Who guzzle coffee and soda all day long in an ongoing and desperate attempt to stay lucid, functional and awake?
Take a nap!
Join me, figuratively speaking, in a lovely little snooze. Recline (gently and slowly) that train/car/airplane seat. Plump up those sofa pillows. Grab a cosy throw and crawl onto bed.
No, you’re not lazy, slothful, a slacker. You’re whipped and your body needs to re-charge. You know, like those cords you carry everywhere for your laptop and cellphone…
You can do it!
I’ve been told, (which I do take as a compliment) I’m a terrific napper, having fully slept on the floors of airplanes and train stations, in chairs, even mid-meal once. My sweetie is also skilled at this, as is my Dad.
We’re all journos, photographers and film-makers, i.e. people whose works can be ferociously, full-on, 24/7 demanding (hello, 9/11) with sleep a distant memory. We’ve slept under desks. You learn to grab rest whenever and wherever you get the chance.
I’m also one of those people with two speeds: gogogogogogogogogogogo and fast asleep. I am not good at resting, relaxing, chilling out, staring idly into space. So naps are a very healthy choice for me.
And, very likely, for you as well — Americans, now surgically attached to all forms of technology 24/7, are losing a lot of sleep as a result, a new study finds.
If you’ve ever left your home country behind to live abroad — as many of us do for work, study, a partner’s job or your parents’ profession — you’ve felt the visceral punch of cultural dislocation.
You’ve become an ex-patriate.
(Not, as some think, an ex-patriot!)
The money/food/temperature/humidity/foliage/animals/language/flag/national anthem/what they eat for breakfast is all different, new, disorienting, unfamiliar.
What do you mean X is considered normal behavior? Are you kidding?
You might not be able to read road signs or communicate clearly with your physician, grocer, hairdresser, dentist or your kids’ friends.
If you stay long enough, and remain open to the culture of your new country (and there may be several along the way), you change, likely forever. Then, when you go “home” to the country you initially left behind, it now feels weird and alien.
I’ve worked as a cross-cultural counselor for Berlitz and loved it. I counseled senior American executives moving to (my native) Canada and Canadians moving to (my adopted land of 22 years) the United States. I love being the middleman, explaining the minutiae of daily life and social cues and faux pas.
Language skills are barely half the battle if you fail to understand the most fundamental attitudes underlying local choices, whether what to bring to a dinner when you’re an invited guest to knowing which local colleges are truly worth the time and money for you or your loved ones.
The learning curve is vertical.
I’ve just spent three weeks back in Canada, a mix of caring for my mother and vacation time, and it’s the longest I’ve been back since 1998, when I also spent three weeks here. But the culture shock this time, for a variety of reasons, has proven by far the hardest ever, partly because — surprise! — I have now truly adopted many of the behaviors and attitudes and expectations of my home just outside New York City.
In Canada, let alone Western Canada, many of these are deemed downright rude. Like:
Directness. In New York, where people rush about at warp speed all the time, few people waste time. It’s too valuable. So we often say exactly what we think, for better or worse, and get on with things. But being direct can lead to openly expressed differences of opinion which, in some cultures is a toxic choice…
Confrontation. In Canadian culture, about as popular as belching. Just. Not. Done. Those who do it or seek it are seen as boors and best ignored, no matter how urgent or pressing the underlying issue.
Expecting answers to my questions, promptly — if at all. Hah! I am appalled and frustrated beyond measure at the number of unreturned phone calls and emails, from banks, physicians, health care workers, academia. Everyone. I have an assistant, a woman my age who is very polite, tactful, calm, hired to help me promote my new book, a necessity for every author.
She is burned out, fed up and deeply shocked at the profound indifference she encounters from everyone she contacts. I had forgotten — and it’s one powerful reason I chose to leave Canada in the first place — that Canadians hate fame, fortune, celebrating success and those who achieve it. They sneer at it and deride it and make fun of it. Americans live, eat and breathe it. Talk about a cultural divide!
Expecting excellent customer service from the medical system. As if. In the U.S., where MRIs are as common and easily gettable (if you have insurance) as M & Ms (a popular candy, for the non-Americans among you), doctors are usually pretty responsive and respectful. Because Americans, who expect great service everywhere, can and will sue at the drop of a scalpel. Canadian physicians play a totally different role and they retain tremendous power as a result. There are so few of them and they are so busy. They expect deference. They don’t seem to use email. They may take a while to return a phone call. They are essentially paid government employees, and seem to have less accountability to patients or their families. A friend, with a chronic health problem, told me; “Doctors don’t return phone calls.”
But, after that plane takes off from YVR today, I will miss:
Civility. Essential to the Canadian character. It’s assumed and expected. I have retained the habit, which I heard a lot here, of saying “Take care” at the end of even the briefest conversations with bus drivers or bank clerks.
Compassion. In a nation where everyone has access to cradle-to-grave healthcare and $10,000 university educations (or less, per year), caring for strangers is how Canadian public policy enacts larger cultural values. In the mememememememe culture of America, where there is almost no social safety net and growing income ineqality, I miss this a great deal.
I’m aware that it’s perhaps a lot easier and simpler in a nation of 30 million (Canada) than in one with 300 million people, and one with a history of racial brutality.
Shared cultural references. I really enjoy being able to talk about almost anything with people who know exactly what I’m referring to, whether its Air Canada, Big Turks (a fab candy bar) or the NDP (the leftist political party.) Fewer Americans seem to know or care much about life beyond their borders.
A few days ago, I sat in a room in a nursing home with my mother, sorting through boxes of her belongings, from books on theology to a black lace merry widow corset.
When you move into one room, you’re quickly forced to shed about 95% of the belongings that have defined you, and your taste, your memories and history. If, as many of us do, we acquire and keep objects and clothes and shoes and accessories, we choose and keep them for a reason, maybe several.
Often reasons quite unknown to anyone else.
Everything I pulled out for our mutual decision making made me wonder — who is this woman?
At least she’s still alive and we had a chance to make those decisions, however wrenching, together.
I learned more about my Mom in those four hours than in the past, very private, four decades as we went through it all:
Those impossibly soft red leather Cossack-style boots? (That didn’t — damn! — fit me.) Bought in London. She once tucked a pack of cigarettes into the the top of one.
That black and white Marimekko print gown? Worn to the open house when she moved into her Toronto home 20 years ago.
The tie-dyed Indian cotton dress? She designed it while traveling there.
That corset? My mom was one confident hottie! I wish I had the nerve, and the figure, to rock a black lace Merry Widow…
The battered paperback book by Dom Helder Camara, a Brazilian liberation theologist? Autographed to her. Good thing I hadn’t tossed it in our purging.
Not to mention love letters, recent ones, from Australia, New York and beyond. Good work, Mom!
I fly home to New York in two days, with a new, painful and acute sense of how much stuff I own, and how much if it I have to get rid of, now! I cannot imagine my sweetie having to go through it, box by box, trunk by trunk, and make any sense of it without me there: photos, letters, books.
Why am I clinging to it?
Am I still me without it?
Have you ever had to sort, purge and toss out a lot of your stuff? Or someone else’s?
Today is going to be a difficult day, as I’ll say goodbye to my mother — who I’ve typically been seeing only once a year for years, living a six-hour flight away from her.
Two weeks ago, I and a friend of hers moved her into a nursing home, her car and apartment sold, her Japanese prints and engravings and rugs sent to auction, some of her linens and antique textiles given to me and shipped back to New York, where I live.
I’m her only child.
She’s a new person, now, in a totally new environment, a loner surrounded by people she has just met and whose care and attention (or lack of same) will profoundly affect her every day and night. I’d be terrified. But she’s doing well. I burst into tears of relief yesterday at a pub lunch with her when she told me that her three windows, which overlook a private garden, were like three television sets, all view, all the time. She’s happy and healthy, and she had been neither for a long time.
I have been told — and see glimpses of it — she has some dementia. Yet we talked last night, in detail, about family and friends for four hours. I feel as though her intelligence is sands in an hourglass, and I have to grab it and savor it as often as I can.
Which is very difficult over the phone and from an enormous physical distance. Yet I am rooted to my adopted town and country — a half hour drive from her birthplace — as she is in hers, a 20-minute flight from mine.
We did not get along for many years. We’re stubborn, headstrong, feisty, private. I haven’t lived with her since I was 14 and we have always lived a continent or an ocean apart: she in Lima, I in Toronto; she in New Mexico, I in Montreal.
The closest we ever lived, when I was 26, was when she lived in Bath, England and I in Paris. I remember saying to her that year “I’ll meet you at the plane station”, a direct/weird translation of “aerogare”, aka an airport. That’s what happens when you think and dream in French!
Now, after 3.5 months in the hospital and a hip surgery and a bowel surgery, adjusting to the discomfort and indignity of a colostomy bag, she looks healthy and happy again. She uses a walker, but does so with an energy I hadn’t seen in a while.
Being my Mom, she told me to lose weight and asked me to buy her some tweezers — as a former model and actress, such details still matter!
So it’s with a heavy heart I peck out these letters in my hotel room, counting the minutes until I have to say goodbye.
I’ve always thought of myself as a city girl. I love to dress up, eat out, look at art, attend theater.
But having just spent a week in the Rocky Mountains I came away so bereft at the thought of leaving them behind it was hard not to weep today when the Air Canada 767 finally took off from Calgary, taking me back to Vancouver for another week.
How can mountains, ones I didn’t even ski on or climb but merely admired from a distance, so move me?
Every morning, I opened my hotel room’s pale yellow striped curtains and stared straight up a steep, wooded mountain. If I peered off to the right, far in the distance, snow-covered peaks glowed rose in the dawn, disappeared into wreaths of snow or cloud, gleamed blue at dusk.
Having never lived near mountains, I had no idea how they change with every cloud and shaft of light, shifting shape and character hourly. Like an ever-changing baby’s face, I could watch them, mesmerized, for hours.
I had never felt such an intimacy with a landscape, enveloped by the crags surrounding me. I was up this morning at 6:30 to catch my bus, and ran about — my nostrils freezing shut, eyes weeping with cold, bare hands cramping, snatching earrings out of my pierced ears (they conduct cold!) — snapping last-minute photos. As the bus raced east, I shifted from one side to the other taking more images through its windows, oblivious to what a gawping tourist I was being.
Mt. Rundle, one of the peaks I stared at every day in awe, is 330 million years old.
As we entered the endless suburban tracts outside Calgary, a local woman — heading off for a week’s warmth in Mexico — pointed out a “sundog” — a huge rainbow encircling the sun, thanks to light refracted through ice crystals in the air.
It sounds odd to say I’ll desperately miss a pile ‘o rocks, but I will.