Saturday 12 May 2007

Places I've Lived

Before I graduated from university I never never ever thought I would move away from home. Sure, I dreamed of visiting Paris and seeing the Eiffel Tower and putting into use my 3 years of Jr high and Sr high school French but I never actually thought that I would get there for anything other than a holiday. I was born in Nebraska, grew up in Colorado, and never even saw an ocean until I was 18 and visited my friend, Susan in Seattle, Washington and then in Orange County, California.

Then I went to university and I went to work for a large international software consultancy and my life changed inexplicably in that moment. I worked for this company all through university (except the first year when I was struggling with figuring out my major and whether I believed myself clever enough to succeed at the academic challenge). Just before graduation they offered me a job and immediately after graduation I got sent to Dusseldorf ostensibly for a 3 month business trip. 3 months turned into 3 years. And that was pretty much the end of my life in the USA.

I found the whole repatriation very difficult. I loved who I had grown into and how much my horizon had broadened living in Germany. I had learned a new language and was fluent. Heck, I dreamed in that language. I was independent and not afraid to go out to eat alone. I learned to appreciate (although not embrace) a different culture, a different political system. I even learned to enjoy the peace and quiet during quiet time. (Quiet time is between 3-4 every day and all day Sunday when you are not allowed to do anything which makes noise your neighbours can hear, eg run the washing machine, hoover, wash your car. The idea is this is the time to relax and you better do it. Before I learned this lesson I got very stern words from a neighbour on the stairwell.) I learned to understand that crossing the road against a no walk sign is not acceptable just because no cars are coming. It is a bad example to set for children. I learned there are over 100 ways to serve pork. I sat in an office with Frau Panneck and Herr Porsche for 3 years and never learned their first names. I learned that some people in the world get more than 10 days vacation/year.

I saw London, Paris, Berlin (just after the wall came down!), Brussels, Munich, Dublin. I stayed on a US Army Base when I visited my cousin, Chris, who was stationed there. I nearly got run over by a car driving on the other side of the road. I saw that there are 100 ways to flush a toilet. I saw the Eiffel Tower. For real, in person. I touched it. I went to the top. I pinched myself and it wasn't a dream.

The funniest thing I remember my hick mind thinking was that it was so cute that German children speak German and French children speak French. I know this sounds so silly but the first time I saw a child speaking French I thought well, isn't that a clever child? And then I checked myself and thought, you idiot, what else would they be speaking?

When I returned to the USA I was a completely different person, I felt that everyone in my social circles hadn't had the same transformative experience. They were exactly the same as when I had left (for the most part). Duh! And they didn't really care about my experiences. They were polite (to a point) and smiled when I recounted stories of my travels. But they couldn't understand. They hadn't been there. They haven't a clue how difficult it is to get a room in a B&B on the Mosel River during the wine festival when you don't speak a lick of German (this happened during my first month in country).

So after just 2 months back in the USA I was begging for reassignment. I was sent to Sweden, then off to Portugal for a bit. I got to live in Paris briefly (3 months) which was like a dream come true. I do have an affinity for the city (although I've just read an article about how much the city has changed in the last 3 years so I must travel back!). I hated Portugal. Lisbon was a building site. I didn't get the food. I certainly couldn't get Portuguese into my head at all! I loved Sweden and the endless nights of summertime were fabulous. I would have felt differently about Sweden if I had to pay taxes there I am afraid but since I was in country only about 4 months I was exempt from their tax laws. I think I would have liked their maternity policies but this is the trade off for the high taxes, I guess.

I travelled quite often for extended periods to Holland and Belgium whilst I was living in Germany. I enjoyed my travels (for both business and pleasure but felt both would be rather bland selections as a home). The pace of life was a bit too slow for this American.

After my European tour, I was sent to live in Seoul, South Korea where I lived for 2 years travelling back to the USA for 1 week every 3 weeks. This was a strange existence. I got to know the flight crew in 1st class on United Airlines so well that one of the flight attendants gave me a special flannel pillow cover she made just for me. Seoul is full of American service men (at the time the most outside the USA) and there was this whole sub-culture. The prostitutes make quite a good living servicing them. (Not dissimilar to what I saw in Holland and Belgium but with US servicemen). Then there is a large American expatriate community which is a little goldfish bowl all its own. Finally there are the Koreans. Odd really. The men hated me because I was in charge. The women didn't know what to do with me because I didn't make cups of coffee and bring it to the men. I didn't like Korea, the subway stank and the people had no sense of personal space. Well, they did. It was just on top of me. Everyone I cam into contact either spoke English or was learning English so my opportunities to learn that language was extremely impaired. I did manage a few words and the alphabet although now I'll be darned if I can remember any of it. I did love the food. Kimchee is an acquired taste and I refused to eat it for breakfast. Bimbabop and Bulgogi are still 2 of my favourite dishes although Korean restaurants in England are hard to find. And not many people agree with my assessment of Korean food.

The project I worked on in Korea was tough and I was exhausted when I returned to the USA. I was sent immediately over to the UK. I instantly fell in love with the place. I loved the pub culture. I loved the resilience and politeness of the people. When my company wanted to reassign me to a project in Saudi Arabia, I politely declined. They didn't like that and I decided my vagabond days were over. I needed a home. I was in my 30s and I needed to put down some roots. So I quit my job and found a new one which I thought would keep me in one place long enough to catch up with my dry cleaning.

This lasted for a while (less than 1 year) and I soon found myself off to the USA. You see, I was the token American hired to keep the American clients happy. I was working 2 weeks in NYC and 2 weeks back in the UK. I did seriously lose some dry cleaning. I was 6 months pregnant with Sebastian when I put an end to all of that. After 6 months maternity leave I went back to work and after informing them that I really couldn't travel since I was still breastfeeding, they not so nicely informed me that I was redundant (in the USA they call this getting laid of).

My number 1 criteria when looking for a new job was no travel. I went to work for my current company and other than the odd business conference here and there (Berlin, Rome, Cannes) I haven't had to travel. I work close to home and my daily commute is only 10 minutes.

I met my husband in the UK and Nanny always said I had to come here to find him. I believe her. I've stayed in the UK because my children were born here and I like the educational and career opportunities it affords my family. I love tea and crumpets, and horse racing and the English. Their reserve and stiff upper lip gets on my nerves sometimes but, eh doesn't everything?

I don't think you can really know a place until you've lived there. No one country is the greatest. No one country is the worst. They all have something to offer, if only a learning experience. What I have found is that there are wonderful people everywhere and horrible people everywhere. And people make the place. I've met a lot of wonderful people here and plan on staying here for quite a while (famous last words)!


Janell said...

This is a wonderful post - thank you so much for taking the time to share your "vagabond years" with us. I felt I was moving around with you as I read. You gave me a glimpse into other parts of the world I would not otherwise have had.
With your permission, I'm copying this for the Carson book! Our decendants will enjoy reading the first hand account that cousin who lived all over the world.
Also, I love that wedding picture you put up.

Shirley said...

Whoa -- are you like 80 years old?
I can't imagine this much moving and learning in a span of less that 30 years.

LaDawn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LaDawn said...

Not over 80 but certainly not under 30....somewhere in the middle! And I'm a fast learner!