Monday, January 28, 2013


Whenever our family speaks about foreign languages, it’s only a matter of time before someone recalls our oldest daughter’s Norwegian friends from Spain. Two sons of a diplomatic family had moved to Madrid after a previous posting in Brazil. When a group of 11th graders decided to go out on the town together, our daughter overhead them run through four successive languages. They began, with the rest of the students, in Spanish. They made a quick call home for permission, and the phone was answered  by their long-time maid. They spoke to her in Portuguese, then asked for their mother. They spoke to her in Norwegian. Elated, they told my daughter and her Irish friend (in English), that they could stay out until midnight.  

We’ve witnessed other impressive family combinations: Danish-Spanish-English; Dutch-Malay-Czech-English; Swedish-Farsi-English; and German-Swiss German-English. I am lost in admiration for the effortless talent on display as people switch languages as easily as turning the knob on a radio station.  And I am swept up in jealous frustration as I realize that such facility will never be mine.

Our children jokingly berate us: “Why did you marry each other? Two English-speaking Americans, what were you thinking, we didn't stand a chance!” And they are probably right, although they don’t realize the overwhelming dominance of English means that we’d not only have to marry foreigners, but then move to the ends of the earth to avoid hearing English.  

Trapped in English, they join us in our eternal ambivalence about language. They see the hard work that it takes to gain fluency, the so-so results, and the waste as we move from one country to the next, ever the dilettantes.

Harold, undoubtedly the most ardent student of languages, collects dictionaries as a hobby, the more obscure, the better. He introduced me to Ladino, or Sephardic Spanish; to Lunfardo, the Cockney of Buenos Aires; and to Quechua and Nahuatl, just two of the pre-Colombian languages of Latin America. He delves deeply into origins. How is Quebecois different from French? Where does Romanian fall on the Slavic vs Romance language continuum? The children are well aware of the shelves full of dictionaries, (a few of which are in the photo above) but if they need a quick word translated they whip out their iphones. 

I take a more pragmatic approach, learning successive languages as an adult for my next work assignment. Trying to anticipate the kind of words I’ll need, I slag off the chapter on auto repair, but hone in on political and economic terms. How do you say “fall of the government?”

I wish I had a triumphal story – a moment in which my Czech, Spanish, or French saved the day and did me proud. But the only example that comes to mind serves to echo the frustrations of learning too many languages as an adult.  

It fell to me to deliver the embassy’s Fourth of July address, a formal occasion with national anthems, Marine color guards, and the President of the Czech Republic at my side. If ever there was a moment for linguistic eloquence – this was it. I wrote the speech myself and had it translated by Czech staff, and then had them work with me, painstakingly, to get it letter-perfect. I rehearsed in the car, in the bathroom, and at my desk. This was a matter of pride and something I deeply cared about. 

“How good is her Czech?” my impudent son asked a Czech waiter when the great day came. He got the hand waggling, so-so reply. “Good enough,” the waiter said. 

All that work to get a lousy passing grade? Can it be possible my Czech was not exquisite? And therein lies the tale of my disappointing relationship with languages.

Fast forward a few years, and my Czech is all but forgotten. We are sitting in Norwell and our youngest is tussling with AP Spanish 5. This makes her an advanced student by Massachusetts standards, but seeing her struggle with the pasado del subjunctivo, I can see that taking high school Spanish in an Anglo town is a lousy way to learn. She gets bored. She wonders about Russian, Italian, anything but facing another worksheet drill. I feel like I’ve failed her. How could we have dragged her to so many countries, to end up having her learn language the hard way? How could we have spent so many rich years overseas to end up so poor in languages?

It’s too late for me, but she still has a chance. She’s young enough to go live abroad, to live with a family, to pick a small town where English is a rarity. She could end up speaking far, far better than I. But only at the high price of leaving. 

I chalk up her struggle as just another chapter in our tantalizing, but ultimately disappointing relationship with languages.  

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


Nothing tells the story of travel quite like an old passport. The one above was issued 52 years ago. It’s a green-covered booklet, thick with accordion-folded extension pages. It belongs to my husband Harold, who traveled his way through the sixties as a foreign correspondent in Latin America and South East Asia.
The ink stamps are a collage of colors ranging from vivid purple to faded hues of red, blue, and black. They take on every shape: circles for El Salvador; squares for Bolivia; triangles for Bangkok and octagons for Hong Kong. Although they all look important, their size varies, often disproportionately to the political heft of the issuing country. While Madrid and London are nondescript, Paraguay takes up a full page and comes with a decorative orange postage-type stamp.
For students of foreign policy, the passport is an artifact of how the world worked 50 years ago. This one carries the signature of Christian Herter, then-Secretary of State. Page four sternly warns the bearer that the passport is not valid for travel to Cuba, and that anyone who travels there (or to Vietnam, North Korea, China, “or to or in” Albania) may be liable for prosecution under Section 1185, Title 8; and Section 1544, Title 18 of the U.S. Code.  But international diplomacy is as riven with contradictions as any other field, and page five carries a typewritten addendum stating that “this passport is valid for one round trip to Cuba,” signed by the U.S. Consul in 1964 at the American Embassy in Mexico City. There is also evidence of several trips to Saigon.
Viet-Nam (sometimes, but not consistently, appearing hyphenated) may have been prohibited, but the full page visa suggests the country was set up to receive the scores of American reporters, contractors, and advisers who were associated in some way with the war effort. The big red stamp authorized twelve days in April 1968, just after the Tet Offensive. The elegant blue fountain pen annotations of a Vietnamese official hint at years of meticulous French training of colonial bureaucrats, layered like a veneer over a distinct culture suggested by those strange diacritical marks.
Entry stamps are a good barometer of a country’s stance on tourists. Some are matter-of-fact like the U.K., other countries see tourists as a Very Big Deal. The full page taken by the “Union of Burma” emblazoned with a purple coat of arms, carries an unfriendly looking 72-hour visa, with a foreboding stamp in red: “Landroute Not Permissible.” A cautionary blue stamp runs vertically alongside with the unfathomable warning: “Undertaking No. 2 Issued.”  
The passport carries ample evidence of global inefficiencies and pointless regulations. As a foreigner living for a few years in Buenos Aires, Harold had to leave the country every 90 days for the sole purpose of re-entering. Thus, several accordion fold-put pages bear a ridiculous succession of Argentine-Uruguayan stamps. There is no indication that the Uruguayan official felt put-upon by visitors who came for no reason other than to leave.
Many of the stamps were issued in airports with names that would challenge all but the most seasoned travelers to match to the correct country:  Ilopango (El Salvador), Toncontin, (Honduras); Tocumen (Panama); and La Aurora (Guatemala). The stamp for El Coco (Costa Rica) offers proof that not even airport names are permanent. By 1960 El Coco had replaced the earlier, all grass runways of La Sabana, but El Coco was itself renamed Juan Santamaria.
In some cases, entire countries have been renamed. The passport stamp for British Honduras is defunct for the country that is now Belize. The Portuguese visa for the “Provincia de Macau,” is a historical relic of a colony that was returned to China in 1999.
Land routes were a favored mode of travel for Harold, whose blue Chevrolet Impala was itself the object of still more stamps, annotations, and in one case, an entire letter typed on a manual typewriter, affixed to the passport and allowing him to enter the country, in this case Honduras, by vehicle. It did not go well.
He drove along increasingly broken roads until he came to a washed out bridge. Having no real choice he decided to drive across what appeared to be a shallow stream. This started out fine, but as is often the case with rivers, the waters were deceptively deep. Soon the car lost contact with the river bed and Harold watched the rising waters swirling up to the door. He scrambled out in the nick of time, leaving the poor Chevy stranded. 
But lengthy sojourns in Latin America had taught him nothing if not that life rarely throws a problem at you without also offering a solution. Out of nowhere, a posse of 12-year-old boys appeared. With much shouting and initially ineffective effort, they finally marshaled the organizational skills necessary to get the car to the other side.
There he sat, doors wide open, watching the water slowly draining away in the Honduran sun. The gang spread his suitcases on the grass and festooned the bushes with his clothing, while he hoped against hope the car would start. It did, and there were a few hours of triumph before the inevitable growth of mildew, mold, and rot. But time solves all. The mold blossomed, smelled appalling, and then slowly died off, leaving him a car slightly more used than when he bought it, and the passport chronicles his procession through a dozen more Latin American land border crossings in El Florido, Chiquimula, El Amatillo, Esquipulas, Huehuetenango, Cuahtemoc, and Tecun Uman.
Nothing beats the permanent fiesta of a Latin American land border crossing. All friendliness and free enterprise on the outside; all surliness and officiousness within.  Strolling musicians, women fanning elote grills with palm fronds, vendors hawking unlikely wares, and children running everywhere offered considerable entertainment value. But their presence also testified to the countless lost hours waiting in line, accommodating arbitrary rules no one could explain, waiting for staff to come back from Latin-American length lunch breaks, and arguing fruitlessly with guards whose sole purpose was to keep people out. Cynics point out that the old green passports were precisely long enough to accommodate U.S. greenbacks between the pages.
Indeed, the stamps bear silent witness to the army of officials whose job it was to issue them (or not).  For those who have ever sneered at TSA, welcome to the rest of the world, where computers and English break down and signs mean absolutely nothing. There are no rules. There are too many rules.
This is travel from another era, when international phone calls had to be booked, operators had trunk lines, and people dressed up for their flights. The very small percentage of Americans who held a passport in the sixties contributed a sense of awe to this symbol of exotic undertaking. 
No one travels like that anymore. Trips are well-researched, and every possible problem and inconvenience is anticipated and resolved in advance. There is no room left for serendipity, adventure, or chance. In an era of biometric passports, iPhones, and Twitter, seldom are travelers far from home. 
            This well-worn passport has a hard-earned authenticity. Its filled-up pages suggest the bearer may or may not have “passed without delay or hindrance,” as the front page message from the Secretary of State requests on his behalf, but every stamp on every page proves that the bearer is in every sense, a true traveler.  

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Fix it!

Our grandfather clock just chimed the hour! Both children got a little misty-eyed when they heard it. The clock is no antique, but it is the venerable survivor of enough mishaps and moves to fill a century. It has stood mutely in our house for two and a half years, a silent reproach to the family that was too busy to do the right thing.

It is so easy to let broken things sit – either because they cannot be fixed; because it is too expensive to fix them; or because there are so many competing priorities. But the non-decision of not fixing something becomes a slippery slope, and it is easy to end up with a house full of things that don’t work – a demoralizing house full of broken things. Thus came about my New Year’s resolution to deal with each broken item in our house and systematically put them all to rights.

We have a window that lost its seal. Condensation that never clears mars the view in every season. The piano, dragged from Prague too many times, is woefully out of tune, and maybe out of life. The stove runs on three burners – close enough for government work, I joke, but why settle for that? There’s a problem with the electrical box and we no longer have overhead lights in the kitchen. I brought in a lamp to tide us over (OK, that was 4 months ago) but in these dark months of winter it would be nice to see the sink.

I know we are hardly alone; every household has its own list. And not everything can be fixed. The ancient printers in the basement are not worth the trouble when a quick trip to any office supply store will get me a far better one well under $100. But it is all too easy to throw things away, an act which deprives us of exposure to the art of repair.

Consider our clock. It predates our youngest child – she doesn’t remember when it was not in one of her many houses. It was a splendid housewarming gift from my parents, and it spent its first year in a newly built and empty house, awaiting our return from Prague. It was the first and only piece of furniture for 16 long months. That alone would be reason enough to keep it in working order, but wait, there is more, much more.

The grandfather clock survived our 4-year-old’s birthday party in which one of her guest’s little brothers unlocked the front case, stepped inside, got trapped behind the pendulum, and brought the entire clock down on top of himself – only to walk away unscathed.

The clock was not so lucky – glass and wood were spewed across the wooden floor, the works seemed beyond redemption. To make matters even worse, the movers were coming the very next morning to pack us up for our next posting in Canada. With great skepticism and much sorrow, we packed up every splinter and screw. Months later, we found a repair shop in Montreal that lovingly reconstructed it. With a heritage like that, how could I fail to make a minimal effort?

Our clock was fixed last night by an experienced clockman – an horologist, I suppose. I had to do the research first. I found his shop and went and talked to him in person, explaining my problem. We agreed to a day and time. Although it was a very snowy evening, he showed up at the very minute of the appointed hour, bringing his black bag in tow, just like a doctor on a house call. He refused refreshment and went straight to the patient. I had the privilege of watching a rare thing – a true artisan who knows his craft. He was methodical and unhurried.  At one point the clock was in pieces on the floor; the next minute he was painstakingly putting it all back into place. An hour later, it was up and running. His bill was reasonable, he packed up his bag and with a handshake, that oldest of all customer relations efforts, went on his way. There was no exchange of emails, websites, or electronic clatter.

Thus I have checked the first of 12 boxes for my New Year’s resolution. With the smugness of a convert, I wonder aloud why we didn't do this sooner. Then I see the list of other broken things awaiting my attention, and I know the answer.

Next month – the window!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

FROM 4 TO 84

This is the time of year when our family – our large, extended family – hunts for a Cape Cod summer house that will be all things to all people. Like summer romances, summer houses are short-term affairs, our passions fueled by the intense bleakness of a New England January. Like all romances, the summer house lures with impossible promises of sun-drenched good times in the far off future.

It always starts like this: right after we put away the Christmas things, my daughter and I begin a tentative exchange of email photos of prospective houses that soon ramps up to a frenzy. I lean toward estates and mansions with staggering price tags. She, more responsibly, filters selections through our many requirements: handicapped accessible, child safe, a pool if possible, oceanfront if possible, ground floor bedroom, wifi, television, a nice kitchen for group cooking, lovely seafront vistas…and above all, the right dates of availability. It is both fun and frustrating.

The thrill of the hunt is part of the fun. Will we be on Pleasant Bay, will we find something on Nauset Beach, or will we go for pond-front. Is this the year to reach for the Vineyard?

Like childbirth veterans, each year we forget the pain of predeparture days of list-making and packing before the inevitable disappointment once we arrive at our annual destination. Those breathtaking photos never tell the whole story. There was the house with only partial air conditioning; the one with the alarm that kept going off; the one with the invasion of black carpenter ants in the kitchen; the one with the pool that overflowed; and the one that was the scene of a spat that left spilled red wine on a white living room chair that took great effort, by turns arduous and panicked, to remove.

Each year one of our number gently reminds us that there are easier ways to do this – we could simply make reservations at any of the Cape’s lovely resort hotels. No need to pack sheets and towels and half our household goods. No need to make the daily trek to the supermarket to feed our hordes. No arguments over who gets which bed and which bedroom. No teenagers fighting over whose turn it is for KP.

But we resist, fueled by memories of board games nights in which everyone threw aside pretensions and competed like hell. Movie nights with everyone sprawled on the living room floor. The incredible risotto we ate on the patio, lingering over wine as the longest twilight changed to dusk and ever so slowly, nightfall. We are not hotel guests, we are a family and we want the fun of being under one roof.  

As we make email inquiries to the owners we write proudly, “We are a four-generation family, ranging in age from 4 to 84.” I always figured that made us sound responsible, upright, and trustworthy. Possibly. More recently, I’ve come to understand the full impact of what it means to be a four-generation family
What is age four, but the epitome of youthful delight? Impossibly cute, a princess world in which everything is all right, all problems are small and solvable, and naps are the certain cure for whininess. A world in which adults are bowled over by precociousness, in which it is possible to get lost in a project building sandcastles or collecting shells for no real purpose. Who wouldn’t like age 4?

But if you have 4 you must also have 84 – at least you must if you are a four-generation family. Eighty-four comes with a collection of meds so complicated they must be sorted into colored boxes at the start of each week. Eighty-four is all about fading memories and failing strength, and the ever-present fear of falling. But mostly, 84 represents all that can no longer be done. Those rental house lists of exhausting activities are of no interest: there will be no surfing, bike riding, hiking, hockey or horseback riding. Merely being with family has to be enough.

There may not be much to recommend about being 84, but I keep thinking about the symmetry of that spread of years. I think it enriches us. When we are together we all look out for each other. If the four-year-old falls, any one of us will stop, reassure her, and set her on her way again. If the 84-year-old needs help, any one of us will likewise be there for him.

In some ways, our search for the perfect summer rental is an affirmation of the rightness of this spread of years, an acceptance of the fact that we are indeed a family – a collection of individuals spanning many decades, united by our DNA and marriages.

We represent an impossible range of needs, experiences, likes and desires, but for one week a year we can celebrate our diversity and live together under one roof.

Thursday, January 10, 2013


This is meant to be a column in which I say how great it is to have a new job and learn new things. In fact, nothing is worse than having a new job and learning new things.

Of course I love my new job at Northeastern. Having transferred 13 times in a 23-year foreign service career, I'm used to the hassle of learning all over again where to park (and where not to) learning the names of my new colleagues, and learning how to operate the coffee machine.

But this time the learning curve has me drowning in technology. On my first day I was given a laptop and a  iphone. The technician looked pityingly at my blackberry. The laptop is toggled to my work station, and wrestling it out of its docking station is something I have yet to master. The building itself runs on key cards which open doors, unlock elevators, and admit you to the parking garage. I now carry two phones, key cards, toggle keys, id cards, and confusion. I'm constantly looking for things I've dropped or lost.   

But that's the easy part. The real challenge is the culture of technology. People actually bring their laptops to meetings. (At the State Department this was seen as security risk, and strictly forbidden. Notes were taken the old fashioned way, and if possible with a flashy Montblanc).  

People include their Skype address in their email signature lines, and absent colleagues are constantly being Skyped into meetings, a process that requires only about 10 seconds. I "met" a colleague in North Carolina three times in one day. We were old friends by 5 pm. In fact, there is a culture of meetings, and I am constantly being invited, electronically, to more. Then they are cancelled or rescheduled. I eagerly accept all invitations, having little else to do in my first week, only to find that I'm the only one in the room. (Cancelled electronically, should have checked the damn iphone).  Then I find I've missed one with my boss! How could this happen? 

I can see the mountain looming ahead for me is the coupling of technology and teaching. All professors must have online certification. I am set to begin this process on Monday. I will learn how to create Wikis on Blackboard, an electronic platform. Then I will meet with a course designer who will suggest bells and whistles to jazz up the syllabus. I have been assigned three courses for the spring term and have never taught any of them. I would far rather spend my time reviewing the literature and crafting a sensible reading list. But instead, I fear I will be engaged in a life or death battle with technology.

A part of me craves this chance to be one of the cool kids. I see myself skyping cheerfully on my laptop, downloading amazingly relevant YouTube videos into my courses, creating my own meetings, inviting lots of people to them, and then cancelling them, all via my iphone. 

But another part of me just wants a nice fountain pen, preferably a Montblanc.  

Thursday, January 3, 2013


            I remember standing in Schoenborn Palace in Prague when a staff member opened a window and had me run my fingers up and down both sides of the panes. He was anxious to demonstrate that old glass is neither a solid nor a liquid, and that over time the molecules move. Thanks to gravity, they move downward, leaving the upper part of the pane significantly thinner than the lower part. I stood rapt, entranced at how old glass kept surfacing as a metaphor for all things Czech.

           Glass is everywhere in the Czech Republic, and much of it is ugly. Tourist shops are crammed with a few patterns, heavy carved, etched, and frosted, and still produced years after the fall of communism, when one pattern was all you got. Objects range from heavy vases to the smallest perfume flasks, and the omnipresent chandeliers, so frequently used to hide microphones that Czechs still point to them out of habit when someone says something indiscreet.

            Fast forward a few years. A quick search of the Internet will tell any reader that the notion of glass as an amorphous solid is malarkey. I was disappointed when this was first pointed out to me, and insisted that the glass had indeed felt much thinner near the top -- surely proving it was a very slow moving fluid. The fact that I was wrong illustrates that travel is about impressions rather than accuracy.  And the fact that I was wrong about glass illustrates that matter, in all its artistic, ineffable, and beguiling forms, is an unreliable substance.

            When it comes to travel, how do we really know anything? What is lore, what is apocrypha? As tourists passing though, the chance to investigate is limited. We yearn for narrative – for the stories that will make the travel more real, because, what is travel, after all, but the movement of molecules across time, space, and distance. It takes so much energy to hurl ourselves beyond the mundane of airports, logistics, and itineraries. It leaves us desperate to use whatever energy remains to seek meaning in something special.  

            We seek the odd, the inexplicable, the thing that will make us feel far from home. We crave oddities – an iceberg, with its geologic striations; a giant redwood, the Northern lights.

The unevenly thin glass panes, even without the moving molecules, speak to the fingertips of those who feel them. They tell us that there is an authenticity in something old and hand-blown that makes it more real than all the windows in the Hilton. This is the essence of Central Europe, a place of wars, music, and fantastic stories.

            I had countless conversations in which Praguers told me some amazing fact about their city. I came to accept these tales and soon had my own collection of mazing, unverifiable stories about half the buildings that surrounded me.  

            I stood in Czernin Palace (the foreign ministry) next to the bathroom window where Jan Masaryk was alleged to have fallen -- or more likely been pushed -- to his death in what is sometimes called the third defenestration of Prague.  Jan Masaryk, son of Thomas and born in America, had a distinguished diplomatic record and was serving as the Czechoslovak foreign minister when the U.S. unveiled the Marshall Plan. Unlike the Soviet Union and eastern satellites, the Czechoslovaks wanted to participate. Moscow responded with a communist putsch, sealing the fate of the country for 40 years.

            No one knows for sure what happened to Masaryk in that green-tiled bathroom that is obviously rarely used, and foreign ministry officials are eager to take visitors to the window, which sits high above the floor, at shoulder height.  Unlike the survivors of the second defenestration, there was no dung heap below to brake Masaryk’s fall.     

            Closer to home, I’ve heard the stories of how the faithful butler of the Otto Petchek residence (now the residence of the U.S. ambassador) stored the family silver, china and other valuables in the coal tunnels beneath the house. Some of the artifacts are proudly displayed in the reception rooms. Is the story true? Living on the property for three years, our children searched in vain for the coal tunnels, long since filled in. Other versions say he buried them near the old oak tree. Which one?

            I’ve seen the room in the attic of the U.S. embassy where Kafka is said to have slept.        I’ve stood at the top of the Glorietta, part of the back garden of the U.S. embassy and clearly diplomatic turf, but “captured” in 1968 for a brief period by soldiers from Central Asia, part of the sad ending to the Prague Spring. The story is that they munched on apples from the orchard, then spit them out when a political officer charged up the hill and challenged them.

            The stories spill on and on, vesting buildings with burdensome history: the church in which the pilots hid from Heydrich; the church tower from which the secret police spied on Czechs trying to reach the U.S. Embassy; the farmyard from which the Macin brothers started on their westward flight.

             As a child of Irish heritage, I learned early on that truth comes second to a good tale, but Prague, with its Golem, puts the Irish to shame when it comes to half-right histories. I surrender to science on the issue of the glass pane, but if ever there was a city in which solid molecules could move, it would be Prague.