Paddington Bear

As I wrote in one of my first blog entries, my childhood was full of travel.  It was also full of books.  It’s only recently that I’ve realized that most of my childhood heroes were adventurers…

…Paddington Bear, Curious George, Mary from The Secret Garden, Milo from The Phantom Tollbooth, Max from Where the Wild Things Are, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Madeline, The Little House, Make Way for Ducklings, Miss Rumphius, Babar, Frog and Toad, George and Martha, Jackie Piper and Puff, Ping…

blogpost_thephantomtollbooth

I had some heroes who didn’t travel, but even their stories were travel-related.  The Box Car Children lived on a train, even though it never moved.  And Mr. Popper may not have traveled, but his penguins did.  And, I don’t remember the story clearly enough, but I have a distinct sense that Jo from Little Women was a traveler, even if only in her heart.

My first big international trip was to England with my mom, sister and aunt.  I wasn’t necessarily reminded of any books I’d read until we were on the London Underground, and I set eyes on Paddington Station.  Suddenly all the Paddington Bear stories I had read as a kid came back to me, as if I was sprinkled with magical fairy dust, gifted with all the images from the books.

The Queen's 80th Birthday - Paddington Arrives

From that moment on, I advocated for afternoon tea and marmalade each and every day of our trip, a tradition I continue to relish and associate with Paddington and that trip, to this day.

Vive La Différence! (Long Live Diversity!)

Guest post by Alexander Goodman (www.bigfishsquad.com)

Until 2009, I was an American.  More specifically, I was a self-avowed New Yorker.  I’d traveled all my life; my parents are zealous travelers, and instilled that in my sister and me from an early age.  So while I had seen much of the world by the time I hit my mid-twenties, I had never lived abroad.

Sure, I did my four-month study abroad stint in Florence — that was mainly a lot of pasta-eating and wine-drinking.  But I didn’t necessarily sink into the Italian culture enough to feel like I had truly lived there.

After being in New York City for 7 years, opportunity knocked.  A friend of mine invited me to go live at his uncle’s apartment in Paris while his uncle was away in Egypt managing business.

Without hesitation, I said yes.  Fast-forward eight months, and I was arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport with three massive suitcases, my pack, my daypack, my messenger bag…my life in bags.

I hoped to stay a year in France, but I realistically knew that it would probably only be a few months before my money ran out, what with French class, wine, cheese, bread, cigarettes; the (French) works.

AGBlogPost_Food

But, alas, as all great authors write about, love happened.  Yep, I met a girl.  From that first drink at a café in Madeleine in the center of Paris, I was hooked.  A gorgeous, worldly, chic, blonde, half-English, half-French girl, but born and raised in Paris?  Yes, please.  I’ll have seconds.

And I did.  Seconds, thirds, fourths…from that point on, life was about figuring out how we would make our relationship work.  We went from living in Paris, to planning to move to London (which didn’t work out due to visa issues), to staying in Paris, getting married, living, working, all planning to, one day, move to New York.

AGBlogPost_AW

That takes us right up to the present, with elapsed time to date being just over three years.  And as a byproduct of my only wanting to be in the same place as the girl I am in love with, I became — Frenchisized.  Frenchified?  Frenchied?  In any case, it has happened.

I am no longer just an American; I sort of now straddle a cultural line between America and France.  This manifests in a lot of different ways, from language, to humor, to basic social interactions, to problem solving.

I find myself quieter, more behaved and well mannered, less into TV, and more into talking to people, more out in the world, so to speak.  I consume less than I did in New York; I’m less wasteful.  I’m more into conserving, in every facet of my life.  This is all, believe it or not, quintessentially French; it’s not all decadence as we Americans are brought up to think about French culture.  Life here is just more simple, not all about consumption.

AGBlogPost_Paris

That said, Americans have a unique warmth in our character that I try to preserve while living here.  Meeting Frenchies can be tough – there is, indeed, at times, a standard “cold” French exterior to break through.  And efficiency-wise?  Let’s just say Americans have the French beat when it comes to solving a problem…

Now, this didn’t all happen during one particular period of time; the process of truly assimilating to a foreign culture is perpetual.  It never stops.  You constantly, month by month, learn new things about your new country, your old one, yourself, your friends and family from home…and, ultimately, the world as a global community, one solid mass of human beings, co-existing in an ocean of diversity.

It is a fluid process.  You may feel one way in winter, and by summer you’ve learned something new, or had experiences, that make you realize that the initial impression you had wasn’t necessarily right.

This is particularly the case with the language.  Some months, I’m owning it – the conversations at the dinner table with French friends flows like a river, and I find myself surprised at how much French lives in my brain.  But other times, I struggle with it, constantly choking on my words, not being able to find them.  And sure enough, it all comes back eventually.  Learning a language takes time.  So it’s important to remember you will have some “down periods”.  Don’t get discouraged, and know that, probably next week, you’ll surprise yourself again.

AGBlogPost_Friends

As the French saying goes, “vive la différence” – long live diversity!  Living abroad, in my opinion, only adds to the depth of your character, by diversifying it.  It’s important to embrace that, even if it means overcoming some adversity in the process.

Lietuva Part II: The Tale of The Vodka and The Ankle

The first time I went to Lithuania was ten years ago.  I bought my Dad a ticket for Christmas, and we made the trip in early spring.

My Dad greeted me at the airport in Vilnius, drunk, with a Colonel from the Lithuanian army who was somehow commandeered into becoming my Dad’s chauffeur.

me and dad in lithuania

I should back up and clarify a few things:

1)   My Dad went a few days early, since I had to work and was limited to a one-week vacation.  So, it was after several days of family reunion parties that he was meeting me at the airport.

2)   The fact that my Dad was inebriated when he met me wasn’t a big surprise.  First, see point 1 above.  Second, anyone who has met my Dad would smile and chuckle when I say that, even if there weren’t several days of family reunion parties involved.

3)   The fact that my Dad had somehow managed to get an official of the Lithuanian army to serve as his driver wasn’t shocking, either.  It’s not that my Dad has a crazy amount of clout.  He has a crazy amount of chutzpa, and a fair amount of luck.

The Colonel drove us to my Dads’ wifes’ cousin’s farm outside of Kaunas, where I was greeted with a warmth and enthusiasm that was touching.  And overwhelming.  The only English speaker was the eight-year-old, and she was also the only shy person in the whole family.  So, things were a little chaotic for my jet-lagged brain to process.  And even more so once the bottle of vodka was opened, the Euro-techno music started playing, and the dancing began.

blogpost_lithvodka

I woke up the next morning not being able to see (my glasses were missing), with a broken ankle, severely hung over, with a camera full of great photos (mostly taken from the floor, I presume, after I had broken my ankle), and with no clue as to where my Dad was.

When my Dad returned from the store (The Colonel had taken him to get more beer), I asked to go to a doctor for my ankle.  This was the first of a series of repeated requests over the next few days, all of which were met with sympathy, and an alternative suggestion (we wrapped it in a bandage, rubbed it with ointment, went in search of a psychic healer – twice – and kept me pumped full of anti-inflammatories and pain killers).

After a hike to see the carp farm, the Colonel took my Dad and I to our new home: army barracks.

I should back up and clarify a few more things:

1)   Visiting a carp farm when one is hung over should be avoided at all costs.

2)   Walking through the muddy, uneven fields of a carp farm when one has a broken ankle should be avoided at all costs.

3)   Sleeping in the army barracks when one is a single, foreign woman should be avoided at all costs.

But hey, the best experiences are the ones that involve a little discomfort and misfortune..

blogpost_lithuaniaCOA

Lietuva Part I: It’s In My Blood

My dad was born in Lithuania (Lietuva), and escaped with his family during World War II.  Although my dad sports a classic Chicago accent, his parents never learned English, and I spent many days of my childhood listening to the grown-ups speaking Lithuanian, while my sister and I ate Lithuanian food and were spoiled with wordless affection.

blogpost_lithuania

I think it is because of this time that I don’t flinch when I find myself spending hours surrounded by people speaking to each other in languages I can’t comprehend.  I have become pretty adept at following conversations through body language, tone, and facial expressions.  Sure, understanding the words is a plus.  But it’s often not needed.

I recently heard Ruta Sepetys speak at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference, and I was blown away.  Let me say, first, that I think the whole audience was in awe of this dynamic woman.  But, on a personal level, she shares my relationship with Lithuania.  She, too, is the daughter of immigrants.  She, too, had family who was displaced, exiled, and killed in the war and post-war.  And, she, too, grew up not speaking the language, but being surrounded by its music.

between shades of grey

After her speech, I immediately downloaded her book, Between Shades of Gray, and devoured it.  It is an important story for me, for my family, and for Lithuania.  But, it is also an important story for all of us to be reminded that there were atrocities committed in World War II beyond those horrors architected by Hitler.

Though the eyes of a 15-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941, Sepetys reminds us that Stalin has even more blood on his hands.

Happy New Year!

How do you mark a milestone?  Like a birthday or New Year’s?  These are important events in our culture that we celebrate with friends and family.  The passing of a year in someone’s life, or in our collective lives.

How do you stop one from bleeding into the other?

blogpost_newyearseve

Years ago, my friend Ellen and I decided that instead of celebrating NYE with a party, champagne and noisemakers, we would travel.  That way, we could remember how we capped off each year from a distance, and move forward to launch the next.

So far, we have traveled for every New Year’s since we made this decision, often with other friends joining us.  Our trips have taken us to:

Costa Rica

nye costa rica

 

Dublin

nye dublin

Key West

Lake Tahoe

Las Vegas

London

New Orleans

New York

Scotland

nye scotland

Sydney

nye sydney

The Bahamas

nye bahamas

This year we went to Romania, to visit Dracula’s castle and stay in an ice hotel — you know, the standard way most people celebrate the turnover into the new year..

nye ice hotel nye dracula

Each of these trips is more memorable than any New Year’s party could possibly be.  For us, life is about experience.  Celebrating the new year and toasting the passing one is about honoring the experiences we have had in the past year, and anticipating the ones we will have in the coming one.  And doing that while in the midst of a travel experience, one full of new sights, sounds, feelings, and more, is the most fitting way for us to really feel the potency of change.

So with that, Happy New Year to all! Here’s to making 2013 a year full of stepping out of our comfort zones, and searching out new experiences, whether they be abroad, or right here at home.