Series on Multiculturalism, Diversity, and Cross-Cultural Relationships

Part II

The Importance of Exposure to Multiculturalism and Diversity

This is the second of my three-part series on multiculturalism, diversity, and cross-cultural relationships. In my first article: https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2014/04/18/series-on-multiculturalism-cross-cultural-relationships-and-diversity/, I shared with my readers how and when I became impassioned with this topic. In this follow-up posting, I elaborate on the importance of exposure to multiculturalism and diversity. My definition of diversity includes people with all types of differences: race, religion, philosophy, age, gender, sexual orientation, physical health, mental health, socioeconomic, intelligence, genetic attributes, etc.

Exposure to multiculturalism and diversity helps us expand our awareness and knowledge. As we build our awareness of other people’s differences we learn to understand them and in turn we develop tolerance, acceptance, trust, and compassion, which can lead to cooperation and collaboration. And how much easier would it be to live on this planet, to work together to solve its problems, if we operated under this premise. But I know this sounds very utopian, and perhaps rather than try to solve the world’s problems, I can focus on my little part of the universe and help influence those around me in a positive way. I behave a certain way, because I know that my children are watching and emulating my every move. I want them to grow up without unfounded prejudices and fears.

Celebrating my birthday in London with wonderful friends from around the world. From left to right: Colombian-American, Mexican, Palestinian, Turkish, Venezuelan, and Canadian.

2012 – Celebrating my birthday in London with wonderful friends from around the world. From left to right: Colombian-American, Mexican, Palestinian, Turkish, Venezuelan, and Canadian.

It is human nature to gravitate to known and comfortable environments. And it is also human nature to be weary of those and of things that are unknown. In the absence of true knowledge we allow fear and ignorance to form our misguided judgments.

I grew up as a Colombian immigrant in Queens, New York in the 60’s. At the time the Latinos in New York City were made up of mostly Dominicans, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans. Even among the existing Latino groups there was dislike and mistrust. My parents and I moved to an apartment building in Woodside, Queens. We were the only Hispanic family in our building. For several months after we moved in, my parents greeted our next-door neighbors, a white Jewish elderly couple, and for months they ignored my parent’s polite salutations. My parents were patient and knew from prior experience that in time the couple would come around, and they did. Somehow their comfort level grew as they got to know us and they became friendly with us. It makes me happy to think that we helped influence their viewpoint in a positive way. My other memory of a neighbor was of the Marshall family, one of the few African-American families in our building. Mrs. Marshall was working a full-time job, was raising a family, had lost a son in the Vietnam War, and on top of all of that, she was the dedicated Girl Scout leader of my troop. I always admired her commitment to the community and am grateful that she served as a role model to me inspiring me to become a Girl Scout leader to my own daughter.

Marching proudly in the 4th of July parade in Westport, CT with my Girl Scout Troop.

2005 – Marching proudly with my Girl Scout Brownie troop in the 4th of July parade in Westport, CT.

Growing up as a Latina in New York was not a great thing. Not because I was directly mistreated but because there was a prevailing attitude that Hispanics and Hispanic culture was sub par. As a child I looked for ways of blending in and forgetting my ethnicity. I suppose this is what thousands of immigrant children had done before me and continue to do to this day. Immigrant groups that arrived before us staked a claim and defined what they believe is the “right way” of being American, and all of the newly arrived immigrants try desperately to fit in by giving up their uniqueness. It is sadly contradictory that some of the people of this country, a nation founded on freedoms and religious tolerance, punish those for being different. I was incensed recently with the reaction by the general public when Ms. New York, the first Indian-American woman to win the title of Ms. America 2014 received vile feedback in the news and social media. Ugly comments were made accusing her of not being “American” enough, and of not representing “American” values. Wow, that today in 2014 we can still have such biased views and prejudices saddens me.

In 1974, my parents decided to return to Colombia because that was their plan all along. Little did they know that our going back to Colombia would be the greatest gift they would ever give me. I had come to the United States at age two and now at 13 we were returning to my birth country. The USA was my home but I was equally accepting of the idea of moving back to Colombia where I had spent most of my childhood summers. I would become immersed in the culture, learn the history, travel the country, study the language, and develop an appreciation for being Colombian. This experience also heightened my sensitivity to the appreciation of other cultures.

My daughter smiling in the African dress I sewed her for a pre-school international event.

2003 – Westport, CT My daughter smiling in the African dress I sewed her for a pre-school international event. The shoes are Colombian “alpargatas”, a type of espadrille shoe.

As much as we enjoyed living in Colombia I had my sights on going to university in the states and so we returned in 1978. Living in Colombia had raised my self-confidence and solidified my identity. Upon my return to the USA I no longer felt like a minority. That is until my senior year of college when I went from not feeling like a minority to being labeled a “double minority”. That was a huge surprise and I envisioned a giant rubber stamp coming down on my forehead.  I was a soon-to-graduate engineer who was a “woman” and a “Latina”. I became highly coveted by the recruiting companies because I could fill two of their minority recruiting quotas. The reality was that I was back in the United States where labeling seemed and continues to be, unfortunately, a very important part of this culture.

In my first article, I mentioned how I have three distinct roles. I am a Colombian citizen, a Colombian immigrant to the United States, and a US citizen. In the first role, I did not and do not need to prove anything to anyone. However, in my role as a Colombian immigrant and naturalized US citizen I have always felt it necessary to show other Americans a positive image of Colombia and of Latinos, while dispelling some of the misconceptions they have of our ethnic group. I will take this opportunity to say that there is a subset of American society that is open-minded and have an appreciation for diversity. I also have to point out that prejudices can also exist within a minority group.

Celebrating a birthday in Annapolis, MD with two American friends.

2013 – Celebrating another birthday in Annapolis, MD with two wonderful American friends.

My husband, a white American of European decent, and I have raised our children in a multicultural environment. Together we made the decision that I would speak Spanish and he would speak English to the children. As a family we have lived in Belgium, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and England. Every location has offered us varying experiences. Moving has taught us resilience and adaptability. Living abroad has taught us to see things from a different point of view. We have lived in small towns and in big cities. We have lived in very diverse and in very homogenous locations.

2002 - My son on the left in yet another costume I made, representing lightning. He is standing next to his Sikh buddy. His mother would share concerns over whether or not to cut his hair for kindergarten. In Sikhism, Kesh is the practiceof allowing their hair to grow as a  symbol of respect for the perfection of God's creation.

2002 – My son on the left dressed as “lightning”. I certainly kept busy making costumes. He is standing next to his Sikh buddy. His mother would share concerns over whether or not to cut his hair for kindergarten. In Sikhism, Kesh is the practice of allowing their hair to grow as a symbol of respect for the perfection of God’s creation. She was worried about her son being teased as he got older.

I have come to the conclusion that people from very homogenous towns or groups are at risk of becoming insular and close-minded. These folks have had limited exposure to people who are different perhaps by their own choosing or just by chance. When suddenly faced with a person or group who may not conform to their value system, they allow fear and ignorance to form their misguided judgments. Some can exhibit behaviors such as apathy, unfriendliness, anger, discrimination, segregation, bullying, mistreatment, or even violence. These behaviors are then passed on to their children and the negative behaviors and misconceptions are perpetuated. However, not all people from a homogenous group will react negatively. Some will allow themselves the opportunity to get to know the “stranger” much like the elderly couple did towards us, and eventually welcome them into the community. It is nice to know that human decency and goodness can prevail.

In 2011 we had the opportunity to move to London with our teen-aged children. We spent two years living in one of the most diverse cities of the world. I am so grateful that we were able to expose our family to so many ethnic, racial, religious, and socioeconomic groups. When you live among people of different backgrounds or attributes you develop a comfort level with them that allows you to be open-minded. This better prepares you to interact with each other and offers a basis for cooperation and collaboration. It prepares you to live in the global community and to work in a diverse environment. I also feel that living in London gave my children an appreciation for their own multi-cultural background.

2011 - London Exploring our new home.

2011 – London Exploring our new home.

We are now in suburban USA. There is still so much to improve and accomplish in the arena of diversity. In the fall, I was at an orientation at my children’s school and I could not help but notice that there were three distinct groups of people. There was a large group of mostly white families with a smattering of some ethnic families mingling with them, there was a small group of African-American families, and then there were the assorted loners. I wondered to myself why each group was keeping to themselves fully knowing the answer to my own question. Everyone was choosing to stay in his or her own comfort zone. This self-selected segregation bothered me so I chose to walk over to the group of African American parents to introduce myself. Some of you may argue that self-selected segregation is acceptable, but I will counter that with, self-selected segregation is a defense mechanism, that although shields us temporarily, it prevents us from pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone to reach our fullest potential.

The United States is not the only country dealing with diversity issues. The challenges exist worldwide. Italy appointed its first black female cabinet member, Cecile Kyenge in April of this year. What was seen as a positive step in racial integration has publicly highlighted the ugly face of the prejudices that exist in Italy as Mrs. Kyenge endures countless racial abuse. Many other countries have experience similar challenges with assimilation of ethnic groups such as France, Germany, Britain, Sweden, and Finland. Colombia and many other Latin American countries are guilty of marginalizing their own native and black minority groups. Other nations struggle with uniting internal religious and ethnic groups. No location is immune to this problem.

I have been through my own journey. I too am guilty of passing incorrect judgment. I have come to the realization that prejudices come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes can be almost imperceptible. We all have a value system that we learned at home. There are moments in our lives that we come to crossroads where our existing value system is challenged. If we recognize these junctures as learning opportunities then we can begin to make changes that allow us to become better human beings.

In the end, the hallmark of a good relationship is when all parties involved are made to feel good in that relationship. And how do we do this?  By taking the steps necessary to learn about the other person. As we build our awareness of other people’s differences we learn to understand them and in turn we develop tolerance, acceptance, trust, and compassion, which can ultimately lead to cooperation and collaboration.

Slide1I do a reality check and bring myself back to my little corner of the universe, back to my original goal, to behave in a way that teaches my children to be open-minded and not develop unfounded prejudices and fears.

In my last and third article I share my call to action with you, steps you can take to further your exposure to multiculturalism and diversity.

For now I leave you with the following:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
― Maya Angelou

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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.

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:  https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/

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

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

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

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

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

About Eating Around the World in London: https://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/

The Magical International Christmas Tree

The International Magic Tree

The International Magic Tree

Today I share with you a short story that I wrote 10 years ago. Although it is a magical fantasy Christmas story, the overall theme speaks of two things important to me: my love for all things international and the need to keep your inner child alive. I am passionate about all things international because I feel that if we take the time to learn about each other’s cultures, traditions, and beliefs, our understanding and compassion increase while our fears and uncertainties dissipate. It is important to keep you inner child alive because a child’s traits can be so renewing. A child’s innocence and open heart is more accepting of others. A child is more open to newness and adventure. A child has dreams and believes in the possibilities. A child believes in the magic.

The Magical International Christmas Tree

(By Ariadne Petrucelli 2003)

Have you ever wondered what happens after you turn off your Christmas tree lights and go to bed at night? Well, this is the story of what happened to me after I turned off the Christmas tree lights on my tree and went to bed one Christmas Eve.

I was almost asleep when I suddenly heard a noise. I wondered what it was. Maybe my dogs had gone downstairs but when I turned to look to their beds they were sound asleep. Maybe it was just part of my dream. But then I heard the noise again. I quietly went downstairs to check to see what could be making this noise. I peeked around the corner of the family room and to my great surprise my Christmas tree lights were back on. Surely, I had turned them off before going to bed. As I rubbed my sleepy eyes I looked with amazement at what was happening with my tree. There before me, I could see my ornaments moving all around the tree. Once again, I could hear the familiar noise that had awoken me. By now, I could distinguish many sounds. I could hear voices in different languages, some deep and some high. I could hear music of all kinds and many bells jingling. I could even smell food and candy. It was one big party happening in my tree. And as much as I wanted to join this party I kept quiet for I did not want to startle anything or anyone. I found a comfortable spot and covered myself in my thick burgundy fleece blanket that I had worn downstairs. And from this spot I spent hours watching my Christmas tree from afar. On this night, I experienced a magic that I had never seen or heard before. My tree ornaments had come to life. My tree ornament collection was made up of things that I had either bought as souvenirs or that I had received as gifts. Every ornament had a special meaning. It either represented a special occasion, a special place, or a special person.

I could now hear the song “It’s Beginning to look a lot like Christmas”, playing in the background. Mr. and Mrs. Gnome had come all the way from Stockholm, Sweden.  Their names were Peter and Annika Gnome. They were dressed in similar grey knit outfits with red and burgundy accents and wore pointy red hats. Tonight they danced to Jingle Bells in Swedish. But my attention turned to Annika who was calling to Peter saying it was time to ride the horses. That’s right, I remembered I had bought two hand carved and painted horses in Sweden too. To my amazement, the horses were standing by Mr. and Mrs. Gnome, looking as regal as a pair of stallions with their beautiful colorful bodies. One was red and the other blue. There was a smell of farm hay in the air. Joining the group of Swedes was my Danish Viking ornament. I had named him Olaf. He was made of wood with plastic horns in his hat, and rabbit fur hair that covered all of his face. He had no visible eyes. Olaf was looking for his Viking ship hoping to get to Copenhagen, Denmark in time for Christmas. Then I heard the sounds of a boat horn. It turned it out to be a wooden boat I had brought from Florence, Italy. The captain on the boat signaled Olaf the Viking to come on board. The boat captain started serenading everyone in Italian.

Suddenly, an explosion of white powder distracted me. After the powder settled I realized it was flour. The Italian cooking utensils were busy making dough. The miniature cooking utensils had come from Italy as well. But wait, at first I thought the utensils were moving by themselves, but I soon discovered the three Hungarian chefs were working the kitchen tools. Were they making Italian pizza or Hungarian goulash? I could smell meat browning. It was being browned in my miniature silver pan. It was part of a set I had bought many years ago in a cooking store. So maybe it was Hungarian goulash after all. The chefs were sprinkling paprika everywhere. It fell off the tree like red shiny sprinkles. I could barely keep up with the flurry of culinary activity. By now, one of the Hungarian chefs was forming Russian tea biscuits and the other chef was making biscotti. Then I heard the sound of a tea kettle whistling. The miniature tea kettle was also part of my silver miniature pan set. The chef called to the regal guard and said, “Her majesty’s tea is ready”. The guard, tall and handsome, showed up at once. His uniform was made of red and black felt with gold buttons. He whisked the tea-tray straight away. Where did he go? I had trouble seeing from so far away. Was there a Queen? Of course, I remembered I had gotten her at Windsor Castle, in England. She was so elegant in her gold dress with her shiny red shawl. She seemed delighted to see the tea and the delicious biscuits. A Beefeater then joined the Queen for tea.

The cowbell from Switzerland began ringing. It joined the many other bells on the tree that were making the most beautiful music. There were the English and Spanish porcelain bells and American crystal bells. There were even jingle bells. And there in a bright spotlight was the Hungarian dancing girl. She had a porcelain hand-painted face and hands. Her dress was colorful and embroidered in traditional Hungarian style. She danced gracefully to the sounds of the bells. Humming to the music was the wooden Santa egg from Hungary. All of sudden I looked to the top part of the tree. Lilly, the ornament doll was moving from her top spot on the tree over to see Luz the other doll.  Lilly was the doll my aunt Lilly from Colombia gave me with a box of chocolates when I was eight. My other aunt, Luz, had given me a doll too, which I had named Luz. Whenever I have received something special from someone I turn it into an ornament. I noticed that Lilly must have picked up the porcelain coffee ornament pot on her way to see Luz. Was Lilly pouring Luz a cup of coffee? No it was not coffee, the smell was of hot chocolate or in Spanish, chocolate caliente. A smell from my childhood filled the air. I could smell buñuelos, deep-fried cheese dough balls. Yummy. My stomach grumbled as I continued to enjoy the smells. Within seconds the Colombian bus screeched its brakes right in front of Lilly and Luz. The bus ornament was a replica of what old buses in the countryside used to look like. They were colorful and had windows without glass. I heard the driver call out,“ Rio Negro next”. Rio Negro was a town near my birth city of Medellin, Colombia. I could hear the engine running and smell the fumes of gasoline. The radio on the bus was blaring out Colombian Christmas music. I wanted to stand up and dance. It all seemed so real.

I heard the sound of a train moving and blowing its whistle. I knew it was not my own train set since it was set up with my winter village in another room. But then I remembered the ornament I bought in Strasburg, Pennsylvania. I had taken my two children and parents on an old locomotive train ride. The flat red ornament shaped like an engine was now a beautiful 3-dimensional bright red locomotive machine spewing steam from its engine and chugging away. I could hear the conductor yelling, “All aboard, next stop, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico”. Puerto Vallarta, Mexico by train? Well, why not I thought. Then I heard Mariachi music playing, guitars and horns, and strong loud voices belting away ranchera songs. Oh how I loved Mexican music. The wooden violin ornament I purchased in Salzburg, Austria was accompanying the sounds of the Mexican mariachi band.  It was all so festive. The Mexican dolls danced zapateo, the traditional folkloric dance. The girls swung their skirts from side to side as they tapped their shoes. The music was rhythmic and joyous. Even the small Mexican sombrero made of red velvet and gold ribbon was swaying in the air to the music.

The music was so engaging that even Japanese lady could not resist the music and got up from her yoga position.  I had bought Japanese lady in Tokyo, Japan on my first business trip there. She was a cute and chubby, made of porcelain, and sat on a shiny red silk cushion. But she was no longer sitting; she was dancing away on her little feet, little feet that I had never seen. The samurai on the paper kite was also swaying to the song. The tiny little Japanese wooden dolls with small bells jingled to the tune.

The music seemed to change gradually to Arabic music. The colorful Moroccan red silk slippers floated in the air and tapped to the rhythm of the music. They sparkled with the lights of the tree. These had been my souvenir from a trip to Morocco years earlier. They were shiny red children’s slippers with pointed tips curved upward. The miniature silver tea set from Dubai was brewing with an exotic tea blend. The smells of frankincense and myrrh filled the air. Accompanying the Arabic music was another familiar sound, the sound of Spanish castanets. I got these authentic hand-painted castanets on one of my trips to Spain. The music transitioned from Arabic to Spanish flamenco. Then I heard a choir of angels singing “Feliz Navidad”. It was my porcelain ornament of angels in the shape of a bell. Even the Amish baby dolls from Lancaster, Pennsylvania joined in the song.

An amazing smell of chocolate filled the air. Three little elves were making chocolate truffles. The set of three elves had been a gift from a friend. The little elves had gotten the chocolate from Brussels, Belgium. The golden ornament of the Brussels Grand Place, (main square), was brightly lit and busy with people eating in its out-door cafes. I could make out the Dame Blanches, hot fudge sundaes, they were having. I had lived in Brussels for many years and felt it was another home away from home. Next to the Brussels miniature ornament was the miniature Eiffel Tower ornament. The music I heard was distinctly French accordion music. People walked below the little Eiffel Tower with their French black berets and striped shirts. The smell of crepes filled the air, crepes dusted with white powdered sugar and others drizzled with chocolate. There was the smell of fresh baguettes too. 

Again, the music changed. This time I could hear John Denver. John Denver had been a favorite singer of mine growing up. Last year I had found the cutest ornament with John Denver playing Annie’s Song. What a find! This music transported me to the United States. I then heard a San Francisco trolley honking as it made its way up the tree. This ornament had been a gift from my mother-in-law. The conductor blared out “Next stop, New York City”. New York City? What happened to San Francisco? Then again, everything and anything seemed possible on this magical night. I had an ornament with the Radio City Music Hall Rockets sitting on top of a ball and another ornament with the Rockets dressed as toy soldiers. Well, they all popped off of their ornaments and started doing their famous dance, with the straight rhythmic kicks in the air. Their dancing was synchronized to “Jingle Bell Rock”. And who was that joining them? Wait, she was green, she was holding a torch, and she was none other than Lady Liberty. But what was that other green gummy thing? It was not quite human, oh, it was my miniature Gumby. Gumby had been a cartoon character from my childhood. The party just kept going. The Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream truck arrived from Vermont. This was my souvenir from the famous ice cream maker. The truck driver gave out ice cream to everyone. The skiers arrived in their chair lifts and started skiing down the tree. The little soda pop boy started giving out drinks to everyone. The polar bears and the penguins drank some too. The snowman ornaments added to the wintry scene. The Frosty ornament stood by the mailbox waiting for Christmas cards. His snowman cousins, Greta and Hans were visiting from Cologne, Germany. My husband had bought me the cutest little Christmas pig one time. He joined in the festivities too.

And what were all the Santa Ornaments doing? Well, one Mr. Santa was sitting by the light of the moon checking his list. The other Santa was wishing everyone Merry Christmas in Greek. He had come all the way from Athens, Greece. There was another ornament of a little boy mailing his letter to Santa and another of the Little Drummer boy playing his drum. Both of these ornaments had been gifts from my parents. Then I heard ships and boats in the background. They were leaving the ports of Mystic, Connecticut and Annapolis, Maryland on their way to Florida. The smell of sea salt was in the air. The shell ornament from Florida shimmered in the light. The pretty pastel-colored houses of Bermuda opened their doors to visitors. The palm trees swayed to Bing Crosby’s Mele Kalikimaka (Hawaiian for Merry Christmas). I could hear the sound of ocean waves crashing and sea gulls singing their song.

I lost track of time. I was very tired but I could not stop gazing at this magic happening in my tree. Then the clock struck midnight. The golden Angel on top of the tree glowed even brighter. All of the ornaments became very quiet. My ornament of the world globe started rotating and from it I could hear voices in many different languages saying:

…Merry Christmas

Bon Natale

Joyeux Noel

Frohe Weihnachten

Merii Kurisumasu

Shèngdàn jié kuàilè

Merii Kurisumasu

Feliz Navidad…

It was a reminder to me of what this special occasion was about.

“ Peace on Earth and Goodwill to Men”

At this point, the party got wild again, and I could hear some Colombian Christmas music, “Voy Camino a Belen”, I’m on my way to Bethlehem. The disco lights started flashing and the disco ball turning. The music then sounded like European Techno Christmas music. Was there such a thing I wondered? The dancing started and this time it was all of the ornaments dancing with each other. Mr. Swedish gnome with Japanese lady, Lady Liberty with Hungarian chef, German snowman with Mexican lady, Lilly from Colombia with the Pennsylvania train engineer, and Olaf the Viking with Luz, the Colombian doll. The Hungarian dancing girl borrowed the red Moroccan slippers. The Queen from England tried out the Spanish Castanets while her royal guard stomped to the beat. The animals danced too. The bears with the penguins, the sea gulls with the dogs, and the starfish with the pigs. The food table looked delicious. All of the ornaments had brought their special goodies: chocolate from Belgium, crepes from France, goulash from Hungary, pasta from Italy, sausage from Germany, hummus from Morocco, sushi from Japan, and BBQ from the United States. My international collection of Christmas ornaments was a tiny example of the world getting along. They had shared the joy of celebrating Christmas together. My ornaments had shared and enjoyed each other’s customs and traditions.

By now my sleepy eyes could not stay open much longer. The rest of my memories are vague. I awoke in my own bed the next morning. I don’t remember how I got there. I started to think that the night before had been all a dream. It was now Christmas morning, and I could hear my children coming into our room to wake us up. We all hurried downstairs to see what Santa and Niño Jesus (Baby Jesus) had brought. We all sat by the International Christmas Tree and turned on the tree lights. And then I noticed something strange. I quickly looked to my husband and children to see if they had also noticed. But they were too excited with the gifts under the tree. The ornaments were sitting quietly on the tree as always but none of the ornaments were in their original spot. As a matter of fact, the tree looked quite messy and disorganized. I seemed to be the only one to notice this. By now my husband was playing Christmas music and making coffee. I could hear “Silent Night” playing in the background. What had really happened last night, I wondered. My night had been anything but silent. I turned to look at my tree and its beautiful ornaments. I squinted my eyes to see the lights twinkle even more. The song “White Christmas” started playing and I listened to the lyrics, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas”. It reminded me of my dream of the night before. And then for a split second, I saw, Lilly the doll, wink at me. I smiled a great big smile and my heart felt warm and cozy. I don’t think it had been a dream at all.

Lilly the Colombian doll ornament

Lilly the Colombian doll ornament

May you never forget the magic of Christmas.

Merry Christmas

The End