The Beauty Of Our Dreams…

It’s a New Year. And whether we like it or not, it’s a time to reflect on the year that has past and the one that looms ahead.

On a macro level, 2018 was pretty much a shit show. I worked myself up into more than one tizzy because of the bloated orange asshole in the White House. I’ve had to stop letting it slide when I come face-to-face with one of his supporters. We are two years in now and, I’m sorry, but if you still support him then you are a racist, and also an idiot. The grace period is over on that one, as far as I’m concerned. And then there’s Brexit, too many natural disasters to count, way too many mass shootings, climate change, North Korea, the war in Syria, the genocide in Yemen… it’s a lot. And it all sucks.

But on a micro level, for me personally, 2018 was kind of cool. I realized a long-held dream to live in Paris. I traveled to Japan, the place that’d been number one on my travel bucket list for quite a while. I was nominated for an Emmy and, at the last minute, decided to attend the ceremony in Los Angeles. I finally got to see “Hamilton” (three times!) and “Dear Evan Hansen”.

Lots of my dreams were fulfilled in 2018. Mostly because I made them happen. I’ve never been one to sit around and wait for my dreams to come true – I’m a bit more action-oriented than that. But still, to have actualized so many of my dreams in 2018 was pretty cool.

I’m already at work on making things happen, dream-wise, in 2019. And I hope you are too. The world is a dumpster fire right now. When there is so much to feel hopeless about, our dreams are more important than ever. If we don’t have our dreams, if we don’t work to make them a reality, then what’s the point really?

Eleanor Roosevelt managed to say it far more eloquently that I could ever hope to:

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

It’s a New Year. Your dreams are beautiful. Believe in them. Make them happen.

 

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Bearing Witness…

A couple weeks ago I visited Krakow, Poland – a city that had been on my travel wish list for a long time. It did not disappoint. Krakow is an amazing city with lovely medieval architecture, delicious food (and surprisingly good wine!) and some of the friendliest people you will ever meet. I did a food tour, sampled local vodkas and craft beers, shopped in the massive Cloth Hall, toured the Salt Mines…

And went to Auschwitz.

This was not my first visit to a concentration camp – I’ve been to Terezin in the Czech Republic and Sachsenhausen in Germany – but it was my first time at an extermination camp. There was never a question in my mind that I would go to Auschwitz. It wasn’t a fun day but it was a necessary day.

I saw pictures of the prisoners (before Germany realized it was maybe not so smart to document the residents of their camps). I passed through their barracks. I walked the same walk from the train platform to the (now destroyed) gas chamber at Birkenau that so many arriving prisoners walked, thinking they were going to the showers but actually going to their deaths. I entered the crematorium. I stood in a gas chamber.

It was the rooms of personal effects that really got too me though. Dimly lit, with huge glass cases. I don’t think we were allowed to take photos, but I didn’t want to anyway. There was a case of shoes, many of them children’s – the red ones standing out in the huge pile. A case of eyeglasses, a case of artificial limbs, a case of pots and pans. The case filled with suitcases really got to me. Prisoners were instructed to clearly label their luggage so they could be reunited with it later – such cruelty. Seeing those names in big block letters on the suitcase sides was devastating.

But it was the hair display that broke me. After they were gassed, women’s hair was cut off in order to be used in the manufacturing of products such as cloth. To me, this was the ultimate act of dehumanization of these people, even after death. These were people, but they were not seen as such by the Nazis. Though I took no photo (again, I don’t think they were even allowed for obvious reasons), the image of that hair room is seared in my mind and will stay there forever.

A lot of people have wondered why I would subject myself to such a heart-wrenching day while on vacation. Others have commented that they could never do it, it would be too hard. I’m sorry, but the fact that it is hard is why you must do it. Having one difficult afternoon is they very least we can do for these people who were exterminated. They deserve to be remembered. What happened at these places cannot be allowed to evaporate into the annals of history.

I am so privileged to have traveled all over the world. And I feel very firmly that one of the duties laid on me by that privilege is to bear witness to history. No matter where my travels take me, if there is an historical sight whose memory needs to be kept alive, that people need to remember, then I will be there – even if it means I must “sacrifice” a day of my holiday to something not exactly enjoyable.

It is my privilege. It is my duty. It is my honor.

The reason I always visit sights such as this when I travel.

Entering Auschwitz.

Cans of zyklon B – the gas used to exterminate millions.

Gas chamber.

Explaining the Unexplainable…

I’ve been an expat for six years now and by far the question I get asked most often from Europeans when they learn that I am American is “What is it with Americans and guns?”.

Sigh.

I usually reply that it isn’t all Americans and that, in fact, a majority of Americans support stricter gun laws but the NRA is rich and powerful and has a stranglehold on too many politicians so nothing ever changes. Again, sigh.

Not long after I moved to Dublin the mass shooting in Sandyhook, Connecticut took place. Twenty-eight people, most of them children, were massacred. I thought (it turns out stupidly) that a bunch of first graders being gunned down would finally lead to sensible gun control in the US.

Nothing changed.

The mass shootings have continued – in schools, movie theaters, churches, nightclubs, concerts. Truly, nowhere is safe. Just a couple days ago a dozen people were killed in a mass shooting in a bar in a Los Angeles suburb. This shooting came less than two weeks after eleven people were gunned down in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

It’s gotten so bad that it seems like more than 10 people need to be killed in order for it to get any sort of broad media coverage. By definition, a mass shooting is an incident where at least four people, not including the gunman, are killed or injured in a single event at the same general time and location. There were between the Pittsburgh shooting and the Los Angeles shooting ELEVEN other mass shootings in the US. There have been 307 mass shootings in America this year alone. This has become normal in the US. But this is not normal. That’s why I get asked to explain it so often.

I know that even in places with stricter laws bad guys still get their hands on guns and terrible things still happen. Tuesday is the anniversary of the terror attacks in Paris. Those bad guys had guns, dozens of people were killed. But there’s no denying that the US takes gun violence to an entirely new level and the main thing that sets us apart is our government’s refusal to enact common sense gun laws. I really, really don’t think this is what our founding fathers meant when they included the right to bear arms in the constitution.

The gun situation in the US is definitely a reason I’m thankful to be an expat. I don’t think I could live in a country were there is a mass shooting nearly every day. I try to be hopeful that things will change, eventually. But I’m fairly certain they won’t. There will be another mass shooting with substantial casualties and I’ll be asked to explain the unexplainable again.

And again.

And again.

Gun control rally in Paris after the Parkland, Florida mass shooting.

March For Our Lives in Paris.

 

 

 

Living in a Different Language…

I had to break down and get a French mobile phone this weekend. I still use my Irish number as my main method of contact but, after living in Paris for eight months, there are certain things I keep coming up against that require a French number. So, I bought a cheap, refurbished iPhone and decided to get a very basic call and text only plan. I first tried to buy a SIM online. But when ordering a SIM card to get a French mobile number one must already have a French mobile number in order to be sent SMS tracking info. Okaaaaay. Do you get the irony here, France?

So, this meant I would have to go to a brick-and-mortar shop and actually talk to people in order to get my SIM. I don’t like dealing with shops and people as a rule and I was even more stressed out because there was a very good chance I would need to do this transaction in French. Oh, the horror.  I seriously worked myself into a tizzy trying to figure out how to say want I wanted in French. I needed to get this right. This wasn’t something cute like when my waiter the other day thought I said “Côtes du Rhône” when I had actually said “carte du vin”. Whatever. I still got a glass of wine. It was fine.  But my decidedly non-parisian accent and limited vocabulary could get me into trouble when trying to buy a mobile phone contract.

I am not strong when it comes to languages. I have been trying to learn French on and off for the past fifteen years and I’m still an advanced beginner at best. I feel like I constantly have to learn the same concepts over and over. Things just don’t seem to stick. I have a private tutor here in Paris now and she’s great, but I can tell I frustrate the hell out of her.

Living in a place where one doesn’t speak the language is not easy. It’s frustrating, isolating and exhausting. Frustrating because I desperately want to be fluent in French but it feels so out of reach so much of the time. Often, I feel like I’m making progress only to get knocked back down when I’m reminded of how little I really know. Isolating because the language being spoken around me is not one I understand fluently so I retreat into myself (even more than usual) as a result. On a recent visit to New York, I was on the subway and I was taken aback when I could actually understand the various conversations going on around me and it was surprisingly comforting. And exhausting because living in French means constantly having to figure out what I’m supposed to say, or what someone is saying to me. The language does not flow naturally into and out of my brain and sometimes I just get tired.

By the way, I feel the need to point out that, for the most part, the Parisians have been amazing to me and my broken French. I have a standard line that I say when someone starts speaking too rapidly: “Je suis désolé. Je suis nouveau à Paris et mon français n’est pas bon. Mais j’essaye”, which translates to “I am sorry. I am new to Paris and my French is not good. But I am trying.” Almost without exception, I am then met with words of encouragement and questions about where I’m from, why I moved to Paris, etc. This has been such a welcome surprise for me. Merci, Parisians.

I love the French language. And I knew it would be one of the biggest challenges when I moved to Paris. I’m not giving up. I am determined to, if not master French, at least get to a point where I can join in a conversation rather than retreat into myself because I don’t understand what anyone is saying. I’m inspired by the French people who encourage me to keep going and compliment the progress I’ve made. I’m inspired by friends who have lived here for a while and knew even less French than me and are now fluent. And I’m inspired by Paris itself. This beautiful, amazing city will be even more beautiful and amazing, I think, when its language comes more naturally to me.

In the meantime, j’essaye.

 

 

More or Less…

I was back in the States for three weeks in August – one week in New York City for the first time in twelve years and two visiting friends and family in Buffalo. While in New York, I stayed with an old friend whom I hadn’t seen in person since she was in Dublin for a quick work trip more than five years ago. She remarked during my stay that when she last saw me, I was definitely an American in Europe but now I seemed more European than American to her.

What she said surprised me a bit at first. I’m still American – just listen to my accent! But, upon reflection, I have discovered that, after nearly six years living in Europe, I have become more European in both big and small ways.

Probably the biggest shift for me is how I think of and approach healthcare. This same friend came home after a physio appointment while I was staying with her and was upset because she needed to get an MRI on her foot. I thought she was nervous about the actual MRI and I explained to her that I’d had several on my foot and they were no big deal. But that wasn’t it. She’d had an MRI on her foot before and it cost her hundreds of dollars because the only insurance she can afford has an extremely high deductible. The MRIs I’d had in Dublin cost me exactly nothing.

Since moving to Europe, I have grown used to the notion that healthcare is for everyone and not tied to your job in any way. Having been a freelancer for a good part of my career and also having been laid off several times during said career, not having to worry about where my healthcare is coming from while also worrying about where my next paycheck is coming from is incredibly liberating. I am not going to get into a political debate on the merits and faults of the US healthcare system versus that of Ireland or France. That is not what this post is about. But regarding healthcare and one’s access to it, my mindset is decidedly European.

And there are other smaller, more innocuous ways that Europe has crept into the way I think or do things but I hadn’t really noticed them until this trip:

  • I’ve forgotten how to tip. At restaurants, I have to ask friends how much tip to leave because I no longer know what a proper amount would be. And I’ve forgotten that in the US, not only do you tip restaurant servers, but just about everyone else too. It’s maddening!
  • I get all confused with US money now because it’s all the same size and same color.
  • Also, the size of coins no longer makes any sense to me. Why are nickels larger than dimes?! Why are even pennies larger than dimes?! Why the heck are dimes so dang small?!
  • I keep forgetting that the price of an item is not actually the price of the item – sales tax has to be added. Several times, I’ve muddled my way through the same-size green bills and oddly-sized coins to come up with the exact amount, only to be told that the amount I owe is in fact about 8% higher.
  • I have to think long and hard about which button to push in an elevator. Over here, first floors are the actual first floor of a building (which in fairness, I do think makes more logical sense). I wound up in the “garage” when riding an elevator because I thought the “G” meant “ground floor”. It didn’t.
  • Why are there so many commercials on TV and why do most of them seem to be for erectile dysfunction medications?

Now don’t get me wrong, I still miss quintessentially American things like ice, air conditioning and Target. And I’ll always be American (who knows, maybe someday I’ll even be proud of that again). But as time passes, I’m becoming more and more European – and I don’t mind that one bit.

 

A Tale of Two Cities…

I’ve been living in Paris for nearly six months now and had my first trip back to Dublin a couple weeks ago. It was… weird. During my time living in Dublin I’d done several extended stays in Paris so in many ways it felt like I was returning home after one of those, except that I didn’t have a home to return to.

But that sense of familiarity was there from the moment I stepped off the plane. And the sense of familiarity soon gave way to a renewed sense of belonging. It was great to return to my beloved Ranelagh neighborhood – I even walked by my old house (gee, I wonder if the new tenants have running water?). I returned to my local and they greeted me with open arms. I ran errands on Grafton Street, daydreamed as I walked along the canal, visited one of the studios where I used to work. It was truly like I never left.

And of course, there were my people. Some I’d seen a few times on various work and play trips since my move, some I hadn’t seen since my leaving drinks last January, but it sure was lovely to see them all again here in Dublin. On my last evening in town, a small group of most of my closest Dublin friends met up at my local for one last pint. They are the people who ground me in my Dublin-ness and we’ve remained close even though I am now in Paris. Those peeps, my peeps, reminded me of how much I still have in Dublin.

Of course, this visit was certainly more than a bit rose-tinged. Regular readers of this blog will remember that I was pretty much forced out of Dublin because of the current housing situation. They will recall that this past winter I had no heat and intermittent-at-best running water. I would also go weeks without seeing any of my aforementioned people. That’s not on them, that’s on me – I have hermity tendencies and my self-esteem is low enough so that I think that no one will want to do anything social with me so why bother asking. Couple these issues of mine with the fact that everyone is busy with work and life, and my last few months in Dublin were actually rather lonely.

And then there’s Paris. I have people in Paris too. Awesome people. But now that I’ve been here for a few months, my hermity ways are getting the better of me again and that, combined with a lot of travel, means I haven’t really seen anyone in quite some time. Sure, everyone’s busy but, as with Dublin, I’ve no one to blame but myself.

That sense of familiarity and belonging is here too. I know Paris better than I know any city in the world. I’ve always felt that I belong in Paris and the day I moved here in February, everything was instantly so familiar.

I’m not sure what conclusions to draw from these ruminations. Except that I know these two cities are both a part of me. And I feel like I belong in, and need, both of them.

Shame. Shame. Shame.

I stared at my computer monitor in vain for over an hour trying to get this post started yesterday. And then I have stopped and started so much since then that I wondered if this post was even worth writing. I have so much that I want and need to say yet I can’t seem to get my thoughts out. To quote Evan Hansen, “Words fail.”

My native country has been a tire fire for nearly two years now but the events that unfolded at the Mexican border this past week took my breath away.

Children. Some of them infants, some with disabilities, all of them in a situation through no fault of their own, ripped away from their parents. Those parents, not the rapists and murderers Fox News would have you believe, but people fleeing actual murderers and drug cartels and abject poverty. People seeking ASYLUM. People who yes, committed a crime at the border, but a MISDEMEANOR. And a necessary crime because one can only apply for asylum if you are physically present in the United States. Wouldn’t you commit this “necessary” crime if it meant a better, safer life for your children?

I’ve written a couple of times previously in this blog about myself as an immigrant and an expat (you can read those posts here and here). About how being an “expat” conjures of notions of romance and adventure but “immigrant” has become a four-letter-word. And it’s only gotten worse in the years since I wrote those posts. The utter lack of empathy and common decency amongst people has me stymied. I don’t understand how people can be so uncaring, so cold, so cruel.

And I’m not talking only about the oompa-loompa in the oval office or his administration. I know, through their policies on women’s rights, LBGTQ rights, and healthcare that this administration’s status quo is cruelty. But what has truly made me despair is the cruelty of everyday Americans.

Even in my European, liberal, socialist bubble, I see the hate and cruelty seeping in. People who think border crossers should be shot on sight, people who cry “but Clinton, but Obama, but her emails”, people who have conveniently forgotten that, unless they happen to be Native American, they come from immigrants.

You know what these people are? Lucky. They got dealt a good hand, and the people seeking asylum got dealt a bad one. We Americans don’t deserve our situation any more than these desperate asylum seekers deserve theirs. Luck. Chance. That. Is. It.

I cannot imagine the terror that these children are feeling. I cannot imagine the trauma they (and their parents) are going through. Good lord, when I moved to Dublin I was an utter mess, inconsolable because I was separated from the life I knew and the people I loved. I was an adult who made the active choice to immigrate to Ireland – and I have never felt so desperate, sad and alone in my life. I could barely deal with my situation – how the hell are these children expected to deal with theirs? Oh wait, to quote Melania’s jacket “I really don’t care, do u?”.

I am despairing because I think Melania’s jacket speaks for far too many people in America right now. To have so many not caring about this, or worse yet, supporting the separation of these children from their parents is truly a national tragedy.

As an American, as a human being, I am ashamed that more of us aren’t ashamed.