The Broad is Back!

August 16, 2014

Gearing Up

Filed under: ex-pats,New Broads — by maggiec @ 3:08 pm
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Well, I leave tomorrow.  My bags are packed, waiting for the trip to the airport. It’s the same two I returned to America with seven years ago. They weren’t new then, and if they could talk, they could tell a million stories, those bags. They need replacing, but I’m reluctant to lose my faithful traveling companions. Trying to cram as much as possible into them this morning brought back memories. At the end, that’s what we have. That’s what we are, I think, our memories.

I’m realizing that the leaving this time is much harder than it was when I left America the first time in ’95. Then I was taking my son. Now I have to leave him behind. He’s a grown man now, but he’s still my favorite person on earth. I’m going to miss him.

I will be missing the rest of my family, as well. No one is getting younger, and I’d like to be here to enjoy this time.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m looking forward to the adventure. I always love a good adventure, me. I just wish I didn’t feel as if this was not a choice.  It is, of course. I could stay and adjunct, keep looking for work in the US, but the decision is made. This will be amazing, I know. But right now, with less than a day left before I’m out of America, it’s the heart tugging part,

Saying good bye is hard.Or maybe it’s just a little harder as we get older. Young people don’t worry about endings as much, or at least I didn’t. Who will not be here when I return? Morbid thoughts, perhaps, but I know from hard experience, not being here when someone passes is the hardest part of being away.

Missing good times is a bummer, but missing the hard times is heart breaking. Perhaps this is a bit elegiac in tone, but I think that’s why this goodbye is harder. I see things differently than I did when I was 34 and leaving. I’m 53. Still young (at heart) but over the hill of middle, I think.

 

 

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August 8, 2014

The End is Near

I am writing this with something of a heavy heart: this is one of my last The Broad is Back columns. Faithful readers won’t be shocked to learn that the Broad is going to be abroad again. After seven years back in the US, I’m leaving again for a job.

My heart is heavy because I don’t really want to leave. Once again, I’m being pushed to leave my family, my friends, the familiar, but I’ve done it before, and I can do it again. I don’t have much of a choice, because since I’ve been back in the US, I have not been able to find full time work. I’ve been working two, three, sometimes four jobs at a time trying to make ends meet. There have been a few “flush” times, but for the most part every year I’m back in the US I fall deeper and deeper into debt.

Luckily, much of that debt is to the National Bank of Mom, so the terms are easy and it doesn’t impact my credit rating. The only other debt I have is my student loans, another debacle facing Americans. Every time I have to get a low income payment adjustment or that double edged sword, the deferment, the interest added to my debt goes up and up and up. In fact, my debt is now twice what it was when I graduated, purely on fees and interest. I paid for years, but then hit a stretch, going on 10 years now, of financial difficulties. I could pay off the principle, but the interest and fees are killing me.

Full disclosure: I have to admit that I did get two job offers, both in the NYC area, where I am from and where I’d theoretically like to stay. Both offered salaries that would have meant my rent would have been over 50% of my gross income. A doctorate and experience were required for both, but neither was going to pay a living wage. I had to turn them both down for economic reasons.

The dean at one school, a publicly funded one, mind, actually admitted in the interview that their salaries were geared for people who were in a dual-income situation—someone’s spouse or partner. I had a teenager and a husband working on getting a visa with no promise of a work permit for at least nine months. That’s just bad policy. I should be paid what I’m worth and what my job is worth. I have a doctorate; fewer than 3% of Americans have that degree. Tells you what Americans value, doesn’t it? We say we value education, but we don’t. I didn’t go into teaching to be rich, but don’t insult me. If I can’t afford to house, feed and care for my family in a reasonable commuting distance, I can’t possibly take the position. This past year, I commuted 20 hours a week, so my idea of reasonable is rather generous.

Again to be frank, if I were offered a position at that salary now, I’d take it and moonlight. But why should I have to? My doctor keeps telling me that I am destroying my health working 60-80 hours a week. And I am, so this must change. But if I worked less, I’d be homeless.

So I applied to a position in Dubai, and three days later was given an interview. A few interviews later, I was offered the position with a salary and package that blows away anything I’ve been offered in the US. I won’t be anything like “rich,” because I’m still a humanities professor, but I’ll be able to pay bills and support my son.

To be brutally frank, I feel like I’m being exiled from my country. I’ve applied for US teaching positions all over America, so it’s not like I didn’t try. I’ve sent out over 300 applications in the past seven years, and actually had a number of interviews. I’ve been a sub a few times and a visiting professor, but nothing permanent. I’m an award winning professor with 25 years of experience and a PhD from a very highly regarded school. I’ve done scholarly work, as much as I can, while teaching seven to eight courses a term, usually 11 months a year. Believe me, every term, I turn down adjuncting work because I’m that good at what I do. That’s not hubris. It’s the truth.

Am I angry that I can’t get a full time position in this country? Of course I am. On some levels, I’d even say resentful of a system that is destroying higher education and taking advantage of people who have a vocation for teaching. I am not a nun! I’m not a missionary! This is a profession, but I’m certainly not being treated like a professional. I’m not alone in this. It’s a national disaster that I’ve written about many, many times.

But there’s no use crying for water from the moon.

I’m off to start another adventure. I’ve never lived in the Middle East before, and now that I’m reconciled to leaving behind my family and friends, I’m looking forward to new exploits. Nothing beats living somewhere for learning about the culture. And Dubai is a very international place, I hear, so I’m sure it will be exciting and vibrant.

The Broad is Back is a reference to my original blog, A Broad Abroad. I will be starting A Broad Abroad Again in order to record my adventures overseas, and I look forward to seeing you there. I will post the link when it’s up and running!

I came back to a very different America, and sadly, more and more I feel like a stranger in a strange land. Sometimes it’s easier to feel like that when I truly am the stranger.

Thanks for your time and your faithful reading!

September 11, 2013

Remembering Once Again

The title of my blog, The Broad is Back, comes from the fact that once upon a time, when I lived overseas, I wrote a weekly essay called A Broad Abroad.  A large part of the impetus for that blog was the 9/11 attacks. I’d been living abroad for six years at that point, and no other thing in that time made me feel more alien or more homesick than the attack on New York (and Washington and the plane that went down in Pennsylvania, but I’m a New Yorker. My dad was a construction worker on the Twin Towers. I’m partial, I must say,)  The first Broad essay went out on September 11, 2002.

So because of this, I really wanted to post today.  Last night the president addressed the nation about the situation in Syria. As one tweeter mentioned, he was addressing a “war weary nation.” so he’s garnering less support than he’d like for a military option.  I’ve written about my ideas on Syria earlier in the month.

Last night, in response to a tweet of mine about how bombing wasn’t going to help the situation, a friend whose opinions and mind I respect, asked “but are we supposed to ignore it?”

My facebook wall answer was “We ignore plenty that goes on in the Middle East. Atrocities happen all the time. Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds living in Iraq in 1989 and we ignored it just fine because he was our ally then. We cherry pick what we (as a nation) react to instead of giving a concerted unified reaction of “this is not acceptable behavior”. Up to last summer Assad was being treated as a friendly ally by the West, even invited to Buckingham Palace to celebrate the Queen’s Golden. Some people complained, but most people ignored it. And I do believe if we’re gonna have a UN, we need to let the UN work. The problem is, the UN has no authority, so it’s basically failing its mission. Great IDEAL, lousy reality. The Syrian people, who are the ones being attacked by Assad, don’t want an American military strike. I do think what they want should count if we’re ostensibly helping them.”

To another friend I responded, “Not saying they aren’t worth the uproar. It [the gassing] is wrong. But why start publicizing dead children NOW? They have been being killed for a while. And why is it America’s problem? Why not defer to the UN? Oh, yeah, because the UN has no authority, legal or moral. Why all of a sudden is this a US security problem?  Every Syrian I speak to, who all have or had families on the ground in Damascus, does not want military intervention in terms of bombing. They are terrified that it will make things worse. And since they are on the front lines, in their own country, don’t they get a say? Or is the US so paternalistic that we know what’s best for everyone? Assad feels confident because he’s gotten away with it for so long.”

So basically, that’s my take on the situation. I find I’m much less censored on facebook than I am here. But I’m feeling tired and disgusted with the government’s hypocrisy. It ignores bad things until it is expedient to address them. Realpolitik, but wrong.

But how does this all tie in with 9/11? Well, it’s all inextricably linked, of course.  The idea of a military strike right now is abhorrent to me. But I’m one person, but I’m one person with a pen, metaphorically speaking, and I’m gaining the confidence I need to share ideas.

But what I really want to talk about today is not the future, but healing the past. In fact, what follows is mostly what I wrote on my “crunchy granola” blog. I try to keep that apolitical, but I am who I am. Opinionated and trying to pay attention.  BUt for me, the healing is more important.

“It’s when we start working together that the real healing takes place… it’s when we start spilling our sweat, and not our blood.” ~David Hume

From the building I teach in, I can see the construction of the new Freedom Tower in New York City. I walk through a construction zone in the bottom of the old World Trade Center to reach my train.

Sweat is spilled every day. Downtown New York is being rebuilt from the ground up, even more shiny and bold than before. This is what’s bringing healing to many. Not the talk, not the debates. The reconstruction.

People like me can not not remember. Even though I lived abroad 12 years ago, I am still a New Yorker. It was all too close to home.

I had a friend, someone I baby sat when he was a boy, who worked in the Pentagon. At the American Church in Geneva, which I attended. our priest’s brother was missing.  All too close to home.

I had students from America and some from Saudi Arabia in the same class. They were all terrified. The memories of the next day are actually more poignant to me than the first day. First we had shock, but then we had aftermath, even in Geneva. Students far from families needed mothering more than teaching.

What I remember best are the hugs. There were so many hugs. Barriers were broken because hugs were needed. Faculty hugged students, co-workers hugged one another, friends clung a little tighter.  I remember the shock and fear, but I remember the love best of all.  For me, that was the overwhelming reaction.

Oh, there were a few ugly incidents, but they were overshadowed by the positive.  Love started the healing process, and it continues.  There is still a nasty, nasty scar, but the healing is in process.

Someday people will forget. Impossible, people tell me. But I teach. I ask my students every December 7th, “what’s today”? Most have no idea.  I mention Pearl Harbor and they say, “oh, yeah, I learned that in school.” So they remember, eventually, but the healing is pretty much complete.  The youngest of those who were alive and old enough to remember are close to 80 now. Within two decades, there will be no living memory of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Because I teach so close to Ground Zero, on the day itself I used to have students write a narrative of their memories.  At first students loved this. They were a little edgy being there, and many said they found it cathartic.  But  I stopped two years ago because the essays I got were mostly variations of, “I don’t remember much, but I was in my second grade class.”  For my current students, it’s just something the grownups talked about.

So today in America we remember. But we are healing, which is the most hopeful thing of all.

August 30, 2013

And So We Sit and Wait

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” ~George Orwell, 1984

The events in this prescient novel written in 1949 were to have happened almost 30 years ago.  While the dystopia of the novel is not yet fully blown, I read these words, and I want to weep. In my country, ignorance has become strength and war may as well be peace for so many people appear unperturbed that we’ve been in a constant state of war since 2001.

I remember exactly where I was when news of the first airstrikes against Afghanistan broke. I was in a church. It was in Switzerland, and I was with a room of mostly women from many different countries, predominantly American and British, but from all over the world.  “Viet Nam” was muttered by more than one person, and I thought, “No, not again. It couldn’t.”

Just a month earlier we’d faced 9/11. Many of my students were seriously frightened that they had just seen the start of WWIII. But when the Afghanistan War started, they were no longer afraid. They were angry.

Just two years later, I was in a different country, Sweden, when the Iraq War started. Let’s just say that reaction in Sweden was far from positive. I don’t have pleasant memories of that time. Sometimes when tempers flared, people would forget that I am not the US government, nor am I even a representative of the government. Water under the bridge.

But again, WWIII was mentioned in passing.

And now we wait and watch what will happen in Syria. More than one person has mentioned WWIII, as if another World War is inevitable. As if “the war to end all wars” never happened. Oh wait. Never mind. Not counting the Cold War, the US was embroiled in another war five short years after WWII ended.

My tone is may sound bitter today, but I’m actually not feeling bitter. I’m feeling sad. I’m an unrepentant child of the 60s and early 70s. I do believe all that peacenik stuff people called “Commie”.  It’s out of fashion now, but as John Lennon, a powerful voice in the peace movement, said, “If someone thinks that love and peace is a cliche that must have been left behind in the Sixties, that’s his problem. Love and peace are eternal.”  But we seem to have lost our way, John.

These days, I teach many vets and even active service people. I have nothing but the utmost respect for them.  They don’t start the wars. They just fight them. As Gen. Doulgas MacArthur said, “The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”  I mostly agree with him, of course. My soldiers write things to me that break my heart. They tell me what they’ve seen, what they’ve done, what they’ve experienced. I can not even imagine, but I am privileged to carry their stories. If I can relieve their burden one iota, I will do it gladly.  One student wrote to me: “I like reading poetry in your class because it’s the only time the guns in my head stop.”  I would read poetry with him for hours if I could.

But of course, it’s the civilians I worry about. War is cruel. A student this morning told me of a bombing near a Syrian school.  Children.  But children have always had the worst of war.  Still, things have been insane and dangerous in Syria for too long now, and something has to change.

So this compounds my sadness. The peacenik, the mostly pacifist, can’t see a way to calm things. Do I think attacking Syria will help? No.  But this is too big for me. I can’t think.  But I can pray, which is what I seem to do best these days.

The UK House of Commons voted to not support a military intervention in Syria, and I’m wondering whether the US Congress will have the same opportunity.  According to an article on CNN, “More than 160 members of Congress, including 63 Democrats, have now signed letters calling for either a vote or at least a ‘full debate’ before any U.S. action.”  But Congress is in recess until September 9th. Yes, I can see the White House waiting till they are all back. Yes. Sure.

This situation is changing rapidly.  So we sit and wait and see. And nothing is worse than waiting.

May 5, 2013

The Unholy Trinity: Salt, Sugar, Fat

I just finished reading Michael Moss’s book Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. It was full of very appalling information, and if you haven’t been paying attention for the past 20 or so years, I highly recommend it.  Luckily, I have a mother who is very aware of the evils of processing, so she passes the fruits of her research on to me.

Sometimes we tease her about her diet choices, but the woman will be 81 in a few months and takes no medications. Her blood pressure and cholesterol are low, and in fact her 40-something physician told her that she wished her numbers were that good. So obviously Mom is doing something right.  And she’s regularly mistaken for being in her late 60s. It’s partly genetics, but also partly vigilance.

As I was reading the chapter on Lunchables–and yes, that particular product has its own chapter–I realized how lucky I was to have “missed” them.  We left America in 1995 when my son was 4; we returned in 2007 when he was 16.  His entire schooling was in other countries.  By the time we returned, his tastes and preferences had been set. And in other countries, at least the ones we lived in, children’s school lunches were serious business.

My son went to school in Taiwan, Switzerland and Sweden, but at every school hot lunches were supplied every day, and children were not allowed to bring a packed lunch. They learned to eat what was put in front of them. If they didn’t like something, they could fill up on salad and bread.  Sweets were not allowed on school grounds, and the beverages served with lunch were water or milk. Plain milk, not chocolate.

So thanks to the rigidity of the schools he went to, I never had to fight the peer pressure of Lunchables or any of the other vile products marketed to children in this country. Although I almost always gave him plain oatmeal, sugary cereals were always available, but super sweet American cereals were not. When we came home to America on visits he was allowed a box of Froot Loops or Lucky Charms, his favorites, and I allowed him Pop Tarts, something I wouldn’t have had I lived here.  Ironic, I know, but as ex-pat moms, we just have different ways of working out our guilt.

Before we left America, I was much stricter. Until he was about 2 1/2 I had him convinced that rice cakes were cookies. The babysitter’s house disabused him of that notion, but at home, after the rice cakes deception was up, he got juice sweetened organic cookies. I was trying hard to give him good eating habits and not develop an overly sweet tooth.

Something worked as he’s not a sweets person. After the first few months back in the US, eating all the things he’d missed in Europe–Pop Tarts, donuts, root beer, sugary cereal–he mostly stopped. He felt glutted just like some tourists to America who come and eat all of our foods, loving it, but then are very happy to go home.

For me, though, reading this book was partly preaching to the choir.  Many of my students write papers about the obesity epidemic and almost all of them cite the cheap availability of fast food or convenience food as a main problem.  This riles me because I know for what you’d pay to eat at a fast food chain, even one with cheap menus, I could prepare a meal that’s half the price and immeasurably better for them.  I even once wrote a cook book (unpublished, alas) of cheap, unprocessed, healthy recipes.

And per pound, much junk food is much more expensive than carrots, apples or any in-season fruit or home popped popcorn not done in a microwave.  But as Moss points out in his book, we’re pretty much addicted to the salt, sugar and fat in junk food.

The overprocessing and over commercialization of food in America is a real and serious problem.  I have no answers for a quick fix.  As with everything, I believe education is an important step. More people should read Moss’s book. More people should read nutrition labels.

One interesting point that Moss does make is that poor nutritional choices are marketed at certain economic classes.  Upper middle class folks and above, well their children aren’t taking Go-Gurts and Lunchables to school.  I see this as problematic in two ways.

First, there is a perceived notion that “healthy” food is “expensive” food.  This is sadly true when it comes to organic in this country, but the fewer processed foods in the grocery cart, the lower the bill.  Even if we buy minimally processed goods, it’s still cheaper than buying convenience foods.  A can of tomatoes mixed with some garlic and herbs, dried is fine, makes a fine pasta sauce without the added sugar, fat and salt found in commercial pasta sauces. It also costs less.  A PB&J, even using natural peanut butter and spreadable fruit on whole wheat like I do, is still cheaper than an Uncrustables PB&J. I’ll get off the soapbox now.

Second, and I see this as much more insidious, children in certain socio-economic groups are getting poorer nutrition and are already facing high cholesterol, high blood pressure  and diabetes, all of which are debilitating. But what I see as even worse, they aren’t getting what they need for their brains to develop to their fullest potential.  In this way the academic divide between rich and poor is ever so slightly widened.  All I can think when I think of this is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in which the strictly delineated classes are fed differently from gestation on. This, to me, is chilling.

I’ve written about food in America before, and I do see this as a major problem of American society.  If you’re looking for some hard facts about the situation, a good place to start is Moss’s book. But I think this might be something I come back to.

Follow up: Shortly after I posted this, I saw a photography project I’d seen before: One week’s worth of groceries from around the world. There couldn’t have been a better visual if I tried.  You can find an article about Peter Menzel’s project here.

February 5, 2013

Americans are getting to me

Walking home from class today, I realized that I was in trouble. I’ve been saying “Americans” a lot. As in “Americans are strange,” “Americans are screwed up,” and “I don’t get Americans sometimes.” This worries me because as my friend has pointed out, “Sweetie, you are American.” And this is my trouble. I’m starting to feel very alienated in my own country.

It might be because this term I have had two Europeans in my class, reminding me of what I left behind, but I don’t think that’s it.  This has been building. The sorry state of my profession in this country has been eating at me for a while.

I went to the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) annual conference in January. The MLA is my professional organization, and to hear modern language professors from all over America discussing the de-professionalization of the profession, the overuse of “contingent labor” (that’s a pretty phrase for underpaid part-time workers, mostly without benefits, who are the mainstay of college faculties all over the country), and the alarmingly poor job market, well, let’s just say I realized I should have gone to law school. Or med school. Or done anything else.

Alternately, I could be a literature professor and be well paid and respected. I just have to leave America. Again.

I think this might be part of my problem. I’m gearing up to leave again.  It’s not set in stone that I’m leaving, but I’m definitely looking at options. In order to leave, I have to remember all the things that bother me about America in order to make the leaving easier.

And I have to say, after five years back, I’ve had a good long look at the fruits of American education. The majority of students I have in class are truly not prepared for the work they are expected to do in college, so I spend my days teaching 6th-10th grade level skills.

I still teach one course a term in Sweden, and my student exams from that course are often better than the papers I get from my native students.  This breaks my heart.  It’s not that I begrudge my Swedish students their skills. But I am brokenhearted that what was once one of the top educational systems in the world is now broken. It’s not broken beyond repair, but I honestly believe the entire system needs to be dismantled and then rebuilt.

But even if we did that, it still wouldn’t work. Our society is broken, as well. There is precious little respect for teachers and education in this country. Oh, we say we respect teachers, but ask any teacher, at any level, and listen to what he or she thinks of the respect we receive. “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Yeah, right.  People laugh, but they think that. We’re either inspired selfless zealots who teach to change the world, or we’re losers who can’t make it elsewhere.

Granted, I teach in New York City, mostly in community colleges, so I’m not getting the top of the high school classes, but I’ve taught at “big name” schools here in New York City, as well, and frankly, I’m not impressed.  So I’m back at the community college because I have a union supporting me (I’m part of the contingent labor force), and at least I think I’m making a big difference in people’s lives.  Whatever gets you through the night, right?

So maybe alienated isn’t the right word. I’m angry. I’m angry with the state of my profession, the students’ lack of preparation, the full-time salaries being offered that won’t even support me in New York City, the seeming waste of my education.  But I’m alienated, as well. How can I live in a country that thinks like this? How can something so precious, education, be so disregarded?

Hopefully, this is the beginning of me doing some serious writing about American society. I feel a strong need to write, to chronicle what is happening.  American education is on the edge of a huge change.  Thomas L. Friedman’s essay in the New York Times last week, “Revolution Hits the Universities” sparked much discussion with my co-workers, and that’s just the beginning. The Broad is back, but for how long? I spent 13 years out of America. Was that too long? Is it time for the Broad to be Abroad again?  Time can only tell.

September 27, 2012

Comfort food

Filed under: ex-pats,New Broads,Sweden,Uncategorized — by maggiec @ 6:12 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

A woman hit me in the head with a yoga mat today. It was the start of a wonderful conversation.

I had stopped by a new “lot” store on the way home, and as I rounded the corner, I walked into a falling yoga mat. It doesn’t sound as dramatic that way, though. The woman who had knocked it off was very apologetic, and while she was talking, I noticed her accent.

She was German-Algerian and French was her first language, so I was wrong in my guess. But we both had lived in Geneva as she freelanced for the UN, so we had Geneva in common.

She also lived here now, but had been in Paris to visit family, and this store was new to her. I mentioned that it was a good place for German cookies and we were off!  We stood in that store talking for a good ten minutes, two strangers but tied by their search for familiar foods.  I think I enjoyed having that conversation again as much as I enjoyed telling her where to find certain things.

Ex-pats, when they meet their fellows in foreign lands, always have the “where can I get…” conversation.  Once I’d lived a place long enough, I was the one giving the newbies the information.  Some things are impossible to find in foreign lands, but we all learn where we can find many of the ingredients or products we need to make being an ex-pat less “foreign”.

As I’ve been back in America for five years, I don’t often have this conversation anymore. Today I realize how much I’ve missed it–the sense of being different, of spying out things natives may overlook. Of being on a foraging adventure with like minded folks. It was bonding over food–an activity as old as civilization.  Living in New York City I can find everything I miss if I’m willing to pay the price and perhaps travel a bit.  But some products are harder to find than others.  Real crème fraîche made with unpasturized cream is very difficult to find. The children’s candy staple Kinder Eggs are actually illegal in America. But for the most part, I can find things.

I still get cravings, though, and miss foods from “home,” but now “home” is Sweden, Switzerland and Taiwan.  The Taiwan part is easy. I go to Chinatown.  Sometimes I don’t even have to go that far. The other day I was walking down a block in the Garment District, and was all of a sudden back in Taiwan. Something delicious and exotic and very, very Chinese was wafting out of a small take-out restaurant; the streets were clogged and dark from construction; the languages around me weren’t English. I was so happy to feel “at home”!

Swedish food is only really a problem at the holidays, and I have a “connection” now. IKEA used to be a source, and still is, but they carry a house brand now, not the brand names.

Swiss food is the most elusive to find sometimes. Swiss wine is incredibly difficult to get outside of Switzerland, which is a shame. I developed quite the taste for it in my years there.  Choucroute garnie, a dish of sauerkraut, sausages, ham and pork pieces with boiled potatoes, is hard to duplicate (especially since I bought it ready made at the store). Filets des perche, a lake fish from Lake Geneva, are a regional specialty not usually found outside the canton.

The other day, though, at a large discounter I found petit suisse and swooned. It’s a fresh unripened cheese, often flavored with fruits or chocolate and given to children as a snack as we use yogurt in America but in much smaller servings, only a few ounces. I bought a package for my son, as it was a favorite of his when we lived in Geneva. He wasn’t interested, having forgotten it, so I had to force myself to eat it. A sacrifice, but I did it.

My conversation pal did tell me one great secret: where to find quark!  No, Trekkies, not the character.  Früchtequark (called fromage frais in French, but not the same as just any fromage frais) is fruit flavored or served with fruits and is wonderful. Oh, how I’ve missed it!  I actually dream of it sometimes.  But I’ve learned there’s a source in the Bronx of all places! Now I love the Bronx, but it’s not usually known for a large German population.  The Bronx is were to go for great Italian and Dominican food.

There are days I miss being an ex-pat terribly. But today, for a sweet few minutes, I was once again the world citizen, helping a fellow traveler find the familiars of comfort food.

March 9, 2010

The Contemplative Broad is Edging her way Back

It’s been a long time since I’ve really written, and I surely do have wonderful reasons for that.  I work too much.  Thanks to my wonderful sense of timing, I came back to America during a time of economic downturn, shall we say.  Because I want to live in New York City, where my family has lived for four generations now, I’m reduced to teaching part time, but I can’t live on one part time job, so for the three terms since I’ve been back in New York, I had three. Or four. In order to make less money than I need to live on. Welcome back, Broad.

But the other night it hit me that there might be another reason why I’m not writing about American culture anymore.  I’m too much a part of it again, and that makes it difficult.  One of the reasons I seem to thrive as an ex-pat, not something that everyone can manage, is that I prefer living life as a tourist.  I’m there; I’m participating; but I don’t belong.  The writer in me loves to be the observer, watching from the edges, dipping my toes in a bit, but never fully committing. I realized the other night that I feel like this emotionally much of the time.  That sounds ghastly, and I don’t mean it as such. I have a full and rich emotional life with friends and family I love deeply, but everyone who knows me well knows I need large chunks of time alone, as does anyone who spends a lot of time living an alternate life in created worlds.  So sometimes I pull back and think, “what interesting creatures.”  And it’s easier to do this pulling back when one is on the other side of the ocean or the globe itself.

So I find myself wanting to leave. I want to go back to my cocoon of geographical isolation.  When I lived abroad, I used to jokingly comment that in America people saw me as an oddball, and so I was just odd.  In Europe and Asia, my oddness is chalked up to my Americaness and thus given more of a pass.  It’s easier to have a reason for one’s oddness sometimes, so I prefer living abroad.  Many’s a truth told in jest.

But my biggest problem about writing is the longer I am back in America, the more appalled I become.  The educational system was bad when I left in 1995.  Now I’m back, teaching students who mostly weren’t in even school when I left the States, and their education has deteriorated to the point of farce.  For many years they’ve been taught to useless tests. There are more and more tests and less and less gym and arts and creativity and thinking.  But the tests are full of useless information.  When I get them as college freshmen, they can’t write, most have no basic grasp of grammar, and when it comes to having an idea of their own cultural context? Well, forget it.  My friends who are public school teachers are just as frustrated as I am.  And elsewhere in this column, I’ve written about problems with our students and education, so obviously this is something I am worried about.

I do not blame the students.  They are just as bright, just as savvy, just as eager as the crop I started with in the 80s, but what have they learned?  And sure, I teach at a NYC community college for the most part, but I’ve taught at very competetive schools, and I see problems across the class lines. 

But now I’m on the inside, and I just want to fix things immediately.  Passive observational columns don’t meet that need.

Health care is a huge debate, a mess really.  My son is one of the millions of uncovered Americans.  But after seeing the state of Sweden’s national health, I am very leery of nationalizing health care.  The best system I experienced was Geneva’s.  Health care was mandatory, but there was a very affordable government option for those who had no other choice.  My son was in the local cantonal hospital, and the care was good.  They misdiagnosed my kid, but I felt like they were earnestly trying to find answers, at least.  And I’ve written about the health care mess as well, but the more I see, the more disheartened I become.

And politics in this country.  I don’t even know where to begin.  I know that there was never a “golden era” of American politics, of politics anywhere, but, well. I’m speechless.  Luckily, Kurt Andersen isn’t, and he wrote the brilliant analysis “Is Democracy Killing Democracy” in New York Magazine in February.  I encourage you to read his article, but one statistic he gave got me thinking:

So part of the problem is most likely under-representation (though how on earth could we manage with 2100 senators, I don’t know), but another part is tied in with poor schooling, a lack of civic spirit on the parts of many, and so much else.  Believe me. It’s much easier to write explanatory essays for non-Americans than to figure out what’s going on in the here and now.
No, that’s not true.  I see things. I think of solutions, none of which are very politically correct, frankly.  I have much to say, but I don’t say it because it just would take too much time now that I’m so fully invested.  And as I said in the beginning, time is what I don’t have.
But now I’m going to try to write more frequently.  I think it’s good discipline, and oddly, people have been asking me to write.  So perhaps the Broad is back yet again.

June 14, 2007

Leaving on a jet plane

Filed under: ex-pats,New Broads,travel — by maggiec @ 2:38 pm

Pop songs from the 60s, the period of my early childhood, have long provided a sound track for my life. I find phrases popping through my head at the oddest times. And right now it’s Peter, Paul and Mary I am hearing in the background music of my life.

As I write this, I am literally sitting on a jet plane, and like the singer of that song, I don’t know when I’ll be back again. Well, not for a while perhaps. I’m on the flight to my new life.

Now before I muse further on that new life, a word about airports. In those Internet questionnaires on “learn more about your friends” that ask about your least favorite place on earth, I always, always answer “airports”. They are ghastly places, where time goes into a warp tunnel. And now thanks to new security measures, they are uncomfortable and expensive time warp tunnels.

And is it me, or are most major American airports interchangeable? Transferring at Chicago’s O’Hare today, I all of a sudden couldn’t remember if I was in Chicago or Newark. At least when I’m traveling in Europe or Asia, the language clues me into where I am. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, but it certainly adds to the sense of dislocation and unreality. The sense of being lost.

I know that airports, as annoying as they are, have made it possible for me to live the life I live. I am losing one day to travel—dirty bathrooms shared with 100 other people, screwed up meal times, bad food—but when it’s all over it is only one day. Only a hundred year ago, that one miserable day would have been closer to one month of miserable days, no bathrooms, sometimes sketchy meal times, and bad food. So in some respects, I’m incredibly spoiled. And like all spoiled people, the more I have, the more I want. But if it weren’t for these little anterooms to hell, I couldn’t be an ex-pat. But enough moaning. On to the changes.

In the days leading up to this flight, I have been trying to figure out how I feel about it. Sometimes the word terrified comes to mind, but on reflection, I don’t think that’s it. I’m not really sure that this emotion I’m feeling is fear.

This is certainly a new experience. Every other time I’ve made a change, I’ve been going into the almost totally unknown. Now I’m going into something I know, but I don’t know. It’s been so many long years, and as Thomas Wolfe famously wrote, “You can’t go home again.” The downside of being an English scholar is that my brain is jammed to overflowing with literary allusions that sometimes scare me.

Trepidation might be the nearest description for what I’m feeling. Will I be able to make the transition back? One story that ex-pats hear over and over again is the one about the American who went back to the States only to have to leave again. The fit was too uncomfortable. I do wonder if this will happen to me. And this isn’t just idle speculation on my part.

Once, back in the days when I was writing “A Broad Abroad,” a friend wrote to me and said “The America you remember isn’t here anymore. It’s an America of the past.” Sometimes when I’m visiting, I see that so clearly. Change is inevitable, of course, but not all change is to my tastes. And as I tell people who ask how I feel right now, sometimes it’s easier to be a fish out of water in a place where people expect you to not fit in. But in the US, people expect me to follow the program, to do what is expected. And from what I hear, being different, dissenting from the mainstream, is a frowned upon quality nowadays.

I wonder if this isn’t being overstated. It’s not that I don’t believe what I hear people saying. It’s more that I want to see it for myself, to make my own judgments.

So I guess on that account, this really is the start of something new, perhaps an adventure.

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