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.
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Skiing in Lech & Oberlech, Austria

Lech, Austria

Lech, Austria 2011

An Ocean of Snow

An Ocean of Snow
Lech 2012

Our family loves to ski. This year marked our 10th year anniversary of our annual family ski trip tradition. Our son had just turned five and our daughter was 3 ½ when we started them in ski school. We skied the northeast the early years and then we discovered the Rockies and we never looked back.

Our Daughter's 1st Time on Skis

Our Daughter’s 1st Time on Skis – 2004
Smugglers’ Notch, Vermont

Our Son's 1st time on skis

Our Son’s 1st time on skis – 2004
Smugglers’ Notch, Vermont

When we moved to London we researched European resorts. I had skied St. Moritz in 1986 and my husband and I had skied Cortina (the Italian Alps) in 2001. Our travel agent initially pointed us to Corchevel 1650 located in France. But after we did more research we decided to try the Arlberg region of Austria. The Arlberg region is comprised of five villages: Lech, Oberlech, Zurs, St. Anton, St. Christoph, and Stuben. We loved Lech so much in 2011 that we decided to return this year.

Gondola between Lech and Oberlech, Austria

Gondola between Lech and Oberlech, Austria 2012

To get to Lech and Oberlech, you fly either into Zürich or Innsbruck airports. From Zürich airport you can rent a car, hire private car service, or take a bus to Lech, which is 2½ hours from Zürich airport. Innsbruck airport is about 1½ hour to Lech however it is a smaller airport with less flight choices and mainly serviced by chartered flights.

Oberlech, Austria

Views from Oberlech, Austria

There are many choices of places to stay. Many of the hotels offer half-board, breakfast and dinner included. In 2011, we chose to stay at the Brunnenhof Hotel in Lech. The Brunnenhof is a 4-star hotel with 1 Michelin-Star and 2 Toques. Although, it was not ski-in/ski-out hotel, the free shuttle stopped right in front of the hotel and took us to the lift in 5 minutes. Our ski equipment was rented at Strolz located at the base near the main Lech lift. Strolz stored our equipment at the end of the day. This meant we could walk back to the Brunnenhof or hop on the shuttle free of all the ski equipment. We really enjoyed staying at the Brunnenhof. The food and service were excellent.

Brunnenhof, Gourmet HotelLech, Austria

Brunnenhof, Gourmet Hotel
Lech, Austria

This year we chose to stay in the village of Oberlech that sits above Lech, is only reachable by gondola in the winter months, and sits right on the ski slopes. The picturesque villages of the Arlberg region are right out of a fairy tale book. The Austrian chalets are charming against the spectacular Austrian Alps backdrop. Just this past weekend, I met a French gentleman who commented to me, that although there is excellent skiing in his native France, none of the resorts are as quaint as those of Austria.

The View From the Brunnenhof Hotel

The View From the Brunnenhof Hotel

We had researched hotels in Oberlech during our 2011 visit and were keen on staying in one of three hotels located at or above the Petersboden Lift, a mid-mountain lift. What this meant was that we could ski down from our hotel to the Petersboden lift and begin skiing without ever having to go all the way down to the base lift which can generally get more crowded. This year we stayed at the Burgwald Hotel, a 4-star hotel. The facility, rooms, service, and restaurant were outstanding. The food was very imaginative and delicious. The staff was friendly and polite and upon our checkout they handed us a goodbye gift of a small bag filled with delicious bread and cheese for our trip back home. We absolutely loved the Burgwald and if we go back to Lech/Oberlech we will choose to stay there again.

The Burgwald Hotel

The Burgwald Hotel

Other places where families from our children’s school stayed included the Sonnenburg, Hotel Montana, and the Panorama Hotel.

The Montana Hotel

The Montana Hotel

Hotels print out the lift tickets for you so no additional lines need to be made. One ski pass allows you to ski all of five resorts. The various mountain resorts are interconnected by: ski trails, lifts, or gondolas. Others can be reached by taking the ski bus. Rental equipment stores are available in all the villages of the area.

Arlberg Region

Arlberg Region

The Arlberg region differs from the US ski resorts in that there are is no main lodge or lodges dotted throughout the mountain. There are several privately owned restaurants that serve food and drink. It’s mostly sit-down service vs. cafeteria style. In addition to these restaurants, most of the hotels on the mountain offer delicious lunches and drinks. Reservations are highly recommended in the restaurants that take them. There are also restrooms located at the lifts themselves.

Zurs, Austria

Zurs, Austria

Views from Oberlech

Views from the Burgwald Hotel

The infrastructure of the region is excellent. There are many 6 – 8 person lifts. Many of the bigger lifts have bubble covers and even heated seats. There are a couple of 2-4 person lifts, towrope, and T-bar lifts throughout the mountain as well.

Schlegelkopf I and Schlegelkopf II Lifts

Schlegelkopf I and Schlegelkopf II Lifts

The region offers all levels of skiing from beginner to advanced skiing to plenty of off-piste skiing. The trails are generally well marked. Heli-skiing, where a helicopter drops you off at the tops of mountains to do the ultimate in off-piste skiing, is also available. There are plenty of ski schools and it is recommended to book these in advance.

Oberlech Ski School

Oberlech Ski School

There is a plethora of après-ski activities in Lech and Oberlech. There is live entertainment and music playing in many of the hotels. There are numerous bars and restaurants offering both indoor and outdoor seating. The children have a wonderful time taking the toboggan run from Oberlech down to Lech.

Children Tobaggoning

Children Tobogganing

There is a lot of shopping available in Lech, from designer clothes, jewelry, ski equipment, to supermarkets for food, snacks, and souvenirs. Most of the hotels offer wonderful spa facilities and some even have indoor pools. And if what you like is to take in the sun, you’ll find plenty of sun decks with comfortable seats awaiting you.

Lech Ski School

Lech Ski School

Gasthof Post Hotel in Lech

Gasthof Post Hotel in Lech

The Family in Lech

The Family in Lech – 2012

For Further reading:

http://www.skiarlberg.at/arl/east/en/winter

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/snowandski/austria/lech/6727110/Ski-Lech-resort-guide.html

http://www.wucher-helicopter.at/EN/applications/heliskiing-arlberg/

http://www.pistetopowder.com/5-day-off-piste-course-stanton-austria.html

Alps, Lakes, Pizza & Pasta

This summer we took a wonderful driving vacation in Switzerland and Italy. I hope this serves as a guide to your trip planning. I have added feedback of places we stayed and ate in.  Generally speaking we always have to reserve two rooms for our family of four in our European travel since so few rooms come with two queen or two double beds. Sometimes the rooms are interconnecting other times they are not. Sometimes family suites are available that can accommodate extra beds or have sofa-beds. We also try to research the restaurants we eat in since we love food so much.

Spaghetti Carbonara

We use sources like Yelp, Tripadvisor, Google restaurant reviews, and hotel recommendations. Word of caution, many restaurants in Italian cities we visited close at 2 pm and reopen for dinner so plan accordingly. We designed our own itinerary. My husband researched what special roads to take such as the Furka and Splugen mountain passes. We did have a travel agent help us narrow down our hotel choices. Right now the Swiss Franc is very strong and that makes everything in Switzerland especially in the large cities very expensive. The scenery of driving through the lush Alps both on the Swiss and Italian side in the summer is absolutely breathtaking. This was also a trip of mountain lakes, Lake Zürich, Lake Lucerne, Lake Maggiore, and Lake Como. And most importantly for our family, this was a trip of eating delicious food!

Our Itinerary:

  • Day1: London Heathrow to Zürich Airport / Zürich Airport to Zürich Center via Swiss Rail
  • Day 2: Zürich
  • Day 3: Zürich to Zürich Airport Car Rentals via Swiss Rail / Drive from Zürich Airport to Lucerne
  • Day 4: Lucerne to Rhône Glacier via the Furka Pass / Rhône Glacier to Stresa, Italy (Lake Maggiore)
  • Day 5: Stresa, Italy (Lake Maggiore)
  • Day 6: Stresa, Italy  to Tremezzo, Italy (Lake Como)
  • Day 7: Tremezzo, Italy / Day trip to Bellagio, Italy
  • Day 8: Tremezzo, Italy to Zizers, Switzerland (near Chur)
  • Day 9: Zizers and Chur
  • Day: 10: Zizers to Zürich Airport  / Return to London, UK

Total driving time: 9.5 hours – Total distance: 730 km or 453 miles

Day 1 – 2

Upon arriving in Zürich we took the Swiss rail from the airport station conveniently located below the airport making it a very easy and inexpensive way to get to downtown Zürich. Our hotel, The Hotel Opera, was conveniently located walking distance from a train stop. The hotel was very beautiful, comfortable, and contemporary in style. We stayed in Zürich for 2 nights.

St. Peterskirche
St. Peter’s Church
Zürich, Switzerland

Zürich, the largest city in Switzerland, is very easy to explore by foot and offers beautiful views of Lake Zürich. We spent time meandering through the Old Town. We tried traditional Swiss fondue at Le Dézaley and rosti, a potato and cheese dish, at the Weisser Wind. We enjoyed a delicious Italian lunch at Tre Cucine.

Day 3

We took the amazingly efficient Swiss rail back to the airport to the Hertz car rental desk. We had reserved a 4 wheel cross over vehicle ahead of time through the US AAA and got an amazing rate compared to what our travel agent was offering. We left the airport and drove to Lucerne. We arrived in Lucerne and checked into our beautiful hotel, The Montana, located in town but perched up on the mountain. The views of Lake Lucerne were spectacular from our rooms.

The View from our Room
Lucerne, Switzerland

The hotel boasted a modern Art Deco style. The Montana had its own funicular to bring its guests down to the lake level. From the lake we were able to reach all the sights by foot. The first order of business was finding lunch. We found a wonderful Italian restaurant name La Fenice.

The Dying Lion
Lucerne, Switzerland

After lunch we went to see the most amazing sculpture I have ever seen in my life, The Dying Lion of Lucerne Monument. The sculpture of a dying lion commemorates the Swiss Guard who was massacred in 1792 during the French Revolution, when the revolutionaries attacked the Tuileries Palace in Paris. Another major site in Lucerne is the Kapellbrucke or Chapel Bridge. It is a wooden footbridge over the River Reuss built in 1333 to help defend the city. We spent the rest of the day walking through the Old Town. We had a surprisingly delicious Chinese dinner at Li Tai Pe.

By the Chapel Bridge
Lucerne, Switzerland

 Day 4

The next morning after eating delicious pastries from the famous Bachman bakery we left Lucerne and drove south to pick up the Furka Pass road. The Furka Pass is a mountain pass in the Alps that stands at 2429m/7969ft.

Looking Down from Highest Point of Furka Pass
Near Hotel Belvedere

The pass is closed certain times of the year due to bad weather conditions. James Bond drove the Furka Pass in the movie Goldfinger. Driving the Furka Pass is not for the faint of heart, it requires skilled driving and no fear of heights. One of the highlights of driving the Furka Pass is that you visit the Rhône Glacier, the source of the Rhône River. There is a rest stop conveniently located at the Rhône Glacier.

Inside Rhone Glacier
Canton of Valais, Switzerland

We paid an admission fee and were able to hike to the ice cave that was carved inside the glacier. The Rhône Glacier covered most of Switzerland during the last Ice Age (110,000 to 11,000 years ago). Although, the glacier has retreated significantly in the last 150 years due to Global Warming, it is still a very spectacular sight.

After the visiting the Rhône Glacier we continued our drive south southeast to reach the town of Stresa, Italy on Lake Maggiore in the northern region of Piedmont. We stayed at the Grand Hotel Des Iles Borromees right on the edge of the Lake. The views of Lake Maggiore and of the Borromean Islands on the lake were beautiful.

Grand Hotel Des Iles Borromees
Stresa, Italy on Lake Maggiore

The hotel was a rococo extravaganza bordering on museum-like, somewhere where beautiful meets tacky but still pleasing to the soul. We were also very centrally located. The first night we dined at an excellent Italian restaurant, frequented by locals, Ristorante Pizzeria MammaMia.

Spaghetti Vongole

Day 5

We purchased an all day ferry ticket that allowed us to island hop the Borromean Islands located in Lake Maggiore. The islands are: Isola Bella with its grand palace and gardens, Isola Madre with a 20-acre park, and Isola dei Pescatori with its typical fishing village. The day included a good pizza lunch on the mainland in the neighboring village of Baveno at Ristorante La Trappola. Our favorite of the islands was Isola Bella with its amazing palace and gardens. The gardens looked like a wedding cake from the ferryboat.

The Gardens on Isola Bella, one of the islands in Lake Maggiore

After a long day exploring the islands we returned to the hotel swimming pool. A highlight for our children and my husband was diving off of the two diving boards in the separate diving pool. We enjoyed yet another wonderful Italian traditional meal at Taverna del Pappagallo in downtown Stresa.

Pizza with Carpaccio, Parmesan, and Arugula

 Day 6

After breakfast we drove from Lake Maggiore to Lake Como. By lunchtime, we arrived in Tremezzo located on the western shore of Lake Como across from Bellagio. We stayed in the Grand Hotel Tremezzo in a family suite.

Grand Hotel Tremezzo
Tremezzo, Italy Lake Como

The hotel was absolutely beautiful as were the grounds. The decoration of the hotel was very classical with a playful blend of contemporary.

Grand Hotel Tremezzo
Whimsical Sitting Rooms

The hotel had 3 swimming pools. Our family’s favorite pool was the floating pool on the lake.

The Grand Hotel Tremezzo Floating Pool

We spent hours jumping into the floating pool and diving into the lake. The first night we had a wonderful dinner at a small family restaurant called Trattoria del Prato.

Diving into Lake Como

Day 7 

After swimming in the morning we took the ferry across the lake to visit Bellagio for lunch. Bellagio is located in the Lombardy region of Italy. We ate an amazing lunch at Bilacus.

Pasta Bolognese

We then explored the town of Bellagio before returning to Tremezzo. We enjoyed our last delicious dinner in Italy at Ristorante Belle Isole.

Cute Yorkies Traveling in Style
Bellagio, Italy

 Day 8

After breakfast we continued north along the western shore of Lake Como and started ascending the mountains on the road SS36 also known as the Splugen pass. We stopped at a roadside restaurant still on the Italian side called Al Santuario for a yummy local lunch, where they spoke no Italian, so my pseudo Italian Spanish came in handy. Then we began the most hair-raising experience of our whole drive, crossing the Splugen pass. The Splugen pass at 2113m/6932ft connects the Lepontine and Rhaetian Alps between Italy and Switzerland.

Part of the Splugen Pass
Somewhere in Switzerland

On the navigation system and on a map all you see is a collection of hairpin turns or switch back roads that look like zig zig scribbles. Let’s just say that my husband was relieved when the Splugen pass ended and we picked up the E43/13 at the bottom of the valley in Splugen, Switzerland. We then took this road all the way past Chur and then on to nearby Zizers, Switzerland. The reason for our special stop in the village of Zizers, is that my husband had an AFS exchange student, Christoph, live with them many years ago. Christoph, now part of our family, is the town doctor in his village of Zizers where he lives with his family.

Day 9

After a week of a historical heat wave in Switzerland and Italy, the weather was now back to the 70’s and overcast. We spent the morning hiking the lush green local mountains. In the afternoon we visited the city of Chur.

Hiking in the Alps with Friends

Day 10

We said our goodbyes to Christoph and his family and once again took the E43/13 that took us straight to Zürich Airport.

Most Memorable Moments:

  • Fondue and Rosti in Zürich
  • The Dying Lion sculpture in Lucerne, Italy
  • Driving the Furka Pass
  • Walking inside the Rhone Glacier
  • Diving off of the diving board in Grand Hotel Des Iles Borromees
  • The big Newfoundland dog allowed to eat with its owners inside the Ristorante MammaMia in Stresa.
  • Visiting Isola Bella, the castle and gardens
  • Swimming in the floating pool on Lake Como
  • Diving into Lake Como from the floating pool
  • The special driving club that pulled up with 15 SLS Mercedes-Benz sports cars to our Lake Como hotel.
  • Visiting Bellagio
  • The two Yorkshire terriers traveling in their owner’s special backpack.
  • Driving the Splugen Pass
  • Visiting friends in Zizers and hiking the Swiss mountains with them.
  • Eating delicious food both in Switzerland and Italy
  • And eating delicious Italian food the whole week.  Mamma Mia!

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.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to My Colonoscopy

I turned 50 last September so I hurried to schedule my first ever colonoscopy, a right of passage to celebrate the half century mark. This grand event took place this past July. Well I did what everyone else does the day before the procedure. I started the day with a clear liquid diet. I have to say, I enjoyed my black coffee with sugar, the powder bouillon chicken broth tasted delicious and the Jolly Ranchers were exquisite. I managed the hunger very well. I was motivated by getting the procedure over with and also losing a couple of pounds for weekend. I chose what I thought was the better of the two laxative treatments offered by my doctor. It involved drinking 32 ounces at a time in two sittings spread over 6 hours. It certainly sounded more appealing to drink 32 ounces at a time, then 64 ounces all at once which was the second option. The only problem was that drinking 32 ounces is still a lot of liquid and I was not thrilled knowing I had to repeat this process later that night. The stuff initially tasted ok, like a sugar-free aspartame energy drink, but after a couple of ounces of it, I started cringing with every gulp.

The Laxative Preparation

A friend had shared that she had not left her bedroom after taking the laxative.  I hunkered down in my bedroom and turned on the television. I delegated dinner cooking to my husband. This MOM was off duty. I then sat back, relaxed, and let the medicine do its work. I watched 6 back-to-back episodes of TLC’s Four Weddings, mindless entertainment but perfect for the occasion. Soon I had most of the family watching with me.

What was I thinking…

I had an adequate night of sleep. My procedure had been scheduled for 10:30 a.m. That morning I asked my husband if I should wear make-up to the procedure. What was I thinking, as if my husband knew of such things. But I’m the type of person who loves bouncing ideas off of people. I reviewed the procedure instructions and there was no mention of not wearing make-up. You see I love to always look very composed and made up, even if I’m going to the gym or my colonoscopy. So I went with a lighter version of the makeup. I arrived at the doctors and signed in. I said goodbye to my husband who would return for me 2 hours later.

So here’ how it started…

I switched into the lovely hospital gown that opens in the back and was lying on the hospital bed with a heap of blankets on top since I generally get very cold in these settings. The nurse came to attach an IV line. She first gave me a local anesthetic that felt like a small prick of a pin. And thank god for that local anesthetic, because she could not find the vein. She moved the needle in every direction she could, but still with no luck. I felt no pain, but certainly lots of uncomfortable tugging. She finally gave up and said that she would leave it to the anesthesiologist.  She told me she would not poke me more than once. Lucky me. So I sat there waiting for whatever would happen next.

And then the funny thing happened…

I saw a woman walking towards me, she was dressed like a nurse, she smiled and said (I have changed the names), “Hi, you may not remember me, I’m Susan Wright, David’s wife”. Sure enough, I remembered her. I had worked with her husband 26 years ago at General Electric. All I could think of was “Thank god, I wore my makeup, you just never know who you may run into”.  It’s much like your mother used to say, always wear good underwear, in case you are in an accident, and you have to be taken to the hospital and they see your undies.  The same goes with looking presentable for your colonoscopy. I was delighted to see Susan. We had exchanged holiday cards for all these past years but had not seen each other in person. She sat down and we chatted for while.  It just made my day.

Unfinished business…

The anesthesiologist came over and we greeted each other as he perused through my chart. Then he grabbed the bed to wheel me to the procedure and at about the same time that I was going to say something he realized I still needed an IV line. He was a master, he came over and without hesitation, inserted the needle directly into the vein and voilà I was ready for my Propofol.

Feeling Fabulous…

I was wheeled into the surgery room. I greeted my G.I. doctor and her nurse. My doctor, who by the way looks so very young, asked me how I felt. I told her I felt great and thought to myself, “and I look fabulous too ”.  The anesthesiologist hooked me up to the drugs and said, “Turn to your side”, the nurse said,  “Let me adjust your pillow”, and then it was like MAGIC… I woke up and it was all over. I heard a far away gentle voice offering me juice. I then very slowly got dressed back into my street clothes. Eventually, my friend Susan came over and escorted me to meet my husband. In groggy excitement I re-introduced Susan to my husband and we chatted for a bit. My husband knows how I relish in these surprise social encounters. And how fun to have had one on the way to my colonoscopy.

Thankfully, my test results were excellent. I don’t have to repeat this procedure for another 10 years. I will take this opportunity to share the following. If you are over 50 and have not had your first colonoscopy, then it’s time to schedule one. If you have family history of colon cancer please talk to you doctor about it and get a colonoscopy before age 50. I met a woman in Westport, CT who had lost not only her husband to colon cancer but her 28 year-old son as well. And sadly, I lost a childhood friend to colon cancer 2 years ago. She was only 44 years old, had family history of colon cancer, and sadly did not start early screenings.

I have a dear friend who gets very nervous with any type of medical procedure. She stresses out enormously going for annual PAP smears. She asked me how I manage to be so relaxed when it comes to these medical procedures. I don’t have a specific answer for her, except to let her know, that how I feel at any given time, can sometimes be linked with how I look. It’s like when I have a bad cold, the best thing to do is to get out of bed, shower, get dressed, and yes, put on my make up. Then somehow I start feeling better. Feeling fabulous may sometimes be connected to looking fabulous, even if looking fabulous is just in your head.

Feeling Fabulous in the Swiss Alps