Tuesday, February 26, 2013

As Time Goes By

The fog dramatically creeps into a black and white movie set while paralleling the fuzziness of my dream.  The Lockheed Electra 12A is not about to take off with Victor Laszlo, but instead, my husband V, is piloting the plane.  Midgets run around the Soundstage #1 at Warner Brothers Studio in Burbank.  In Ingrid Bergman’s place, I am standing on the tarmac, full of hope, while my husband’s voice crackles from the walkie-talkie in my hand (Did they even have walkie-talkies back then? Well – whatever, it’s my dream, I can imagine what I want):  “Are you done, yet?” he asks, anxiously. “You’ve got 11 more months to get it figured out,” his words shout above the roar of the propellers and static of the radio.  “But Honey, just shut those engines off and climb down the stairs – it’s beautiful out here!” I proclaim.  He vigorously shakes his head in the comfort of the cockpit, “No, no.  I’m fine.  I piloted the flight here and I will pilot us home, I just need to keep the engines warm, and besides. . .” he searches for more excuses. . . “and besides. . . I need to keep contact with air traffic control,” he dutifully responds with a nod of his head.  I stand against the roar of the plane, and the wind of my heart.  My determined eyes focus on the horizon as the edges of my trench coat flap against my body, a single, glistening tear falls down my professionally makeup-ed cheek “But the sunset is so gorgeous!” I plead, “. . . and don’t you worry about those ants or other continental beasts, as long as you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you. . . come on out and experience this moment – it’s amazing!”  Still hesitant to leave the safety of the cockpit and venture out into the world of the unknown, I deliver my most meaningful and passionate line of the entire film:  “We are part of each other’s work, we keep each other going. . . If you don’t get off that plane. . . you’re going to regret it, maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life. . .” He stops fidgeting with the dials and knobs.  For a moment – despite everything else, the world is still.  He pauses, staring out of the windshield into the humid evening.  He lets the idea sink into his apprehensive mind and heart – knowing with a previously unacknowledged certainty what it is he must do.  He carefully unbuckles his seat belt, squeezes between the seats and heads towards the door of the plane. . .
  I have a favorite book – Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy by Sarah Ban Breathnach.  It is the most meaningful $3.48 I have EVER spent in my life – at a Half Price books in Dallas, Texas.  I’m pretty sure that the target audience is 50-year-old-divorcee-women, but nevertheless; it is never too early or late to find your Authentic Self.  I love this book.  It has been a permanent fixture on my nightstand in multiple houses across multiple continents.  I gave a copy of this book to all the members of my wedding party.  I’ve had it for years and every year I devotedly commit to reading the daily passage.  In reality, it rests by my bedside and I pick it up when I’m feeling determined, stressed or uninspired.  (So as a result, I’ve read January’s, December’s entries multiple times and then sporadically throughout the year, respectively.)  This year, with my kids actually, um, sleeping regularly, I’ve been able to keep up my New Year’s ‘aspirations’ for a bit longer. . . I’ve started and been successfully making daily entries into my Gratitude Journal, which Sarah suggested to me years ago. . . and I have been reading the daily passages.  To my surprise and happiness, Feburary’s entries have proven quite helpful.  (which is totally typical of this book. . . any time you’re having an uninspired day, you can pick up the book and whoa laa!  You’ll find the answer to your creative or emotional struggle. . . unless you read June. . then she’s just telling you to clean your house.  Total Blah.)   
  Highlights from February: 
    “In Africa, to go on safari – the Swahili word for journey – is to leave the comfort and safety of civilization to venture into the wilderness.  Each time you listen to the woman within – your authentic self – you do the same.  . . A safari of the self and Spirit is at times lonely.  But we know we are never alone.  It is a comfort to realize that this sense of isolation is necessary if we are to encounter Mystery, and mystery is very much a part of a safari.  Each day in the wilderness brings with it the struggle to survive and a heightened awareness of how wonderful it is just to see the sun set and rise again in the morning.  Each day on safari is lived to the fullest because it is all that is guaranteed.  If only we could learn this lesson as well in our everyday lives.”  - Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy, Sarah Ban Breathnach
   I read the passage outloud to V the other night.  He nodded with wisdom, awareness, and appreciation.  This is why I love this guy. . . he can appreciate the advice given to 50-year-old divorcee’s, too.  He’s actually the one who came up with the pilot/me standing-on-the-tarmac-begging-him-to-join-my-safari-vision.  We laughed and smiled.  We’ve talked about how I’m on the upward tick of things (I think I’ve been on since our trip home to Dallas in November. . . or rather since Little Man’s 1st bday in October. . . If I can just survive the 1st year, I know I’ll be OK – I always said to myself.). . . but that we both agree that V may be just slowly starting his ascent.  I think because things were so tough for me the minute I stepped into this country – no accounting job, not knowing the language, no family nearby, no personal income, no friends nearby, no prior knowledge of how to take care of a child all day long, much less two, ages 21-months and uh, 3-months. .  my struggles to make our house a home (no furniture, no knowledge or how to get food home, or how to light the stove in order cook food once we carried it home) etc. etc. etc.  I came to the realization quicker that we had to adapt or die.  (Okay, maybe that’s too dramatic. . . adapt or Go Home. . .which of course, I was determined not to do. . . we’re supposed to be here, I reasoned. . . at the very least, uh, Paris is 2 ½ hours away – let’s not forget how fabulous that little fact is!)  Whereas, V was still floating along in a somewhat skewed version of a familiar routine. . . work. . . home. . . errands on the weekend. . . take care of kids at night, etc.  
  We’re catching on.  We’re getting it together.  I think this is the beauty of the entire process.  It’s tough – we’re on our own, with no one to depend on but each other and the few friends we’ve made (which are invaluable).  But it is a great feeling when we figure something out, like – knowing exactly where to go to buy a rug, or being able to successfully make family trips to Belgium for the day.
   I was at Charity High Tea last weekend (I know – doesn’t that just sound fabulous and fancy?!  It was quite fun and lovely though – beautiful spread, great friends, a really nice event on a snowy Sunday afternoon) but one of the things the other guests and I talked about is how many of us are on a crossroads of life.  We are all here in The Netherlands for an undetermined or for many, determined amount of time and a lot of us are wondering, what’s next? (Of course, this same question comes up over margaritas in a Texas living room, too. . .but I’m not there right now. . . )  We all sat there nodding at each other. . . the question lingering in the air like chalk dust. . . What’s next?  Or perhaps even more directly, What’s the Point of being here now?  As we sipped Prosecco and nibbled on homemade bonbons and scones, one of my friends made the observation that sometimes it’s during the times when you’re most discouraged is when you perhaps find the true direction you want or are supposed to take.  It struck a chord with me.  February 11th’s entry in Simple Abundance: “As the English historian Dame Cicely Veronica Wedgwood points out, ‘Discontent and disorder [are] signs of energy and hope, not of despair.’ What is going on is part of the process.  I call it Divine Discontent.  It is the grit in the oyster before the pearl.  This creative second chance is when we come into our own.”
   V stares at me from the top of the staircase.  His pilot’s cap is tucked under his arm as he breathes in the night air.  He slowly descends the stairs and as he approaches the bottom, my tiny gloved hand reaches for his.  As V and I continue to navigate our Expat lives in The Netherlands – an excavation of country, career, and self, I find comfort in the fact that we are not alone.  “I’ll never leave you,” he says to me.  And in return, I respond, “V – this is the beginning of a beautiful adventure. . .” and we walk hand and hand. . . and fade into the Moroccan darkness/1942 California movie studio evening.       

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Man of Constant Sorrow

  The dark suited man closes his large front door as quietly as he can.  He cringes after the large iron knocker clacks noisily against the door, disrupting his attempt.  The noise resonates through the stairwell, but luckily, does not disrupt his sleeping family.  His hollow steps echo on the sidewalk as he makes his way down the block.  Early commuters swish by him on their bikes, otherwise the street is quiet.  The sky is still dark at this early morning hour.  His dress shoes in a previous life kissed carpeted office building floors and accelerator pedals daily.  They are now worn from the weather and outdoor miles he has put on them during the past year.  He waits in the drizzle to cross the street at the end of the block and buries his head deeper into the collar of his warm grey overcoat.  Raindrops dance upon his hat.  He learned months ago that carrying an umbrella in The Netherlands is a futile attempt – the blustery North Sea Wind targets and eliminates umbrellas with a precision and swiftness of military snipers.  Although it is raining, the headlights of the cars do not blink.  They stay on a determined path, not allowing him to pass, like they would for a mother and a double stroller.  His blue eyes dilate upon entering into the fluorescent shine of the train station.  With seamless routine, he dislodges his wallet, slides out his train pass, and scans it on the metal machine.  As the scanner beeps, he is shuffled through the gates with the rest of the commuters and makes his way up the stairs towards the train platform.  His train approaches and people crowd the doors.  His Southern Chivalry, the act of letting women on the train before him, simply confused and flustered the locals when he attempted it a year ago.  He has learned to stick his elbows to his side as a tall middle-aged man inches his way closer to the edge of the tracks and tries to put his body between the crowd and the door.  Jumping the queue is sport for some people in this country.  Childhood lectures on patience and manners, “wait your turn, we’re all going to get on” and “ladies first” are useless mantras. 
  He nestles uncomfortably in his plastic seat and gazes out of the scratched windowpanes.  He watches the world around him wake up – sleepy farms dotted with windmills and cows, the lights of Den Haag skyscrapers pass through his view, glistening in the drizzle.  Some days, if it is the right time of year and the sky is unusually clear, he can see the sunrise on the horizon.  He distractedly turns his attention to the commuters around him.  No one smiles, no one says "Goede Morgen", or even nods in anyone’s direction.  Quickly bored, he focuses back to his own world – opens a book, checks his phone for American Sports News, or takes a quick nap if the baby had been crying in the middle of the night.  This is his most peaceful time of the day.  He breathes deep as the train barrels down the tracks, anticipating what disaster he will meet on the other end of his commute today. 
  My husband has barely taken his first sip from his thimble-sized cup of coffee when his senior manager storms into his office like the Tasmania Devil he is.  Always animated, always angry, and always loud, the man barks out orders to V in gruff English.  V reflexively glances at his co-manager’s now-empty chair.  At his office back in Dallas, there were a cast of managers, senior managers, and partners my husband worked for and with.  There were many personalities, tons of knowledge, arm loads of strengths, ideas, and problem-solving techniques that come with a large team of people. There were mentor and mentee programs in place that had been working positively for years.  Here in The Netherlands, with the departure of his office mate, there is a single direct line on the org chart here at his office – V, Tasmanian Devil, and then a single Partner who would rather not be bothered.  With anything.  At all.  Left to his own devices, the Tasmanian Devil has picked up the limbs from the Partner’s Hands Off Approach and holds all four hands in his control.   V, always respected, trusted, and successful at his office in Dallas has worked harder in this past year than ever to try and appease the Tasmanian Devil and complete the assignments blind-sidely dealt daily to him.  The work, the hours, and even the jumping through flaming hoops are not the things that challenge my husband.  V’s hard work, without recognition plus constant criticism and the blow that has taken to his confidence as a manager, his attitude towards work and The Netherlands, and his stress level he brings home because of it is the final hurdle – our final hurdle, as a family.  In other words, The Tasmanian Devil and the destruction he leaves in his path has proven to be the biggest challenge of the entire rotation.    
  I remember our Cultural orientation V’s company had conducted the August before we left for The Netherlands.  They brought in a few candidates who had just completed their 18-month or 2-year rotations to discuss their experiences to the excited and wide-eyed audience.  There was a girl and her husband who had just returned from Taiwan.  She was clearly glowing – gushing about how fabulous the experience was and how different their culture was to our own American culture.  She described her workday – “We all brought our lunches and ate at our desks, then pulled out a pillow and took a quick nap on our desktops.”  She smiled, perhaps a little nervously, through her whole story.  Her husband, dutifully sitting next to her, had a deer-in-headlights-look upon his face.  “She worked so much.  There was once, I did not see her for three days.  I learned Mandarin while we were there.”  And that was about all he had to say about that.   The anxious audience, ready to embark on our own 18 month rotations, shifted awkwardly in our chairs.  The panel optimistically focused on the Repatriate from Australia.  With an eye-brow raise to the Taiwan girl, he took a deep breath, leaned back in his chair and shook his longish-blonde hair.  “Yeah. . . uh. . . my experience wasn’t quite like that . . .” he continued to beautifully illustrate short working days, walks along the beach, beer tastings, and rugby games.   We had anticipated something in the middle – perhaps even similar to his work environment in Dallas.  Europeans don’t love to work do they?  They like their vacations, right?  They value family more than career, right?   
  V knew he was in trouble when he sent out his first welcome/introductory e-mail to the team. . . you know something along the lines of “Hi, I’m V, just moved here from Texas. . . looking forward to the opportunity to work along side you all. . . have any questions, please stop by, my office is. . . .”  He re-read it and sent it proudly.   He received exactly zero responses.  Radio silence.  No “Welcome Aboard”s or “Nice to Have You”s.   Nothing.  We also quickly realized that there would be exactly zero opportunities for me to meet any of his co-workers.  No welcome happy hours, No Christmas party, no personal invites to dinners.  I was not invited to a wedding for his co-worker.  (V was invited, to his surprise, but spouses were not, to both of our surprises).  I’ve entertained Dallas co-workers working in Amsterdam in our house in Leiden.  His Dallas co-workers organized dinner at a restaurant for us when we visited in Dallas last November.  I guess I could just rock up to his office here in The Netherlands with my double stroller in tow. . . and believe me, I’ve thought about it. . . but there’s just something about people not caring to meet you which makes you kind of not even want to put yourself through the stress and effort of getting two kids on a train.      
   Of course, all of this is okay.  It is manageable and I can proudly say that we have successfully adjusted ourselves into our home, city, schools, and activities without the help or friendship of a single person from his office. 
  What tugs at my heart and mind, though. . . is that V’s job has been the hardest obstacle for us to overcome, and yet. . . it is the reason why we are here.  They asked us to come.  I was having trouble reconciling this fact until an idea came upon me. . . we had applied for the rotation with the expectation of finding out if we had gotten it or not in May 2011.  It took until July 2011 for us to find out that Yes! There was a need for my husband in The Netherlands because of some ‘reshuffling of the offices.’  Of course, this is just a theory. . . but maybe the reason why there was a need for my husband, was because no one else wanted to work for the Tasmanian Devil.  It’s plausible, and with his co-manager’s recent departure, perhaps not an incorrect assumption.  So with that. . . I guess I have reason to be grateful for the Tasmanian Devil and his stress-inducing management techniques. 
  V had his first review last week and after a lengthy list of all the things V does wrong, V started to grip his seat and breathe deeply.  Tasmanian Devil actually takes notice of his nearly hyperventilating employee and asks if everything is ok.  With a bravery and forwardness not necessary in America, V asks – “Okay, but is there anything positive you have to say?  Am I doing alright?  Do you like my work?”  Tasmanian, taken aback, responds something to the effect of, “Well of course we like your work, otherwise we would have sent you home by now.”  V nods thankfully and smiles.  At least it was something positive.
  As for now, V worked his tail off last week in order to get everything wrapped up before Tasmanian’s ski vacation this week.  We both breathed a sigh of relief after his final phone call (presumably minutes before the TD boarded his flight).  As for me, I recognize the happy, confident, relaxed man who walks through my door each night this week, which has been a welcome change.  I spend a lot of time trying to tell him not to let Tasmanian ruin this beautiful experience we’ve been given, remind him that he only has to endure him for a limited amount of time, that he’s still appreciated at his office back in Dallas, and that anything worth doing in life requires sacrifice and determination.    
   As for my part, I encouraged V to invite the Tasmanian and his wife to dinner.  The invite was extended, probably in the same conversation prior to boarding his plane – I wanted him time to think about it when he was in a good mood – but no confirmation has been received, yet.  I don’t know if he will take me up on it, but a few mantras dance through my head. . . “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. . . “ and “The best route to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”  Armed with Southern Hospitality and Barefoot Contessa cookbooks, I’d like to at least try to show this guy who we really are, explain why we are here, and illustrate the investment that has been made to make this experience successful – at least from the program’s standpoint (this has been no small production to move a family of 4, furniture, plus 2 dogs halfway across the world, if you know what I mean).   We’ll see what happens, and at the very least, I can say that like my husband, I have also given it my best shot.