From Global Mom: A Memoir
As we parents were easing ourselves into the American Way, our children were doing what they’d done elsewhere: watching, observing, mimicking the locals to blend in, picking up the language (or accent), and figuring out the jumble of norms and nuances as they went along.
It went on like this for months and for all of us. Misreading cultural cues, not knowing language signals, not knowing T.V. lingo or T.V. personages or T.V. jokes, feeling alien, foreign, and making up for it in each our individual way.
Parker became a gangsta.
Dalton got frustrated with himself and too easily with others.
Claire buckled down and took the lead in the school musical.
Randall buried himself at headquarters.
Luc gave me another round of debilitating back spasms.
To be fair, it was not Luc alone but the house renovations that gave me the back spasms. You see, with everything pointing to the probability of our staying in this place forever, we decided to dig in deeply as if this was it. This is where we will belong.
This meant buying a home, the first and the only one we’d ever owned – and who knew if we’d ever own one again? – which home became the project into which I invested my energies. That is, when I wasn’t sitting in conferences with teachers trying to help ease along whichever child was struggling with the adjustment that week. I invested myself into making this home just right for our family, invested myself the way I threw myself into just about everything else. Like a windtunnel full of pepper spray.
This meant a total overhaul from replaced floors to painted walls to added closets and woodwork. It meant a split rail fence around the entire property. A Hansel and Gretel cottage on the back of the property. A copper weather vane.
It also meant jack-hammering out the whole kitchen and putting in a new one. It was eight consecutive months of consuming work that spanned the dead of winter when we had to heat up pizza in a microwave rigged in the meat locker of a garage. And, yes, it was expensive work, work for which we’d been saving up parsimoniously for over nine years assuming that one day we would, with a mortgage and window boxes, pin ourselves permanently on a map somewhere.
We had vowed, Randall and I, to pass no judgments on this new life until these renovations had run their course. In the meantime, I found myself hunting in grocery store lines and around the edges of the local soccer pitch for a hint — any hint anywhere — of a foreign accent. Otherwise, we felt strangely out-of-place, unable to share a great part of ourselves with others.
One can expect to feel alien in a new or foreign country. But this? Feeling like an immigrant in what’s supposed to be one’s home country? At times, our new existence felt more foreign than anything. I knew less about being a soccer mom than I did about buying fresh produce from local vendors in an open market, less about American sports teams than about Norwegian arctic explorers, less about my native country than I did about ones that, in the end, no one really seemed to want to hear that much about.
This no-man’s-land feeling we tried to counteract by accepting volunteer positions in our church; Randall in the three-member leadership of our 450-member congregation, I in the regional presidency of the organization for all the teenaged girls. We connected with kind, enterprising, talented and patriotic fellow-Americans, whose friendship would accompany us into the years ahead.
But first came March. For ten days we’d been functioning in our new kitchen. I stood in the middle of it and took it all in: hammered copper farm sink and mustardy-sepia granite counter tops and our few select pieces of Provençal and Italian pottery. Norwegian touches. French touches. An antique Swiss cow bell holding back the traditional Scandinavian linen drapes. Modest but tasteful and most importantly, it bore our international imprint.
And the beautiful room made me ache. Relentlessly and acutely, I longed in my bones for France, for Europe in general, for my friends from the world over, for my children’s friends who understood them. What’s more, I was sniffing for the musty smell of a tiny corner market run by a Moroccan, for pungent cheeses sold by someone I knew by name in a shop that closed every day at noon for lunch and every Sunday. But beyond that, I ached for a place where we could be who we all had been individually and as a family, for that special roughness and refinement of a vibrantly textured international setting, and I missed — till-my-throat-constricted, missed — hearing and speaking French.
But that was all over and out. So I was trying to focus on all that was instead of what was not; the great ease and comfort that homogeneity offers, the undeniable traction that a societal system has when there are ample funds and loads of optimism. America’s abundant pluses, including her tremendous energy and enterprising people, the head-spinning convenience and collective casualness, they were not lost on me.
All that, in spite of my anxiety attack the first time I visited a place called Costco, or the first time I saw a $5.99 burger the size and weight of a French subcompact, which sight gave me heart palpitations and sent me running for cover. Otherwise, I was calmly, steadily fighting to come to terms.
So what do you do when you’re fighting to come to terms? You suit up in chocolate.
I was making chocolate brownies (the first brownies I’d ever made, I borrowed the recipe) for a school function, as I remember. And Randall called.
“Hon, can you meet me at the bottom of the hill? I’m almost home. Come alone.”