Update from France: Transnationalizing

Behold, this soon to be relic of the Before Times. Its reasonable days are numbered but oh what a pity.
Can’t we power this otherwise?
Photo by Sana Saidi on Unsplash

A few observations as we hop around countries with the kids. Yes, we are aware it is a significant carbon footprint. Yes, I plan to purchase carbon offsets. Yes, it is a discussion. I acknowledge the privilege in this type of travel. We haven’t traveled like this as a family since 2017, so we’re hardly jet-set. In a normal year we train and car to this French destination where we avoid the worst of the Italian heat in August. But this year the heat wave began on May 8 and has not let up since then. The Italian news says the heat is not going to let up. People who lived through the 2003 heat wave in Europe have told me that it went to early November, having gathered so much literal steam that no weather could arrive to quench it.

Driving through northeastern Italy yesterday we saw acres and acres of dead corn, yellow and brown, dry in their husks from the exceptional heat wave. Some plants didn’t ever grow to more than two feet high. Other plans were tall and dead. The yellow patches interspersed with the rows of miraculously surviving green corn stalks. The irrigation canals were full of milky blue water. Too little too late. Tons of corn lost that will never be polenta.

I am going to really, really miss clothes dryers. I forgot how awesome these are. They can dry clothes in forty minutes or less! A whole load! EVEN JEANS AND SWEATS. I know they are terrible for the environment. Why use a clothes dryer when the northern hemisphere is suffering an unprecedented heat wave? The sheets and blankets waved in the breeze atop the summit at Piccolo San Bernardo yesterday. My kingdom for a clothesline! These are not permitted in Florence within the UNESCO-designated heritage site where we live. I suppose it does ruin the view and ambience, like hiking to Macchu Picchu and seeing someone’s underwear fluttering freely, pinned to a line.

Why do European toilets have only one cup of water in their ceramic bowl? How is this possible? Why don’t all toilets have this little water? American toilets look like bathtubs, and flush like one too, aimlessly waiting for the slow swirl of gravity to swallow the deposited contents.

Jason and the kids went to the Kinokuniya bookshop section in Uwajimaya in Seattle to buy Japanese manga localized in English, which the kids devoured on the flight to Paris. Victor finished his (One Piece, numbers 1-3) and wanted more. But in Italy the manga stores, of which we found two between Milano and Ivrea, only carried manga in Italian. Victor scoffed. I can’t read that! Why? Jason countered. It’s manga – there are barely any words. Victor humphed and we bought him two books anyway, and Eleanor one. Victor finished one in the car. It’s fine in Italian, but I prefer it in English, he groaned. Now we are looking for manga in English on Amazon.fr for Victor to read in France. Seriously, this is the first time I have seen him reading for pleasure in his life.

In Lombardia Eleanor laughed at someone’s spoken Italian. She does not speak Italian as a first language! she squealed. No, no, Eleanor, Jason explained with great patience. She has a different accent. She speaks Italian. She is Italian.

In Charles de Gaulle’s Terminal 2F, I surreptitiously watched a Muslim woman in hijab pray on a green carpet as though chaos were not reigning in the packed departure lounges. Her lips moved. She was serene.

On our short flight from Paris to Milan, the Air France flight attendant asked the kids what they wanted to drink. Sprite, they said in unison. I don’t have Sprite, but I have this, it is like French Sprite. He produced two modest silver cans of Finley tonic water. Two paper cups followed after. Victor opened his and poured it into the cup. He made a face. I don’t like it, he said, and gave me the cup. But you drank almost all of it! I said. Yes, and I didn’t like it. It is weird and a little strong.

O Seattle, city of my heart, this is the first trip back since I moved away in 2004 that I didn’t wish lived there again. It was roasting. Traffic was terrible. Everything as expensive. People in general seemed so stressed out and hanging by a thread. I am sure the heat was a contributing factor. No parking anywhere and the hotel garage was exorbitantly priced and charged by the calendar day, not the hours used. On the plus side, all the old friends I caught up with last Tuesday evening in Fremont seem serene and settled, which was a comfort. I don’t know if I would live in Seattle again. I say that knowing we could never afford it anyway.

Who knew it is possible get so tan on the Oregon coast? I regard my slightly darker legs in wonder.

The coffee in France is still abysmal. Jason and I drank our Italian espressi yesterday in Ivrea with genuine pleasure.

I think I have about had it with The New York Times. I will probably cancel my now-expensive subscription soon. (I got in cheap in 2020, for just a dollar a month, but now it’s 8x that.) Its reporting feels increasingly myopic and self-centered. I read it daily on the app on my phone, along with The Guardian, BBC, and a paid subscription also to the Washington Post, which provides better reporting and a more international perspective. I never thought I’d say this, as I coveted the paper New York Times for years in cafés that we most definitely NOT in New York or anywhere near it, but the NYT, what a rag. I am always looking for news that is unapologetically expansive in its reporting. No more of this “oh a poor 26 year old with only $850,000 to spend had to choose between an apartment in Brooklyn and or the Bronx; which did they pick?” And their reporting on the war in Ukraine and the January 6 committee lacks all context. So annoyed. Color me annoyed. Click here to unsubscribe. #sorrynotsorry

Update from America: Reverse Culture Shock

The world goes on in spite of us, if we’re lucky. Photo by Thomas Lipke on Unsplash

A few more observations from the Pacific Coast. Things that are different or that I do not remember.

Garbage disposals. Okay, so these are super convenient. Half my time in our Italian kitchen is spent wrist-deep in dinner sludge trying to clear out the drain. How wonderful to not worry about an extra teaspoon of salsa slithering out of a bowl, or a few fettuccine noodles slide off a plate into the sink. It’s not like I’m stuffing an anemically gnawed pork chop into the hole. Whiirrrrrrrr. Your problem is demolished. But now I wonder if this is an issue for wastewater treatment plants in America. I am sure it is. All the food sludge must be bacterial heaven.

Flip flops. Appropriate in every venue in America. So strange.

T-shirts as a single layer, screen printed or not.

Shorts. Ibid. Okay, I know that at present we are on an American coast.The west coast. But the proliferation of American shorts (short pants not underwear) is astonishing. To note, in Italy the ONLY place that shorts, t-shirts, or flip flops would be acceptable would be on the actual beach during a beach vacation. Perhaps my expectations are skewed after years in Florence, where everyone wears nice clothes, or Italy in general, where a retired grandfather will don a suit to sit in a piazza to bitch about the downfall of the latest Italian government. Clothes make the man! Even Salvini wears a damn suit (the Stephen Miller of Italy.)

The thin blue line flag bumper sticker. I had to look this up after a driver honked at me for pulling over to let emergency vehicles pass on Highway 101. He swerved and passed me at high speed. I saw the flag stuck to his back window and looked it up in the nail salon. Maybe BLM? Maybe Insurrectionists? who knows. Glad to know that police forces around America have nothing whatsoever to do with fomenting civil unrest. I think I’ll stop this line of thought for now.

It is possible to live in America, unplugged from 24h news but still very aware of the news. I am abreast. I do not feel obsessed. Perspective can be maintained.

The sheer weirdness of American culture. Our son Victor (age 11) has a magnificent, appreciative, offbeat sense of humour. Today we took the kids to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum of Newport, Oregon, and I can tell you, Victor felt like he found his people. Every shrunken head, wax replica of very small or very tall person, the Beatles band made of little beetles dressed up as the Beatles with original Ed Sullivan audio had him in stitches. (Never mind the fine line between racism and science on many of those exhibits, with no additional context whatsoever regarding eugenics, phrenology, gun culture, the Cold War, Evil Russians, etc.) For additional fees they opted in to LaseRace and Smashdash and loved it. Eleanor was totally into it too, mugging as an astronaut in a moon walk helmet and gamely folding herself into a contortionist’s glass box. We gawked at a cross-section of a giant sequioa tree, marked with historic events on its rings for context.

Wild whales. I want to end here. The only other time in my life I’ve ever seen gray whales breaching in nature was in Baja California in January 2000. I almost cried then and I cried now. To see these great creatures 30 feet from shore, on a misty morning on the Oregon coast, doing what they’ve done for millennia, gawking tourists and cameras be damned.. Really puts it all in context, much like the sequoias. World, please make me feel small.

Well done, Oregon. Well done.

Update from America: Things I’ve Missed

Actually, the Ritz crackers are nice to come back to too.
Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

Ms. Doom and Gloom interrupts her cross-cultural commentary to bring you a brief list of items she is happy to have at hand once more in the U.S. after a very, very long hiatus. I think they used to call it a listicle. In any case, we have now been stateside for two weeks, which is about the right amount of time to compile a list like this.

Corn tortillas. My lord. So good, and so hard to find in Italy. In fact, I found some that are a mix of corn and wheat flour! So good. Trader Joe’s, I love you. I have eaten my weight in 6″ corn tortillas since we arrived in country. I’m not letting up. Mexican hand tacos every morning! (Corn tortilla, scrambled egg, melted cheese, salsa picante.) Which brings me to my next item…

Salsa. Hell yes. An American revelation. None of this sugary-sweet, thickened candy salsa that they sell in the EU. I can barely eat the stuff. If there were such a thing as melted salsa vanilla sorbet, it tastes like that. If you ever feel like you need to try some really bad salsa, why, just get yourself to the EU and buy some El Paso from Carrefour, manufactured and packaged in Madrid or wherever. It is so bad. In fact, I threw away a squeeze bottle of green salsa one time because it was mostly sugar. EUROPE. Why? Why.

Diet Cherry 7-Up. Ah, sweet sweet quenching. There are so many kinds of soda in the U.S., and many of them are low or no sugar, and I am fine with that. I hate pop in general at home in Italy and will drink it only if desperate for … I don’t know, something cold, bubbly, and caffeinated. Usually I am strictly water, espresso, prosecco, red wine. But oh, Diet Cherry 7-Up. Refreshment of my youth. Tasty when cold and even less cold. And diet. So no aftertaste. I love it. I actually have bought a 12-pack each of regular Cherry 7-Up (way too much sugar, not as tasty, bad aftertaste), Diet 7-Up (close, no cigar), and then my dad found Diet Cherry 7-Up in the Lincoln City Safeway. I’m in pop heaven. No one drink my pop please. I’m having a moment.

Half and half. It’s just so good in drip coffee, which I also never have in Italy. Half and half seems to not exist in Italy. You can buy heavy whipping cream, kitchen cream, already whipped cream, and milk at every percentage, both refrigerated and UHP bricks, but half and half? I didn’t realize this was such an American thing, but damn, it is good. Years ago I had much older family members who joyfully plopped heavy whipping cream into their drop coffee, globs and all. Damn that coffee was good. Little beads of fat collected on top of the hot surface.

Cheap over the counter medicine. In Spokane I bought a pony keg each of ibuprofen and acetaminophen. Okay, just kidding, but close. Close. Why is this important? No drug is cheap in Italy. Not even the most basic painkiller that looks like cat food nuggets. For comparison purposes, a total of 4800 mg of ibuprofen in Italy costs about 10 euros in a Florentine pharmacy, and not even a touristy one. In the Spokane Walgreen’s, I paid $15 for 100,000 mg of ibuprofen. Given my jake right knee, I’ve been taking 400 mg every morning to keep things smooth. (Tests have been scheduled for September; daily ibuprofen is not a long-term solution.) It’s nice to know I’ve laid in an affordable supply for this very purpose.

Nice drivers. American drivers in the Pacific Northwest seem super polite to me now, after years of clenching my teeth and making squeaking sounds when we navigate the Florence ring road (viale). They slow down. They yield. The let you in. It’s incredible.

Laundry. My god, people, in this magical land called America, you can finish a huge load of family laundry in less than 72 hours! There is a dryer! Sheets are dry! Pants are dry! Seams are dry! And if they don’t dry in one setting, you can reset it and do it again until the things are dry! And dryer sheets are magical fragrance vehicles! I feel about dryers like I feel about bacon: we probably should NOT like these things, but damn, when you have them, they are so good, even as you know they are indefensibly bad for everyone and everything else everywhere on the whole entire planet.

Coming soon: brief comments about personal international money management (endless headache) and the news out of Italy – surprising to no one who keeps up – that the current government coalition has collapsed yet again, thanks a lot Cinque Stelle. I’ll be saying a secular rosary tonight for Mattarella and Draghi. Gesù.

Update from America: Economic Cruelty Enshrined

Photo by Daniel Lincoln on Unsplash

On Sunday Jason and I drove our loaner car the 440 miles from Spokane to the Oregon Coast. We’ll be here for two weeks with a collection of family members, plenty of sea air, and a grill. The contrast from Spokane to this holiday haven is striking, for understandable reasons. A post-industrial city in the Inland Empire versus a coastal getaway for urbane Portlanders, the odd Seattleite, the occasional Californian. The streets are clean. No one is having a public breakdown. No one is shouting. The trash is in the containers and is emptied on Tuesday morning. The cars are expensive and new. The children are clean and well cared for. This is the America that most Europeans assume is the reality for most Americans. In reality it is elite. Money can buy peace and calm in certain enclaves. I am reading The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler and her imaginative prescience is a marvel to behold. How did she imagine Los Angeles in 2024 so vividly in directions that events actually took us? The drought, the guns (the guns!), the inflation, the cost of living, the clannishness, the fear, the twisted faith. Her imagined endgame sounds an awful lot like the realistic response encouraged by a public intellectual of the left, Elizabeth Cronise McLaughlin, here.

How strange the drive on interstate highways, from Spokane to the Tri-Cities (Pasco, Kennewick, Richland), Umatilla, The Dalles, dodging speeding traffic and commercial trailers on I-84, through the Columbia River valley and past the three massive hydroelectric dams (John Day, The Dalles, Bonneville) that cut the water current to convert it into an electrical current. In Gresham east of Portland, the tent encampments appeared once more and dotted the shoulder, the underpasses, the higher fields and the margin before the fences begin. The desperation is in full view. It is hard to know if the person curled into the crook of the underpass is living or dead. It is shocking that this is the considered normal. Traffic speeds by. Suffering continues. No one slows down. No one stops. We didn’t. It is what it is. It sucks and there’s little anyone can do about it, says conventional wisdom. Drops in the ocean.

I am realizing, particularly on this trip, how the U.S. enshrines cruelty in its public policies, both affirmatively and by omission. It’s noticeable after living for six years in Italy. The U.S. is a G-7 country, so the country does not have a money problem. It’s one of the top economies globally. There are plenty of dollars, no matter what anyone says. People – people in power and with little power, people with no power – who live inside this culture turn a blind eye to suffering. There is no compassion vote. Even progressive people stop seeing the suffering. Everyone in America either has compassion fatigue or is suffering deeply. Or both. It wouldn’t be too costly to make things right for people, to ensure the dignity of people, through some basic programs. But there’s little political will to do it, and in America, much more political will to not do it. Hence tent cities, healthcare, the electoral mess, a breaking judicial system, food insecurity, uncertain or nonexistent housing, unequal access to education and childcare, no guaranteed retirement.

The meta-marketing from the U.S. about the U.S. is one of wealth and liberty. Few people outside of the U.S. would believe how the culture inflicts suffering on people, our collective wealth notwithstanding, even as American products – tech especially – are possibly our biggest export with global revenue in the trillions. Where does this revenue go? Why do our corporate successes and dominant products fail to translate into a higher standard of living? A livable life, a livable city, a manageable life. A life your grandparents would want, a life that will be kind to your children. A life that you would want your loved ones to inherit. A place where you would want to live out your days.

The New York Times recently ran a clear-eyed piece on the American scam. The American economy and system are not working for anyone except perhaps those at the very top of the food chain – the fact that I even describe it as a food chain is a sign of how deeply ingrained American culture has taught us to eat or be eaten. We all stay so busy, busy, busy in America. We have to, because if we stop to catch our breath, we fall behind, declare bankruptcy, fail to survive, disappear. We have to move far away for work. We have to keep the job for the health insurance, the 401(k) retirement plan. We can’t take days off because that might make it seem like we don’t want to work, which will negatively impact our opportunities for promotions and wage increases. And everyone in America always needs a wage increase, because no one’s compensation (or fixed income) can keep pace with inflation.

Americans do not make a conscious choice to forego compassion. Community and compassion are bred out of us by the culture. Sure, I’d like to be compassionate, we think, but I’m having struggles and troubles of my own over here that are a fairly big deal to me, so take care of it, buddy. Do you best, we wish you well. Compassion requires that we slow down, look around, take stock, but the culture does not permit us to do any of those things. It’s not ethical to forbid someone to keep their earnest observations to themselves, but it is often done when an unhealthy relationship, church, community, or nation-state insists on its self-perpetuation. But truth will out, one way or another. I fear that U.S. culture will soon breed compassion out of all its people. We will be left holding a very ugly, very cruel bag indeed.

There is a deep collective fear among Americans of slipping backwards, because there is no net. Like that American tourist in Pompeii this week who tried to take a selfie on the lip of the Vesuvian crater, stumbled and fell in. To Vesuvius. An active volcano that everyone knows is active and lethal. A rescue team pulled him out unconscious from the crater shelf 45 feet below, but had his fall not been broken, he could have fallen 1000 feet. He was hiking on a closed path. He did not wish to be taken to a hospital. He will be charged with something under Italian law. I feel this is a fitting metaphor on which to end.

Wait, except for one more point. Please slow down. See things with new eyes, for what they are.

Vesuvius. Photo by Francesco Baerhard on Unsplash

Update from America: Culture Shock, and an Unexpected Ally

Photo by Julia Joppien on Unsplash

We’ll just put the boxes in the back of the car, my mom said. There are three plastic boxes and a large bag.

Ok, I said. I wasn’t sure when I would find the time in Spokane to go through the family pictures and documents. I would make time, I said.

This is about a third of it, my mom added.

Jason and I got in the loaner car and drove to Spokane for his week of meetings on the Mother Ship (Gonzaga University). The kids went to Port Angeles with my parents to recuperate from the trip. They gave us a key to a lovely small house close to campus to use for the time we’re here. Last time we were in this house, the kids were five and one, and Eleanor was still nursing. I changed her diapers on the floor of the living room. They went to the summer program at St. Aloysius across the street for two months. That walk on two blocks of sidewalk felt like a mile with two tiny kids and their snack boxes. It feels like a lifetime ago. It is good to be in a place that ties me to memories here. After twelve years living in Oklahoma, Washington felt like a true paradise. I only saw the tall trees, blue skies, and cool nights, decent ramen and nice grocery stores, and a public splash pad for the kids in a hilltop park.

And yet we never properly lived in Spokane. We were in this house as a family for nine weeks in 2016, waiting for Italian visas before we moved to Florence, and in a different house on South Hill for a couple of weeks the following year. After the setbacks in 2017 (high cost, unmanageable calendar, major theft, more) I swore I wouldn’t make this trip again until I had a more flexible schedule (I was working full-time remotely) and/or the kids were older. In 2018 both of our sets of parents came to visit us in Florence. In 2019 the nonni had some medical issues that prevented their travel (all thankfully now resolved or paused). And in 2020 and 2021 we were dealing with pandemic issues and travel restrictions. Jason came back to Spokane on his own in 2019 and 2021 for work. But the kids and I stayed behind in Italy those years. In the interim we have hosted so many Gonzaga faculty and staff that we actually have a network of friends now to catch up with, which was not at all the case in 2016, and slightly less so in 2017.

So I haven’t been to Spokane in five years. No one needs me to say a lot has changed in the U.S. since 2017, but there, I just did. I missed the last three-quarters of the T**** Administration in person, and all of the pandemic. I rolled into a small city that looked the same, but felt different. I looked closer.

I was prepared for some reverse culture shock but was caught off guard by the poverty, the low level of mental health, the hobos everywhere. The thirties are back. America is in a crisis. People are Not Well. The Spokane mayor used to be a local newscaster and no one thinks much of her. The homeless encampment between Spokane and Spokane Valley is huge. The shelves in stores are more than half empty and the sticker shock sends my head spinning. Pharmacies advertise free walk-in Covid vaccines and tests that no one is getting or picking up. The U.S. really seems to have moved beyond the pandemic, even as the pandemic has not moved on. So many hobos in varying low levels of health and hygiene, clearly struggling. I’m witnessing the crack into which people are falling, and there’s no net to catch them.

For a week now I’ve felt jittery and upset for a slate of reasons, but the human suffering on display is the hardest. And the jarring comments from locals – whose suffering seems more limited to inflation – when I mention it: the homeless are animals, they don’t want to work, they are savages, they are a money pit, it doesn’t matter how much we spend, nothing will change. The homeless pick through the our trash and recycle that we bag and place in the containers in the alley. A mentally ill woman walked down the street screaming yesterday right by our house. The neighbor across the street poked his nose in the house earlier this week because he thought we might be squatting on the property. It’s a reasonable enough concern. Other friends – colleagues we recently hosted in Florence – tell me that after time away, they too came back to Spokane and were shocked at the public suffering and obvious poverty on every block. They said that with time they too stopped “seeing” it after a few weeks back in town. They were not proud of this. It happens.

There are people who have never left Spokane, meanwhile, feel like they are in a protected and safe space compared to the “world out there.” I switched out my Italian SIM for a burner SIM at the T-Mobile store. Where do you live, the extremely local rep asked me. Italy, I said. Have you been? No, she shook her head, I have never been outside of the US. I don’t have a passport, and I won’t get one. We got customers moving to Mexico, she whispered. Oh, San Miguel de Allende, I asked. They must have great doctors and dentists there, a good place to retire. She recoiled. How did you know! Because tends of thousands of retired Americans live there, I said. It’s like the one place in Mexico people retire to. Customer service rep recoiled. I would never go there! That is the last place I would go! The crime is awful! I have a degree in criminal justice and I know what is out there! By this time I had Hello Kitty mouth and wondered if she was packing at work. I paid my sixty dollars for the burner SIM and a month of service and left the shop. At the guest house news was coming in fast about the Chicago massacre. I shook my head and wondered on what green planet that customer service rep felt like she lived in the safest place on earth.

I can’t even keep up with the news here and I am here in real-time, reading the daily reports of massacres. (The news must stop calling them shootings and shooters, and call them correctly instead massacres and murderers.) I checked in with a rattled friend in Chicago that afternoon. People are on edge. America is armed. There are more firearms in the U.S. than people (400 million next to 330 million). Many people don’t own guns, but the ones who do have a dozen or two dozen. It’s such a terrible problem that funnels attention away from other real issues like food and housing insecurity, lack of healthcare and mental healthcare, the ravaged environment and climate change, and violence in general. I could go on – that’s just the top of my list. Roe was struck down by the Supreme Court a few days before we left Italy but it already feels like old news. I don’t know what recent history people are recalling where women’s health care was plentiful and affordable. So there’s that.

As for our errant second checked bag, it was delivered and deposited to my parents’ back porch during the kid hand-off in Olympia, after both children had been completely re-provisioned with travel wardrobes in Port Angeles. Apparently the luggage did arrive in the U.S. on the same flight two days later, on July 1. But then it sat in a FedEx depot in Kent, WA for three days due to the weekend and July Fourth holiday. Fedex drove it up to the peninsula the morning of July 5th. Paris-CDG is in a total staffing meltdown, basically striking all of July. I don’t blame them. I always come down on the side of labor.

It all feels like a lot. (On the plus side, the weather is nice and cool.) Last weekend I sat down and started opening the boxes. My Post-It notes from the last time noted that I had perused these in the autumn of 2004 in Norman, Oklahoma. I reviewed at pictures (post-Civil War through the 1960s), receipts, ledgers, and my grandmother’s journals. She was a faithful journal keeper her whole life. Many of her entries stick to her personal tailoring, family visits, the almost-arguments with her then-boyfriend (my grandfather Harold), meals (especially potlucks at the various Catholic and Episcopal parishes around Grand Rapids), and seasonal weather, but her journal from 1940 covers her professional work, her engagement and marriage to my grandfather, and events large and small in the world around her. In that summer 82 years ago, she wrote

The big drive by the Nazis in England is expected this week. They are given about a fifty-fifty chance of invading England, but may hold off a year. Everybody is upset about the War talk, the election talk, and polio cases. – Esther Erway Sharp, August 19, 1940

It comforted me to read Esther’s account of her life in the 1930s and 1940s. Even as she was more or less in one place in lower Michigan (and Esther was very, very rooted to place), the world was changing around her quickly and in ways that alarmed her and others. She and my grandfather bought a trailer and were fitting it out to ride out the war, I suppose, in Florida, as my grandfather was thirty and had a medical exemption for the draft. I found her World War II ration books and gas tokens. Her work woes and comments sounded very familiar to me. (On the same day of her Nazi war report, one Gloria Buckway was also hospitalized for an indeterminate reason.)

I put aside some of the best pictures to take with me to Italy, and stacked the carefully typed family histories, and one autobiography in particular to scan and read at home. Esther passed in 1998, seven years after Harold and after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s. Thanks, grandma, for writing these, and for leaving them for me to find, maybe when I needed them most. They are a true gift. I hope my journals provide my grandchild with similar comfort in about 2080 or so.

Update from America: Moments of Cultural Pause

Ross Parmly – Unsplash

We flew back to the US from Italy this week. I say this week because it did indeed feel like a round-the-world ticket. A friend messaged me in surprise, You’re not there yet?! Sigh, no, here’s why.

We drove to Milan and spent the night there in an anonymous Novotel. We left our car in their parking lot and flew out from Milan, to Paris, to Seattle on Air France, our family of four in a row of four, a parent at each aisle with the two kids in the middle. I’m telling you, if you need to take a long flight, fly with Eleanor Houston, age seven and weighing about forty-five pounds, because you can put up your armrest and enjoy a comfortable quasidivanetto. (She is also extremely courteous travel company.) The plane was packed, every seat taken, and some American behind us and to my right made a huge fuss about their incompatibility to fly from Paris to Seattle adjacent to one another. The tattooed middle-aged man and his much young girlfriend, clad in tight white knit, insisted the people behind them were kicking their seat. The alleged kickers said they were doing no such thing as they wrestled a well-muscled, pajama-clad toddler with a tuft of blonde hair. The toddler’s grandparents were behind our seats. The French flight attendant brokered a seat switch with the deftness of an international diplomat, placing the grandparents in front of their rambunctious grandson and his parents, and offering Tattoo and White Knit some free wine for their troubles, which they immediately accepted, and proceeded to kick and bump our seats for the duration of the nine-hour flight.

Just one checked bag made it – good thing we only checked two, never mind that we paid a handsome fee for the privilege, since all the really expensive, hard-to-replace items were in the parents’ clamshell suitcase. We spent a night after the flight in metropolitan Tukwila, a stone’s throw from Sea-Tac where we all got in the pool and hot tub for a total of approximately three hours over two days. I am a fan of the post-arrival Japanese hot soak but the hot tub in particular was so chlorinated that it smelled like a flea dip. This was probably not a bad thing, given that less than a third of the passengers on our long flight were flying unmasked, despite the fact that the airline placed a brand-new mask in every seat and asked people to please wear one. The forces of reason have understandably surrendered to the forces of tantrums. We all stayed masked and did not regret it. I just don’t get why this is such a big deal.

The day after wheels-down in Seattle, my parents drove from Port Angeles to meet us, happily delivering a car for Jason and me to use. They ushered the kids into their Sierra minivan with leather recliners and dual sliding doors, my mom demonstrating the Snack Kit and recliner function, draping them each in an afghan she crocheted. Indigenous royal children were never so carefully handled as were our expatriate minor nobility, late of Italy. The van slid away onto I-5. Jason and I waved goodbye but they didn’t see us.

We packed our (not lost) suitcase and deposited it in the red Matrix (not kidding – so meta) and I, with my valid Washington state driver’s license, was delighted to navigate the HOV lane on I-405 and merge onto I-90 east, past my old T-Mobile office, past the exits for 148th and S.E. Newport Way and the Mormon temple, past the “new” exit for Lakemont Boulevard (now twenty years old), past Lake Sammamish and the exits for downtown Issaquah. The notch in the Cascades was stuffed with clouds that day, so the prized peekaboo view of Mt. Rainier was hidden. Up, up and over the pass until we were out of range for KEXP, and good grief, was I happy to be driving. (I am still not licensed to drive in Italy, long story for a later post.) The sky was blue, the grass green, and the interstate was packed with traffic. Past Cle Elum and Rosslyn and Ellensburg (Subway and local culture), dipping into the river valley to cross the Columbia, which startled with its blue width and magnificence while puzzled over the apparent county bridge ownership – the north half was pristine, the south half just slightly better than dangerous. We scanned the radio stations, much Bible, faux InfoWars, “January 6th political prisoners,” conspiracy content galore about Disney and Chinese communist ownership, finally landing on the BBC, perhaps broadcast from Moses Lake, to bring us up to speed on the war in Ukraine and the economic collapse in Lebanon. The rural poverty along the interstate was astonishing. We stopped again for Starbucks cold brew and Reeses Peanut Butter Cups for the driver (still me) and I brought us into Spokane around 4 in the afternoon. Good time, great air conditioning, the Matrix humming like finely-tuned alt reality. The urban poverty near our off-ramp was astonishing. We parked on campus and picked up the keys for our guest accommodation, very generously offered by Gonzaga, and which we already knew from having stayed here in this very house for nine weeks in 2016 as we waited for the Italian consulate of San Francisco to issue our visas.

Spokane is much warmer than west of the mountains, but nothing like Florence, where the heat continues to burn through all crops and everyone’s patience. The nights here are about 14C/58F, and we open the windows to gulp the fresh air whose fragrance is far sweeter than the window units in this house.

My Italian cell phone messaged me to welcome me to coverage in America, but it’s not working so I’m on Wi-Fi for the foreseeable future.

We went to the post office to collect our PO box mail. Jason got a talking-to by the postal worker who became much calmer when Jason said the reason we haven’t been checking our PO box as regularly as our contract stipulates we must because he work for Gonzaga (immediate shift toward the positive) and is employed in Italy for the good Jesuits (how he has a new best friend in USPS). While Jason managed the situation I sifted through the remaining unrecycled mail and found a jury summons. For me. To the PO box. My afternoon yesterday was taken up with providing evidence as to why I cannot serve on a Spokane jury later this month. And tracking our lost suitcase. Which now seems to have left Paris CDG after a two-day connection.

I went to Walgreen’s this morning to stock up on our wish list and came home with a sack full of first aid, over the counter medicine, and dental care. Things cost a lot. Store shelves seem empty. People seem stressed, and a great many people in Spokane seem to be presently experiencing a physical health crisis, mental health crisis, or both.

Still, it feels good to be back here, to check in, see how the old place is faring. For some reason now I feel I have forgotten a dozen or more anecdotes related to my reverse culture shock here. Suffice it to say, and I have already said this to my husband, that I am grateful that our home base in the US is here in Washington state. The evergreens and night air are a balm to my far-flung spirit.

Ryan Stone – Unsplash