The Embassy Kid Who Survived Amsterdam is Reminded: Life is a Carnival!

In 1955, I learned how to walk to a Latin playlist

The earliest tunes I remember hearing were the Venezuelan rhythms of música criolla which the radio stations in Caracas played at night. Dad had an affinity for music—part genetic, his farmer father was a self-taught fiddler, and part born of listening to songs streaming across the South Dakota prairie night sky from Texas radio stations—and strummed Venezuelan tunes on his guitar. Mom, who had danced professionally in New York City and made every cha-cha partner look like a pro, played the smaller triple guitar, and even I got in on the act with maracas. This was our 1955 holiday card family photo. Looks like I was the lead singer, too.

Caracas trio 1955
Caracas trio 1955

I was just six months old when we arrived in Caracas for Dad’s first foreign service post and almost five when we left. With our maid Josefina as my doting caretaker, Spanish became my first language, and Latin American music became my first soundtrack, Mom’s cha-cha and rumba inspiring my toddler dancing. Apart from four years in Italy, the remainder of my childhood abroad was in Spanish-speaking countries—Colombia and Spain. Spanish is my intimacy language, the words coming from the deep well of home.

I was hard-wired to find a Latino husband, and tremendously lucky that he is kind, funny, loyal, and passionate about life. He’s also a drummer—maracas, bongos, and timbales occupy a corner of our family room, and salsa is the López soundtrack. Even our black Lab, Kumba, is tuned in—he was rescued from a Puerto Rican shelter and is completely unfazed by loud crashing and banging when my husband rocks out to music on his headphones.

In 2019, I re-learned how to walk to a Latin playlist

I learned to walk in Caracas in 1955. But I also learned to walk in Amsterdam in 2019 after a ruptured abdominal aneurysm and six weeks in the ICU sapped my body of the ability to move. Again, it was Latin music that inspired the movement, specifically the Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz. I downloaded the African singer Angelique Kidjo’s album, Celia, onto my iPhone, and my Amsterdam physiotherapist Gemma plugged it into the rehab gym’s sound system during my sessions. Gemma held me closer than my high school boyfriend’s slow dancing bearhug as I took my first steps.

La Vida es un Carnaval, Life is a Carnival, became the anthem of my recovery, its syncopated rhythm lifting my spirits as the lyrics gave me hope.

All those who think life is unfair need to know that it’s not like that, that life is a beauty, it has to be lived. All those who think they’re alone and it’s bad need to know that it’s not like that, that in life nobody is alone, there’s always someone.

La Vida Es Un Carnaval, composer Victor Daniel

Watching Celia herself singing this song of triumph in the face of challenge brings me a new understanding of its meaning. A black woman without the duplicitous attribute of beauty, she made her way to the top of the charts in a male-controlled business despite a macho culture. When she points to heaven while singing ”there’s always someone,” you know she’s been propelled by an inner strength fueled by strong faith.

Today, I listen to Angelique’s version at least once a week while I walk Kumba. With every step I take, I give thanks to the higher power that kept me alive in 2019. Every day since I woke up in the ICU wonderfully thin (“Gosh, I can wear my wedding dress!” was my first thought, honestly) but unable to move (my second thought), I’ve been working my way back to life. Today, I am running, swimming, dancing. I am living life.

But I am also easily lulled into forgetting how close I came to not being here, taking my health for granted, letting life feel like a ho-hum grind.

Last weekend, I danced to La Vida Es Un Carnaval with my husband in my arms to the live music of Tito Puente, Jr. and his Latin Jazz Ensemble at the Arts Garage in Delray Beach. Gratitude. Joy. And a determination to live newly aware that every day is a gift. That every step is the beginning of a dance.

Life is a Carnival!

Family Friday: What Makes Me a Third Culture Kid?

There was a letter to the editor in my newspaper this week from a Palm Beach County neighbor who was born in the United States but grew up in Asia as the result of her parents’ missionary work.

Like the children of military members, diplomats, and, in my case, missionaries, I became what is called a TCK, a Third Culture Kid. Our backgrounds are different from that of our parents’ home country and from the country where we grew up.

Angela Grant, The Palm Beach Post, 7/15/21

I’m a TCK, too. I was born in the USA to Midwesterners, but we flew into the Foreign Service when I was just six months old, and my sister (born in Caracas) and I grew up mostly in Europe and Latin America. We were professional Americans overseas, but our international experiences made us an odd fit when we moved to the States. I’ve been trying to bridge the gap my entire adult life.

Cross-cultural expert Tanya Crossman

TCK’s deal with some unique challenges in integrating that experience into what we’ve done with the rest of our lives. It’s the subject of research being conducted by Tanya Crossman, an Australian who lived in China for over a decade.

Tanya is a noted cross-cultural consultant and TCK/Cross Culture Kid advocate, and the author of Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century. She writes that the term Third Culture Kid was coined by in the 1950’s by Dr. Ruth Hill Useem while studying children of American families living in India.

These children were not Indian, though they lived in India. They were American – though they weren’t experiencing that country. This childhood experience was neither that of an Indian child nor that of an American child. It was somewhere in between – in a Third Culture.

Tanya Crossman, July 2016 blog post

Legal, geographic, and relational culture

Tanya writes that culture can be defined in three ways:

  • Legal: the place in which you have a passport or permanent residency
  • Geographic: the place(s) in which you live.
  • Relational: the experiences woven together from life lived in between cultures.

Legal representative of America overseas

I had an American diplomatic passport, and, as an embassy kid, understood that I represented the USA. Sarah Mansfield Taber, whose overseas childhood as the daughter of a CIA officer is an almost exact match with mine, writes this about having a diplomatic passport:

Only representatives of foreign governments were issued these, my father told us. I could feel an American flag waving inside me.

Sarah Mansfield Taber, Born Under An Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy’s Daughter

But not a geographic American

I was an official American when I lived in Venezuela, Italy, Colombia, and Spain. But my identity morphed when we moved to the States.

Though I looked American, I was not; I was a sort of clandestine foreigner.

Sarah Mansfield Taber, Born Under An Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy’s Daughter

I am from the Third Culture

The connection I feel with Sarah Mansfield Taber is the TCK’s relational cultural identity.

The Third Culture is the childhood home of those who did not experience comprehensive connection to a single place as children.

Tanya Crossman, July 2016 blog post

My memoir, Embassy Kid (being assessed for publication by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training), looks back at where I am from. I have shared the Preface and will be sharing chapters in the coming weeks.

I cannot imagine being a citizen of any other nation. We are the freest, the most fortunate people on earth. Whether our people arrived on a recent flight or a wooden boat, and whether we choose to wear hijab or a yarmulke or spray paint our hair with the colors of the rainbow, we are all from somewhere else, and we are all here now.

Angela Grant, letter to The Palm Beach Post

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

IMG_7670

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.