28 May 2011

Grand Prix

Today’s post comes to you live from the 69th Monaco Formula One Grand Prix. I will say right from the start that my only qualification to write about Formula One racing is that I’ve been driving the circuit for the past 16 years. Which is to say, no qualifications whatsoever. Everyone in Monaco drives the circuit as the race takes place on the same roads on which we live and commute to work and take the kids to school. 77 laps, 263 kilometers squeezed into the two square miles that constitute the Principality.

It’s easy to take for granted how exceptional that really is. Aside from our roads being always perfectly paved (no Pothole Watch in Monaco!) one is occasionally reminded when driving along the port in say, November. An out of town tourist in the next car revs his motor. You can literally see him (it’s always a him) thinking “How cool am I – driving the Grand Prix circuit!” But usually, few residents give it that much thought, mostly braking and accelerating, wondering how such a little village can have so much congestion.

My relationship with the Grand Prix is a love/hate one, as I suspect it might be for many a resident. My friend Joanna summed it up perfectly in a mere three words: traffic, tourists and tarts.

In fact, it is all that, and as the saying goes, much, much more. Even for those of us who are not fans of the race itself (I claim the excuse that Formula One is not a big part of American culture) one has to admire the energy and excitement that pours into the Principality each and every year.  It is thrilling. The harbor overflows with the most gorgeous yachts in the world. The streets are colored with hundreds of thousands of people, and there are some truly stunningly beautiful women, professional or not. In all, Monaco literally glistens like the Med that surrounds it.

Certainly, residents complain. I know I do, first because I like complaining and truth be told, because the barriers and stands going up a month before, with the inevitable chaos and traffic and difficulty getting around, provide plenty of good reason. The necessary safety measures turn Monaco into something resembling a prison for much of May and June, two of the most beautiful months. On the other hand, it is impossible not to admire the organization that takes a living, working city and transforms it into a track for the most prestigious car race in the world.

Perhaps one of the most interesting facts of the Grand Prix is that were it not already in place (and run practically continuously since 1929) it would never be allowed to establish today. In this day and age where everything is evaluated and safety concerns/fear of litigation take precedence over risk taking and innovation – it is saying something that Monaco can still make the Grand Prix work.

And work it does. The stands, souvenir shops, stadium seating have all been erected. Thousands line the streets. Rooftops and terraces are festooned and caterers have delivered. Restaurants are full. Parties start with bowls of earplugs passed around to guests even before the hors d’oeuvres are offered. The engines roar and we watch the drivers exercise powers of concentration unimaginable to mere mortals. In short the entire village becomes a 4-day (and night) non-stop, incredibly glamorous block party, a marathon of celebration, with people watching like nowhere else on earth. You gotta love it. Happy Grand Prix!

24 May 2011

Bling a Bling Bling

Like most women, I love a bit of bling. Cliché as it may sound, the only thing I love more than a bit of bling is a lot of bling. In fact, really obscene amounts are just fine with me.

Full Disclosure: I am a jeweler’s daughter. My father was president and owner of Raymond C. Yard, an exclusive New York jewelry firm established in 1922 that catered to generations of America’s founding families. When the firm’s founder, Raymond Yard, retired in 1958, he had sold over one million dollars worth of jewelry to three separate families. Trust me, in ‘58 that was a lot of shine. The Herald Tribune wrote at the time Yard’s career could ‘factually be described as fabulous.’

I grew up with all the glamour associated with the business. My father’s first kiss, as a young salesman just starting out, was from none other than Joan Crawford. She was a friend and client of Mr. Yard, who set it up as a cross between a favor and a joke. Whatever it was, it made for a great story and a memorable first for my father.

However, while Yard boasted generations of Rockefellers, Flaglers and many others celebrities as clients, it has never been patronized by one Mr. Newton Leroy Gingrich. (Aside: and Obama’s name is supposed to be a liability?) So for the record, as far as my issue goes with Newt for spending half a million in jewelry – really, it’s only that he spent it at Tiffanys and not at Yard. It’s his money and his business.

But I do have an issue with hypocrisy. If you can run that kind of tab at Tiffany’s, then you can’t turn around and say ‘we don’t do elaborate things… we are very frugal.’ Say I am wealthy and successful; say I can spend my money as I see fit – but own your actions. They are not frugal ones. It’s kind of like Newt going after Clinton for his indiscretions, all the while indulging in a pretty major illicit affair of his own. Smacks of deceit. Not to mention Newt divorcing two wives while they were sick, marrying a third and blaming his less than virtuous behavior ‘on working too hard for America.’ Reminds me a bit of the old ‘lay down and think of England’ line, but as a rationale, uh, it just doesn’t work for Newton Leroy.

Back as a student, I spent a few summers working for my father. One of the first things he taught me was never to mention prior purchases when a husband and wife came in together, as there was no guarantee it had been purchased for the wife. A good jeweler is nothing if not discreet. But I certainly was not surprised to read that Callista Gingrich was the one disclosing that Tiffany account. I’m guessing she must manage that revolving charge pretty closely. Given her husband’s track record, you might almost call it prudence.

Still, there are sufficient other issues with Newt, that I think we can safely let this particular story drop. After all, as this jeweler’s daughter also happens to be a man’s wife, far be it from me to discourage anyone from buying all the bling they want and can afford. It can be an excellent investment, and it’s certainly more wearable than stocks and bonds.

O.K, sweetheart? Knock yourself out!

20 May 2011

Tsk, Tsk, DSK

My hubby’s got some ‘xplainin’ to do. Not that the poor man has done anything even remotely wrong. Nor, for the record, do I suspect the love of my life of a wandering eye or any other wandering body parts.

It’s just…  all those other men out there. Men who have nothing whatsoever to do with my beloved, besides being of the same sex. Men behaving so badly that I irrationally feel the need to put my man on the hot seat.

I refer, of course, to recent actions of not one but two high profile members of the male species. Men who have destroyed their lives by indiscretions ranging from suspected rape to fathering a love child. Neither are men you would believe capable of such idiocy. Both are in the public eye with considerably more to lose than my husband. Truth be told, one is a richer and more powerful banker and the other is a taller and stronger, um, physical specimen. Both are married to intelligent, attractive and successful women. Both made the move on maids who cleaned their quarters.

It begs the question. How can men with so much on the line be willing to risk a lifetime’s work and reputation? Are they acting out of a sense of invincibility or total insecurity? The answers lie beyond the scope of my imagination, so naturally I turn to my husband for help, as the only resident expert I happen to have on hand.   

There is nothing the poor man hates more. Being forced to defend his entire species – in light of complete strangers’ actions, is pretty much on a pain par with how he would imagine a first time brazilian. In fairness, it would never occur to him to ask me to justify my sex or myself because Angelina tempted Brad away from Jen. To the contrary, if he ever gave such an event a moment’s attention it would most likely be just a fleeting thought. Along the lines of ‘lucky bastard.’

Nonetheless, he did bring up a really good point – with all the controversy: France versus America; seducers versus puritans; DSK’ third wife saying she was ‘rather proud’ of her husband’s reputation versus American’s championing of the immigrant underdog; for all those endless debates the essential difference is being missed.  With Arnie and his housekeeper, the sex was consensual. With DSK and the maid in Manhattan, we are talking about a crime. Not a sex crime, not a scandal, but a violent, brute force crime. Both men have issues, that is certain, but one has some serious ‘talk about ISSUES’ issues.

As for my husband, in retrospect it’s not true that he has less to lose than either Arnie or Domie. As I’ll remind him between now and forever, he would have a lot to lose. Namely, me, and that’s not to be taken lightly. 

Added Extra: For anyone who might have missed one of my favorite blogs, the Borowitz Report, Andy wrote the following on May 16th.

In other political news, IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn said the sexual misconduct charges against him would force him to drop out of the race for President of France and run for Prime Minister of Italy instead.

17 May 2011

One Last Dear Donald

Oh, Donald, no. You’re kidding, right? You are NOT going to run for President of the United States? Really, not? Just as we were starting to get used to the idea? And after all that you put us through? Come on, tell the truth now - were you just foolin’ with us? Toying with the notion of leading the American people to shore up your ratings? Seems a bit extreme as efforts go.

And you were doing so well in the polls! Why, you say so yourself! So what if you’re the only one saying it, this is your story, Donny, you’s the man! It’s one thing not running if you believe you haven’t a prayer of winning, and quite another if you (and I quote) ‘maintain the strong conviction (you) would win the general election.’ Then it doesn’t make any sense. Because if you really think you can win and succeed in fixing our country’s problems, well, most Americans would probably be willing to sacrifice another season of Celebrity Apprentice for that.

Donald, I simply have to ask: is all this because Seth Meyers made fun of you at the Correspondent’s Dinner?  Because, you know - he was just being a big bully – one I believe you said ‘stutters.’ Of course, it’s not easy being made fun of (although with your hairstyle one would think you’d be used to it.) And you did start it, so you kind of got what was coming to you. But look at the positive – look how you showed the nation what a good sport you were that night, glowering right back at Seth and even the President without so much as cracking a smile. In fact, in those few moments you almost conveyed the gravitas that Karl Rove so rightly accused you reality TV stars of lacking. But then, of course, he was talking about Sarah Palin when he said that, not you.  Here’s a thought – one you’d never guess would come from me – perhaps Rove is right here, maybe most Americans don’t want TV star politicians as leaders. Maybe, just maybe, Americans want a little bit more.

But the reason I’m writing one last time is not to thank you for all the blog hits, it’s because I’m confused. By your official statement more than by your decision, which truth be told, isn’t all that much of a surprise. It’s rather that nowhere in ending this rigmarole do you take credit for your signature achievement.  Sure, you say “My ability to bring important economic and foreign policy issues to the forefront of the national dialogue is perhaps my greatest asset and one of the most valuable services I can provide to this country.” Donald, I can guarantee you that isn’t it. The issue to be forever associated with you in this very entertaining mockery of a presidential-run-that-wasn’t, is not economic and foreign policy – it’s Obama’s birth certificate. Funny, you didn’t mention that contribution even once – so uncharacteristically modest of you.  But don’t worry. You might think it would fade after enjoying its 15 minutes, but in this case you drove it home so incessantly that we will never forget. Sure, now Obama is the big hero who got the bad guy. Sure, the majority of Americans now actually want to claim him as our own, but the fact that we know, know in our heart of hearts he was born in Hawaii - that has something to do with you. Or maybe not.

Anyway, Donald, all the best.

13 May 2011

Never Apologize, Unless Necessary

OK, so it’s been a busy week. But definitely not in any sort of satisfying, achieved something major kind of way. More like busy with a thousand piddly little things finally checked off the list – unfortunately with many PLTs still left to do. And as a result of piddle overload, I was completely uninspired to write a post today.

This comes despite some increasing success on the blog front. State of Minder is now being read in countries ranging from South Korea to Iran (Iranian hits number exactly two – but that’s two more than last week.) And I am soon going to be linked to from a couple of other websites, which is great news. Nonetheless, today I was left with nothing to write about, utter noninspiration. Please don’t even bother typing that into your dictionary, I am well aware it is not a word. But I am suffering from it and it sounds more like an actual affliction than writer’s block.

So early this morning I’m waking up to take a child to the airport for a school trip and my husband says I ‘seem stressed.’ It’s 5:30 a.m. and he happens to be right – though his powers of observation pre-sunrise surprise me. Fact is, I am feeling a bit stressed. First because a child of ours is going to spend the day hurtling through the air in not one but two different airplanes when the terror alert is at a ‘heightened level of vigilance.’ Note: I didn’t come up with that. It’s the official term Homeland Security put in place to replace the color codes. Apparently nobody wanted to fly on orange days. Maybe they should have picked pastels – how scary could a ‘lavender’ alert be? But, I digress.

Then, about the time this son finally reaches his destination, when I would normally start to calm down, another of our joint progeny is scheduled for surgery. To which my husband replies that I can’t call it surgery when it involves a tiny ‘procedure’ with an incision of less than a centimeter– even if sewed up with a stitch or two or SEV-EN! Nonetheless, I am the one technically correct here - a doctor wielding a scalpel and cutting into my child qualifies as surgery. At least in my current state of mind. Especially when I’m the one whose hand is being squeezed till the terror alert of my fingertips changes from lavender to purple. For the record - 2.5 centimeters wide, almost as profound and deep purple.

The rest of the piddly points are too mundane to get into. It was only the sheer quantity that made them stressful.  Stressful but still boring which means I certainly will not write about them.  I only want to make a point that in order to write well you need a clear head and some time for contemplation.  This week I didn’t have either. The result is a total lack of inspiration and creativity.  Hence this blog.  For which I apologize.   

08 May 2011

Happy Mother's Day

Since my third son was born, I’ve kept a quote on my kitchen wall from the Mother’s Almanac. It reads: “There must be a special place in heaven for mothers of three sons … No other combination of children, not even twins, can create so much chaos or camaraderie.”

This Mother’s Day I’d like to thank Mother’s Almanac for all the guiding wisdom it has provided these many years. But it missed something. Specifically, a chapter on testosterone – the vast quantities of testosterone when aforementioned combination of children grows up. 

Mother’s Day Eve: We decide to celebrate my upcoming day the night before. For logistical reasons - all three boys have weekend sailing training and won’t be around much during the day. And I’m fine with this – thinking that I’ll get a nice dinner out with my men and if really lucky, one that will be followed the next morning with three homemade cards. I love those. With a bit of luck, they will make coffee and muffins and maybe give me the cards along with breakfast in bed. Joy. On exceptional years my husband adds to the event with a hand written letter thanking me for being such a great mom and raising such terrific sons. This is guaranteed to put me in a fabulous mood for at least the coming year and – the man is no fool - assure him of blanket forgiveness for any and all transgressions that could possibly occur in said period. Again, all this - best-case scenario. For the moment I’m not expecting anything – just enjoying the reality – Mother’s Day Eve en famille.

We make the most of it. Dinner in a popular Thai restaurant, a family favorite. The M-men even pay lip service to all the girly topics that I fully exploit the moment to bring up. I am happy, everyone is happy.

So the conversation rolls around to the day’s events. The boys start telling us about sailing earlier. About training in St. Remo, Italy, and about the ride home in the van with their sailing coach. And how they were talking about the movie Transformers. My eldest, the teen, was in the front passenger seat. And he proffered, in his expert Siskel and Ebert opinion, that were it not for Megan Fox, the movie Transformers would be a total flop, since everything else about it was particularly bad. In his precise words: ‘the filming sucks.’

Then my teen recounts (now you just have to imagine my shock) that at this point in the conversation, my 10 year old pipes up from the back of the van. Not only was no one expecting to hear from him, no one even remembered he was there. But he made his presence known.  My youngest proceeded to offer his opinion to the rest of the team  – that Transformers is not all that badly filmed – at least not if you consider the fact that the cameraman only filmed it with one hand available. Only one hand.

Did you all get that?  Because it sure as heck took me a second. To my utter and complete stupefaction – trying to process and run through my brain that my BABY made such a comment, he (very perceptive child) - saw my bemusement. And proceeded to illustrate with a hand gesture known to males around the world, exactly WHY the cameraman only used one hand, because the other was – how shall we put this?  Busy.

There is a moment in every mother’s life when she realizes her little boys are not all that little. 

06 May 2011

Our Kennedy Moment

I grew up hearing my parents tell their where-they-were-when-Kennedy-was-shot story. Admittedly, it was quite the story. It caught my parents completely unawares as it did the nation, and shocked America from an innocence it would never recover.

On November 22, 1963 we moved from Manhattan to our first house in Westchester, N.Y. I was almost two years old and my brother four months, both of us in diapers. The moving van had just been parked in the driveway when a neighbor ran over to tell my mother that Kennedy had been shot. My mother went into action: she asked the movers first to find the television and second, set it up. That was the only instruction she would issue. After, it was up to the poor guys to decide where to put everything else, as she sat glued in front of images of a blood stained Jackie, followed by the funeral of the century. Of course, with years of retelling, my father embellished the story – so by the time we were teens it was part of family lore, if not fact, that the movers changed diapers and prepared bottles and we put ourselves to bed - clearly our Kennedy moment was a fend for yourself situation.

Ironically, 9/11 happened on a day when our only television in Monaco was broken. Never one to watch TV, I wasn’t too worried about getting it fixed. When my husband called and told me a plane had hit the World Trade Center, I assumed it was an accident. I asked if I could stop by his office to watch for a minute, as I was about to do school pickup. I remember clearly his ‘fine, but just for a moment I’m busy’ reply.

It took only a few minutes to get to his office (here nothing is far.) As I parked, a loudspeaker was broadcasting from a restaurant. I went in and saw the footage of a plane hit the tower, assuming it was a replay. A woman turned to me; stricken, and said ‘that’s another plane.’ And at that moment the world fell apart.

For years before moving to Monaco, I had worked next to the Twin Towers. Their construction was a wonder of my childhood. My friends died in them that day. Their falling was my generation’s loss of innocence, as the Kennedy assassination had been for my parents.

So like my parents almost 40 years before, we remained glued to any television we could find, and in between calls home to check on friends, I left frantic messages for the TV repairman, that: ‘I was from New York! You have to come and fix our TV! ‘Planes hit the World Trade Center! You have to come and fix our TV!’ and ‘Terrorists attacked - YOU HAVE TO COME AND FIX OUR TV!’

Eventually it was fixed. Eventually we stopped watching around the clock and moved on to attend memorials and fund raisers. Osama Bin Laden’s name was seared into our collective consciousness. Non-Americans were incredibly supportive and caring. But as the years passed, for many of them the vividness of the day began to fade.

For Americans, it never has and never will. I’ve tried to explain that to my European friends. September 11th was our ‘Kennedy moment’ and I don’t think we will ever forget one second of that day, let alone get over it.

I am glad Osama bin Laden was killed. I am happy for my friend, who lost her husband ten years ago and was left with four young children to raise on her own. I am happy her son could celebrate, in front of the White House, that his father’s murderer had finally received some small measure of justice. But it is nonetheless heartbreaking that we live in a world where we have cause to celebrate death. Some of the most painful moments just after 9/11 came upon watching footage of people dancing in the streets. Of course, not many people anywhere in the world feel badly Bin Laden is dead, nor should they. But despite the triumph of his death, the sadness of 9/11 and our loss of innocence remains.

02 May 2011

Forging a National Identity

In light of this morning’s news that Osama bin Laden is dead, I am posting an article I wrote almost 10 years ago, just after the events of September 11th 2001. 

Forging A National Identity 

I am an expat. An expatriate American mother living in Monaco, that tiny glistening principality on the Mediterranean, a place with more money per square mile than probably any other on earth. It is a village, where I live, but one of the most sophisticated villages ever created. I left the United States in October ‘94, following my wedding to an expatriate Swiss then living in the Bahamas. After four months of sun, sandy beaches and island life we moved to Monaco -- to sun, rocky beaches and almost anything else it could occur to us to want. I haven’t lived in the United States since. My three sons were born in Monaco. I remember shouting “ca fait mal!” to my French-speaking doctor during delivery, just to be certain he understood me, and later laughing with a French friend who had screamed in English “it hurts!” We realized, of course, both doctors would have understood us had we been speaking Swahili. 

My sons have dual nationality: Swiss and American. Or American and Swiss. Because following the 11th of September and the search for meaning the day provoked, I found it brought one thing to the forefront of my deepest priorities: that my boys know and appreciate that they are Americans.

I wonder how that will happen. Where does it come from, a national identity? Will it even be important to them, growing up in an international village in an increasingly global world?  Their Swiss father might argue that as America is the only country to tax its citizens on worldwide income, being American is not always an advantage. Yet to me, giving my sons their national identity is an unarguable, irrefutable necessity.

The day after the attacks, I retrieved our American flag from storage. Normally we use it at our annual 4th of July party, when we invite friends to come dressed in red, white and blue for a good old American barbeque. The party usually comprises guests of at least 20 different nationalities, for whom hamburgers, corn on the cob, coleslaw and all the rest of the fare so common in the U.S. is a bit more exotic.

This time I hung the flag from our terrace, not for decoration but for defiance, out of pride, pain and a burning love. It flew high over the port of Monaco. I felt a bit better, a bit more connected to home. Later, discussions with expat American friends revealed the same immediate feeling of wanting to be there, to do something to help. But that night, glued endlessly to CNN, I remember getting scared, panicked really, with that horrible fear that overcame us all. Terror – from what had happened in my backyard, had hit the beloved New York where I grew up – made me realize for the first time that despite being American, so safe, secure, heedless and happy, bad things could happen. And love of family overcame patriotism, and I asked myself – did I really want to advertise the fact that three little Americans boys were living under this roof? A few days later the International Herald Tribune advised all Americans living abroad to lie low, not to talk loudly in public places, to wear unremarkable clothing - eschewing cowboy boots and hats. My cowardice was somewhat vindicated. The fear had swept us all and I’m afraid it will never go away.

I moved the flag indoors, to our landing. Within a day, my boys could recite the pledge of allegiance. For a while we sang the national anthem instead of our usual bedtime songs. I remembered my childhood, and how every morning in school we would sing the anthem, and I wondered, is this where love of country comes from? Or is it remembering my father and how quickly he would stand at a ball game when it played, how quickly his cap would come off and be placed over his heart? Is it because my father went twice to war for his country, or simply because it was my home? And how can I give my sons the identity that means so much to me, when they are growing up so far away?

I couldn’t even explain this need to my husband, a man who has lived in and loves the United States. A week after the event, we were trying to find our way back to normal, to resume our lives. We were going to the Cannes Boat show, where the American flag was still at half-mast. It moved me, yet again, to tears. The boat show being one of my husband’s most favourite events, however, he asked me please to try to put my sadness aside for a while – to have some fun for a few hours. After all, I “wasn’t even really all American, I was half Greek.” (My mother was born and raised in Greece, and became an American citizen after marrying my father more than 40 years ago.)

I went from tears to fury. Did he really understand so little of what America was about? Who I was? I tried to explain the difference between my heritage (half Greek, quarter Scottish, eighth Irish, eighth Swedish) and nationality. That most Americans were like me, with blood from somewhere else. That said difference is why foreign nationals deserve to live in our country, and lastly that I, his wife, born and raised in the U.S.A, was one hundred percent American.

It can be a difficult concept for a European and is particularly interesting now in this period of European nation building. I had been struck since I came here by the various cultures and their strong nationalistic feelings. It’s hard to imagine Europeans will ever truly identify as Europeans over and above their individual countries. After six years of marriage to my husband, I could apply for dual nationality to acquire Swiss citizenship, but like all other naturalized citizens – I would never truly be Swiss because I wasn’t born of Swiss parents and raised there. And I can appreciate the truth of that, while knowing in my heart that my mother, despite her Greek birth – is truly an American, every bit as much as my father, who was born in the town where I grew up.

I must admit I gave little thought to nationality when I first came to Monaco. I was newly married, living on the Cote d’Azur, and feeling so privileged to have followed Grace Kelly’s path. I’d wake up in the morning and have to give myself the proverbial pinch. We have a beautiful apartment overlooking the palace, the hills and the harbour, while the sea spreads around us more than 220 degrees. Life had become a new and unexpected adventure. I had stopped working when I left the U.S., but in typical New York fashion, spent my first year here trying to justify my existence without a career. It took a while to catch on to the Monaco modus operandi. Work, in the traditional sense, did not have to be the focal point of one’s existence. It was considered typically American to make it so, and more than a little rude to ask someone “and what do you do?” upon first making their acquaintance.

I kept busy. Adapting to new surroundings, brushing up on the French that despite four years at Middlebury and a semester in Paris always seemed to elicit an English response. I began another language so I wouldn’t be left out when conversation shifted from English to French to German to Italian. I couldn’t get used to driving 100 miles an hour on the autoroute, or even to driving my stick shift Miata among the Monaco hills, where the slightest backward roll might damage someone’s Ferrari.

What struck me most was how privileged everyone felt to be living here, for its beauty, its myriad offerings and its safety (now a relative term.) Where you came from wasn’t that important. I had always loved growing up in America, but I can’t say I missed it, at least not at first. What I did miss were the American people: their openness, ease and friendliness. In Europe you could be on a kissing basis with someone for years, know intimate details of their lives, and still not address them by a first name. I remember my shock when one couple, who we saw frequently that first year, invited us home for dinner. Suddenly, the host paused the conversation, rose to his feet and made a toast. He gave a slight bow, spoke of our friendship, and asked that we please be so kind as to call him and his wife by their first names. My husband immediately stood, returned the bow, and said how honored we would be. I fortunately managed not to laugh, but despite my restraint, was lectured all the way home as to the serious significance of such a gesture in that particular cultural environment. It was a different world and a rather complicated one. Now that we were on a first name basis with this couple, did that mean that we could tutoyer (the informal address)?  Not necessarily. There was a lot to learn.

In the ensuing years we have become at home. We’ve found our own circle of friends, more relaxed and on our wavelength, with whom the first name basis came about immediately. They are tremendously important to us. We’ve discussed many times how living in an expatriate community creates friendship that is closer to extended family. We’ve noticed how our children love to be together, how secure they feel, how they love the ease with which we call on one another. Holiday celebrations that in America would most likely be with family take place here with these friends. And the traditions we are creating are rich and meaningful in a different way, not necessarily better or worse.

But it was on becoming a mother that homesickness struck for the first time and which gave rise to patriotism that only intensified on the 11th of September. During my pregnancy I found myself dwelling on the most unlikely events: 4th of July parades, lemonade stands and the Fireman’s Carnival. Basketball in your next-door neighbour’s driveway. Hometown stuff.  Suddenly I just couldn’t imagine my children not knowing what I grew up with. We bought a weekend house, with grass to play on and a street where we can ride bikes. It’s not the same but I’ve come to realize it doesn’t have to be. All children lead lives different from their parents, and though my sons’ lives are less American than mine, they are compensated by activities that come from a great range of cultures. Nonetheless, it does seem to be mostly the Americans who, out of our collective past, organize most events. There is a giant Halloween party on the beach each year, and trick or treating. We’ve held Easter egg hunts, and even baby showers, despite some nationalities’ fear that buying a gift for an unborn child is risking fate. 

People share their culture and their time. A trip to the States is a communal event where shopping lists are submitted to the voyager. When our third son was born and travelling with three boys under five became distinctly less appealing, I solicited friends to bring back baseballs and catcher’s mitts. I figure it’s up to me to teach the kids how to play, as it’s one of the few sports that doesn’t come naturally to my Swiss husband. He can teach them hockey and snowboarding and I’ll make sure they’re ready for Little League. 

In addition to coaching duties, I’m self-appointed minister of education. School is a complex issue living abroad. We’ve put the boys into International School, whose mission statement encourages students to have an international outlook with respect for other people and cultures, to recognize their responsibilities as members of the community and as citizens of the world. This is an area in which Americans are only now becoming fully aware and one in which my children gain so much from being in a small multi-cultural environment. They are completely bilingual. I help with homework and thrill with pride as they learn to read in both English and French. I am delighted to be a class representative of the PTA – an organization not always present in the French system. It is so nice to have a say – something Americans tend to take for granted.  

Still, it is unlikely my sons’ national identities will or should come from school. It is enough for me that the school fosters a love of learning, and does not concentrate primarily on amassing vast quantities of information. School should be about opening up to life’s various cultures and experiences, and most likely isn’t the appropriate context in which to forge a national identity.

Living here, we talk a lot about nationalism. Some blame it as the cause of our global problems, just as others blame religion, and others, human nature. Monaco is a little microcosm, but it is a remarkably open society, at once a tiny village and a highly developed international community. We see all kinds of people. There are Muslim women in my gym that work out wearing scarves, sunglasses and long sleeved t-shirts, and on the treadmill next to them might be Ringo Starr. There are other women, who don miniskirts on private jets, arrive to shop for a few days and put their chadors on back at home. There are Russians, English, Germans, Indians, Israelis, Americans, Australians, Italians, Maltese, Scottish, Dutch, Danes, Norwegians, French and Swiss, just to name a few. There are tourists that come off buses with sandwiches in hand and luxury yachts with heli-pads that people disembark to watch the Grand Prix and dine in Ducasse’s Louis XV. And amongst it all my husband and I have three little boys we are trying to raise into thoughtful, globally aware citizens that we can only hope will do their part to make the world a better place. Who they will be as they go forward, what forces of their childhood will ultimately shape them I do not yet know, but I know I want to give them the best I can from the best I have, and inspire them to do their best with it.

I still say home when I talk about America, but less and less. Life here has taken on its routines, friendships and bonds deepen, and the desire to return to the States to live recedes.  It goes in bits and pieces – it’s almost unthinkable to imagine we will never return home to live someday. But it is not in our foreseeable future, and in the present we are extremely happy. Love of America, however, grows deeper despite the distance. I must, and I will give it to my sons, who will never know their country the way I do – but whom I hope will love it nevertheless. For ultimately, that is the bond that forges a national identity. Perhaps they cannot grow up to be President of the United States, but they are Americans, and if they want to badly enough they might find a way.  In any case, they can learn to love and serve their country from an international perspective.

Even if America never becomes home to my boys, it can still be a part of them. I, of all people, should be prepared to give them that, since having a foreign born mother gave me so much: a wonderful sense of my Greek heritage, an additional language, and a part of my identity. Yet for my children I want more “America” than I have of Greece. I want them to have what I’ve come to see as the foundation of the American spirit – the sense of possibility that one can make life better. That sense of possibility, or the lack of it both individually and collectively, is the biggest difference I see after several years of life in Europe. In spite of all the ways the world has changed, September 11th wasn’t able to take that away. And no matter where in the world Americans might find ourselves, for that we are thankful.
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