One of my favorite podcasts these days is Rough Translation from NPR. Their blurb says that they tell stories about how the things that we’re talking about in the United States are being talked about in other places. that follow familiar conversations into unfamiliar territory. The episode about how COVID-19 is challenging other cultures explored how the older Greek population is struggling to conform the traditions of the Greek Orthadox church with social distancing orders, and why Germany held off ordering its citizens off the streets for so long. Nazi Germany and Soviet East Germany are still recent history.
I was particularly struck by a comment that host Gregory Warner made at the end of the broadcast (which he recorded in a closet of his home somewhere in America) about how his children are adjusting to the coronavirus lockdown.
My daughter, who’s four years old, asked me the other night for a meeting with her grandma. She meant a telemeeting, online. Her grandmother lives 20 minutes away. I am absolutely proud of how my kids are coping with this, and it’s all really affirming that they are adjusting, thanks to their teachers who’re doing a great job, and to my parents and to my wife’s parents for learning to teleconference. But, there is another part of me that does not want them to adjust to this so easily, that this is not what we should get used to. And I am a little bit rattled that they might start to see this new life as normal.Gregory Warner, NPR’s Rough Translation
Seeing this new life as normal. That’s exactly what my sister and I did every time my family moved during my father’s career in the American Foreign Service.
For example, on November 14, 1963 I was a fourth-grader at the Overseas School of Rome, taking an hour away from studying about the Roman Empire to have my ninth birthday party in my classroom with (of course) individual pizzas. Two weeks later, I was a fourth-grader at the English School in Bogotá, Colombia, studying about “how we lost the colonies.” I’d say that rattled my mother a bit! “Honey, we are the colonies,” she said. But then my sister, Susie, and I went on to discuss some Shakespeare play our teachers were reading to us — and she was in second grade!
The new normal of Bogotá in the 1960s included random acts of violence — bombings, kidnappings, murder — that had being pounding the country for years. The school bus would not drop us off it there wasn’t an adult waiting for us. Either our mother or one of our maids — or, for a few months, Dad’s brother, our adored Uncle Terry — was always there. That’s just how it was. Acting outside those rules was just not done.
So, when I spent an afternoon with an American friend in an expat part of town, and her mother gave us money to go buy an ice cream alone, it was worrisome.
We walked out the door and started down the sidewalk. It felt like there was a spotlight on us and a megaphone blasting “American children alone” all up and down the street. I waited for something to happen, but Lisa just strolled along, dragging me in her wake. We turned the corner, and now we were completely out of home range. Lisa continued chatting away but I couldn’t hear her above the megaphone in my head advertising us. “Americanas!”Jane Kelly Amerson López, WHEN THE DICTATOR FLEW OVER OUR HOUSE & OTHER TRUE STORIES: AN AMERICAN EMBASSY FAMILY MEMOIR (work in progress)
Change can be an adventure to kids. I was finishing sixth grade and Susie was finishing fourth when our parents sat us down one evening to tell us that, for the first time in our lives, we were moving to America where we’d only ever visited family.
Dad arched his eyebrows in that expectant, happy way. “So, what would you think if we got to live in the United States?” “Goodie!” Susie said. “Wow!” I said. And then we both started asking lots of questions, the words tumbling all around us.“Near Grandma?”“Can we see Captain Kangaroo every day?”“Can I do the ironing?” I said. Susie jumped in. “No, I want to do the ironing!”“And I want the dusting, too,” I said.“No, me!” “Whoa, girls,” Dad said.Jane Kelly Amerson López, WHEN THE DICTATOR FLEW OVER OUR HOUSE & OTHER TRUE STORIES: AN AMERICAN EMBASSY FAMILY MEMOIR (work in progress)
Needless to say, our enthusiasm for chores — work that house staff were expected to do in Colombia, back in Italy, and even further back, in Venezuela — faded pretty quickly as we settled into another new normal, this time the Maryland suburbs outside Washington DC. Being able to run down the street to the City of Rockville Summer Camp — by ourselves!! –was an exotic experience. And, that too rattled our mother, especially after the years of keeping us under the eye of an adult in order to fend off kidnappers in Bogotá.
Parents and teachers and grandparents have succeeded if children adjust to the new normal. Just as they’ll adjust again when we’re through this period and into some new version of life, post-pandemic. We just need to follow their lead.