Seeing “home” through a different lens

5 07 2012

It was Independence Day this week, the day when all red-blooded ‘Mericans – at home and abroad – celebrate with fireworks and barbecues and the red-white-and-blue. On July 4th 236 years ago a bunch of smart guys in wigs and knickerbockers told the Brits to go stuff it, and founded their own country.

Recycled t-shirt.

I am also one of those who celebrated with a slab of seared beef and a fine bottle of California Cabernet Sauvignon. But I live overseas. No fireworks show on TV or outside my window, not even a sparkler within reach. But that makes me no less American. The U.S. is my home, Europe is where I am currently living.

Why? It just kind of happened that way. I finished my Master’s degree in 1992, just as the first George Bush was wreaking havoc on the economy. I couldn’t find a job at home so I took off and found a career elsewhere. But I have every intention of returning someday.

So for the past 20 years I have observed life in America from across the pond, sometimes with amusement and sometimes with disillusionment. Sometimes with envy and sometimes with sadness. Often, I wonder just how much it has changed in these years I have lived abroad, and if I will ever feel at home there again.

An squabble on Facebook overnight prompted me to think about this once again, intensely. A FB friend of mine, surely blinded by the sudden rediscovered patriotism that hits every American squarely in the gut as s/he watches fireworks over the Washington Mall and hears emotional renditions of the Star Spangled Banner, posted this comment:

Watching the DC July 4 show on TV. Every year it overwhelms me. I am honored and proud to be an American. Can someone explain to me why we are now trying to become Europe? We have fought long and hard for the freedoms and privileges of this beautiful, free country!

A wise woman friend of hers responded a short time later:

I don’t think I follow you. I think we’re just trying to secure an equal opportunity for a happy and healthy future for ALL our citizens, not just the wealthy ones.

It was July 5th by the time I saw these and added my own two cents:

Not quite following either… Last time I looked, Europe was also beautiful and free… Wouldn’t be living here if it wasn’t!

Upon which I got this slap in the face from the original poster:

The economics don’t work. And the resulting entitlement is disastrous. My immigrant grandparents would be disappointed.

And I’m thinking … “Lady, have you ever even been to Europe? Do you even know what the hell you are talking about? Could you locate Europe on a map? And your immigrant grandparents – they probably had really good reasons for leaving Europe during the Second World War… sooooo… what’s your point, exactly?”

This same FB friend already reproached me last week for celebrating the Supreme Court decision on Obamacare, writing something to the effect of: “Those of us who have to pay aren’t happy about this at all.”

Of course, this could just be a single slanted opinion from a single self-centered person. But I get the sneaky feeling that there are a whole bunch of folks in the U.S. who think this way.

So I am asking myself today – what happened to the solidarity and the kindness and the helpful, open, optimistic and accepting attitude I always remember Americans by? What happened to the mutual support, the looking out for one another, the spontaneous neighborliness and the caring for strangers that I remember from growing up in a small community in the Northeast? What happened to them? Where did they go?

Maybe I just need to de-friend this person on FB. But when I finally do find a way to live and exist in the United States again, with some kind of financial security, when I find a job I can live off of, with guaranteed health insurance and a pension that I will work hard for, that will still be there when I retire, whenever and wherever that may be: is this the kind of selfishness and ignorance I’m going to have to deal with? Is everyone like this? Will I even recognize this place anymore? This place I’ve always called “home”?

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ES fails the baking test.

15 11 2011

So I thought I would regale you with my latest kitchen/baking fail.

“Baking,” you ask? “Evelynn Starr in the… kitchen? You have got to be kidding me. I had no idea she was so… so… domesticated.”

Well, dear fans, not to burst your bubble, but I do, occasionally, venture into our tiny little kitchen. It is usually R.’s kingdom, and we have a demarcation line which under normal circumstances I am loathe (and sometimes forbidden) to cross. Because every time I do, something bad happens.

However, we had a few guests coming over last Saturday evening, so I had this great idea that I would also try my hand at creating something edible. Dessert. Couldn’t be too hard.

But often, like last Saturday night, it fails.

I tried an old reliable… something I have successfully produced in the past, (once, a while ago) and didn’t taste half bad then, either. Something safe. Something that you can’t really screw up. I decided that lemon-poppy-seed muffins were as safe as I could get.

Everything went well, considering. The batter was absolutely heavenly, I could have (and probably should have) eaten it all right then and there, unbaked, with a spoon. And I didn’t even make a mess about it. The little guys (for they were, indeed, little, especially when you compare them to, say, Starbucks muffins) baked well, and looked like they were nice and fluffy and lemony-poppy-seedy inside. They were golden brown and not burnt.  (Wow!)

Careful, don't bite into your computer screen, now.

I had to try one right away, while it was still warm – because the fragrance of freshly-baked muffins right out of the oven is utterly irresistible.

And then, the shock. I discovered that when I tried to peel the paper cupcake cup off, it wouldn’t. The dough was so stuck to the paper that in order to eat my muffin, I pretty much would have to eat the paper too because the paper just refused to unstick itself from my muffin.

I was crushed. My masterpieces. My babies. Stuck to the cupcake cup. WHY? It’s the third time this has happened and I have no idea what I am doing wrong.

My mouth watered as I proceeded to pick microscopic-sized bits of paper from my fabulous little home-made muffin. It wash sheer torture.

“Oooohhhhh Evelynn,” you say. “Dear, dear Evelynn, leave the kitchen stuff to your husband. He can do it so much better than you.”

Yes he can.

So instead of proudly serving up my home-made lemon-poppy-seed muffins to our dinner guests that evening, I hid them in a sideboard.  We raced out to the supermarket before it closed at 5pm to get a vat of the old reliable (vanilla ice cream) to go with the chocolate sauce we have had in our cupboard since, like, forever. For emergencies just like this one.

Fortunately, when we opened the can we discovered it was still fit for human consumption, even though it was way past its “sell by” date.

So this is a blatant, unabashed call for help. If anyone can tell me the secret to perfect lemon-poppy-seed muffins, I would really appreciate it. Because my husband and I are pretty sick and tired of eating lemon-poppy-seed-flavored cupcake cup paper.





Whale-watching – sans whales.

20 10 2011

After suffering a professional assault too complicated and sordid to describe here (I will, one day, when I have fully digested it, and spent all the money they threw at me to keep quiet), R. and I decided to get outta Dodge.

Actually our trip to the Left Coast had been planned for a while (like, a week). We felt like we needed some California fresh air before the next dark Swiss winter puts us in a deep-freeze. The fact that my unexpected and untimely departure from my high-power, high-paying, high-profile and high-risk-of-falling-into-disfavor job just happened be on the day before our flight was to depart from ZRH to SFO was, well, a coincidence.

A hint of San Francisco is enough to make anyone positively sick with longing. A few days of wandering the streets and tasting the freedom and you have to pry me from the Golden Gate Bridge, finger by finger.

Paradise, no? Close?

But the highlight of this trip was to be whale-watching in Monterey Bay, about 2 hours south of the City. Monterey is on many peoples’ bucket lists, and migrating whales seem to like the place too. It’s apparently one of just a few locations along the coast where some species of the sea mammal can be seen any time of the year. So we booked ourselves into a 120-year-old bed-and-breakfast and decided to go whale watching.

The day we arrived in town, a brilliant blue sky greeted us. Hundreds of sea lions, comfortably lounging on buoys, breakwaters and the shoreline, barked their welcome. Seagulls the size of turkeys populated the piers and coveted our dinner. Towards the southeast, a wall of fog seemed far too far away to do any damage.

The next morning, we could barely see 50 feet (30 meters) and the temperature had dropped a good 30 degrees F (16 degrees C).

But the intrepid will not be hindered by a little fog and a lot of cold, especially not here in California. (Right?)

40 bucks a head and we boarded the Princess Monterey, headed for the open sea. The outing started promising enough, with dolphins emerging from the grey-in-grey ocean just barely after we left the harbor… The pre-game show had begun. More dolphins, with a couple of sea lions in the mix for good measure. Awww… look at them play… aren’t they cute?

A dolphin, not a shark. (Or a whale.)

Okay, great. ‘Nuf dolphins. Where are the stars? The reason we all came out here in the first place! The giants of the ocean! The magical creatures of the deep! The largest mammals on earth!

Nowhere to be seen. It was like they all got together and decided Tuesday was their day off.

They are unionized, after all.

Three hours later, 40 tourists aboard the Princess Monterey chugged back into harbor – disappointed, freezing and seasick. R. resented having been captive aboard a vessel with a bunch of strangers whose behavior and noise level he could not control. Including the woman whose slobbering, sniffing and severely shedding hound the size of a pony pulled her around the boat. Repeatedly.

(Why would you take a dog whale-watching?)

So much for connecting with nature and learning about sea-life. Sayonara 80 dollars.

When we got back to our car, an acutely observant meter maid provided the perfect end to a miserable day. 35 more dollars for an expired parking meter (by 16 minutes).

Okay, I’ve had enough. Time to go back to San Francisco.





Welcome to… a different world.

11 09 2011

The second Tuesday in September started innocuous enough. I was in the British countryside, west of London, along with about 20 colleagues, attending a course on working in hostile environments and battlefield first aid. Too many newspeople had perished while covering wars past, and the company I worked for thought it a wise investment to train its journalists in basic survival so that in the future more would come home from those environments unscathed.

Just in case.

Because the next war was bound to break out, sometime, somewhere.

An excerpt from the list of topics to be covered.

We learned things like: What kind of damage automatic weapons can do to cars, oil drums and humans; How to spot a sniper, and a tripwire; How to make a water filter using only materials found in nature; What an armed ambush feels like, and how to survive a kidnapping; Why a camera lens can sometimes look like a shoulder-held rocket-propelled-grenade at distance.

The course was a week long and I had decided to tack on a vacation to New York City and points north immediately thereafter. So I booked my flight from Heathrow to JFK on United Airlines for the following Saturday.

On that week’s Tuesday afternoon we were out in the woods, standing in mud up to our ankles. The assigned task was to practice negotiation skills. Our teachers had dressed up as hostile natives hell-bent on hindering our work at least, or murdering us for our expensive equipment. The overcast sky broke to a fine English drizzle and during a pause in the action a few of us took shelter in one of the vehicles. That was when the first SMS came from New York.

It was so absurd that we thought it was some kind of joke.

“What a brilliant idea,” one of my colleagues said. “But impossible.”

Four filthy, cynical journalists sitting in a Land Rover in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere, 3,000 miles from New York City, could not believe the audacity of flying a plane into the World Trade Center.

While calmly picking clumps of mud out of the treads of my hiking boots with a twig, I scoffed that no aviation routes even go anywhere near Manhattan… so that must have been some dumb pilot. Or just a tragic accident.

We turned on the car’s radio to see if the BBC had the story, and heard that a second airliner had just slammed into the second building.

Ah. No accident. No dumb pilot.

And suddenly our hostile environment training did not seem so theoretical anymore.

Four days later, I sat in one of the first aircraft permitted to re-enter U.S. airspace from abroad. Upon landing at JFK, a flight attendant announced our arrival over the intercom. Ten years later, I still get a lump in throat and my eyes tear up when I think of it.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to….. The United States of America.”

The entire cabin erupted in cheers and tears. We were on home soil, and we were safe.

As the plane taxied off the runway to its parking position, a white plume of smoke continued to rise from Ground Zero into the cobalt blue sky. Lower Manhattan was still burning.

It was September 15th, 2001 –  and the world as we knew it was history.

**********

A cloud of smoke where the towers used to be.

A piece of a steel skeleton.

The destruction through the window of a city bus.

Guard duty at Ground Zero.

The impromptu memorial at Union Square.

NOTE: All photos are my own, taken on September 16th and 17th, 2001.





Burnt toast under the hot September sun

6 09 2011

Last weekend, a local skate club threw what they called “The Inline Festival”. It’s one of very few skate races left in Switzerland since the semi-professional circuit, Swiss Inline Cup, folded earlier this year.

So, never one to miss out on a good party that includes rollerblading, bratwurst and beer, I signed up, hoping to use it as a final test ahead of the Berlin Marathon, which rolls around again in less than three weeks.  (Last year’s race was marred by a torrential downpour.  Flooded streets and two spectacular skids on the pavement slowed me significantly. I am looking to redeem myself this year, so stay tuned.)

Foresight overruled cockiness and I decided to register for the shorter, 18.2 km (11.3 mile) race in the category “Fitness” as opposed to the full marathon “Speed” race. It takes me a good long while to recover from a marathon, and I kind of wanted to keep my powder dry for the highlight of my season.

Cool number, though.

While I am not a great fan of torrential rains, I am also sensitive to temperatures far above normal. An unusually late summer high pressure system soaked Switzerland in sunshine last Saturday, sending the mercury to over 30 degrees C (86 F).  Ugh.

I knew I was in trouble early on when I got the first cramps in my thigh less than 600 meters into the race. By the end of the first of three circuits on a 6km track, I was toast, and knew it was a matter of time before my legs would give out under me.

Fortunately, my brain was still working normally, and all I could think of was the power of a strong will.

Willpower: the emotion that keeps the amateur athlete on her feet when every other muscle in her body screams for mercy.  Or… sense.

During the second round, overstretched, overheated and overacidic, I was passed by a tall dark stranger, looking like he was on a Sunday stroll. He took the lead, allowing me to draft behind him and reassess my sorry state for a few kilometers. My speed and energy level recovered dramatically. At some point I told him he could continue on if he wanted to… I didn’t want him to wait for me if he felt like turning the engine up a notch. He said something to the effect of, “Oh no, don’t worry about it… I’m just warming up for the marathon.”

Talk about a blow to the psyche.

But the disappointment of the day was still to come. I struggled through a painful third circuit and crossing the finish line barely conscious, I found out that my time and ranking had been stopped after the second round. The eventual winner had apparently lapped me on my second round (really? guess I missed that…), and that meant my ordeal had been in vain. My estimate is around 51 minutes, respectable considering the sub-tropical conditions, but not great. But I can’t say for sure.

So much for trying to figure out what to expect in three weeks’ time.





Real life

17 07 2011

My managers recently told me that my job will be going the way of the dinosaurs soon. As in: extinct. Quite unsettling, especially considering I had no say in the planning or the timing of all this.

I had been toying with the idea of quitting for a while now; I wasn’t particularly happy in my job. The issue of dealing with clueless and socially incompetent superiors is tough enough. But returning from a 3-month sabbatical to find no less than eight close colleagues had decided to flee the institution is a rather large blow to one’s enthusiasm.

Photo out of a recruiting brochure for a large bank. Exciting, huh?

So anyway, I have been chewing on this news for the last couple of weeks and trying to figure out how to make the best of the situation. My concentration often wanders while I am at work, I look out my high floor window at the world below and concoct complex plans involving idealistic notions of the way the world should be – and the positive difference I want to make in it.

The other day I applied to a job with exactly that in the description: “We are looking for people who want to make a positive difference in the world.” Well hell, where have you been all these years, dear potential employer?

The truth is, though, it never is like what they tell you…that’s what bothers me most about being an adult. Parents, teachers and other people of authority dangle this image of the perfect world in front of kids’ noses for the first 18 years of their lives. They are told a million times that a good education and lots of hard work will get them whatever they want, and enable them to live a life of happiness and prosperity. That anything is possible if only they put their minds to it. That there will be a reward in return for years of exertion, good sense and following real and unwritten rules.

When I was a kid, most of us actually believed it all.

And in the second 18 years of life, we found out that that’s simply a bunch of horse manure.

In the meantime – and currently motoring along in my 3rd chunk of 18 years – I am all for telling kids their dreams will never come true, no matter how hard they work or what sacrifices they make. As in: “Forget it kid, your ambitions are toast, especially in this economy.” That would be much more honest than sending them on a wild goose chase for a nonexistent pot of gold.

Certainly every generation has its winners, those superstars who proverbially fly to the zenith of their professions and are not only phenomenally successful, but also genuinely happy. But for all the rest of us who forewent things we believed in in order to bust our chops and never reach that level of success anyway because someone just doesn’t like the way we dress, or the friends we have, or the way we express ourselves, well, then, that’s just time wasted, is it not?

So now I wait for a new employer who will graciously invite me to exchange my brainpower for a pay check. I am “talent”, waiting for a place to be “managed”. Nothing more. My next job will be a transaction – a deal sealed by two signatures on a piece of paper – performed five days a week, for 47 weeks a year, for the number of years it takes before the one side is sick of the other.

Maybe I’m just tired. I know there will be idiots, intrigue, incompetence, injustice and inequality wherever I go, and I will make a sincere effort to deal with them in the best way I know how: to (try to) never again allow myself to get emotionally involved.  Hence, the positive difference I make in this world will be elsewhere.

And never the twain shall meet.





A postcard from Switzerland

17 06 2011

Dear Donna R.,

Do you remember us? We met you at the Golden Nugget casino in downtown Las Vegas. Fremont Street. About six weeks ago. You were our server in the Buffet, and my three friends were the Swiss folks that inhaled Zelma’s bread pudding for desert. (You remember – I had a scoop of Cookies ‘n Cream instead.)

You asked us where we were from, and, without knowing if we were ax-murderers on leave from jail, you gave us your home address and asked us to send you a postcard when we got back. You collect postcards, you said, and you haven’t yet received one from Switzerland. Well, here it is. Sorry it took so long.

Switzerland at a glance

We chatted a bit, and you said, “Las Vegas is boring, and Switzerland is not boring.” Well, you are right, I suppose. Summer has arrived here, and it’s not boring at all. In fact, it’s quite attractive here, lots to do and generally a very pleasant place to spend one’s days.

But as I told you too, home is where the heart is, and the heart, right now, is elsewhere.

I spent three months in the United States this Spring… it was the longest period of time over on your side of the pond since I finished graduate school in 1992. Before I arrived in the U.S. I knew that it would be a watershed experience for me – either I would go back to Europe saying, “Hey, glad I finally got that out of my system!” or I would be saying, “I want to go home, now more than ever.”

You know how this story ends, don’t you?

For much of the last two decades the idea of returning home has weighed heavily on my consciousness. Europe afforded me a lot of opportunities, too many to name here – and I am thankful for every single one of them. I started a career and a followed a trajectory that would have been unlikely back home. I had cool jobs, traveled and did all sorts of neat things that were only possible while riding on the coattails of the EU passport I am lucky to have.

Yet looking past the superficial, something very basic is missing. It’s nothing concrete, material, or anything I can pick up and hold. It’s more of a feeling, a mentality, an attitude, a sense of community. It’s a deep-seated yet unnamed feeling I associate with the culture in which I was socialized – I can only describe it as a combination of longing, sadness, love and pride – that comes suddenly and unexpectedly, and always takes a while to put away again.

My time with my folk, my people, immersed in my culture taught me a few important lessons. Most important: even after living overseas for about 20 years, the United States is still my home. I can still identify with people, speak their language, laugh at their humor and feel their pain.

It was tough getting on that plane back to Europe last week, with no exit strategy and no timeline for the future. I sit here, in an job I am no longer excited about, in a land I will never be able to call my own, having to deal with the locals in a language I will never be able to speak.

So… interesting? Yes, it’s an interesting place, with an interesting history and interesting characters. (And heck, I met my husband here! He’s great!) Comfortable? Very. There are a lot worse places to have to return to. But home? No, not likely. Ever.

Hope you are well and not wilting in the Vegas summer.

Yours truly,

Evelynn and her Swiss friends