Happy New Year, Birthday Girl!

My “baby sister” was born in Caracas on the final day of the year 1956,  embarassingly perfect timing that allowed our young parents an additional dependent tax deduction. img_8370

As great as that might have been for them, Susie has always had to share her day with New Year’s Eve at the worn out tail end of the Thanksgiving-Christmas holidays. By then, the idea of giving more, and getting more, seems unnecessary. I, on the other hand, landed in mid-November, during the lull between Halloween candy and harvest pumpkins when a wrapped present was a birthday novelty.

Lucky me. Poor Susie.

She was a happy addition to our family.  I do look a little shell-shocked here, and swear I wasn’t really trying to do her in with this lollipop. Nonetheless, we celebrated her two first birthdays with Josefina leading us in Feliz Cumpleaños.

By Susie’s third birthday, everything was different: Instead of the eternal spring of Caracas, we had the damp darkness of Milan, and instead of our garden apartment we had just moved into an upper story apartment a short walk from Dad’s office. Dad had managed to get a couple of mattresses out of the moving crates but everything else was still packed away. Mom drew herself up, determined to find a workaround for what was otherwise a pretty sad occasion. th-1She left Dad in charge of us in the empty apartment and went down to the corner pasticceria, returning with a bundle of tramezzini, small multilayered sandwiches wrapped in white waxy paper and special enough for Birthday Dinner. She pulled three candles out from her purse and Dad lit them. We sang Feliz Cumpleaños (in the language we had spoken with Fina barely two months before) and Susie blew her candles.

The next year, when we’d moved to Bologna, we traveled down the Italian boot to Sicily, where we celebrated Susie’s birthday in the shadow of Mount Etna. Candles weren’t the only things smoking.

Rome was home the next year, and both of us enrolled at the the Overseas School of Rome. Susie’s birthday became a little lonelier: while many kids celebrated their special day in their classroom with cupcakes or individual pizzas, school was not in session and families were away for the holidays, making any kind of party doubtful.  Things were no better at the English School in Bogotá.

When we moved to DC in 1966, winter break was further complicated by the weather: even if friends were home, the snowy roads in the DC suburbs were too treacherous. Susie had an amazing group of friends, but often found herself sitting alone on the one day that was supposed to be all about her.


Our daughter enjoying the Spanish tradition on New Year’s 2018!

Madrid became home in 1971. That New Year’s Eve, we were emancipated teens in Puerta del Sol, popping 12 grapes into our mouths at the stroke of midnight. The tradition was made challenging by the copious amount of alcohol that the two of us — and our friends from  had enjoyed by then. I’d planned on getting us all to our house by one for a belated birthday party for my kid sister. Instead, I stumbled home around three, fell into bed, and awoke with my first hangover. So much for Susie’s birthday.

School breaks became a good thing as time went by. We were both home from college to celebrate the holidays, including Susie’s birthday. When we veered off into our separate adult lives, I lost track of how well year-end celebrations melded with her big day, but she celebrated with a blowout dance party for her 50th. I was there, with bells on.

It is now a dozen years later. I called my sister on New Year’s Eve: she was in Colorado, looking forward to a cross-country skii that afternoon; I was in Florida, and had cross-country skiied in a warm pool that morning. I guess it all averages out. It was a Happy Birthday.006

Christmas Paper Windows

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. IMG_8144During 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.

But there’s another thing I’ve done this year that takes me back to Milan, Italy at the holidays. Our daughter is coming to stay with us for a few days, during which the guest bathroom will be hers. She tends to hang a towel over the window for a bit more privacy. I’ve come up with something better: Christmas paper. And here’s why. IMG_8180

It is December 31, 1959. Two months ago, we left the only home my sister and I had known, in Caracas, to travel to Milan, Dad’s second post. I’ve just turned five, my sister Susie is about to turn three, and after a long stay at a residence hotel, (pensione), we have found an apartment… From THE DICTATOR FLEW OVER OUR HOUSE & OTHER TRUE STORIES (unpublished). 

After three weeks of pounding the pavement in and out of downtown Milan apartment buildings, Mom and Dad taking turns at looking with one of us in hand, it had been Dad and I that had found a second floor apartment that was just being finished. We left the pensione and moved in on New Year’s Eve. It was Susie’s third birthday.

Dad had managed to get a couple of mattresses out of the moving crates but everything else was still packed away. Mom drew herself up, determined to find a workaround for what was otherwise a pretty sad occasion. She left Dad in charge of us in the empty apartment and went down to the corner pasticceria, returning with a bundle of tramezzini, th-1small multilayered sandwiches wrapped in white waxy paper and special enough for Birthday Dinner. She pulled three candles out from her purse and Dad lit them. We sang Feliz Cumpleaños and Susie blew her candles

“Isn’t it nice to be done with the pensione?” Mom said as she pulled the candles out of the panini. “New Year. New home.”

“And with a kitchen for birthday celebrations,” Dad said. “We found a great spot, didn’t we, Janie,” Dad said.

My mouth was full of prosciutto and mortadella. “Uh huh.” Even though we were still right in the middle of Milano, there was a big park across the street and a huge terrace outside of Mom and Dad’s room where I maybe could feed pigeons like in the Piazza del Duomo. Dad could still walk to work. There were two bathrooms and Susie and I each had a bedroom. I wished I felt old enough to want to be alone.

“Glad to be at home, again,” Mom said. Traffic noises rose off the street like a cloud. We had more windows than the pensione. “And I think it’s bedtime for you girls.”

I hopped off my chair. “Night, Daddy.”

“Night, Daddy.” Susie kissed Daddy.

Buon Compleanno,” Dad said. “And Buon Anno.”IMG_8200

That’s what the lady at the pensione had said as we left with our suitcases. “Buon Anno,” I repeated.

“I’ll be by to tuck you in,” Mom said.

I let Susie brush her teeth first, sort of a birthday present. She walked down the hall to her room, and I finished up. The brand new sheets and blankets from Cim were cool and smooth on the tips of my toes. I heard Mom and Susie saying the bedtime prayer.

“All set?” Mom said as she walked in and sat on the foot of my bed. “That was sort of a strange birthday and New Year’s Eve party, wasn’t it?”

“I liked it.”

“Good,” Mom said. “And tomorrow we’ll start finding you a great school.” I had gone to Kinder Mickey in Caracas three days a week. There were puppet shows and my own friends that I didn’t have to share with anybody. “Okay.” Mom nodded.

That was the cue. “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, When I wake up in the morning light, I’ll do my best with all my might. Amen.” Mom kiss. Light off. She left my door open a crack.IMG_8201

But my room wasn’t dark. My door, and every door in the apartment, was made of smoky glass, so I had as a wonderful night light the kitchen and living room lights, as well as the the street lamps outside the living room windows. Mom and Dad’s quiet conversation lulled me into sleep. As I drifted off, I knew that Susie and her nighnee blanket would sleep happier in the brightness, too.

I was startled awake by car horns and a loud boom, and then another. “Mommy!”
A whole lot of something clattered to the street.

Susie yelled, “Mommy!”

“It’s just New Years, girls,” Mom called from the living room. “Fireworks, just like in Caracas.”

A flash at my window caught my eye, followed by more clattering and a thud. A mattress whooshed by.IMG_8203

“And old pots and pans, and old furniture,” Dad called. “Italian style celebration.”

“Go back to sleep,” Mom said.

I decided to stay awake like a grown up and listen to my parents’ conversation. I snuck to my door and opened it a big crack and then lay at the foot of my bed with my pillow under my feet.

“Big noises, but no revolutions here,” Dad was saying.

“Gosh, once was enough,” Mom said. “Remember how nervous Fina was? I hope we can find someone like her to help us here,” Mom said. “She’s going to be hard to beat.”

“You helped her become part of our household, Nan. I know you will do it again. And I think our social calendar will be a lot quieter, what with the small diplomatic presence here. It’s not quite the young friendly group of Embassy friends we left behind.”

“No,” Mom said. “Not at all.”

It was quiet for a while. I heard them walk toward their bedroom, and one of them closed my door as they passed.

“Oh, good grief!”

I guessed Mom had figured out just how bright these doors made our bedrooms at night. Right after breakfast the next day, she took out the Christmas paper she’d saved from our presents and we taped it over all the doors. That night, the Madonna and baby were in six places on my door, and my room glowed blue. When Rinascente opened after New Year’s Day, Mom got three more rolls of Christmas paper on sale and she taped a big sheet of German mountains and Christmas trees over the other side my door and silver and blue shiny paper on the back of all the other doors in the apartment.

It was like living in the Duomo, surrounded by stained glass windows and angels. I wondered if we were supposed to become Catholics, too. Maybe. It felt pretty good to me.


Third Culture Kid: Music History


My husband is transported by music: a half-hour of vintage salsa refreshes his outlook like little else. Although he doesn’t need to analyze the “why” to benefit from the practice, I looked into it. The reason that listening to music makes us feel good dopamine, the same pleasure chemical that encourages us to eat, sleep and have sex. So, music ranks right up there with the activities that we are hard-wired to do. Our very life depends on it.

Music transports me, too: back in time. “Notably, memories stimulated by music often come from particular times in our lives … Psychologists have called it the ‘reminiscence bump’. It may work this way because this is an especially important and exciting time in our lives, when we are experiencing things for the first time…” Tiffany Jenkins, writing in the BBC Culture in 2014.

Arguably, childhood is full of new experiences; just getting taller gives a new feel to the ordinary. For my sister and me, the routine novelties of growing up were added to with every move: new home, new school, new language, new friends, new women living in our home. Music zaps me back there.

Advice to Third Culture Kids like me, who identify at least in part with a culture different from that of their parents, is to travel back to said country, realize that it’s still the same although you’re no longer the person you were, and keep on moving. I’m not Italian or Spanish or Colombian (although my best friend Maria Consuelo has deemed me a Gringa Latina), but music from that time when those places WERE home hits very deep.

Here’s a subset, thanks to amazing Bing!

  •  Milva, singing Edith Piaf in Italian: Milva was the Italian powerhouse songstress who knocked out Parisienne audiences with her interpretation of Piaf’s repertoire during our lives in Italy (1959 – 63). Her album was often on at home and I later found it on tape. I can almost float on the power of her melodies. 170px-Milva_in_Pistoia_31-01-09_04
  •  Rita Pavone’s Pel di carota: Rita Pavone was still a teenager when she burst on the Italian pop music scene. This song, about being a red-head, came out when I was in about to begin fourth grade in Rome. Why does it still runs in my mind’s music loop? Maybe I was beginning to look at teenagers in love.
  • La su per le montagne, Coro degli Alpini: Like Milva, the Alpini albums were frequently on the record player in our Rome apartment, especially during our Sunday noon meal. My sister and I learned a couple of the tunes with Dad on guitar. Dad’s sister Snooky, also a music afficionada, had this album at their home in Minneapolis, and I played the title song at full volume as my parents and sister drove off to the airport without me the month before I began college in America. IMG_8023
  • Colombian’s Garzon y Collazos, Espumas : The duo of Garzon y Collazos sang traditional Colombian songs. Their hit, Espumas, was on the airwaves in 1966 before we left Bogotá: our maids Julia and Rosana bought it for my sister and me as a good-bye gift. Julia also made us these traditional costumes. There was true cariño there.
  • Joan Manuel Serrat’s Mediterraneo: R-5233479-1401896369-3544.jpegThis album (and title song) by the soulful Catalan singer-songwriter/poet’s came out the year we moved to Madrid, back into the Foreign Service from America. By the time we left two years later, I’d racked up college credits, two Spanish boyfriends, and the first of many hangovers. Serrat’s voice connects all that somewhere between my heart and my head.
  • Los Machucambos: A Latin trio formed in Paris in 1959 (thanks, Wikipedia), the rhythms and lyrics of this conjunto are infectious, and their album was also part of my parents’ collection. Somewhere along the way I made a tape of the record, and Pepito played in my car as I drove the Massachusetts Turnpike from Albany to Brewster the morning my father died unexpectedly on Cape Cod.

As long as there is music, and words, and photographs, my parents are still with me.

Playing Barbie In Bogotá

It was 1964 and I was in fifth grade at The English School in Bogotá, Colombia. I had a friend that lived the “American neighborhood”. An afternoon there felt like a visit to another planet.

Lisa lived in El Chico, where lots of Americans lived, and Mom dropped me oth-1ff there to play for a couple of hours one Sunday afternoon. Lisa had the Barbie PlayHouse and the Barbie Car so we played Barbie and Ken for a while, putting different outfits on them and walking them around her bedroom.

Then, Lisa told her mother that we were going down to the corner for a snack. She didn’t ask, she told. As if a kid could go down the block without at least a maid. I couldn’t believe it when her mother said, “Okay, dear. There’s pesos in the hall dresser.”th

We went out the door. It was like there was a spotlight on us on that sunny day, a spotlight and a megaphone blasting “Here are 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 were now completely out of home range. Lisa didn’t seem to care, just headed down the block, chatting away. I didn’t even hear her.

On the next corner, we went into an ice cream store a little like McVeys; I had no idea there were such things in Bogotá. Lisa went right up to the counter and said “Dos Black Cows,” and now I was totally confused. She looked at me and laughed. “Haven’t you ever had a Coke float?”

I didn’t tell Mom a word about it.

Lisa was from America. I was from the Foreign Service. In the Foreign Service, a grownup walked you to the school bus stop. A grownup walked you to the park to roller skate. A grownup walked you to ballet lessons.

You did not go around the corner alone.

Dear Mother and Dad: Volunteering

Bogotá, Colombia                                                                         November, 1964

When my mother wrote this to her parents, we’d been in Bogotá for a year, and Dad was the Public Affairs Officer at the US Embassy and Director of the United States Information Service program in Colombia. We got our brindle boxer not long after we arrived from Dad’s previous job in Rome, and so named him Caesar Augustus…..

IMG_3933I’ve just come in from a long but productive meeting on our day nursery with the Ambassador’s wife and two other women who are very interested, to the point of really doing some work on it. We talked a long time and really feel, for the first time in weeks, that we will make progress on the remaining problems like the schedule of activities and the part that the volunteer help can take on. Mrs. Oliver [wife of Ambassador Covey Oliver] is very down to earth and has good workable ideas from her years of working on this kind of thing.


GIFTS FOR POOR CHILDREN: Mrs. Nancy Amerson, wife of the USIS Director, gives presents from a group of 25 volunteers that help the children’s nursery of Barrio Boyacá.

Tonight is a fancy reception — one of the boring kind — at the Foreign Ministry, for the Venezuelan Foreign Minister. Always a crush of people, but few we know. Then three free nights, whee! May even see a movie.

Must stop now and go meet the kids. They get off at the little triangular store but this driver will not leave them is they are not met [La Violencia included kidnapping]. Will take the dog. The girls adore Caesar.


Susan, Jane, and Caesar Augustus

Caracas, Winona, Milan: November 1959

NOTE: Dad had received his next assignment and we were moving from Caracas, Venezuela to Milan, Italy.  In the manner of the Foreign Service, we were routed through Minnesota to see family.

The ground was sprinkled white by the time we pulled up to Mom’s childhood home on Wilson Street in Winona. It looked like the coating of powdered sugar from the Embassy commissary that Mom shook to over our Norwegian Christmas cookies.

No matter how Mom talked it up, none of this was familiar. We’d visited Winona on Home Leave two years before, and what little I remembered was nothing like this dark, cold place. The bare tree limbs hovered like preying fingers, the dark trunks watchful sentries. The sidewalks were gray and empty. The air pinched my nose as I stepped out of the car, nearly colliding with Grandma.

“Hello, dear.” She made a bee-line for Susie, reaching out her soft fluffy arms. “Ooh, I could just eat you up!”

Susie pulled away, crying. The lack of structure had really played havoc with our napping schedule. Somehow, Mom got us fed and tucked into the twin beds in her old bedroom before we could melt down again.


A good night’s sleep helped and General Mills cereals we hadn’t seen before made for a relaxed morning. Grandma tucked us into Grandpa’s corner chair to watch television. Captain Kangaroo reminded me of my nursery school driver Onk Otto, but he spoke in much softer American. 

The traces of snow had melted into the fallen leaves by the time Grandpa came home from Robb Brothers Store for lunch, bringing us tricycles from The Store. He could do stuff like that since he was the owner. Family whose names I knew but not their faces came over mid-afternoon: Mom’s brother, Uncle Jim, Aunt Beth and our cousins Ricka and Becky. I was the oldest cousin.

“Jimmy!” Mom ran to hug him. “Beth.” Their cheeks touched. “And just look at how big you girls have gotten!” 

While the grown-ups sat talking in the living room, Grandma overcame our collective IMG_7409shyness by inviting the four of us little girls to the kitchen for a Play-Do session.

Somewhere along the afternoon, Becky nibbled a little too much of the flour-oil dough and threw up on her party dress.

Aunt Beth took her upstairs, where Mom pulled out my bathrobe, and that is how Becky wore my bathrobe for my birthday celebration.  




We drove north to the Twin Cities in the morning to see two of Dad’s younger sisters and their families. As we pulled up to a house, I practiced the names: Aunt-Snooky-Uncle-Bob, Aunt-Jeanie-Uncle-Carl. Carl’s beard felt soft and warm against my cold face. They talked and laughed all afternoon while I watched Susie play with another couple of cousins. I was still the oldest. IMG_7927

The next morning, a whirlwind of cold air swept us west across the South Dakota border to the family farm. Grandma Amerson, who everyone else called Ma, and teenage Uncle Terry were planning an exit to California. Grandpa Amerson, who everyone called CO, had died unexpectedly just days after Susie’s birth, so Dad’s last visit to the farm had been rushed and unhappy. Emotions weren’t much looser this time. Not much hugging here. The next morning, we swung by to see more grown-ups — Aunt-Clarice-Uncle-Glenn, Aunt-Marie-Uncle-Eugene — and there were cousins older than me. I didn’t understand how that could be. IMG_7926

As we drove back across the prairie towards Winona, snow began to fall. I tried to count the flakes, but soon it was a curtain of white. Mom’s hand was on the dashboard, her fingers curled. Dad drove with the confidence of a native. We made it to Winona as darkness fell. 

By Thanksgiving morning, there were two feet of snow on the ground. Uncle Jim and Aunt Beth arrived with extra snow suits so that Susie and I could play in the backyard with Ricka and Becky. We knew each other very well now, and we made snow angels all afternoon. However, I discovered that cold air and wet snow brought out hot pee. I hobbled indoors, scooting  into the little toilet next to the kitchen. The bottom of the snowsuit was wet and smelly so I put it under the tap. Just wet was much better. I folded it and tucked it under the sink. I was back in my own clothes before Grandpa carried an enormous turkey to the big table.

We were out of place in Winona. People in Minneapolis hadn’t experienced our home, Caracas. Out on the South Dakota prairie, we might as well have been on another planet. Mom and Dad cut our Home Leave short and soon we were on our way back to the Foreign Service.

I just wasn’t sure where that was.

A Visit from the Christmas Witch

IMG_7873I enjoy scanning the police blotter section of the Thursday newspaper. It being nutty Florida, the items inevitably include one or more stories of human folly.  Here’s this morning’s item: a woman is attacked with a broomstick. I wonder if it might have been on Halloween; lots of evildoers out on broomsticks on October 31st.

Or, maybe, it was an early encounter with La Befana, the Italian Christmas witch. My sister, Susie, and I had one such encounter. It was outside Bologna in December of 1960, when I was just 6 and Susie not quite 4 and we went to visit our maid’s home for the day. I think our mother needed us out of the house to wrap presents and organize Santa surprises. ….


Mom tucked us into our Winona sweaters. “Now, you girls have a good time at Angela’s home. Remember, you’re her guests. Speak in your best Italian – she and her family don’t speak English, you know. And you can tell us all about your day tonight at dinner.”

Susie and I had never taken a trip, even just for a day, without our parents. As we passed kilometer after kilometer of brown fields, I realized that Angela’s day must start very early and end very late as she traveled to Bologna and back every day. After a while, we slowed to a stop.

thThe pale sun barely warmed my face as Susie and I followed Angela down the steps of the train, and right into the arms of a lady that had Angela’s bushy eyebrows. “La mia sorella Lucrezia,” Angela said, introducing her sister. The woman pulled us into her black-sweatered chest and I was instantly back in Fina’s arms. I squirmed back onto my own two feet.

Andiamo, bambine!” Let’s go, girls. Angela lifted our day bag and reached for me with her free hand as the train horn blared. My stomach squeezed as tight as my fingers. I felt myself fall backward as the train pulled out.

Susie and Lucrezia followed us down the dusty road that away from the tracks. The front doors of the beige single-story homes rose straight out of the road. The smell of frying onions streamed out of an open window. I caught a glimpse of a woman in black stirring a pan. From the back, she looked like Angela, and like her sister, all layers of baggy black sweaters and long dark skirts.Unknown

I tugged at Angela’s arm. “O fame,” I said, I’m hungry.

Angela smiled down at me as we hurried along. “You’ll see what a feast we’ll have at my house,” she said in Italian.

I scuffed my shoes as we walked, raising little clouds of dust. A few blocks from the train station we stopped in front of a small house. “Benvenute,” Angela said as she opened the door. Welcome to our home. I noticed she didn’t use a key.

The sister ushered Susie in behind me and closed the door. The dim interior slowly came into view as my eyes recover from the bright outdoors.We were in a large room, part kitchen and part living room, dominated by a wooden table and unmatching high-backed chairs. On the far side of the room, a radio sat between two easy chairs, and a couple of doors to the right were probably the bedrooms.

A rooster crowed. Angela threw open the back door, letting in a bright green square of grassy light. “Are you girls ready for a real country lunch?” She said, and disappeared outside.

Lucrezia gestured to the table. I climbed onto one of the chairs and Susie onto another. The sister picked up a round loaf of bread from the kitchen counter and began laying plates in front of us. Angela was back quickly. She held her hands behind her back.

“Guess what I have here?” she said. Before we could say a word, she pulled out her hands, revealing four eggs. “Fresh from the gallina,” Angela said. “And this is how we eat them here.”

She set three of the eggs on the table and reached for a spoon. She cradled the fourth egg in her palm and gently tapped its top. A bit of shell popped off. Angela lifted the egg to her mouth, tilted her head back and swallowed. A whole raw egg in the mouth?

Angela reached for another egg and tapped the top off. “Per Sussi,” she said, offering my sister the treat.  The corners of Susie’s mouth turned down.

“Oh, come on,” I said, reaching for the egg myself. The warm shell nested in my cupped hand. The golden insides looked up at me. I remembered Mom’s words: we were guests, and guests do what the host asks. I raised the shell to my lips. A warm gooey syrup filled my mouth and slid down my throat. I licked the gummy crust off my lips, tasting salt.

La Befana

Disney World/Epcot Italian Befana

Brava!” said Lucrezia, squeezing my shoulders. Her fingernails were raggedy.  I smiled over at Susie. She pressed her lips together even more firmly and reached for a chunk of bread.

After lunch, Angela picked up our bag and we walked a couple of blocks deeper into Angela’s village where there were sidewalks and apartment buildings. Susie and Lucrezia followed us up some stairs to a second story apartment, where a smiling lady not wearing black opened the door. “Ah, ecco le bambine!” Here are the girls. A television was on.

We had just gotten seated on the living room couch when there was a knock at the door.

Qui e?” called Angela’s friend, standing up. Who is it? There was no answer.

Angela walked toward the door, looking at Susie and me over her shoulder. She put her hand on the doorknob. “Qui e?” Still no answer. Angela slowly pulled open the door.

witch n appleThere stood a witch. A long horrible nose quivered in the middle of a face framed by stringy black hair. She opened her mouth, revealing a few yellow teeth and dark holes where other teeth should have been. She carried a broom of grey sticks.

Susie let out a yell. I grabbed her hand and ran to into the bedroom, slamming the door closed behind us.

No, no, bambine,” Angela called from the living room. “This is the Befana, who brings you Christmas.”

Oh, I knew all about the Befana from my friends at the Montessori School. She brought coal to kids. Well, get that witch out of here. I tightened my leg muscles and squeezed Susie tight. A tear dripped onto my cheek.

Angela’s flat shoes slapped the linoleum as she came to the bedroom door. “It’s just the Befana,” she said coming into the room.

Out in the living room, the adults were laughing.“Bambine,” Lucrezia called out. “The Befana has brought you a present.” “And not coal like she brings to the bad children,” Angela yelled back. “N’e vero, sorellina?” Right, little sister? “Oh, I wouldn’t know anything about that,” Lucrezia teased back.

I released my grip on my sister and let my hand slip into hers. Angela was smiling. “Sta bene,” she said. It’s okay. “E andanta via.” She’s gone.

I kept my eyes down as Angela steered us back into the living room. When I dared to look up, the Befana was gone and a regular grown up was there. A pretty Christmas box of candy sat on the coffee table. images

“I went pee-pee,” Susie whispered. I squeezed her hand and nodded. We both had spares in the day bag Mom packed.  “Grazie,” I said to no one in particular as I picked up the candy and walked it over to our bag. Susie changed her underwear in the bathroom. I did too.220px-Befane

It felt like forever before we were back on the train and headed to the safe harbor of our parents. I held my breath until Christmas morning.

Instead of coal, or even candy, there was a thank-you note next to the half-nibbled carrot and empty milk glass: “Rudolph loved the carrot, Janie and Susie!” It was signed Santa.

We had evaded La Befana. We were still stranieri, still foreigners.


My Final Mistake in Bogotá

As we approached the end of the year, I was no longer “the new kid” in Mrs. Ospina’s fourth grade classroom at the English School in Bogota. For weeks now, Mrs. Ospina had been scolding us to take seriously the final examinations, which were written in England and mailed across the Atlantic to Colombia; our essay answers would travel back to be graded. I imagined a line of stern women stuffed into tweed suits like Headmistress Mrs. Mason, mouths turned permanently into frowns, humped over our test papers like vultures.cropped-img_0005.jpg

Still, I wasn’t worried. I was a good writer, like Dad, and I’d caught up on the stuff I missed when we were in Rome. Instead of the Etruscans and Greeks, the English School taught the Henrys and Shakespeare and how we lost the colonies. A good story always held my attention.

Exam week arrived. On the Monday afternoon bus ride, my friend Lisa and a couple of other kids who had taken the test in the morning filled us in on the topics we’d be writing on. It was helpful, even professional, to exchange this kind of information. Made all the sense in the world. I focused on the topics as I prepared for my Thursday exam.

On Tuesday evening, I excused myself from the dinner table before dessert. “I need to call Lisa,” I told Mom as I stood. “Can’t remember exactly what this one exam question is.”

Mom looked up from the open copy of the Bobsey Twins book she’d just finished reading to my little sister and me. “You’re going to do what?” she said.

“I forgot one of Thursday’s questions,” I repeated and turned to walk toward the foyer. Sometimes Mom was a bit thick. I heard the book close with a thwack.

IMG_7649“You come back here and sit down.”

I stopped, startled, and looked back at my mother. She never spoke this loudly. “Susie, you may be excused,” Mom said.

“But,” Susie started. No reason she needed to skip dessert.

“Go on,” Mom said.

My sister scooted past me and ran up the stairs to her room. I walked back to the table and sat down. My stomach was beginning to hurt.

Mom moved her chair closer to mine. “Are you telling me that you are cheating?” she said, her voice quiet again.

“Cheating? Cheating? No.” I paused, hearing my words and certain of them. “No, no. This is what we do. I’m not cheating. We’re just talking.”

“But you’re finding out what the exam questions are ahead of time from other students, and then you’re studying those things, and then you’re taking the test. Right?”

“Um, yeah.” I felt my face go hot.

She looked at me.

“So, you’re cheating,” Mom said, sitting back against her chair. She looked at me, tapping her fingers on the chair arms for what seemed like a very long time. Then, she folded her arms in front of her chest. I waited for the other shoe to drop.

“I’m very disappointed in you.” There it was.

I wondered how my face could feel so hot while all my blood drained out of it. My stomach was so tight that it was hard to breathe. I could barely stand to hear any more.
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to tell Mrs. Mason when we see her at the school show on Friday night.”

I couldn’t answer. I felt tears starting to form in the corners of my eyes. I bit on my upper lip.

“Now, go to your room.”IMG_7650
I ran upstairs and threw myself down on my bed. A hundred Mrs. Masons whirled around me, glaring down at this horrid little American cheater. At some point, I got into my pajamas and turned off the light.

Mom didn’t bring up the topic at breakfast, and Dad seemed to be in his usual hurry to get out to the Embassy car. “Have a good day, honeys.” He gave Susie and me each a quick kiss on the tops of our heads and Mom a longer kiss right on the mouth, and left, his black briefcase firmly in hand.

It was our maid Julia’s turn to walk us to the bus stop. I sat by myself all the way to school and all the way home again, and I barely talked to anyone all day. Thursday was the exam. I did all right, but it was over for me. They would not let a cheater go on to fifth grade.

On Friday, Dad drove us to the English School’s program at the Community Church. Susie was all chatty about some song her second grade class was singing. I tried to remember the words of the poem I was to recite. I couldn’t get beyond the first line. They were looking for the fourth graders when we got to the lobby.

“Do your best,” Mom said, smiling.

“What’s a little poem to a poet?” Dad said with that funny upside down smile that means he was proud of me. For now. The three of them went into the auditorium and I went backstage.

I walked onto the stage alone and turned to face the shadowy audience where Mrs. Mason was no doubt waiting. “Isabel met an enormous bear,” I began. The spotlight followed my right arm as it traced an arc in the air. I felt a little bigger. The second line came, and the third. Somehow, I finished.

I peered into the wings as I walked off. No Mrs. Mason. Susie passed me as her class assembled. I took her seat between Mom and Dad. Mom patted my hand. Dad mouthed, “Brava!”

The program ended, and Mrs. Mason stalked onto the stage, her face pink and blotchy under the lights, her mouth puckered into a fake smile. The arm of justice was about to come down.

Mrs. Mason said thank you and walked off, the church lights came on, and we went home. Mom had not told.

I pledged to never again make a mistake.


GUEST BLOGGER: How to find your next Foreign Service assignment

By the time you’re halfway through your second tour, third tour bidding goes from an abstract concept to very applicable. The end of first and second tour “directed assignments” means the beginning of your own advocacy to get your next Foreign Service position. What was previously in the hands of your Career Development Officer (CDO) […]

via Third Tour Bidding, Part I — Collecting Postcards

How To Transplant Your Life: Four Lessons

The nomadic life of my youth taught me four things: 1) be at home where you are; 2) let go when it’s time; 3) settle in fast; and 4) forget there’s anywhere else to be.  This cycle puts you right back at 1) being at home where you are.

It’s a healthy mental state to live in, but perhaps not the mindset you’d expect from a Foreign Service kid. Some 36 years ago, my husband, Ray, and I had spent another early fall Saturday morning pounding the pavement of the Upper East Side of Manhattan trying to sniff out lodgings roomier than our two-room walkup when he suggested we move across the East River to Queens.

“Queens?” I said, dropping my hands flat on the formica of the Arthur Treachers Fish n Chips table. “Queens?” I lengthened the single syllable in disdain. What in the world was wrong with this man? No one lives in Queens.

Well, of course people live in Queens, and that included us a month later. Our new place in the Greek-neighborhood of Astoria was cheaper and roomier and included a little garden which I quickly populated with bulbs as the temperatures fell. I also found us running partners, made friends with the supermarket cashiers, and joined the folk dancers that practiced across the street. Daffodils and tulips announced the spring, cherry tomatoes followed, and our running partners joined us in a half-marathon. Astoria was home for two years.

Until Ray started the cycle back up: “Hey, how about Albany?” After nearly 30 years in upstate New York, my Bostonian sister said: “Hey, have you considered Fort Lauderdale?” We’re five years into full-time retirement in South Florida, and I think we’re here to stay.  But that’s what I’ve always thought.

I’m at home where I am put, but I uproot easily, reroot quickly, and live harmoniously in my new environment, completely at home, forgetting that someone or something may force the cycle back around.

Be at home where you live. Let go when it’s time. Settle in fast. Forget there’s anywhere else. Until you’re pulled up again. That is my legacy of the Foreign Service life.

Be at home where you live


Preschool with German immigrants in Caracas. Kindergarden with the children of international businessmen in Milan. First grade under the Italian school system in Bologna. Second, third, and two months of fourth grades in American-based Overseas School of Rome. The remainder of fourth, fifth and sixth grades under the British educational system in Bogota. Seventh through eleventh in what for everyone else was the normal American public school system in Maryland. Twelfth at the American airbase in Madrid. I was fluent in Spanish, then Italian, then Spanish, then American, then Castillian.

I was very good at responding to new expectations: with all those moves, I was a straight-A student. The down side is that, absent the challenge imposed on me by a new situation, I founder: it took me 10 years to get my BA, eventually gaining traction in a life of my own. There’s a whole lot more story, for another time.

Let go when it’s time

Moving was never my idea, but I succumbed to the invitation pretty easily.IMG_7668

“How’d you like a dog?” was how my sister and I were introduced to our move from Rome to Bogota, and, if memory serves, how our move from Maryland to Spain was laid out years later. Once you’ve accepted the gift, you’ve accepted the change of venue.

Our parents presented each move enthusiastically. For Dad, I think it was a genuine embracing of the next Foreign Service assignment: new city, new country, new language, new issues. Mom, on the other hand, felt the loss of each carefully created home, the dread of packing, the stress of adjusting our family to a whole new world. After moving to our second post (from Caracas to Milan), she experienced what she called “the blues,” a six-month period of depression that would accompany every subsequent move. She was disappointed in herself, and did not share her feelings with Dad or show them to my sister and me: instead, she got busy finding us schools; hiring maids; learning to navigate in a new town, new country, new language; doing what Dad and the Embassy expected of her.

Mom’s sacrifice allowed my Dad, my sister and me to move forward as if all of this were normal. When she did reveal her feelings years after Dad retired and they’d moved to Cape Cod, I’m sure I did not express both my gratitude and my sorrow.

Settle in quickly

There was no looking back once we’d moved.  In the ’60s and ’70s, letters between countries took forever, making it easy to forget the past.IMG_7671

My roots set down fast, though not deep. My mother tells the story of our being on vacation in Giradot, in Colombia’s Tierra Caliente, when I introduce a girl I’ve just met at the pool: “Mommy, this is my new best friend.” Pause. Look at her. “Como te llamas?” What’s your name?

I learned how to scout out the new environment’s points of connection and to plug in fast. When the Italian school system dumped crazily excessive requirements on me in first grade, I not only aced Indian ink scrolled cursive with a dip-pen but mumbled the rosary to myself after reciting the Presbyterian bedtime prayer with Mom.  We’d been at the primary English School in Bogota just a few months before my sister and came home talking about “how we lost the colonies.” I belatedly ditched my ankle socks for knee socks and tights in American seventh grade. I blended in. IMG_7672

The day we moved into our South Florida house I went to a Homeowners Association Board meeting, where I connected with a woman from my old home town of Bogota: Coni became my best friend. OK, those quick connections are still not very deep: it did take another year before I knew her full name is Maria Consuelo. And I even know her last name now.

Be at home where you live

It all comes back around.

As I’ve gotten older, the past is easier to retrieve. The internet has shrunk the time-space continuum. My parents’ letters, essays, journals reveal more than I could know as a child. I speak Spanish at home, teach quasi-dance at work, write about it all.  And we’re traveling, revisiting old haunts and exploring new ones, but we keep coming back to our spot in South Florida.

So far.