Category Archives: Living abroad

Broken, now Free

I thought it might be difficult to not write. After nearly 600 posts since September 2014—and many streaks of every-other-day posts, I pledged to (mostly) take the summer off from writing.

And it’s been great.  I have no problem sleeping in instead of leaping out of bed at 5:30am to knock out 700 words.

But yesterday was a big milestone, something worth writing about.  The reason I ever started this blog in the first place—my son going to prison—is gone.  Yesterday, after spending half his time in prison and half on supervised release, my son’s sentence is over. Over!  He wrote a post about it on his own blog, if you’d like to read it.  I liked this line:

“I am free to roam about the country or world as I please. I am free to register to vote, and I will. I am free to drink alcohol, and I won’t. I am still not allowed to own a gun, and I don’t care.”

For me, the low point was the day I was ejected from Moose Lake prison without seeing Vince because I was wearing a “low-cut shirt.”  Then I went off to the Middle East for work, where I got to hear stories of people being tortured in prison.  When I came home, there was a letter waiting for me, informing me I was banned from stepping foot on any correctional facility property in Minnesota for six months.

Corrections employees have nearly complete discretion, and impunity, to do whatever they want.  And so they do whatever they want.

I feel like I am walking out into the sunlight after several years under a cloud. I transitioned the blog to writing mostly about travel a while back, but I’ll still write about prison once in a while because … there are still 10s of thousands of people in prisons. I don’t just care about my son; I care about my whole community, my state, my country.

Sigh, my poor country.  What a mess we are.  It’s like a nightmare where we are all living on the Jerry Springer Show.

I had never given a thought to prison, prisoners, or people whose loved ones are in prison.  Why would I?  Prisons are far away.  You can’t go inside them without permission. Only bad people are in them, so why would you want to go inside, anyway?  And if a single mom is on her own because her man is in prison, then she and her kids are probably better off, right?

Boy, has it been an eye opener. There are some bad people in prison, for sure.  But mostly they’re regular people who messed up.  Have you ever messed up?  Of course you have.  You just didn’t do something illegal, or you didn’t get caught.

I am grateful to my son for doing the hard work it took to change his life. He had been under arrest before.  He had been homeless.  I suspected he would die early due to liver failure or a car accident or a drug deal gone wrong.

Ironically, it was prison that set him free.  He always says he needed to go to prison. So for all my idealistic fellow campaigners on prison reform, keep that in mind when you propose repurposing prisons into artists’ retreats or organic garden centers.

I have made little progress planning for Australia, except to decide that I will limit myself to Australia and not attempt to also visit New Zealand, Fiji, Borneo, or Papua New Guinea.

Heidi and I spoke for over an hour yesterday on What’s App, and we agreed it’s crunch time.  Time to figure out how we’ll get from Sydney to Melbourne, time to book flights to Tasmania and maybe a train ride to Alice Springs.  Time to book accommodations in the Red Centre.   The pressure is on.

And yet it is summer, and it’s Sunday.  I think I’ll go sit in the garden and read the paper.

The Big Bad

Today is the first day of a nine-day staycation for me. I have never taken a staycation, but I need one.  I need time to plan my sojourn in Oceania, time to enjoy solstice season while it lasts, and time to take a look at my finances to see if I can afford to move to another country.

More about that in a bit.

I had an epiphany this week.  As you know if you’ve been reading for a while, I have visited many of the world’s ancient sites.  Tikal, Petra, Machu Picchu, Stonehenge, Delphi, etc.  I have sometimes come away feeling a comforting sense of connection to all of humanity.  Deep, huh?

More often, I’ve come away thinking, “Whoever built this magnificent site is long dead, and no one knows his name.”  In some cases I may have been able to learn a name if I had dug hard enough or if there was a plaque, but I’d forget it 10 minutes later.

I used to find that sort of sad.  The lesson?  Nothing we do matters in the long run.

But this week I suddenly found it comforting.

In a thousand years, Donald Trump will be a footnote, if not forgotten. Sure, maybe there will be millions of references to him in ancient news articles on servers somewhere, but only students of the classics will be interested.

Maybe he will even become a mythical beast.  Long into the future, a mather (because by then genders will have merged) will be reading a book … no.  Someday, a mather and its child will be immersed in a virtual reality bedtime story thanks to nanoparticle thin films, and little Apple (because old fashioned names will have come back into style by then) will squeal, “Mather, please can we be in the story about the Trump?!”

“Are you sure you won’t get too frightened again?” Mather will ask.

“Yes, I’m sure!”

“Which scenario do you want—The Trump Goes a’Doddering, or Trump and the Seven Dictators, or …”

“The one with the Space Force!” cries Apple.

“The one where we can strap him to a rocket and shoot him to the moon?”
“Yes! Yes! That one!”

“Okay, but remember, dear—it’s just a story. It’s not real.”

If only it weren’t. This regime is causing a lot of human suffering but in the long run, it will be consigned to “the dustbin of history” like others before it.

So in addition to planning a long trip to Australia, I’ve been researching ways to live outside the US.  This book has been really helpful.  It was published in 2012 so it’s somewhat dated, but it’s giving me lots of food for thought and helping me narrow down my choices.

I got this in the mail this week.

Europe?  How about America?  And being Jewish eliminates a half dozen of the 60 countries profiled in the book.  Caring about human rights, not being rich, being environmentally conscious, wanting access to health care, being able to get back to Minnesota within 24 hours, etc. all are helping me narrow it down.

I have two routes to acquire long-term visas:

  • Many countries have retirement visas. You don’t necessarily have to be anywhere near retirement age; you have to show that you meet some minimum threshold of income. The idea is, you won’t be taking a job away from a local resident and you’ll be spending money in the country on rent, food, etc.  The cost of living is multiples lower than that in the US.
  • Working remotely. As I did last summer in Britain, I can continue to work and be paid by my US employer if they allow it. Again, I wouldn’t be taking a local job and I’d be spending money locally.  The rules about this are much murkier, maybe because working remotely is still a new concept to rusty bureaucracies.

Frommer’s “easy” guide to Australia is 317 pages long.

I haven’t made much progress except I did start swimming lessons so I can get scuba certified.  Heidi has warned me however, about “stinger season near the reef and crocodile season in the centre.”

At least there won’t be any Trumps.

Going Down

I’m going to reduce my blogging for the summer to one post a week.  It’s summer in Minnesota, which is very sweet, and very fleeting.

In addition, I’ve just got permission to work remotely again, like I did in the UK last year, and I need planning time.

My friend Heidi, who I met in London in 2007, is now back in Australia caring for her parents.  What a great opportunity to spend time with her in her home environment and see Australia through her eyes.  She lived in London for almost two decades and traveled extensively around Europe and North America, so she’s got perspective, too.

As long as I am going all that way, it seemed logical to try to stay a while, to wander around Australia, New Zealand, maybe Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga …

I’ve been mostly stockpiling my vacation time since last summer.  It’s easier not to use it because I work 90% time, which works out to two unpaid days off per month.  When I went to Colombia I only had to use three vacation days.

Now that our busy proposal season is winding down at work, I’ve reduced my hours to 80%. One of the benefits of working for a non-profit is that they’re always looking for ways to save money.  Allowing an employee to work less—someone they know is responsible and will still get her work done within reduced hours—is a win-win.

So I’ll be gone seven weeks, working one day a week on average to keep on top of things, to keep things moving that need my attention.

As I’ve written before, I can only afford to do this because I have no debt and I live cheaply.  This wasn’t always true—until about 10 years ago I had student loans, a car loan, a mortgage payment, and a credit card balance.  If there’s one thing to prioritize in your financial life, it’s paying off as much debt as possible.  It may seem insurmountable at the beginning; it did to me.  It took years.  It requires sacrifices.  But it can be done.  And what a feeling of liberation.

I’d like to claim I paid off my mortgage.  I didn’t.  I sold my condo, I pay rent now, and that will never go away.  But I am lucky to have found a nice place with very reasonable rent. It’s not in a premium location.  The commute sucks. I don’t have off street parking.  But hey, I just bought a round-trip ticket to Sydney!

Still, Australia is expensive and Oceania is vast. The Australia guide book I got from the library is two inches thick.  I need time this summer to plan ahead, string out purchases of bus or train fares, airfares, lodging, and tours.  Heidi and I spent an hour workshopping on What’s App last weekend.  She’ll have a two-week break from teaching, and we’ll go to Melbourne to visit some other London friends who teach at an Aboriginal Girls’ School.

What should I do in the remaining five weeks?

My head is swirling.  Should I rent a car?  I have a phobia of driving on the other side of the road.  The guide says trains are expensive. But Heidi says they’re not any more expensive than in the UK.  A co-worker advised that New Zealand deserves at least two weeks, and that’s just the south island.  I have a Kiwi friend who lives in France and she’s putting me in touch with her brother who lives in Nelson and might put me up.  A Minnesota friend, has a cousin who runs a resort on Tonga.  Should I go there?

I’ve spent hours trolling Responsible Travel’s website.  They’ve got a budget vacation where you can swim with humpback whales in Tonga.  Dang.  I don’t know how to swim.  I spend a week day dreaming about taking a freighter around French Polynesia.  Oops, it’s 6,000 miles from Sydney to Tahiti, where that trip starts.  Maybe a yoga retreat in Fiji?  But all the photos show women who look like Athleta models.

I was glad to see that Responsible Travel offers plastic-free holidays.

If you have suggestions, please share!

Goodbye Summer, Hello Spring

My last night in Scotland.  We watched University Challenge, a game show that’s been on the air for eons.  In it, teams of four students from two universities answer questions about chemistry, literature, philosophy, physics, geography, and so on.  It was interesting to me how many students representing British universities were from China, the US, and other countries. I guess it would be the same in the US—half the team members would be from India, Korea, and China.

The presenter read a question: “Ulanbaataar’s famous Sükhbaatar Square features monuments to Genghis Khan, Ögedei Khan, and Kublai Khan in front of the Saaral Ordon. The center of the square features an equestrian statue of what famous leader of Mongolia’s 1921 revolution?”

The kids would huddle, then their representative hit a bell.  “Damdin Sükhbaatar!”

“That is correct!”

I got one question correct in the month I was there, and I was proud of myself.

The next morning at breakfast, Lynn was very quiet.  When she left the room, Richard informed me they had made the decision to have the vet come and help dear old Cosmo make his exit from this world. “So say your good byes now.”

I did, then we were off to the airport. It turned out they changed their minds about the vet, and Cosmo lived another month or so.

I flew to Heathrow and spent one night in a hotel nearby.  My plan had been to go into London one last time before flying out but there wasn’t really enough time.  So I had a horrid curry that tasted and looked like cream of mushroom soup in the hotel restaurant, then went to be early.

My summer: Minneapolis to London, London to Copenhagen, Copenhagen to Amsterdam then Utrecht, Utrecht to Salzburg by train, Salzburg to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Addis Ababa, Addis to Axum, Axum to Lalibela, Lalibela to Axum, Axum to Shire by truck and on to the refusee camps and back to Shire and then Axum to Addis, Addis to London, a road trip across Cornwall, Dorset, and Devon; a month in Eton and Windsor, London to Aberdeen, a month in Aberdeenshire, Aberdeen to London, London to MSP.

In the six months since returning to Minnesota: I moved, my mom had a stroke, I helped move her, my son moved.  I enjoyed Wisconsin adventures to Milwaukee, Madison, St. Croix Falls, and Garmisch; and I made a jaunt to Washington, DC for work.

Neither of my big proposals got funded but I’ve cranked out at least six more so I am hopeful.  As I write this I am checking my work email for last minute changes before I submit a proposal for our program in Ethiopia.  It really made a difference in preparing it, having visited in person.

I would love to submit it now, because in two hours I will leave for the airport to fly to Colombia for a week of R&R.  I’m flying the first leg to Miami with my friend Roxana.  From there, I will fly to Bogota and she will head for Medellin, where her daughter Gaby is in grad school.  Rox’s friend Ricardo is coming to join her from Lima, Peru. I’ve met him before; he’s good fun.

I will meet a familiar face in Bogota—Lynn. After a couple days there we’ll fly to Medellin, where we’ll meet Roxana and crew.  That will be fun.  We’ll also fly to Cartegena and spend a couple nights in Tayrona, a national park on the coast.

We’re trying something a new—a sort of guided tour for two.  There will be someone to pick us up at the airport and take us to our hotel.  We’ll have guided tours.  All our hotels and internal flights are arranged for us.  But instead of being with a big group, it’ll just be us.

I know, it probably sounds complicated.  But I’ll just put one foot in front of the other, do the next thing required thing, and try to unwind after six months of moving and family crises and winter.

Lost and Lonach

Three days left in Scotland, then home to Minnesota to sleep in my own bed for one night. The next day I would drive to northern Wisconsin to a resort called Garmisch USA that some heiress from Chicago had built to resemble the German town of Garmisch, with an “Irish Castle” thrown in.

The giant carved androgynous figure at the entrance?  It’s anyone’s guess what that’s about.

This would be the annual cousins’ weekend in a big cabin on a lake, sponsored by my aunt.  I so look forward to it every year.  We would eat, read, make bonfires, take the boat out and fish, eat, play Scrabble, talk, hike, eat, and not sleep much.  It would feel surreal, being in Scotland one day and at this resort two days later.

But first I had to push myself to finish the attic, my second proposal, and the book by my new favorite author, Kazuo Ishiguro. How had I never read him?  Lynn and Richard had two or three of his novels in their library, and I started with the most famous, The Remains of the Day.  I am a big reader, and I found Ishiguro’s character, the butler Stevens, one of the most movingly described characters I’ve ever read described.  I bought two more of Ishiguro’s books at Heathrow and as I was plowing through them at home, Ishiguro was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.  I felt like a genius.

There were a few more excursions to fit in.  We took Lord Parker and drove around, first stopping at a ruined church.

There was a sad plaque in honor of a 15-year-old soldier killed in WWI.

We visited a Pictish tel.  A tel is a hill composed of layers of settlements.  I had only ever heard tell of tels (ha ha) in Israel, where you have the Romans building on top of the Arameans, who had conquered and built on top of the Whosiwhatsits, and on and on.  Don’t bother looking up “Whosiwhatsits,” I just made that up.

Nearby was this road sign.  I’m fairly certain I am not the first person to have my photo taken in front of it.

“It has to be done,” Lynn commented.

There was yet another war memorial plaque, to the Gordon Highlanders, nearby.  In the US, it seems you have to go to Washington, DC or a state capitol to see war memorials.  They  are ubiquitous in Britain—in parks, street corners, and department stores.  I prefer the British approach.  We should be reminded about the cost of war all the time, everywhere we go.

The following day Richard dropped me off in town to get a haircut at Cassie’s salon. My stylist had extremely short, brassy red, spiked hair.

“I’ll just have a trim,” I stated unequivocally.  She went to work and talked away but I could only understand about half of it.

Another customer was seated in the chair next to me and when I heard her Spanish accent I asked, “Are you Maria?”  And it was Maria, the Peruvian wife of Lynn and Richard’s friend Nigel.  They had met when he was working on an oil company project in Peru.  We chatted, then Nigel came in with their nine-month-old son, and Nigel and I chatted.

The hair cut was good and it only cost £9—about $12!

The next day Richard and I went to the Lonach Games. There are Highland games all over Scotland, but I’d like to believe that the Lonach Games were the best.  They’ve been an annual event for 175 years and are a source of much local pride.  The men start early in the day and march in clans, playing the bagpipes and drums, from one town to another for hours, stopping for “wee drams” along the way.  Their grand entrance onto the grounds in the early afternoon is a highlight of the games.

There was lots of piping, dancing, and competitive throwing of very heavy objects over very high bars. Richard and I had a pint and people watched.

This couple looked like movie extras.  “Probably American or Canadian tourists,” Richard remarked.

 

Over the Hills

One of my proposals was due in two days and things had gone seriously off piste. It may be that, because we are essentially a mental health organization, we have a way of working that is consultative in the extreme.  When people edit drafts of proposals they never comment, “This number should be 50.”  Instead they write, “I sort of think this number could be 50, but what does everyone else think?”  And then everyone piles on and adds comments until all the edits look like the Babylonian Talmud.

I often suggest that people jump on Skype and talk to each other and make decisions, but with time differences and poor internet and … well … Skype—the program we love to hate—that’s challenging.

A colleague had offered to incorporate everyone’s comments into the proposal.  I just had to give it a once-over to cut down the length and make sure it was clear and responded to the donor’s intent and requirements.  I was free to go with Lynn on an excursion the next day.

The next day.  An email from my colleague to the whole group, “I’m sick and there’s no way I can do these edits. I’m sorry!  I’m signing off now.”

Shit.  It was on me now.

“Will there be internet at the venue?” I asked Lynn.  She didn’t know; Richard Googled it and the website didn’t say anything about internet.

“But it’s an event venue,” Lynn reasoned.  “It has to have internet.”

“Agreed.  It has to have internet.”

Lynn is on the board of Grampian Women’s Aid, one member of a consortium of Scottish domestic abuse organizations.  The event was a celebration marking their 40 years of providing refuge for survivors and advocating for stronger laws to protect women and children.

It took us an hour to get to there.  Richard had hand-drawn a map for us; I held it and nervously called out the turns.  “Left before this bridge!”  “Right after the abandoned pub!”  We only got slightly lost once, which is amazing for Lynn and me.  Why didn’t we use a GPS?  I don’t recall, but we passed through one of the most wild, empty areas of Scotland.  An old-school GPS wouldn’t have known about the washed-out bridge; a smart phone-based app needs 3G, which was iffy in some areas.

I’m looking at a map of Aberdenshire now, trying to figure out where we were. I love the names but none of them sound familiar: Haugh of Glass.  Glenkindie Towie. Bellabeg Strathdon. Longmorn Fogwatt. We may have been in Cairngorns National Park.  I don’t know.

We passed this creepy gate.  I hope it was a joke.

I can’t recall the name of the venue, but it was lovely.  We met some of the other board members in the café to have lunch before the event, which was redundant because there was so much great food at the event.  More great food!  Here is my lunch.  A fresh fish fest!  I forgot all about my proposal.

But after lunch reality hit and while Lynn and her fellow volunteers were setting up, I tried to get an internet connection.  This was complicated by the fact that my laptop battery has been dead for five years so it has to be plugged in.  I walked around with it and finally got an off-on connection and an electric outlet in a back room.

People think everybody, everywhere, is online.  Well everybody isn’t, and doesn’t.  People in Ethiopia.  People in rural Scotland.  People in Nebraska.  Poor people.  Elderly people.  Me.

But I managed to just focus’til I got ‘er done then got enough of a connection to send it off.

The event was very moving.  About 100 women and men were in attendance, including one of the local lords and a woman politician.  This is artwork by children in refuge.

The most memorable speaker was a woman who had been involved from the start.

The food was fantastic and provided gratis by the caterer.

I felt grateful.  A former battered woman myself, I was now eating strawberry and cream tarts in Scotland to celebrate 40 years of aid to battered women.  There is so much good work being done in this world by so many.

Poetry in Motion

Two days after the party, Michael and Gwen left for Rye on the train and Lynn flew down to Oxford for a day.

I made a last push to get my two proposals submitted, hit a road block, then turned my attention to the attic project.  I would leave in a little over a week and I hadn’t even started painting yet.

“I want your approval to recycle and throw some things out,” I said to Richard.  “I can’t paint if I can’t reach the walls.  Since Lynn is gone ….”

He was all for it, so we began carrying bags and boxes of old magazines and books and empty plastic bags and broken coat hangers and the posters from the wind turbine campaign down to the bins.

There were multiples of some books, including a collection of stories and poems by refugees. I seemed to remember that Christina, their Congolese foster daughter, had contributed to some such book.  They went into the recycling bin.

Richard carried down a dozen suitcases and valises and garment bags and overnight bags and added them to a pile for the charity shop.  Who uses garment bags anymore?  Well, maybe for storage.  Maybe someone would buy these garment bags at the charity shop and use them to store stuff in their attic.

I was painting in the attic the following afternoon when I heard Lynn come home.  I worried that she would inspect what we had tossed, but didn’t hear any protesting downstairs.

I came down a little while later to find the poetry books on a bench outside the kitchen. My stomach turned.  Richard exited the kitchen, head down, and headed upstairs without making eye contact.

Lynn was in the kitchen, chopping something with a large knife.  She didn’t look up when I entered.

“The…uh…uh…books,” I stammered.

Lynn set down the knife and looked at me.  “I’m not angry….” She started.  She was disappointed, which felt much worse.  “Chrissie contributed a poem to that collection.  It was part of her program of adjustment.”

I, of all people, should have known better.  I, who work for an organization that helps asylum seekers recover from trauma .

“I…I assumed she kept a copy,” I said lamely.

“Yes, well we don’t know that,” Lynn said.  “She’s moved from to Belgium with two children and who knows what she was able to take with her.”

“You’re right, you’re right.  I am really sorry.  I feel like an idiot—I guess I was focused on my goal and in my zeal to Get it Done I just didn’t think.”

I carried the books back up to the attic and stayed there, painting, until dinner.  The three of us were a bit quiet that evening, but by the next day things felt okay.

“I won’t be removing anything more from the attic,” I murmured to Richard when I caught him alone in the hall. He nodded in agreement.

It was a warm, sunny day so Richard set lawn chairs out in the garden after lunch and the three of us read and drank wine.

Richard fell asleep first.

“This is unbelievable,” Lynn remarked, “There’s an article here about an 18-year-old girl who has 27 million followers on Twitter, and if she says something about a product, they are suddenly swamped with orders!”

I was working my way through the latest issue of Private Eye, which is like Mad Magazine only strictly for adults and with British humor and inside jokes that I often don’t get.

“Ugh,” I responded lethargically.  “I’ve been writing blog posts of—what I consider good-quality writing for years, and I only have a couple hundred followers.”

“You should write about fashion,” Lynn suggested.

“Right.  Have you seen what I’m wearing?”  I had been rotating the same four outfits for three months.

“You could try to get her to Tweet something about your organization.  You’d get millions in donations overnight.”

“I doubt torture is her thing.”

But Lynn was asleep, and soon I was too, plus a dog or two.  It had been a busy week and guilt is exhausting.