Series on Multiculturalism, Cross-Cultural Relationships, and Diversity

Part I: My Passion for All Things International

This is the first of a series of three articles on the topic of multiculturalism, cross-cultural relationships, and diversity. In this first posting I share with my readers how and when my interest in this area developed, creating a backdrop for the second article. In the follow-up article I communicate why I feel it is so important and critical to be exposed to multiculturalism, cross-cultural relationships, and diversity. In my last and third article I discuss some of the challenges that we face in this arena, and offer recommendations of steps to take that could increase our exposure to diversity. Keeping in mind that when I refer to diversity in my articles, I am including individuals with all kinds of differences. 

A symbol of Colombian Culture, the open truck called "Chiva" or "Bus de Escalera" used as transportation in rural areas. The buses are beautifully hand painted with colorful images and accents.

1983 – A symbol of Colombian Culture, the open truck called “Chiva” (goat) or “Bus de Escalera” (ladder bus) used as transportation in rural areas. The buses are beautifully hand painted with colorful images and accents.

There are things in this world that inspire our passion and interest. For me, some of those things are multiculturalism, cross-cultural relationships, and diversity. There are various paths that have brought me here. I am a Colombian born immigrant to the United States. This allows me three distinct roles, that of being a Colombian citizen, a Colombian immigrant to the United States, and lastly an American citizen. By moving to the United States I entered into a multicultural environment, I lived in a Colombian home in an American culture. A defining moment in my life, when my interest for all things international was sparked, happened when I joined Mrs. Bouhafa’s 3rd grade class in 1969. I joined her class after the first month of the school year when the powers to be decided I belonged in her class.

Mrs. Bouhafa and her 3rd grade class of 1969-1970

Mrs. Bouhafa and her 3rd grade class of 1969-1970. That’s me, the Girl Scout Brownie on the left hand side.

Mrs. Bouhafa stood in the front of the classroom with me and introduced me to the rest of the class and said something about my Spanish-speaking ability. I had been fully bi-lingual since kindergarten. A boy in the class, Stephen (bottom row 1st boy on left), took me by the hand to the back of the room, to a globe of world, pointed to Spain, and asked me if I was from there. I said no, and rotated the globe back and proudly pointed to Colombia and said, “I am from here”. Stephen smiled. I feel good even today knowing that he and the other children learned about Colombia from me. It would be the beginning of my lifelong mission of trying to share a positive image of Colombia and of Latinos with Americans. Mrs. Bouhafa was a world traveler. She shared her passion for all things international with her students. Her room was filled with pictures of her in various parts of the world, but the picture I remember the most was of her on a camel with the Egyptian Pyramids in the background. Mrs. Bouhafa taught us about world cultures, worldwide geography, and to find beauty in all of it. Little did Mrs. Bouhafa know that she had planted a seed of wanderlust in me, and the desire to see the world.

That's me as a very proud Girl Scout Brownie 1969 waiting to discover the world.

1969 – That’s me as a very proud Girl Scout Brownie  waiting to discover the world.

At first I would not need to travel very far. I lived in New York City where all you had to do was step out of your front door and see people from around the world. When I rode the subway I loved observing the different outfits worn by people, the beautiful colors of the fabrics, the styles, and the hats. In one afternoon you could see Hasidic Jews dressed in black with their payot, Indian women in colorful saris, African women in their long dresses of African print, Cuban men in guayaberas, Muslim women wearing hijabs and abayas, and Sikh men wearing turbans. You could venture into Chinatown and feel you were half way around the world as you walked in wonderment looking at the food markets, smelling all the fish, and seeing all the Chinese character signs. It was also the sixties and there were many changes happening in our society. The Civil Rights and Feminist movements were in full swing. People were protesting the Vietnam War and the Flower Power generation was blooming creating a historical generation gap. My dad’s hobby was to make 8mm home movies and capture the essence of New Yorkers on his films.  On Sundays, our family would go to Greenwich Village in Manhattan to people watch. We have great footage of my mom and I dressed in our 1960’s Sunday church outfits hanging out with “Los hippies”, as my parents called them, while listening to guitar folk music and Hare Krishna chanting. There I stood at age 8, absorbing all of these experiences quietly in my head helping to shape my opinion of the world.

I attended Public School 151 in Woodside, Queens. Our 3rd grade class of 29 children was comprised of mainly white (European ancestry) children, 4 African-American boys and girls, 3 Asian boys, 1 girl from Aruba, and 1 Colombian girl (me). There was some religious diversity. In the month of December we learned Hanukkah songs together with Christmas songs. My first school trip to the United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan was a true highlight. I was amazed with the concept of simultaneous language translation. The idea that someone could be speaking in their native tongue, and that dozens of translators would be translating in their private cubbies, speaking into microphones, which in turn were wired to members of the audience. That people could understand each other even though they spoke in different languages was mind-boggling.

In my other parallel childhood life, I would visit Colombia during the summers. I realize now how privileged I was to be able to have had those experiences. When I went to Colombia I would stay with family in my birth city of Medellin. Sometimes I flew with my parents, and other times they would send me by myself on the airplane. I would spend amazing summers discovering Medellin, its surrounding villages, and the countryside. But it was not all fun and play, my mother who gave me spanish lessons during the school year, would also request that I take spanish lessons during vacations.

The "gringita" niece learns about animals at the "finca"  (the ranch)

1971 – The “gringuita” niece learns about animals at the “finca” (the ranch)

As a young adult I would begin to travel the world. The first big trip that I planned and saved up for was during college. In 1983, I visited a total of 10 cities and villages in the Atlantic coastal, central Andes, and Amazon regions of Colombia.

1983 - On the first adventure that I plan and finance myself. Here I am by the edge of the Amazon river near Leticia, Colombia in the Amazon jungle area of the country.

1983 – Look Mrs. Bouhafa, here I am by the shores of the Amazon river near Leticia, Colombia in the Amazon jungle area of the country.

In 1984 I began working as an engineer in upstate New York. That alone was a cultural change for me, Schenectady was very different to New York City. I continued to travel with work to other states allowing me the opportunity to see the vastness of this nation and the huge regional differences. In 1986, I took my first European trip to the Alps in Switzerland to ski. With each trip I knew I wanted to see and learn even more of the world and its cultures. There was no turning back. I started figuring out ways of traveling, not just for pleasure but also for work.

Look Mrs. Bouhafa, that's me on a train in the Alps!

1986 – Look Mrs. Bouhafa, that’s me on a train in the Alps!

My career in engineering evolved and in time I got an MBA. Business school was transformative for me not just in academic ways but also in my view of the world. Prior to business school I used to think that the United States was the be-all and end-all. Sure, I had a multicultural back ground, but I was close minded in thinking that there was nothing better than the United States. I judged everything through the biased American view. Business school exposed me to international students and business, and broader thinking.

One of my dear friends from business school. We sat next to each other for our 1st year. Since English was his second language I helped him with clarifications during class. This is after business school when I visited him in Tokyo, Japan

1994- One of my dear friends from business school. We sat next to each other for our 1st year. Since English was his second language I helped him with clarifications during class. This is after business school when I visited him and his family in Tokyo, Japan.

I learned about countries not just from a cultural perspective but also from a socioeconomic and geopolitical view. I started understanding the role that the United States played in world politics and in the global economy. I knew then that I wanted to work in international business. In time, I achieved my goal and ended up doing international business and product development that involved traveling around the world, working with cross-functional, and cross-cultural work teams. I was in my element.

I sponsored a meeting for our Middle Eastern organization in Marrakech, Morocco. This was the last evening dinner with our Moroccan entertainers. Circa 1996

1996 – I sponsored a meeting for our Middle Eastern organization in Marrakech, Morocco. This was the last evening dinner with our Moroccan entertainers. 

Although, my own multicultural background and training has given me a heightened sensitivity to appreciating other people’s cultures, it has been with each subsequent trip and cross-cultural encounter that I have gleaned the cultural nuances, learned how to behave abroad, and learned to become a more open-minded person. This exposure to multiculturalism has also developed my sensitivity to understanding people’s differences no matter what kind. I thrive in environments that have diversity and I relish the opportunity of being inclusive and of being included.

Visiting another friend from business school in Tokyo. His wife dressed me in a traditional kimono for dinner.

1994 – Visiting another friend from business school in Tokyo. His wife dressed me in a traditional kimono for dinner.

My business and leisure travel has taken me all over the world. I have been to 5 out of 7 continents, and to 33 countries. I have been to 32 states of the United States. If only I could sit with Mrs. Bouhafa to compare pictures and experiences, and to thank her for sharing her love for all things international with me.

Look Mrs. Bouhafa, one hand camel riding in Dubai. 2001

2001 – Look Mrs. Bouhafa, one hand camel riding in Dubai.

Everyday I continue to learn more and more about diversity and human nature. Although, I count the days until I can get on another airplane to visit some exotic part of the world, I know that I have hundreds of resources and experiences to be discovered right here in my own neighborhood.

Family Trip to Vietnam. Our tour guide teaches us about the food at a market in Hoi An. 2013

2013 – Family Trip to Vietnam. Our tour guide teaches us about the food at a market in Hoi An.

With every connection I make to someone or someplace around the world or even right here in my own backyard, I discover we have more things in common with each other than I realized. When I focus on the similarities it seems to lessen the differences.

In my next posting I share why I feel it is so important to expose ourselves and our children to other cultures. I also make the connection to the importance of exposure to all that is different, be they people of different race, religion, sexual orientation, age, physical abilities, mental health, socioeconomic, genetic attributes, etc.

 

Relishing the trip in the Mekong Delta, outside of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

2013 – Trip to Vietnam. Navigating the Mekong Delta, outside of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I love this picture my daughter took because if you look at my sunglasses you can see my daughter taking the photo and son and husband further back, all three the apples of my eye!

 

 

Definitions from various sources:

Multiculturalism:

  1. of, relating to, reflecting, or adapted to diverse cultures
  2. relating to communities containing multiple cultures
  3. the preservation of different cultures or cultural identities within a unified society, as a state of nation

Cross-Cultural:

  1. comparing or dealing with two or more different cultures
  2. pertaining to or contrasting two or more cultures or cultural groups.
  3. in sociology, involving or bridging the differences between cultures

Diversity:

  1. the condition of having or being composed of differing elements.
  2. the inclusion of different types of people (as people of different races or cultures in a group or organization.
  3. the term can describe differences in racial or ethnic classifications, age, gender, religion, philosophy, physical abilities, socioeconomic, sexual orientation, gender identity, intelligence, mental health, physical health, genetic attributes, behavior, attractiveness, or other identifying features.
  4. In sociology, the term can be used to describe groups of people whose members have identifiable differences in cultural backgrounds or lifestyles.

Chinese Chicken Salad

I recently made this delicious Chinese chicken salad for my book club luncheon and it was a real crowd pleaser. The original inspiration came from Ina Garten’s recipe but I have made some adjustments to the recipe and added some explanations to make it easier. The original recipe called for using 8 split breasts and served 12. I reduced the chicken, kept the same amount of vegetables, and I think it serves more like 16 and possibly even more. Of course it all depends on your serving size and whether you will have accompanying dishes. The recipe can be cut in half or even down to a third for a family of four. But don’t worry if you have left overs, the flavors are almost more delicious the next day.

Vegetables for the Chinese Chicken Salad

Vegetables for the Chinese Chicken Salad

Ingredients:

  • 10-12 cups of cooked shredded chicken (this is about 4 lbs of uncooked chicken breasts or about 6 chicken breast halves)
  • 1 lb of asparagus, ends removed
  • 2 red bell peppers, cored and seeded
  • 4 scallions (white and green parts) sliced
  • 2 Tbs toasted white sesame seeds (you can buy the seeds that are already toasted, or buy the regular ones and toast them in a non-stick skillet over the stove.

For the Dressing

  • 1 cup canola oil
  • ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
  • cup soy sauce (I prefer reduced sodium soy sauce)
  • 3 Tbs sesame seed oil
  • 1 – 2 Tbs honey
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tsp (about 1 inch) ginger, peeled and grated or minced
  • 1 Tbs toasted white sesame seeds
  • ½ cup smooth peanut butter
  • 2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp ground pepper

Preparation

I like to shred my chicken finely. This makes it easier for eating and allows for more of chicken to be coated in the dressing.

Bring water to a boil and blanch the asparagus. If the spears are thin then maybe cook them for 2 minutes if they are thicker try 3 minutes. You want them to retain some crispness. As soon as they are cooked put them in an ice bath (a bowl full of ice and cold water) and drain. This will stop the cooking process and help the asparagus retain its beautiful green color.  Once the asparagus is cooked cut in thirds. In Asian cuisine, a lot of foods are cut on the diagonal, but if you just want a straight line that works as well. I cut my veggies on straight lines for this version of the salad. Now this is key, cut the red pepper to match the size of your asparagus spears as closely as you can. In a salad or a dish you want the different foods to be similar in sizes.

Combine the chicken, asparagus, and red pepper in a large bowl. Now it’s time to make the dressing. Whisk together all of the ingredients for the dressing. Pour over the chicken/vegetable mix. Add the scallions and sesame seeds. Adjust salt and pepper if needed.

This salad comes out looking very pretty with its bright vegetable colors. It can be served cold or at room temperature. I prefer room temperature. You can have the salad on a roll or accompany it with Asian noodles or couscous.

Enjoy!

Chinese Chicken Salad

Chinese Chicken Salad

The Special People Who Cross Our Paths

The People Who Cross Our Paths

The Special People Who Cross Our Paths

People cross our path every moment of our lives. Time and again, I have proven to myself that these encounters are not random but that these people enter our lives for special and unique reasons. I was recently asked to contribute a story for my friend’s 60th birthday celebration. I like to say that the universe sent me this special person at a moment in my life when I needed her the most.

In 1997, my husband and I were getting ready to move to Brussels, Belgium with his job. Not only were we excited about the expat opportunity, we were finally expecting our first child. During the week that the movers were packing our household goods, we received what seemed at the time the tragic news that our baby would need corrective plastic surgeries after his birth. We would arrive in a foreign land with no friends and family to deal with this challenge. Fortunately, my husband and I had each other and together we would begin to educate ourselves on the future medical needs of our baby. Our son was born in Brussels on his official due date of Christmas Eve, December 24, 1997. After researching doctors in the United States and in Belgium we chose to stay in Brussels for our son’s surgeries. His first surgery was scheduled for March of 1998 at the tender age of 2 months. I was very fortunate to have my mother come stay with us for the three months between my son’s birth and his first surgery. She was a huge support during that difficult time. The time between my son’s birth and his surgery remains a blur. I spent most of the time anticipating the surgical procedure while prioritizing his medical requirements. My husband, my mother, and I tried to maintain the semblance of a normal life. Together with my son, my mother and I would get out of the house and visit public places. We would often feel the glaring eyes of strangers staring at my son, pointing their fingers, and making comments in Flemish or French alluding to his condition. We tried to be courageous and ignore these people while moving on as naturally as we could. In hindsight, it was a very emotional time for us all.

One day my mother and I were at the tea room of the American Women’s Club of Brussels. We were having lunch and my son was quietly laying in his car seat on the floor between us. This was still before his surgery. All of a sudden this cheerful outgoing American lady showed up out of nowhere and said something like “Oh my word, he is so beautiful!” as she scooped my son into her arms without hesitation. Those words resonated in my head. Someone had called my baby beautiful. I had been so overwhelmed with my son’s medical needs, his day-to-day care, as well as blaming myself for what had happened, that I had not acknowledged to myself that he was indeed, BEAUTIFUL! It would take this complete stranger, an angel crossing my path, to reach my soul with such a powerful statement. And so this person would enter our lives. She was the friend that both my mother and I desperately needed at that time. She embraced us with her laughter, support, and friendship. Little did she know that the universe had sent her to us that afternoon, because we were all in need of some tender loving care and she was just the right person for the job! She has remained a dear friend. Our children call her Tia which means aunt in Spanish. So on this joyous 60th birthday celebration I wanted her to know how grateful I still am for that moment when she not only crossed my path, she joined it, sharing her love and friendship throughout these years and more importantly for being there at one of the most difficult times in my life. And proving once again that people enter our lives for very special reasons.

I hope that you too have someone special cross your path. I also hope that someday you serve as someone’s special person on their path.

Awaiting those special people who cross our path. Awaiting to cross someone's path.

Awaiting those special people who cross our path.
Awaiting to cross someone’s path.

The 6-month Passport Validity Requirement and Other Useful Information

US Passport Requirements vary by countries you visit.

US Passport Requirements vary by countries you visit.

What? This was my reaction when my dad told me last night how he had gone to his travel agent to buy airline tickets to Mexico and the agent told him she could not sell him the tickets because his US passport was valid for less than six months. She told him that this was a new requirement imposed by Mexico.

For the seasoned traveler that I thought I was, I have to say that I knew diddly-squat about this travel requirement. I immediately panicked a little since my children and I are planning a trip to the UK soon. My daughter’s passport expires at the end of July of this year. It has less than 6 months left of validity. I started scouring the website for information about the UK and Mexico just to better understand this so-called 6-month rule.

The best source of course is to go to the US State Department for the most updated information. Last night in my hurried research (I was going to my daughter’s dance presentation at school), I totally missed this site. It was my wonderful travel agent friend from the UK that sent me the links this morning to the U.S. Passports and International Travel with the Bureau of Consular Affairs of the US Department of State site.

http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/english/country.html

State Department's  US Passport and International information site

State Department’s
US Passport and International information site

You enter the name of the country that you are traveling to and it gives you the passport validity requirements in addition to other critical information such as travel advisories, vaccination/blank pages/visa requirements, and currency restrictions. I breathed a sigh of relief to confirm that the UK simply requires a valid passport at the time of entry. But I did confirm that Mexico has the 6-month passport validity requirement. My parents have already started the paperwork for their new passport and will have to postpone their travels until they receive it.

Screen Shot of information available for Mexico from the State Department site.

Screen Shot of information available for Mexico from the State Department site.

To my surprise I found out that many countries around the world have this requirement for incoming visitors. As you well know, the danger with Internet research is that you have to make sure the source is up to date. Last night, I found conflicting information for Mexico. I have shared the following links to give you a general sense of the countries with this requirement. These sites are not up to date because Mexico is not on the list. It is best to use the state department site I mentioned above. I will say that I thought the first site below seemed very official since it was a U.S. Passport Help Guide but it too has not been updated.

Examples of sites that have not been updated but give you an idea of the countries with the 6-month passport validity requirement:

http://www.uspassporthelpguide.com/six-months-validity-rule/

http://traveltips.usatoday.com/countries-require-six-months-passport-validity-100788.html

I also want to take this opportunity to mention that you also need to have blank pages available in your passport for immigration agents to stamp. The State Department link to country information I shared also lists the passport blank pages requirement. Last May I found myself with very limited free space in my passport that is valid until 2016. My plan was to add pages when I returned to the US in June after moving back from England. I ended up scheduling more trips than I anticipated before my return trip. I took a day trip from London to Paris and was severely reprimanded by the French immigration woman for having such limited space. Knowing that I’d be traveling to Brussels as well I rushed to the US Embassy in London and had extra pages inserted into the passport. I did not want to give any other immigration agent the chance of reprimanding me again. Border agents can be so different with regard to stamping your passport. Some really don’t care where they stamp your passport and some even stamp over old stamps. Others meticulously place their stamp in the provided space. And as I well know now, the French want to have ample choices of blank pages to pick from when stamping your passport. C’est la Vie!

I hope you find this information useful. Happy Travels!

Embracing the Winter of 2013/2014

The Winter of 2014

The Winter of 2014

I figured it was better to embrace this winter than complain about it. I have not posted in a month. I thought I’d come out of my hole and share my thoughts. January is always a strange month for me. I call it the Tedium of January maybe because it’s in the middle of the winter season and there’s so much of it still ahead. I spent January taking down Christmas trees and decorations, a task that proves to be monumental every year. And just as I came out of that “exciting” chore the groundhog reported 6 more weeks of winter and BANG, February catapulted in reminding us that Spring is indeed far, far away.

I have to admit there is something very exciting about pending snowstorms and the thrill of the kids getting a snow day. But after a while of too much of this, it starts getting old. Snowstorms are tolerable when you have help. My husband and son have been instrumental in cleaning the driveway, walkways, and steps. I have had to do my fair share when my husband has been out of town. I must admit there is nothing like good physical work in the crisp cold air but too much of that can also become tiresome.

Last week brought a bit of a change… when we lost power after a storm.

Day 1 – Wednesday February 5th

We lost power at about 5:30 a.m. after an ice storm passed through the region. The power outage affected 80% of our county, about 160,000 people. The news would later report that 620,000 PECO (our local electric company) customers in the general area were without power. This would be the second highest number after hurricane Sandy hit the coast a year ago and 800,000 people lost power.

Based on past experience, when we lose power we often believe that power will be restored within a couple of hours. At first, our electric company promised power restoration by 6 p.m. that day so we felt we could manage the day. Our house has well water so when the power goes so does the water. Thankfully, I had filled our tub with water just in case. We bundled up in layers and built fires. We read books and played board games. And since we have a propane gas stove top we were able to prepare meals even by candlelight and with flashlights. We moved our refrigerator food to the garage since the garage temperature is colder than the refrigerator temperature. We moved our freezer food to a cooler on the deck. That night we decided to sleep in our own rooms with extra blankets.

Day 1 of Power Outage

Day 1 of Power Outage

Day 2 – Thursday February 6th

The next morning we woke up to a chill in the air. The house had dropped down to 45 degrees. My husband fired up the stove top and started heating up water and the stove top grill. We managed breakfast and dressed again in our layers.

Day 2 of the Power Outage

Day 2 of the Power Outage

The first thing I did was to check PECO’s estimated power restoration time and by now they were reporting that power would be restored by Saturday February 8th by 11 p.m. That is when I started worrying. I called four nearby hotels only to find out they were fully booked or had no power themselves. And then, something great happened, my sister-in-law texted my husband to invite us to stay with her in New Jersey. We thanked her profusely and told her we would let her know our plans. We knew our children’s school would be open the next day and our children did not want to miss classes. Although there were no classes on Thursday the school opened their facilities to the families without power. My husband proceeded to drain the water pipes in the house in order to prevent potential freezing. By Thursday afternoon we went to my friend’s house to use her showers and power up our devices. That afternoon I proposed going to the local Target just to spend time out of the cold house. It was already about 4:00 p.m. As we left, my husband suggested looking for Duraflame logs since our firewood was somewhat damp. I remembered seeing a woman buying two boxes of Duraflame at the Costco earlier in the week. I proposed going to Costco instead. We meandered all over the store looking for Duraflame. We even separated to make sure we covered every aisle of the store. No luck, they were sold out. I started making my way to the front of the store only to see my husband in the distance pointing to something with a huge smile on his face. A Costco employee had just unloaded a pallet of generators. How lucky was that!!!! We had not been this excited with a purchase in a while. Yippy! A brand new Westinghouse 7000 Running Watts/8500 Starting Watts royal blue generator, a thing of great beauty.

A Beautiful Machine!

A Beautiful Machine!

We arrived home beaming with joy with our new purchase. My son helped my husband unload the 400 pound box and together they assembled the generator. We started running extension cords from the generator to the basement and 1st floor of the house. We set up a lamp in the kitchen and were able to cook with light instead of candlelight. We connected an electric space heater and started feeling the warmth in the family room. It all seemed like a lot of fun especially when we set up mattresses on the floor to sleep in the family room. Like a friend said, “It was like camping”. The fun ended when at about 1 a.m. every single fire alarm in the house, all 12 of them, starting beeping due to the extreme cold in the house. At that moment in exasperation I went for a ladder and pulled out the batteries out of all the alarms and went back to sleep.

Day 3 – Friday February 7th

On Friday my husband was able to connect the house heating systems for the basement and 1st floor to the generator. The house temperature slowly started climbing and finally reached 65. And although he tried all day to connect the well water pump he was not able to. My husband determined that the well water pump required a 240-volt line (which we did not have) instead of 120-volts. PECO had also extended the power restoration date to Sunday Feb 9th. We made plans to use my friend’s showers again the next day and to maybe spend Saturday night at my sister-in-laws in New Jersey. In the mean time, the water I had collected in the tub was a godsend. It was nearly at the half way point from the original amount collected.

Day 3 of Power Outage

Day 3 of Power Outage

Day 4 – Saturday February 8th

My husband is an engineer at heart. An engineer is a person who solves problems, a person who finds solutions. He was not going to let the well water pump challenge get the better of him. He was relentless with his research and tinkering and by about 10 a.m. on Saturday I heard my son yelling in celebration when his dad’s latest wiring attempt had succeeded and we now had running water in the whole house. He figured out how to run a 240-volt line to the water pump. This grandiose moment of electrical wiring was followed by the hot water heater connection and voila we now had hot and cold running water throughout the house. Another major triumph! I was bursting with pride at my husband’s intellect and persistence. We were ready to conquer the world. We had shelter, heat, running hot and cold water, food, and the family together. What else could we need or want. We still did not have cable/internet/phone connections. But this of course was a “want” and not a “need”, and we had managed without it just fine. Comcast finally restored service by Saturday afternoon. PECO was now reporting that power would be restored that night. But who knew if that would hold true and besides we were prepared to continue in this adventure that we were in! We cooked and enjoyed another lovely family meal.

Day 4 Without Power

Day 4 Without Power

Suddenly at around 8:30 p.m. we got power back. We jumped out of our seats. We all had special jobs to bring the house back to normalcy. My husband and son went down to disconnect the generator and all the wiring connections running through the house. The fire alarms started beeping again so I started putting the batteries back in. My daughter helped with other assorted tasks. In a way I was a little sad to return to complete normalcy and see our adventure come to an end. Somehow the last four days had presented our family with some challenges and we had managed to pull through and make the best of the situation together. We would have great memories of the Blackout of 2014.

The Aftermath

We enjoyed our Sunday at home. We continued organizing things in the house. We assessed the status of our food and nothing was lost. The children returned to school on Monday February 10th. By Monday there were still an estimated 2000 families in our area without power. We felt for them. That Monday I did my usual volunteering at a school with my dog, Maya. We have second graders read to her. One of our little readers wanted to first share all about his experience with the power outage. He told me how very cold he had been and how he was too cold to do much of anything. It made me feel so very sad. After he shared this information, he happily moved on and started reading to Maya proving how resilient children can be. But listening to him gave me a sense of gratitude and appreciation for the fact that we were able to find and purchase a generator. We never intended to look for one because we knew stores would be out of them. We got very lucky when we came across the new delivery at Costco. I was also grateful for having friends and family who offered their homes to us. I knew that not everyone had fared so well.

I remembered carrying water from the 2nd floor tub to the first floor and thinking at first, “This is heavy”. I immediately thought of the people who have to walk for miles to find fresh water, and then haul these heavy amounts over their shoulders or heads to bring back to their villages. And they do this everyday of their lives. During the power outage, I felt my existence revolved around subsistence, taking all the necessary steps to ensure the basic needs. I started thinking of cultures around the world, whose daily life activities are all about subsistence. They don’t spend hours pondering on their life’s purpose or making future plans, or worrying about material things. They have one purpose, to survive, and to live in the now. I know I am getting way too philosophical about this power outage. However, this experience made me think of people around the world with true adversities and made me realize that this power outage at least for our family was a simple “inconvenience”. I was very proud of my family who dealt in a very positive way with this disruption and not once complained.

1st Full Day with Power Restored

1st Full Day with Power Restored

The children went back to school for 3 normal days. On Wednesday February 12th we prepared for yet another storm. My husband was out of town. I knew I would only be able to connect the generator to some basic items in the event of a power loss. I would not be able to replicate everything he had done. Once again I filled our tub with water. I made sure we knew where flashlights and extensions were. We topped off the snow blower and the generator with gas and purchased additional supplies. On Thursday February 13th we woke up to 11.5 inches of very wet snow.

My son snow blowing almost 12 inches of wet snow.

My son snow blowing almost 12 inches of wet snow.

My son did an excellent job snow blowing. I shoveled the other areas. It took us 2 ½ hours to clean the snow. The good news was that we still had power. It was such a luxurious feeling to have light bulbs lit, hot and cold running water, and heat. I felt as if I was at a resort! As my friend said, “The snowstorm is almost fun when we have power”. My daughter and I decorated Valentine’s Day cookies that evening and we settled to a night of streaming Modern Family.

The Valentine's Day cookies that my daughter and I decorated.

The Valentine’s Day cookies that my daughter and I decorated.

On February 14th, we woke up to 3 more inches of snow. My son and I had the routine down pack. My husband returned from his business trip that morning as we were shoveling and snow blowing. He immediately joined the party. After we finished, my son and I built an epic Valentine’s Day snowman. We even got a stepladder to complete his head.

The Epic Valentine's Day Snowman!

The Epic Valentine’s Day Snowman that my son and I built!

The sky was blue, the sun was shining, and the snow glistened. The snow was the fun kind that binds together into snowballs. This was a magical moment. The emotional frenzy of the past week seemed to melt away. Even our dog Maya was so excited running and playing in the snow. It was so wonderful to enjoy this snapshot of winter. It was a truly Happy Valentine’s day, the family was together again and even better yet we had not lost power. We did find out that some our neighbors lost power again. We truly empathized with them and I still harbored the fear that we could still lose power.

Today we are getting yet more snow and accumulations of 1 to 2 inches, which seems like nothing at this point. We were just remembering how we wished for snow back in November. Well, Mr. Groundhog you have made your point. I know many of you have had it with this winter. I can only offer the following quote by Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) from her ‘Meditations Divine and Moral,’ 1655, as consolation:

If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcomed.

Besides, spring is only 31 days away. Enjoy winter while it lasts because we won’t get this time back!

Maya Enjoying the Winter

Maya Enjoying the Winter

Maya Enjoying the Winter

Two Feel Good Movies

I recently saw two excellent movies that I wanted to recommend not only for the entertainment value but for the messages they convey.

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The first movie is the 2013 movie called “About Time” (rated R) starring Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, and Bill Nighy. This charming movie is directed by none other than the British director Richard Curtis, who also directed: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jone’s Diary, Notting Hill, Love Actually, and the Girl in the Café. It’s a wonderful story about finding love but also about how to live life. A young man discovers that the men in his family can travel back in time. You then live and relive his life as he attempts to get things right. Eventually he figures out the secret to a good life.

I share with you some of the lines in the movie spoken by the lead character, Tim, that were so meaningful to me. “… I just try to live every day, as if I’ve deliberately come back to this one day, to enjoy it as if it was the full final day of my extraordinary ordinary life. We are all traveling through time together everyday of our lives. All we can do is do our best to relish this remarkable ride…”

These lines give me that gentle reminder of what I should be doing, what we all should be doing, living each day to its fullest. Again, so easy in theory, and yet, it’s so simple to allow one day to meld into another without fully appreciating those simple moments in life. Before you know it, a whole year has gone by and you don’t have anything to show for it or worse yet you can’t even remember what transpired. My daughter embarked on a wonderful project in 2013, she created a ‘memory jar’. She wrote down every memorable or happy event on a piece of paper and placed it in a jar. I was glad to see her jar was jammed packed with little papers. On New Year’s Eve she took some quiet private time to read all of her pieces of paper and reflect on her past year. She enjoyed it so much she is doing a memory jar for 2014. I think we should all have memory jars. They can take different forms and shapes. For me the photographs I take of my everyday life as well as my blogging serve as my journal. This somehow helps me cement the day to day events and in the process allows me a level of awareness and appreciation.

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The second movie is another 2013 movie titled, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” rated PG. Ben Stiller directed and played Walter Mitty in this very entertaining movie. It’s the story of a man with what appears to be a very boring and mundane existence. He works for a magazine in their basement handling their negatives and photographs. Walter is forever going into daydream trances. In his imaginary world he envisions himself undertaking amazing adventures, rescuing the world, and impressing the girl from work that he likes (played by Kristen Wiig). His life changes dramatically when he urgently needs to locate a famous photographer  (Sean Penn) in search of a missing photograph that the magazine wants for its cover. Walter is pushed beyond his comfort zone and forced to live real life. As he goes on this quest to find the photographer you see his persona blossom into a confident and happy human being.

The reason I relished this movie, is because it emphasized the need to live life fully rather than to just daydream about living life. So if you have talked about going to Nepal, Antarctica, or on a safari, dreamt about taking ballroom dancing lessons, thought about writing a book, daydreamed about moving to another country, wanted to develop a new hobby, considered doing community work, envisioned yourself learning different languages, planned on practicing yoga and meditation, aspired to begin a work out routine, thought about eating healthier, considered going back to school, planned on changing jobs, or simply desired to reinvent yourself, then there is no excuse but to start today. Start living the life you have dreamt for yourself.

Expat Living in London

Shopping on Oxford Street.

Shopping on Oxford Street.

I was recently asked to contribute an article to the expat website World of Expats. This website provides useful information and tips to anyone considering moving overseas on a work assignment. Below is the article I contributed to World of Expats. At the end I provide additional links to the World of Expats site as well as related articles that I have written about expat and London living.

My family just returned from living in London for two years. We moved there with two teen-
aged children and a chocolate Labrador Retriever in 2011. As a family we feel those two years were some of the most exciting and valuable experiences in our lives. Whether you are single or a family considering an expat assignment in London, I’m here to say, “Go for it”. 

Newly arrived to London in August of 2011. Discovering the Sights

Newly arrived to London in August of 2011. Discovering the Sights

London is an absolutely beautiful city contrasting both modern and classic architecture. Nestled throughout the city are eight picturesque Royal Parks providing ample green space. Our dog certainly enjoyed the parks especially in the areas that she was allowed to go leash-free.

Discovering London on foot.

Discovering London on foot.

London has outstanding public transportation in the form of the underground and buses. If you absolutely need a car, you may want to consider the following: 1) getting a UK license requires lessons and thorough preparation for the test, 2) finding parking in London is challenging, and 3) remember the English drive on the left-hand side of the street. Another option is to rent cars as needed with services like Zip Car. We chose to not have a car during our 2-year stay and did absolutely great getting around.

Mastering the Underground (Subway) System

Mastering the Underground (Subway) System

London offers an enormous array of entertainment for all ages. Whether you like museums, theater, ballet, concerts, or traditional tourist attractions, you will have plenty to pick from. London is a world capital with people from all over the world living there and calling it home. This was a huge highlight for me personally, to be able to meet people from around the world and enjoy such an international experience. London used to have a reputation for having bad food. Well not anymore! The food revolution began around 2001 and London has become a culinary destination. You will be able savor Michelin star cuisine and still enjoy traditional English pub food. There are also amazing outdoor food markets.

Our favorite food market, The Borough Market

Our favorite food market, Borough Market

The tradition of meeting at the local pub after work.

The tradition of meeting at the local pub after work.

It is important to understand some of the practical aspects of living in London as an expatriate. For starters the cost of living is high. As with any expensive city in the world, you will find rentals very pricey. However, depending on neighborhood you will also have many choices to pick from. Set your expectations appropriately, this is city living and space is at a premium.

Little Venice, a beautiful neighborhood in London with water canals

Little Venice, a beautiful neighborhood in London with water canals

If you have children, there are excellent British, International, and American schools to pick from. We chose to send our children to The American School in London located in the neighborhood of St. John’s Wood. We chose this school because we wanted our children to continue with the American school system. The British and International school systems are slightly different. I will share that although our school was “American”, there were over 45 nationalities represented giving the school a very international flair. I recommend you apply to schools as early as possible.

Paul McCartney from the Beatles lived in our neighborhood. Above is his favorite restaurant Richoux.

Paul McCartney from the Beatles lived in our neighborhood of St. John’s Wood. Above is his favorite restaurant Richoux. I saw him twice in our 2 years in London.

Opening bank accounts in the UK is a lengthy process. Again, begin this as soon as you can and even before you officially move. For some strange reason, getting telephone, cable, and internet installed in London is quite a challenge. Request these services early in your moving preparations and be PATIENT. We thought we were so on top of things by setting up these services 4 months ahead of time, only to discover once we arrived in London that the cable modem box would take yet another 4 weeks to arrive. I suppose the advice of being patient is very important when you embark on any expat assignment.

Walking through one of our favorite neighborhoods Marylebone.

Walking through one of our favorite neighborhoods Marylebone. We saw the actor Bill Nighy once.

Our favorite butchery located in Marylebone

Our favorite butchery located in Marylebone

It is certainly advantageous to move to a country where English is the main language. As with any foreign travel or living, it helps to learn about and appreciate your host country and culture. The English have some unique norms and customs as well as their own form of “British” English. Take the time to learn them. When we first told our children we were moving to London they had a million questions for us. We felt it was very important for us to set the appropriate expectations. For example, they would ask us if there were certain foods or activities in London that they had back at home. The standard answer became, “Things will be different, but different does not mean bad, different may mean better”. We embarked on our adventure with an open mind and a positive attitude. In our two years in London we visited over 25 UK and European cities.

The Tower of London Bridge

The Tower Bridge

We also experienced “city” living and were exposed to a wonderfully diverse community. If you ask any of our family members if they would do this again, the answer would be a resounding “Yes”.

For more of our expat and London living and select the corresponding tabs:  http://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/

About Finding Housing in London: http://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2012/05/22/finding-housing-in-london/

About London Post Codes: http://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2012/04/28/london-postcodes/

About Borough Market: http://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2012/10/28/borough-market/

About moving overseas: http://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2012/09/01/moving-overseas/

About the Queens Jubilee celebration: http://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/london-gets-ready-for-the-queens-jubilee/

About Eating Around the World in London: http://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2012/05/28/eating-around-the-world-in-london/

To visit the World of Expat site go to: http://www.worldofexpats.com/