Maya & the Ginkgo Tree, Part II

Maya Awaits Winter

Maya Awaits Winter

Maya waited

With patience and hope

For winter to come

With all of its snow.

She sat on the hill

On top of the leaves

That’d fallen from Gingko

Awaiting the freeze.

The Snowflakes Arrive!

The Snowflakes Arrive!

And suddenly like magic

The snowflakes came down

On Maya they landed

And on leaves on the ground

Maya rejoiced

For winter was here

She frolicked in snow

She ran far and near

Maya Frolicking In the Snow!

Maya Frolicking In the Snow!

Reminding me

Of what really counts

To play and have fun

When winter abounds

The solstice arrived

A change it now brings

The days now get longer

While Maya plans spring.

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Happy Mother’s Day to My Friend Consuelo

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I met Consuelo two years ago when I first moved to London. The name “Consuelo” means comfort or consolation in Spanish. We met while walking our dogs in our neighborhood. She is a nanny for a family with two children and a handsome black Labrador Retriever. Her dog and mine took an instant liking to each other. Her dog is 11 years old and still looks very youthful. Consuelo shared that the secret for her dog’s youthful look and good health was that she had fed him freshly cooked chicken and rice since he was a puppy. Spoiled boy!  Consuelo shared that she had moved from her native Ecuador to London over 30 years ago. So we had always chatted in Spanish. Over the months, we would run into each other with our dogs. Most of the time Consuelo would be pushing a stroller with an adorable little girl who is now 3 years old. One weekend afternoon I ran into Consuelo with the family that she works for and I found out that their older son had severe disabilities. Consuelo also cared for this little boy.

The months would go by and we would continue to meet each other and share pleasantries on the street. Then Friday morning was a special day. I was on my way to a coffee gathering when I ran into her with the little girl. We said our hellos and the cute little girl who recognizes me gave me a huge smile. It turned out we were walking in the same direction so off we went to the St. John’s Wood high street and chatted for about 15 minutes.

She would share so much in just those 15 minutes. She would open up in such a way that even she surprised herself. I asked how the little boy that she watches was. She said he was doing ok. She shared that it is always so challenging to take care of his needs. It is an exhausting job for both the parents and Consuelo. I told her I so admired her patience in dealing with the boy. My friend commented that she is always so concerned when they hire a babysitter for when Consuelo cannot be there. Consuelo will review a thousand things with the new sitter to ensure he is well taken care of. You can tell she is very protective of him. One day last week, Consuelo was preparing the boy for a bath. The boy is about 7 or 8 years old. As Consuelo lifted him to put him in his bath, he turned his face, and he placed his open mouth on her cheek in what appeared to be an attempt to kiss her. She was so moved because it was his first attempt at kissing and of showing any signs of affection. Consuelo could not believe it, and even as she recounted the story she was filled with goose bumps. The little boy had not even done this with his own mother. I said to Consuelo, “That little boy loves you so much. He must sense and recognize your dedication to him.” The outside world only sees the boy’s disabilities and suffering, while Consuelo focuses on improving his quality of life while showering him with love and affection.

Consuelo then shared that she and her husband were expecting a grandchild. I congratulated her and asked if it was their first one. She said it wasn’t but that it was the first girl and she was obviously very excited. She said her oldest grandson was 11 years old. She was delighted to share that her grandson had just been awarded a full scholarship for the rest of his education in London. She commented that the family was very pleased with this since her son had limited financial resources. As we walked further, she turned and said, “You see my son is disabled, he’s been in a wheel chair since he was a child”. She went on to tell me some wonderful stories about her son and how he has tried to live independently and support his family. I asked her if he was the reason why they had left Ecuador and she said yes. Her son would not have had much of a future in her native country back then.

I turned to Consuelo and I said something like, “Dios te escogió para este labor por una razón muy especial”, which translates into “God hand picked you for this task for a very special reason”. I could not get over the fact that after raising her own disabled child she would find the fortitude and patience to repeat the whole experience all over again by helping raise another family’s child with special needs.

We arrived at the high street and were getting ready to say our goodbyes. But she had one more story to share. She told me how her son had adapted a vehicle that allowed him to store his wheel chair on the roof and was therefore able to drive everywhere. It pleases him very much that he can transport his own family. You could sense how proud she is of her son. No doubt her son gets a lot of his “can do” attitude from his mother who through her example taught him to never give up. Consuelo continues to share this love and perseverance with the children she watches. And in return those children adore her not just as a caregiver or nanny but also more like a grandmother. Not to mention the family dog who also adores her because she showers him with love and attention too, oh and with freshly cooked chicken and rice, as well!

My heart filled with such joy to have met Consuelo and to have run into her on that particular Friday morning. I turned to her and said, “I must hug you”, and I did. She thanked me for listening to her and said she shared these stories with me because she felt I was a special person. I was very moved. We said “Hasta Luego” (See You Later) and went in our different directions. It may be the last time I run into her since I will be moving back to the US. I often wonder why people’s paths cross. I like to think that it is not just coincidence but that somehow it is meant to be, that there is a reason for it. Even if it is just to say, I am so proud to have known such a special person and role model like Consuelo.

Happy Mother’s Day

Moving Overseas

Yesterday, I walked my dog Maya in Regent’s park and we ran into a black labrador and its owner. The woman asked me about my dog and I noticed she was an American. Well, that was enough invitation for me to start a conversation. It turned out that she had just moved to London with her family. I was able to share a lot of good tips with her about living in London. We exchanged e:mail addresses and mobile numbers. I always like making new friends but I especially like lending a helping hand to a new expat family.

The experience of living overseas may be one of the most rewarding and yet one of the most challenging experiences you will have in your life. After the initial bewilderment stage comes an opportunity to enjoy and learn. I am writing hoping to reach many of you who just moved to London with your families or even by yourselves. Perhaps you just moved to Brussels, Paris, or Tokyo. Some of my words may apply to you as well. I am here to tell you that it does get easier with each passing day and that before you know it, the strange new land you moved to, becomes your home.

When we were preparing to move to London from the US in 2011 we were very excited about the opportunity. The reason being that we had already been expats in Brussels, Belgium from 1997 – 2001. We were now seasoned expats like so many people you meet. Some families have spent their whole lives moving around the world and can only say positive things about their lifestyle. Our overall experience in Brussels was amazing. We loved it so much that we yearned to someday go abroad again. But I will admit moving to Brussels in July of 1997 was initially a very shocking experience and I can sympathize with some of you who are completely overwhelmed as you read this.

Let me share a story. When we moved to Brussels many life events converged into what seemed like a personal nuclear explosion at the time.  The first one was that I left my career. For someone who had been so career-driven this was a very difficult decision. However, I had been very willing to go on a “sabbatical” because, I was pregnant with our first child and I was presented with the opportunity to travel all over Europe, something I was passionate about.  Had I been in the states I probably would have taken a standard leave of absence and then returned to work. The advent of losing my salary and cutting our income in half was frightening. I also had to redefine who I was as a person since so much of my self-confidence and self-esteem was linked to my profession. But we were open to the life adventure ahead of us. However, during my 17thweek of pregnancy, while the movers were back at the house packing us, our lives were rattled when we received bad news about the pregnancy and baby. News that seemed so insurmountable that I questioned why were we were even moving overseas.  The baby would require surgeries after birth. At the time, I was still narrow-minded in thinking that I would only be able to receive excellent medical care for our baby in the US.  On top of that I was leaving my family and friends at a time when I needed them the most. But there was no turning back with the moving plans. Sometimes destiny does lead you in mysterious ways and Brussels was to be our next destination.

The Early Belgium Years 1998

Our  beautiful son was born on Christmas Eve 1997 in Brussels, Belgium. I would have at my disposal an amazing team of doctors who were so gifted and wonderful that even demigods would not compare. I still believe that it’s as if though we had to move to Brussels to have these incredible doctors take care of our son. What had started out as a tempest, with no calm in sight, had evolved into a clear horizon allowing my husband and I to successfully navigate our new lives in Brussels.

OK, I won’t kid you. Living in a country where they speak foreign languages, in our case French and Flemish, was difficult at times. Many Belgians spoke English which definitely helped but there were times that you had to be creative, like when the phone guy came over and we had to communicate with hand signals. Sometimes I would spend hours reading food labels in the supermarket trying to figure out if I was buying the correct item. A big help for me was joining The American Women’s Club of Brussels. They were an amazing resource of support and friendship. In August of 1999 our beautiful daughter was also born in Brussels. Our son was 19 months at that time. And now with two babies in tow we continued to explore Belgium and Europe. Our children learned to sleep in planes, trains, and automobiles.

By Chenonceaux Castle in the Loire Valley, France
2000

We got lucky because they were good babies/toddlers who allowed us to bring them everywhere, from châteaux in France to Champagne houses, from crystal shops in Prague to Michelin star restaurants.  After an amazing 4 years in Brussels we returned to the US in 2001.

Developing a Discriminating Taste for Champagne in Champagne, France
2001

Fast forward to 2011 as we prepared to return overseas…

We were now moving overseas with 13 and 12-year old children. The key was in selling them on the idea of moving very early on. It’s all in the marketing, isn’t it? What helped was that we had already moved within the US. When we returned from Brussels, we had first lived in Westport, CT for 5 years and then we had moved to West Chester, PA. The children were in 2nd and 3rd grade when we did this move, and yes it had been hard for them to leave friends, but they instantly made new ones. So when we announced we were moving to London they were absolutely fine with the idea. They were excited about living overseas and had the confidence that they would be able to make new friends. Before the move, they would ask us questions like:

“Do they have Wawa’s hoagies in London?” (For those of you not from PA/NJ area, Wawa’s is a Gasoline/Food/Convenience chain that makes delicious hoagies (heros/grinders/sandwiches))

Our answer would be, “No they don’t have Wawa’s hoagies in London but they will have different things that may be better ”.

Sure enough the children discovered that you can get some very amazing baguettes in London and the sandwiches made with these are delicious. We have opened ourselves up to new experiences with the thought that the outcomes will be positive. We keep saying to the children:

 “Things will be different, but different does not mean bad, different may mean better”.

My husband and the children exploring the streets of Bologna, Italy
July 2001

Exploring the streets of Bellagio, Italy
August 2012

I am not here to say that change is completely easy and without challenges. Change can be very difficult at times. It’s how we manage the process of change that allows us to move forward in a productive and healthy fashion. It is important to know how to manage the stresses that get thrown our way. How we behave is also critical. Our children are watching us every step of the way. Children are very intuitive and they can sense your attitudes and feelings immediately.  Sometimes we just have to laugh at ourselves and at the difficult situations. Like the time my friend in Brussels went to put her Thanksgiving turkey in her oven and it did not fit. She had to carve it up and roast it in pieces. Then there’s the time I tried to use my “French” language skills, and asked the waiter for a spoon,“ une cuillère”, and instead they brought out cheese, “le gruyere”.  That’s o.k., I’ll take some of that too. You may have already faced or are in the middle of facing daunting tasks like opening bank accounts, buying cell phones, getting a phone line connected, getting internet and cable, dealing with home repairs, figuring out how to get around, grocery shopping, unpacking, baby sitters, dog sitters, or where to buy something. We waited for 3 weeks for our Sky Internet modem to arrive and we were supposedly one of the lucky ones. Just know that with each passing day it will get easier and you’ll laugh at some of the missteps over a glass of wine or pint of beer.

Walking Over the Rhone Glacier in Switzerland

Know that this overseas experience will profoundly change you and your family members in so many positive ways. How you perceive the world and react to it will be different and better. This experience will test your and your family’s resolve, flexibility, and even relationships. For many it will bring you closer as a family. Open yourselves up to this new adventure with a positive attitude. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Reach out to organizations and support groups. Try new foods, make new friends, explore new places and hopefully you’ll look back at the expat years as some of the most amazing years of your life.