Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Postman

 

We arrived in Estonia in mid-November 1995. The entire Baltic region was in the throes of a massive blizzard upon our arrival; I didn’t actually see the ground until late April.

I love snow, cold weather, and winter sports (my favorite of which is sitting in front of a blazing fire with hot cocoa or wine—yes, that’s a sport in my book). What I was not prepared for was the lack of sunlight at 58 degrees North Latitude. Although there are rumors that Estonians enjoy the sun from around 9 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon, in the winter months, it clearly depends on how you define sun. And enjoy for that matter. With the combination of a sun hanging so low in the sky that it barely peeks above the horizon and almost daily snowfall, dawn seemed to extend into dusk. And we called these gray hours in between the two: Daytime—more out of habit than appearance.

My step-daughter, Debra, stayed with us for the first few weeks in Tartu, before moving up to Northern Estonia for several months to teach English as a second language and then returned to the States. My nephew, David, also stayed with us for about 4 months before returning to the States.

Very early in the morning, within the first week of our arrival, the phone rang; Debra answered it.

“Hello,” she said, as I jumped from my bed, assuming that only an emergency from the States would have our phone ringing at such an hour. Debra’s expression was quizzical as she silently listened for what seemed like forever before handing me the phone. “Some guy is singing Rain-drops keep falling on my head in English but with a strong accent and off-key. I have no idea…” As I took the phone, Debra returned to her bed.

The assumption was that I had some idea. I did.

20 hours earlier (more or less)

It was perhaps our second, possibly third, day in Estonia, that I began what became my daily routine of crawling out of bed, despite the darkness, and going out for a morning walk. On that first morning walk I dragged David out of bed to join me.

Estonia was pristine and quiet in the dim November light as we walked through the falling snow, laughing and inspecting our new world. We didn’t know it at the time but we were walking in an area of Tartu known as Souptown. During Soviet times, the government attempted to change all street names that reflected national heroes from the country’s past. In fact the Soviet Empire liked folks to pretend that they had no past; instead they were all created on the day they were kidnapped by—whoops, I mean incorporated into—the USSR. So when Moscow looked at the tiny country of Estonia and saw a section of Tartu that had streets apparently named after their heroes—who just happened to have last names like Potato, Cabbage, Carrot etc.—Moscow demanded that Estonia change the street names to more appropriate names like Lenin, Stalin and Lucky-us-to-be-in-this-great-new-experimental-fuster-cluck. The Estonians, however are a clever lot—at least when compared to the drunken Moscow bullies. They replied to this request for name changes with a seriously innocent letter that said something like: “Our Dearly Beloved Comrades Who Art in Moscow: We see no reason to change the names of these streets since they are named after our favorite soup ingredients. And you know how we love our soup! Surely you will agree that this would be a great nuisance and expense for no reason.” Moscow agreed and the name Souptown was born, living within the quiet chuckles of the Estonian people. In 1995, pensioners and very poor people inhabited Souptown but it was clean and quaint; a great place to walk.

Okay, I broke tangential there for a minute … now back to the story.

So David and I were walking down the street, when I heard someone address me in English.

“Hello, Madame; are you French?” A male voice asked.

I looked above me and standing on a slight hill was a young man grinning from ear to ear wearing a leather mail carriers pouch—bulging with letters—slung across one shoulder

“No, I’m American,” I replied in English, partially because he’d spoken to me in English but primarily because it’s the only language I spoke.

“Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” he asked.

“Um… nein.”

“Parlez-vous français?” he asked

“Non,” I replied. “Didn’t we already establish that I’m American and I speak English?” I asked.

“Did we?”

“We did in my mind.”

“Hm… Okay. I’ll speak English wis you but I speak many languages,” he said with a notable lack of modesty.

“Apparently.” I wasn’t impressed; I was slightly amused.

“What is your name?” he asked.

“Holly.” I have no idea why I answered him.

He suddenly became aware of David and said, “Do you has a man in your flat?”

“I can’t imagine anything that might be less your business.” I turned to walk away.

“No wait. Wait! I’m sorry. I never see so interesting people as you and I’m so exciting to meet such foreigners in zis cold, fucking, Soviet piece of shit country.”

“Nice language,” I said.

“Sanks!” he replied enthusiastically. “I also speak Russian, Estonian, Ossetian and Georgian.” He thought I was complimenting his English. I chose not to correct him.

He turned to David, “I didn’t mean you weren’t man but you are … hm… a boy really. Skinny and um… I don’t know…” He looked somewhat disapprovingly at David.

“We might discuss his social skills at some point if we get to know him,” David whispered good naturedly.

“There’s no if, Dave,” I said. I honestly had no intention of seeing this man again. Ever.

“And vhat’s your name?” he asked my nephew.

“David and I’m Holly’s nephew.”

“Oh I so love zis name! Okay, you vill be my new best friends from America,” Avto said resolutely, suddenly clapping his hands and laughing loudly. Apparently owning the name David (or perhaps being my nephew) bumped David up a notch in Avto’s opinion. “I vill call you Hol and Davidito. Americans love nicknames so zeese vill be your new names, from me: Your new best friend, who is named, Avto.”

“That’s your name?” David asked. “Avto? Like Avtomobile?”

Avto laughed from his belly. “Yes, Avto, but it’s for Avtandeel not Avtomobile; you can call me Avi. I am from zee Georgia, the country not zee American state,” he finished. It was good to have that potential misunderstanding cleared up early on.

“Okay, then,” David said, “We’ll see you around, Avi. Nice meeting you.”

“Give me phone number,” Avto said grabbing an undelivered envelope from his mail pouch, and a pen from his pocket.

“Dude, you can’t write on someone’s mail!” David said.

“Oh yes; it’s okay. I know all of zeese grannies and granddaddies. Zey are like my family.” He handed me the envelope.

I have no idea why we gave him our phone number that morning; destiny, I suppose.

Fast Forward 20 Hours Or So

“Some guy is singing Rain-drops keep falling on my head in English but with a strong accent and off-key… I have no idea…”

Debra’s assumption was that I had some idea. I did.

“Good morning, Avi.” I said into the phone. I didn’t have to ask who was on the line. Such eccentricity is scarce in life.

“Brilliant morning, Hol! I can call you Hol, right?”

“Uh huh. But don’t call before 7 AM anymore, okay? And don’t sing into the telephone because it’s kinda… it’s just weird,” I said. I recall thinking This might not be the weirdest thing Avto does but if it’s all this harmless, I can deal with it.

“Uh huh… Okay,” he said, in a way that led me to think he’d been given advice like this before. “I sought you might like to come wis me on my mail route and meet some of zee grannies and granddaddies of Tartu. I deliver zeir mail every day and pension money every month. And sometimes I help zem wis life. You vill see inside of houses and pet cats and maybe have tea wis us…”

I’m not sure why that idea was so enticing—given the early hour and the improbability of my enjoying Avto’s peculiar company—but I threw on my clothes and joined him that morning and almost every morning after that for many months, as he delivered his mail. I drank tea with the pensioners, pet their cats, warmed myself by their woodstoves and I learned what Avto meant when he said he “helped zem wis life.”

Anyway… I wanted to introduce you to Avto before I went further into this blog because he was such a character in my life and I enjoyed my time with him immensely—for the most part… Eccentric relationships are seldom the easiest but they can be incredibly rewarding and they make for great stories.

 

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My Journey | Photo Gallery 1

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I’m an American, Damn it

 

In 1993 I was widowed with two young daughters. Broken and bereaved, I dreamed of rebuilding a simpler, less cluttered life. After months of debating possibilities, I decided that the newly independent country of Estonia was a perfect location to construct this new life. Some said I was overreacting and should continue living in my rural Virginia community. I chose a different path: Within 2 years I packed up all of our earthly necessities and, with my daughters, moved to this tiny Northeastern European country. It never crossed my mind that my goal wasn’t achievable. I believed that anything was possible; so it was.

By 1996 I had bought a small flat and was settled into my new life.

As I walked through an outdoor market in Tartu, Estonia, in 1998, a Russian man yelled: “Hey, American, say us about Clinton and Lewinsky!”

“There’s nothing to say,” I replied. “You read the news and know as much as I do.”

“No, no; say why Americans think this story so big interesting?”

Before I could reply, his friend answered him in Russian, “Because they’re Americans,” as a small crowd nearby laughed.

Typically, Americans are thought to be judgmental and have puritanical attitudes towards sex. But, I walked away with my head held high, that day, because I knew something he didn’t know: I was not a typical American!

Three years into my Estonian adventure, tightened immigration policies dictated that I apply for official residency. Because there was no I love the simple life I’ve created here box to tick on the form for requesting a living permit, I couldn’t even begin the process of applying. I was quickly asked to leave the country.

Wait one damned minute, here… Hasn’t this government been encouraging foreigners to buy property for years? And now, are they just expecting me to walk away from my friends, my life and my property?

I knew I’d emerge victorious, as I entered my battle with the immigration department, stubbornly fighting against what I saw as injustice. More than one time I heard a supervisor say, “She is American!” in reply to a head scratching subordinate asking questions like: “Why does she keep coming back acting like we’ll change our policies?” and “What exactly is she doing in our country, anyway?”

In this context, she’s American meant she’s a warrior and doesn’t surrender easily. It also meant, she has reasons for her choices and behavior that are not necessarily logical. I wasn’t about to explain that my crusade for fairness had nothing to do with being American (certainly not with my pathetic Estonian language skills, since Europeans endlessly ridicule Americans for not mastering foreign languages!). So I allowed the bureaucrats their beliefs, that I was a typical American, as I continued challenging their system.

A few weeks into my battle, a well-known local magazine published an article about my daughters and me, asking pointed questions like: How can Estonia evict a poor widow and her children? And Are these what we call enemies of our state? This was the magic bullet I’d been waiting for, instantly piercing and rewriting the immigration department’s ironclad policies. I was later told—although I never received official confirmation on this—that the country of Estonia adopted a new criterion for immigration based solely on my needs: Anyone owning property in Estonia has the right to request residency thus providing a box for me to tick on my application for a living permit.

I lived quietly in Estonia for several more years after receiving my residency permit—traveling, writing, home-schooling and teaching English as a second language—before moving to Latvia in 2001.

One day while browsing a bookstore in Riga, Latvia, I found a series of books, describing—in sweeping stereotypes—different cultures. I laughed out loud as I read What Is An Italian? Oh those Italians… God bless ‘em. They’re just so Italian… And on to the French… how can you not laugh at, and love, the French?

Then I saw it: What Is An American? The thought of reading about those Americans had me laughing before I opened the book.

Number 1: All Americans think they’ll die of cancer and worry about it constantly.

Wait a minute; I stopped in mid-chuckle. That wasn’t actually funny… I thought of how many things I ate, didn’t eat, supplemented with, and didn’t smoke, in hopes that I’d beat the big C.

Okay, so maybe I had something in common with those Americans.

Number 2: All Americans tell you that they are not typical Americans.

My late mother-in-law once said to me, “I just can’t stand people who speak with accents. I have worked very hard to speak proper English with no accent.” This was said in a refined New York accent. When I attempted to tell her that, to a Midwesterner—or even to me, for that matter—she had a significant accent, she impatiently replied, “That’s simply not true. You, however, do have quite an accent and you might work on that!” I loved my mother-in-law, but I despised her horribly limited worldview—so restricted that she couldn’t see that she was exactly like the people she couldn’t stand.

So there I stood in a bookstore in Riga, Latvia, reading: All Americans tell you that they are not typical Americans, in my decidedly American accent, thinking: Oh shit!

Another widely accepted fact: Americans have coarse vocabularies.

That day—standing in the bookstore—the shutters surrounding my worldview slammed open. And I began the process of embracing my inner-American.

During our time in Estonia and Latvia, we washed our clothes by hand, shopped in open-air markets and lived in some extremely tight quarters. For many years we didn’t own a car; we used public transportation and bicycles. Our minimal wardrobes fit in four drawers and one closet. But through it all we had affordable, if not free, medical care and my daughters had free dental care until they reached 18.

The good times in Estonia and Latvia looked a lot like hard times in America. We struggled financially just to live very simply. Without a high expectation imposed by society, however, there was no stigma on living simply and small, making our modest life manageable, sustainable and joyful—until the time that it ceased to be any of the aforementioned.

It was 2008 when Latvia collapsed economically. The political system, always dodgy, quickly followed the economy down the tubes. Americans can’t imagine the depths of depression reached by New Europe during those hard times.

In the midst of this societal implosion, my Latvian partner, Egils, and I packed up our tiny car and fled to the west, landing in Scotland. Both daughters had relocated—one to begin a family in England and one to attend university in the USA. Egils and I moved in with friends, Jim and Thilda, who opened their home to us until we found work. Although we loved Scotland and our dear friends, being without work, money, or our own home—while looking into the face of our golden years—was an abysmal prospect.

So here I am, living in Scotland, adjusting, learning, and reflecting…

The UK has an interesting relationship with America. They find us fascinating—frequently in a WTF-are-they-thinking kind of way—a bit like parents viewing their teenagers.

Our household is watching BBC news. President Obama is discussing his ideas for building a new healthcare system to replace the broken one… cut to the next frame: A group is protesting in the street against Obamacare. I’m not paying much attention until Thilda turns to me, her mouth slightly open, and says: “Holly, they make it sound like some Americans dinna want free healthcare.”

“Yes, that’s right,” I reply.

“No, I mean, like they don’t want to have a national healthcare system … like they’re not entitled to be healthy …”

“Yes, that’s correct. Some Americans don’t want that,” I say. Then realizing Thilda is having trouble wrapping around the fact that there are people on this planet who believe children are entitled to an education but not healthcare, I continue, “Those very people, who are protesting national healthcare, point to you guys and the way you gripe about the NHS [National Health Service], as a reason not to have national healthcare.”

Thilda’s mouth opens wider, “Surely you’re joking! We want to improve our system, no doubt, just like we want to improve everything. But no one wants to do away with our healthcare, altogether! That would be insane…”

Thilda turns to her husband: “Jim are you hearing this? Do you ken there are some folks who dinna want national healthcare?”

Jim doesn’t look up from his paper. “They’re Americans,” he mutters.

I know what Jim means: Americans are impossible to understand. They are illogical and stubborn as mules. There is no explaining why they vote against their best interest and create horrible messes while declaring they have the best country in the world; of course, in America everything is declared. Loudly. Life is one big fat overreaction…

At least I think that’s what Jim means…

I stop trying to explain Americans, as I feel myself sliding down that slippery slope that begins with explaining, before plummeting into a defense. Why should I defend American insanity? What the hell is wrong with them, anyway? Those stubborn, emotional, opinionated, incapable-of-managing-their-own-lives poor excuses for… I seethe at the images of these Americans on the BBC.

Suddenly I’m aware that I’m sitting in someone else’s living room, because the country I chose to live in for the past 14 years just collapsed; a fact that came as no surprise to most folks, but blindsided me. Some might say that I was incapable of managing my life… Hm … I’m also aware that my stubborn, emotional, opinionated thoughts about Americans, a moment ago, were delivered in an American accent. Shit!

“Is there any hope that this can be solved?” Thilda’s voice interrupts my thoughts.

“Of course,” I say, unsure if I’m referring to my shattered life, my relationship with my motherland or the broken American healthcare system. Or all three.

“There’s really hope?” Thilda sounds skeptical.

“Yes!” I say and, oddly, I mean it.

Because as an outsider looking in I’ve learned a few things about myself from observing my country:

Americans are crusaders, believing in an abundant, safe, clean, country that will be proudly handed down to their grandchildren, although they seldom agree on how to achieve their goals. Americans are emotional, opinionated and extreme, with a stubborn refusal to compromise. This keeps us moving forward; it also plagues us with endless conflict along the way. But, our common denominator is, Americans believe we can forever survive—to dream new dreams and make them come true—and so, somehow, we do.

We believe in alleviating the suffering of others; by now it’s probably a marker in our DNA. The Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore DNA Sequence… And so we will.

Americans are… um… just so American: Frequently crude and loud, forever opinionated, illogical and stubborn. But we are also mighty warriors, capable of creating great change and endlessly reinventing ourselves, particularly when we stop fighting with one another. We are the youngsters of the Old World cultures—high-energy, impetuous children—bumbling, stumbling, as we barge head long into virgin territory, unwilling to take advice from our elders… It’s what makes us innovators and leaders. With youthful exuberance we believe in ourselves—for better or worse. So when we fall we hop up. After behaving badly, we reconsider, undo and reinvent—forever rushing into the unknown with a passion that often destroys us and recreates us simultaneously. We do not believe we can be broken beyond repair; and so we can’t.

I sit here in Scotland watching Americans fighting against national healthcare, with 50 million uninsured Americans and an abysmal economy. They’re broken and battered, in need of a reinvention on many levels—just as I am. But as hopeless as we seem, I know, in my bones, that we will somehow survive these hard times and live to fulfill new dreams and fight another day, because we’re Americans, damn it. We believe in our power to find solutions, rise above challenges and flourish; so—in spite of who we are and because of who we are— we always do!

 

The Accidental Immigrant

My life felt like cheap, poorly designed boots, back then. Not that it was a bad life; it was just an ill fit. I had a much higher opinion of myself than to think I would have created such a mundane life as mine was; surely this was all some cosmic accident. I should mention that I believed in accidents, back in the day…

I longed to travel from the time I read my first book about far off places; the first of which was a sci-fi book set on Mars. At the age of seven Mars seemed like an exciting holiday destination other than the lack of oxygen thing. Within my imaginary adventures I was already setting the bar for my future travels: heavy on the excitement, light on creature comforts. Reading about far away lands allowed me to create myself in a different life—a life that excited and engaged me. I studied both French and German when I was eight years old; by the age of ten I regularly dreamed of traveling abroad.

I married young, and started my family; a life choice that pretty much put traveling in an indefinite holding pattern. My husband John assured me that we would one-day travel and I knew that I would; I felt it in my bones. Meanwhile, I built homes and had babies; I baked bread and wrote songs; I started businesses and planted gardens.

And I continued dreaming of travel although I engaged in few activities to support my dream, other than reading.

When I was 26, I stepped into a plane—a tiny Cessna 152. I excitedly signed up for flying lessons that same day. Within my first month of flying, however, I had two realizations. First: I actually didn’t want to pilot my own plane; I simply wanted to experience a sense of travel and adventure—however brief and illusory. It was the second realization, however, that ended my career as a pilot before it began: My lack of any sense of direction would likely hurl me into a missing persons’ file if I attempted the solo flight required for a pilot’s license. Since going missing was more of an adventure than even I cared to experience, achieving a pilot’s license disappeared from my bucket list. Flying solo was not an option.

A married, homeowner, mother of four, living in rural Virginia, singer in a family band, owner of several small businesses over the years, I appeared more or less average in print, in spite of my burning desire for something else. Something more. Something different. But through it all, I had John: My husband, soul mate and for better or worse (and trust me there were plenty of both) the cornerstone of my life. We had a passionate, elaborately interwoven relationship that began when I was eighteen years old. Ours was not always an easy relationship, but it was always… perpetual… constant… predictably unpredictable…

In the summer of 1993, I was 41 years old. Our children were ages 20 (Morgan), 16 (Jonathan), 8 (Jessica) and 4 (Erin). Our family had outgrown our home the day Erin—our treasured surprise baby—was born; four years later it was bursting at the seams. Buying a new home, however, was out of the question as we robbed from Peter to pay Paul just to cover our basic bills that year. The recession of the late 80’s early 90’s had taken its toll; we had yet to bounce back although we knew we would, as we excitedly planned our next business venture. We were struggling on many levels when, out of the blue, John became ill and suddenly died. Within his long final breath my entire life turned inside out before plummeting into an abyss that took me two years to find my way out of.

With a life that revolved around my husband, I searched franticly for an identity beyond wife. I couldn’t imagine being anything besides the other half of We: We built our house. We had a family. We sang and played music together… I had no clue how to be an Ihow to fly solo with absolutely no sense of direction—but I had no choice but to do so.

I spent two years wandering around within the abyss; I longed for what I had once considered my ill-fitting life. It was near the end of this time that I truly connected with my—as of yet unexpressed—inner traveler. And she was one pushy, impulsive, little bitch! She was also a survivor who led me out of the abyss and into a life that ultimately fit me like a pair of custom-made Italian leather boots.

By 1995 Morgan was living on her own and Jonathan was enrolled in a school in Arizona. I was down to two children living at home, with no idea where we were going.

Initially I thought I’d take my two youngest daughters, Erin and Jessica, and visit Estonia for 6 months before returning to the USA and finding my niche within American society. I was enchanted with the idea of spending time in this newly independent state. Having become a part of the Soviet Union in the 1940’s, Estonia gained her independence in 1991. I liked the idea of visiting a brand new country before it became commercialized. Both Estonia and I were struggling to find ourselves; we were both creating a new identity, while in a healing process.

I packed up my daughters and headed east in 1995. We flew to Reykjavík, Iceland before traveling to Stockholm, Sweden. From Stockholm we took a Ferry to Helsinki, Finland and then a second ferry down to Tallinn, Estonia. After an exhausting 3-hour train ride from Tallinn to Tartu, Estonia we settled into a cozy two-bedroom rental flat.

Estonia was in the process of creating herself in front of our eyes—changing appreciably, every day. In spite of having no hot water for months on end, no clothes washer and no car, our life was exciting and fulfilling; heavy on excitement and light on creature comforts. It was a perfect fit.

When our flight back to the USA came around, 6 months later, we ritualistically destroyed our tickets after deciding we would buy a place of our own and remain in Europe “for a while longer.”

I am now entering my 18th year of living abroad—currently in Scotland. My youngest daughters are grown and living on their own: Jessica graduates from Temple University, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, this spring, and Erin lives with her husband and baby girl in Nottingham, England. Morgan is a musician and mother living with her husband and daughter in Virginia and Jonathan, also in Virginia, owns his own business and lives with his wife on the side of a mountain.

I never consciously intended to immigrate; I wanted to travel and explore the world before returning “home”… But my choices led me down another path and I’ve come to realize that my “home” resides within me. I have lived a rich, although often solitary, life. I feel blessed that the Universe has supported me so well, allowing me, thus far, to avoid trips to Mars…

This blog is about raising my daughters in foreign lands, the people who have touched my life (including one special person who joined me on my journey), and my ever-changing worldviews. But it’s also about my inner-travels—those accidental revelations and realizations that accompany becoming an accidental immigrant.

A few of the more important realizations being: There are no accidents. No life is ever an ill fit. We are all travelers—whether or not we’ve ever stepped on a plane, ridden on a train or left our hometown—because life is the ultimate journey!