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Personal posts about family, expat life, etc.

Coming to Terms With Changing Locations: When Travel Leads You Home

Two months ago, I moved to another city. And I still haven’t gotten over it.

This isn’t a tale of culture shock, though my old city and my new one are quite different. Nor is this a tale of hardship. My life is comfortable — more comfortable than most — and I didn’t have to flee war or famine to get to where I am now. My move was a professional and familial obligation, the kind of thing required by foreign service life.

Still I feel a void. I am caught up in a purgatory of unfinished business from my last city and the feeling of Torschlusspanik, the German word for the panic you feel when a gate is closing, the feeling that time is running out. There’s a gate (Tor) in front of and behind me and both of them are inching shut.

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RIP Anthony Bourdain

It’s been more than a year since I’ve written anything on this site. But the awful news about Anthony Bourdain seems like as good a time as any to start again.

I hate to think of his ending as sparking my beginning (again). As a friend put it, these countless in memoriam posts are self-serving. Though I think that is a lesson that we learn from his death, that we need to serve ourselves sometimes in order to readjust and make sense of the world and our place in it.

My fondness for Bourdain was as great as anyone else’s. I devoured his books, especially “A Cook’s Tour” which came out at about the same time that I was waiting tables at night and writing about travel during the day. He was remarkable in that he could be irreverent and sincere all in the same sentence. He was unflinchingly honest but kind. He put other people, places, food, and cultures at the center of his work but didn’t hesitate to insert himself into the action so that we could understand his perspective, preferences, biases, and humor. None of his words felt forced. The seemingly effortless way that Bourdain wrote about food and travel and the people he met along the way translated perfectly to the screen, too.

The man was unpretentious. He ate on the street, at holes-in-the-wall, and at McFoxy’s, Ukraine’s answer to McDonald’s. Though he had exacting standards when it came to food, he wasn’t afraid or embarrassed to eat as regular people would eat – not just in Saigon or Penang or Rome but even in the US Midwest. Indeed, he embraced it. While reading all the remembrances to Bourdain, I was moved to learn that he had come to the defense of 80-year old Olive Garden reviewer Marilyn Hagerty when the internet was making fun of her. Likewise, his visit to Xi’an Famous Foods in Flushing, Queens, helped an immigrant family grow their business into the “American Dream.”

It’s hard for many to fathom what must have gone through Anthony Bourdain’s head when he decided to take his own life. Here is a man who was at the pinnacle of his profession, who was loved and admired by people from all walks of life. I have seen tributes to him from Punjabis and Palestinians, from busboys and top chefs. He was living the dream and doing it with curiosity and empathy.

But I get it. Depression is difficult to understand and it comes from out of nowhere. I think it’s particularly difficult to deal with for those who are at the top of their game and see nowhere to go but down.

I’ve been struggling with mild depression – unease? disappointment? – for a while now. And it’s galling because I feel selfish about it. My life is, on the face of it, incredible. Every day that I wake up in Rome, I feel grateful. I am exactly where I want to be, geographically if not professionally. Now that there are some new adventures on the horizon, I’m reluctant to move. There’s the feeling that I am never going to be as happy as I am now. And that further depresses me because I’m not even as happy as I could be or as happy as others think I “should” be.

Anthony Bourdain’s death has been eye-opening not just because I realized how many others, from all over the globe, felt about the man and his work. It has been surprising to see how many others have written that they, too, are afflicted with depression. Sadness seems to be the default mood of everyone, not just something that a few are struggling with. Maybe it’s the world we live in now. Maybe it’s the (middle) age of most everyone around me. But I think Bourdain’s passing has driven home the lesson that he was always trying to teach. We are all more similar than we are different.

The End of Letters

Letter of Note - Mott

I’ve long enjoyed the website/Twitter feed Letters of Note, which resurrects correspondence between famous people or personal notes recalling significant historical events.

In cleaning up my office today, I stumbled upon my own letter of note from a since-departed university professor who taught a class on “The End of History.” Professor Albert Mott was an ascot-wearing eccentric who didn’t blink an eye when I told him I was going to write my class project on 1970s British punk music. (Laughably, I think I titled my piece “No Time to Be 21” after this song by The Adverts.) I’m still not sure where I was going with that, but he made sure to loan me his copy of “Sid and Nancy” for additional research.

I can’t remember the last time that I received a personal letter like this (i.e., one that wasn’t an email). Of course, I can’t remember the last letter I sent either. At any rate, I’m pleased to get this glimpse back at myself and a few of my post-collegiate thoughts.

The end of history. The end of letters.

The end.

Hubble Nebula 5189

Departing Is Such Sweet Sorrow

Hubble Nebula 5189
Hubble Telescope’s photo of the planetary nebula NGC 5189.

“What would you ask an astronaut?”

My friend Pam, who was preparing to interview everyone’s current favorite space explorer Commander Chris Hadfield, posed that question on Facebook the other day. “What would you ask an astronaut?”

I chimed in because who wouldn’t want to ask an astronaut a question? Fewer than 600 people have ever been in space in the history of the world — that’s roughly the average number of people within a social network. Being an astronaut is the rarest of occupations; going to space is the rarest of trips.

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Miracle at Nationals Park


“Do you mind if I interview your little boy for The Washington Post?” asked a sandy-haired man in a jacket of the same color. We were all standing in front of the gates of Nationals Park as crowds were streaming in for the opening game of the season. Dante was wearing a bright red National cap embroidered with a “W,” and was looking very much the part of the young baseball fan.

“Sure,” I said, then turned to Dante and asked, “would you like to answer a few questions for this man?”

“Do you have tickets?” Dante squealed at the man. “Where are the tickets? WHERE ARE THE TICKETS?”

I looked up at the reporter and told him we were still looking for a pair of tickets. It was a beautiful day, the best you could hope for on April 1. The sun was out, temperatures were in the low 60s. It was the exact opposite weather I expected for Opening Day, which is one of the reasons I hadn’t bothered to order tickets in the first place. When I realized that Dante had the day off of school, I made a decision mid-morning that we would take the Metro down to the ballpark to see if there were any standing-room-only tickets. “Maybe we will get lucky,” I thought.

Dante’s line of questioning continued, “We NEED tickets! Do you have the tickets?”

The reporter looked at me blankly, clearly wondering why he wasn’t the one asking the questions.

“He’s autistic,” I offered. It’s never the first phrase I utter about my son but it comes in handy to explain behaviors that others perceive as odd. “He’s autistic, but I can help him answer the questions if you still want to interview him.”

“Come find me when you get tickets. Good luck!”

The journalist had struck out. He was there to report on the excitement of Opening Day at National Park and our twin sob stories of a boy with autism having no ticket to get into the stadium were not what he was looking for. Read more

Foreign Service Officers Killed in Line of Duty

The Dangers of the Foreign Service

Foreign Service Officers Killed in Line of Duty

On the few occasions that I have visited the State Department, either for interviews, to get help from the Family Liaison Office, or to visit my husband for lunch, I have felt the need to linger just inside the security gates, in the imposing, marble lobby of the Harry S. Truman building, to view the American Foreign Service Association’s Memorial Plaque.

Located on the west end of the building, the plaque lists the names of State Department personnel who have died while serving in U.S. diplomatic missions abroad. The plaque lists the officer’s name, where and when he/she died, and the nature of the diplomats’ deaths.

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Remembering September 11, 2001

It’s a question we all ask of one another, the same question our parents’ generation asked each other when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, and the same question our grandparents’ generation asked following Pearl Harbor:

“Where were you?”

Everyone who was alive and aware of the horrific events of September 11, 2001, know exactly where they were when they heard the news. Most of us remember the minutiae, as well: the faces of the television anchors breaking the news, what we were wearing, how we got home that day or night (even if we were nowhere near the attack sites). Many of us also know friends or friends of friends who perished and/or lost someone that day.

I was in Florence, Italy, on September 11, 2001. Where were you?

Photo by Flickr user althouse