The crowd had encircled the players.
“Look, Bob,” Mom said. “Farmers?”
“Shepherds, actually,” Daddy said authoritatively.
Shepherds. What were they doing in the middle of Rome? Someone made room for us blonde ragazze. The green loden wool of strangers’ coats scratched gently at my cheeks as we squeezed through.
We popped out of the crowd in front of two men in woolen hats and leather vests, their legs wrapped in sheepskin bound by leather ropes. Their boots drooped around their ankles. No skirts here.
They each carried a pouch from which they were squeezing music with their elbows. Their bulging cheeks pushed air into through a long instrument like one of our recorders, and the shepherds modulated the sound by covering the holes with thei fingers protruding from their tipless gloves.
The gentle tune was repeating now, the notes flowing simply into each other, the melody floating up into the air with winter’s breath. I turned to look for Dad. When he lowered the movie camera, I tugged at his sleeve.
“Can we learn this song?”
“Yes, please?” Susie said.
“Well, sure,” he said, smiling at Susie and me. Mom was beaming.
“That would be very nice, girls.”
The bagpipes whined to a stop and the last note hung in the still cold air. One of the men pulled off his hat and carried it around the gathered crowd.
“Grazie, grazie, buon natale, grazie signora, buon natale.”
Dad dropped a few lire into the hat while Susie and I hung back next to Mom. The melody of the shepherds’ song rang in my ears as we walked slowly back to the car.IMG_5445

Twenty-two years later, our Italian friend Roberto Lucic gifted my husband and me the lyrics to the song we heard that day in Piazza Navona,“Tu scendi da le stelle”,


Listen to it here sung by very dear Italian children in 2011.






Christmas Eve: Part Two


[Tonight, my husband, my daughter and I continue a tradition begun in 1959 of having tacos for Christmas Eve dinner. For years I didn’t make the connection between the meal and our Foreign Service journey: after all, we’d never lived in Mexico. It was not until I started reading my mother’s letters home that I understood that tacos were her attempt at normalizing a tradition begun during Dad’s first post in Caracas….]
Christmas Eve, Milan, 1959 (from Inventing Myself: A Memoir, draft)

I had memorized all the doors on the block down to our pensione. The paper store, the shoe store, the cigarette store. Halfway down the block we passed the Rinascente, where my mother had bought our Christmas ornaments, since our real ones were on a boat somewhere, along with our furniture and toys and clothes. I caught a whiff of the perfume counter as we passed the door.

The doorman stood in front of the pensione looking like a toy soldier in his gold braided red uniform. His brass buttons sparkled as he tipped his hat and opened the glass door.
“Buona sera, signora.”
“Buona sera.”
My mother let go our hands and Susie and I skipped into the hotel, our leather soles slapping at the white and black marble floor. The lady behind the desk looked up. Her eyes were ringed in heavy black that matched her dark, high-necked dress.
“Buona sera, signora, ragazze.”
I loved that word. It was much jazzier than niñas.
“Buona sera,” my mother answered as she caught up with us.
The sounds of our shoes were muffled by the red runner that led to the elevator. My mother pushed the button, and the elevator came chugging down, settling behind the brass gate. She pulled the gate aside and grabbed the door handle, then quickly steered us into the cage. She leaned in on us as the gate clanged shut behind her, the two sides reaching for each other like fingers interlacing. I tightened my legs; still, the back of my head thumped against my mother’s coat as the elevator whined and bumped to a start, like a slow hiccup. We slowly climbed, the broad marble stairs zig zagging around us. Side. Back. Side. Front. The primo piano slid down from my forehead to my belly button to my feet and gone. Side. Back. Side. Front. The secondo slid past us. I looked up, letting my head fall way back against my wooly collar and stared through the lacy metal ceiling, following the quivering cables way, way up. I squinted shut the outsides of my eyes and the stairs became a soft ring of pale light. If I looked down, it was like falling.
The elevator jerked to a stop and Mom tugged the gate open. I jumped over the space where you could see all the way down and followed my mother and sister down the hall to our little hotel apartment. Mom unlocked the door and we walked into the dark. It felt strange to be alone there.

IMG_5463My mother turned on the lamp next to the couch and drew the drapes, stopping next to the bay window to adjust one of the decorations on the little dresser-top tree that My father had brought home a few nights ago. She clicked on the tree lights. The decorations from Rinascente sparkled and glinted off the wrapped gifts huddled under the fake branches. Susie’s little white felt angel dangled next to my lavender one.
“OK, girls, time to get ready for Christmas Eve,” My mother said. “Your father will be home soon.”
Susie and I shared the smaller of the two bedrooms. As I hung my coat up, I looked at the wool skirts and jumpers the cousins had given us last month. I missed my pink cotton shirt and the rest of my real clothes that were somewhere on the ocean. My mother said that they’d be here in time for the hot weather. I couldn’t imagine Milan ever being warm. My bones felt tight.
I tossed my sweater on my twin bed. Susie followed me out. I reached back inside to turn off the ceiling light.
Mo15726845_10206240197842377_8330204807525676085_nm was at the single counter in the small kitchen opening wax paper bundles.

“Hallacas?” Susie said. The banana leaf-wrapped cornmeal meat pie was the traditional Christmas meal in Caracas.safe_image.php
“Well, almost,” my mother said. “I thought we might try a little variation this year.”I guessed Italians didn’t have hallacas. “We’re having tacos. It’ll be like making your own hallaca right at the table.”She handed me a bowl of grated yellow cheese and another one of chopped tomatoes.

The tangy smell of browning hamburger warmed the apartment with wonderful familiarity.
“As soon as your father comes home,” Mom began.
The apartment door clicked open. I looked down the hallway as Dad walked in.

“Do I smell Christmas Eve?”

He lowered his briefcase to the floor and swung the door shut behind him. The four of us were together. Something inside of me relaxed.
“Daddy!” Susie ran into his arms.
“Did you bring us anything from office?” I said.
“For my girls? Of course.”

My father walked us into the small living room and lowered Susie to the couch. “Just reach into that there briefcase and you’ll see a letter or two that came in through the Embassy. Hi, honey.”
My mother had joined us. They kissed, her dark head tilted up to his fair one.
“Buon Natale,” she said.
“That’s the spirit!” my father said, unbuttoning his coat. “What did I tell you, Nan? You’re going to take to this place in no time.”
My mother just smiled and took his coat.
“Any apartment finds?”
“Oh, that’ll come, right after New Year’s,” Dad said.
“Tacos, My father. Tacos!” Susie said, hopping off the couch.
“Some new tradition, huh?” he said, scooping her up again. “And what do you think our Midwestern relatives would think about that, my little bambinas? Sure beats lutefisk.”
“Lutefisk and lefse and Copenhagen snoose…” I began.
“… Brandt High School will loose loose loose!” He finished with me.
I wasn’t sure what any of that meant, but they were sounds from the farm in South Dakota.The rhyme was part of our private language, like Spanish was too.
“Did you really say that out on the farm?” I said.
“You bet! Dem South Dakota boys…”
“Okay, you guys,” my mother warned as she lay the last of the small dishes on the small dinner table. She disappeared back into the kitchen. “We’re ready to sit down.”IMG_5462
My father lifted Susie into her chair at the table. I climbed into mine as he went down the short hall to the bathroom. Mom carried in a platter of steaming fried tortillas.
My father reappeared. “I don’t know how you did this, Nan,” he said. “Tortillas in Milano?”
“Found these when we were in Washington last month,” my mother said, tossing two crisp tortillas onto each of our plates. She spooned some cheese, hamburger and tomato onto Susie’s plate. I piled some of each onto my plate and began building my own taco, anticipating the first crisp tangy chewy bite.

My father smiled at my mother across the table as they sat down. Her eyes smiled back.
“Shall we say a few words?” he said, reaching for our hands. “Like how very lucky we are to be here celebrating our first Christmas in Italy.”
He looked at me.
“Feliz Navidad father,” I said.
“Buon Natale,” My father corrected.
I knew I was using the old words, but they just felt so much more comfortable.
“Buon Natale,” I said.
My father nodded.
“Natale,” Susie said.
“And we’re thinking about our families in Minnesota and South Dakota,” Mom added.
My father gave my hand a squeeze. We dug in.
After dinner, Susie and I had our bath while Mom finished dishes and Dad read through papers from his briefcase.
I stepped out of the steamy tub. The cold of the white tiles sucked the soft warmth from the bottom of my feet as I remembered what I was going to tell Susie this afternoon. I helped her out of the tub.
“Susie, remember what tomorrow is?”
“Christmas,” she said, balancing on one foot as she aimed the other one toward her pajama leg.
She dropped to the little bath mat to continue wriggling her feet all the way down into the booties. I zipped up my matching one-piece pajamas and reached for the comb on the sink.
“And what do we get on Christmas?”
“Presents?” she said, looking up.
“And you know what?” I said, stopping the comb halfway down my head. “Some of the presents are already under the tree, cause they’re from My mother and My father and Grandma and Grandpa and Uncle Jim.”
“I know,” Susie said. She reached for the tub edge and pulled herself up to standing.
“Okay, and then there’re other presents,” I said, looking her in the eyes, “Other presents that we don’t even see until tomorrow, until Christmas.”
“Yeah,” Susie said. She pulled at the zipper on her pajamas. “From Santa.”
“Yes, yes, that’s right! From Santa,” I said.
“Santa Claus.” She reached for the comb.
I held it over my head.
“Santa Claus. Santa Claus,” I said, lowering my face toward hers. “Don’t you remember? He came to our house. He was there.  He walks right in and he knows we are here now. He is coming. Right here while we are sleeping.”
Susie’s mouth was starting to quiver. I couldn’t stop.
“And he’s going to see our tree lights and come right here and we will be sleeping and Mommy and Daddy will be sleeping and he’ll be here.” I realized I was almost shouting.santa-tracker-891395.jpg
“No!” Susie wailed and burst into tears.
The bathroom door flew open.
“What’s going on here?”
My mother dropped to her knees. Susie let out a louder howl and flopped into her arms. Tears spilled from my eyes.
My mother reached one hand to my shoulder.
“What is it, honey?”
“I don’t want Santa to come in here,” I said, dropping to her lap.
“I’m scared,” Susie whimpered.
My mother stroked our wet heads.
“Okay, now,” she said quietly, rocking on her knees. “Okay. It’s okay.”
I felt her calmness seeping into me.
“How about if we turn off the Christmas tree lights? I think that might just do it,” she said. “You know we’re all together now. My father’s here and I’m here.”
We rocked together for a minute. Susie stopped crying. I took a deep breath.
“There, that’s better,” My mother said, lifting us onto our pajama feet and standing up. “Now, how about a goodnight song from your Daddy? What would you like, Jane?”
I knew right away. “Feliz Cumpleaños.”
“Sure, that’s one that Susie knows too, don’t you honey?” my mother said as we walked out into the living room.
“Bob, the girls will say goodnight.”
“G’night, Daddy,” Susie said, reaching up to kiss him.
My father put his papers into his open briefcase and leaned over to hug my sister.
“Good night, Daddy,” I said.
“Good night, signorina,” he said, kissing my cheek.
My mother switched off the Christmas lights.
“And they’d like to hear you play Happy Birthday on the guitar.”
“No, no,” Susie said. “Feliz Años.”
“That’s the same thing,” I said as Mom walked us to our bedroom.
We got into our beds. My mother tucked Susie in and then came over to my bed. She pulled the sheet up to my chin.
“Now, sweet dreams,” she said.
“Good night, Mommy,” I said, and gave her a kiss.
She turned off the light between our beds.
“Buon Natale,” she said and swung our door almost closed.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. As I let it slowly out, I heard the first strums of my father’s guitar. The chords hung in the dark bedroom air like a hammock, swinging us steady and safe.
I swayed in the dark and listened for Fina.