Tag Archives: expats

Polly Positive, Paragon of Virtue


Today I had coffee with Polly Positive.

With the exception of my Bible Study, my friendships in Ohio are compartmentalized.  I have about 3 friends that I meet up with for coffee or lunch.  Polly and I discuss all manner of topics – families, politics, religion – nothing is taboo.  We do not always see eye to eye but pretty close.

For Lent this year, her project was not to dump on her husband.  Apparently, he gets the brunt of whatever is bothering her, usually related to her family.  So, rather than be Negative Nellie, she morphed into Polly Positive.  Her husband has noticed.

With one exception, I have never heard Polly say anything negative about anybody.  So I was surprised when she started the conversation by saying that she was slightly irritated at her husband.   I then confessed my Proud Mary moment, about which only my youngest sister MCV knows.  (Frequently, I have a teeny tiny heart. I try to keep this to myself.)  

Polly is good at listening and sorting things out.  

But then she sort of rocked my world by providing me a different perspective on myself, a dose of truth serum.  She said that I was – and here I don’t really remember how she phrased it – but I think the word was “contained” (ok, it might have been “controlled”.  Whatever).   That I don’t ask others for help when I am in dire straits.


That is not how I see myself AT ALL!

But just to be safe, I had to ask myself if perchance, there wasn’t the slightest bit of truth in Polly’s observation.  Which, of course, there is.  Let me say here that I was not at all offended.  NOT AT ALL.  REALLY.

This seeming ability to appear “contained”,  I think, is a direct result of a) not wanting to burden others b) 17 years of living in countries where there is no 911 and  sorting out emergencies myself  c) chatting with God who gets the brunt of my cries for help  d) having a helpful family (blessedly) who always volunteers and e) former expat communities who saw needs and just jumped in.   MAINLY, I HAVE NOT HAD TO ASK FOR HELP.  UNTIL RECENTLY.

Polly Positive was my Marian apparition for today.  Don’t you think Mary would be a truth teller?  Are you good at asking for and/or receiving help?  Do a little bit of soul searching and get back to me so I am prepared to meet your future needs! Or not!

Finally, I have noticed that God also likes to get a jump on the next day’s blog post with the former day’s  title.  Talk about Our Lady of the Snows!  Also, this is not going to be a Bag on the Expat Princess Forum, friends.  Try and channel Polly Positive in your comments.  She will be making an appearance tomorrow.

Featured above are Nittany Kitten’s actual photos from the church, stained glass windows from the hospital where I recently had tests (ne freakez pas), and some of my flower vases.  I enjoy the commonality.

Herewith concludes Day 32.












Filed under Friends, Life, Misunderstandings, People, Religion

Plaque Attack

Since my computer is defunct, I am going to attempt to write directly onto the blog, as opposed to writing it in a text file and then editing it. I am using Thing 1’s laptop and cannot seem to find the appropriate place to write a document. As she is off to camp with Thing 3, I cannot ask for her help – so bear with me. Thing 2 is at home, sleeping off a full day of shopping in Seattle after four days of fun with his aunts, uncles, cousins, and family friends in Lake Chelan. He is whupped.

Many kind friends have asked me how I am handling my daughter going off to college with the Atlantic ocean separating us. I cheerily reply that I am so happy for her that I am not concerned with my own mental state at the moment (denial, in other words). And this is mostly true. However, I had a little breakdown at the Shilshole Marina yesterday watching her ease into her camp volunteer mode with all her friends from over the years. Thing 3 and I were relegated to a picnic table, watching as Thing 1 helped check forms for children with medical issues. She is jonesing for her 10 year attendance plaque and is willing to put up with all manner of homesick kids to get it. This last outing at camp, not the last Harry Potter flick, is end of her childhood.

Speaking of plaques, every summer we head to the dentist for an annual check up. I like to balance out the foreign healthcare with that of the American, mainly because I, as you know, so prefer the latter. To my shock and awe, Thing 1 garnerd FOUR cavities in the past year. The last time this happened to a child of mine was during our first year in Spain when I could not figure out which dentist to use. College applications were the excuse this year – plus, I simply forgot to take my children to the dentist for a cleaning. Perhaps I could not find a hole in my calendar? Who knows but lesson learned. I am sure Maria the Dentist is cringing right now reading this. Needless to say, it spawned an entire conversation about how wonderfully Brazilians take care of their teeth – my kids had to brush after lunch at school in Campinas.

Other news: most of you know that today is President Obama‘s birthday. It is also Mr. Understanding‘s. Mr. U is a year younger than BO and gets my vote for President of Everything. Although these last two years in Spain have been some of my toughest as an expat, they have also been some of my best as a wife. Go figure. More on this later in the month.

Finally, please keep my college friend and faithful blog reader Raftbuddy in your thoughts and prayers. She had a little voluntary involuntary surgery yesterday. A diet of rest, rom coms, and love is required.

Next up: The Post College Roadtrip Analysis – for the Class of 2012.


Filed under Birthdays, Family, Friends, Life, Luggage

Bacalao con Papas & The End of an Era

This post is dedicated to Mr. NATO and all the other men in American military uniform who have missed their babies’ first steps, kid´s first driver’s license, or other important milestone in the life of their child. HAPPY FATHER’S DAY – you are missed.


As God is my witness, June 19 feels like the first day I have woken up relaxed in about a year. And that is after arriving home at 3 a.m. after a party! Friday night I had a little mini-breakdown. My maternal grandmother always said, “If you have nothing good to say, say nothing at all.” This aphorism in the same vein as her other favorite, “Pretty is as pretty does”. I have not been feeling pretty in quite awhile. There are many contributing factors for this. Most would assume that it is because I have gone into early mourning for Thing 1’s departure for college. Not so. My poison pen is collecting the facts before exposing either the lunacy/inefficiency/corruption/snobbishness of the culture in which I am living. Honestly, I can’t decide which to write about first! So many choices!

Two years ago, our family got on a plane and said good-bye to Shanghai, our third foreign home. I, at least, shed a lot of tears. Today, Bea Long and PAL and their families are saying good-bye as well, an act which officially ends an era. In the intervening two years, Thing 1 has completed high school with an IB diploma and a salutatorian plaque, has gotten into one of the nation’s finest universities, we’ve moved houses twice, my parents visited for two months, and we’ve traveled around Europe. We have spent a tremendous amount of time together as a family, which is perhaps the cosmic objective of this expat assignment. But none of us have friends like those we left in Shanghai, Campinas, or el D.F. (Mrs. NATO and Nittany Kitten having abandoned us here in Madrid).

Why is that? you ask. I have plenty of theories but not enough of your interest to lay them all out. The bottom line: Spain is a tough nut to crack and so far, in the expat ranks, my least favorite abode. Quite Franco, in general, the Madrilenos are not fond of Americans.

So, how did I transition, in 36 hours from being the starring actress in Pedro Almodovar’s movie “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” to the most relaxed I have been in a year? Honestly, probably via the prayers of some pink nuns in Philly and a trip to the NATO base for their International Food Festival.

Between the French champagne, German bratwurst, Greek Tzatziki, Italian focaccia, and American brownies, I saw a glimmer of hope in mankind. These international kind of people – normal, humble, working – are my peeps. The barrel bellied hombre with moving his hips and levantando los manos in the Spanish version of the Electric Slide, con “movimentos sexy”, loosened something in me. Thing 2, hard up for cash due to a terrible texting bill, agreed to dance for 2 euros up on the dance floor, next to the abuelas, the teenage girls, and the men hoping to get lucky that night. The Turkish infant seated at our table , with so much hair he looked like he was wearing a wig, crying at the loud music, unlocked my heart. But it was really the Spanish song “Bacalao con Papas” that was the tipping point.

An entire song devoted to salted codfish! Besides rice, bacalao/bacalhau has been the one food staple common to all the countries in which we’ve lived. Our favorite Spanish “caviezel” (refer to earlier post), involved a Christmas bacalao fest. Stacked like rugs in a Beijing market stall, a Mexican grocery store, or swimming in sauce on a Brazilian buffet line, salted cod has been ubiquitous. Even though I am not a fisheater*, this song made me laugh. Hard. Watch it here and decide for yourself if it’s really about cod and potatoes.

Spinning with the fake boobs (refer to video) and botoxed lips at the Reebok club, while a necessary evil, does not fulfill me. A good party with real people, however, puts everything in perspective. Which is why I stayed out ‘til 3 the following night at a 10th anniversary of a 30th birthday party. On Friday, if you had told me that I could get on a plane and leave Madrid for good, I would have rejoiced. As it is, I am here for another year. I think I am going to party like it’s 2012.

And really, I am over the parking issue. I delight in not straightening out my car. Oh, and a big thank you to my father for raising me to believe in the possibility of earthly justice, to my father-in-law for writing one treasured thank you note, and to my husband who really is Mr. Understanding. All are fine men and fathers, simply the best.


Future subjects (please vote on the next topic):

1) why did a certain “international” school take down the Taiwanese flag before graduation during which a Taiwanese citizen was graduating?
2) if you cheat in 10th grade by posting a photo of a test on Facebook, should you be expelled from school? If not, should you be allowed to participate in the honors program?
3)do the Ivy Leagues really want to educate Americans or do they prefer foreigners?
4)if you are female and go into an Emergency Room holding an icepack to your eye, is it safe for the receptionist to assume that your husband beat you and tell you to go elsewhere?
5)how about taking a trip to San Sebastian & Bilbao?

*Question: why do non-fisheaters suffer from a stigma but not those who eat pork?


Filed under Customs, Family, Fine Dining, Folkart, Friends, Life, Moving, People, Spanish vocabulary

Re-entry, Reyes, and Resolutions, or: You ‘ll Go to the Prado and Like it, D@mn It!

Glad tidings, readers, for 2010!

Although mostly over the jet lag from our foray into the Land of Not So Much Plenty Anymore, I am still wrestling with situational chaos (my house), three Things still home from school, and new resolutions rolling around in my brain. Re-entry is always a bitch. Let me spell that again: b-i-t-c-h. Yes, we went through Newark – twelve hours before it was shut down. The TSA snipped off the zippers on 2 suitcases and between them and the child who looked like Dougie Howser flying the plane on very little sleep, both they and Continental Airlines will be soon enjoying a post-holiday reaming from moi. The grocery stores and malls were clogged with shoppers panicking before their big day of celebration, Three Kings Day or Los Reyes Magos, or Epiphany to you. My big epiphany: come back to Spain after the 6th or sufficiently in advance to miss the cluster-yahoo created by traffic circles, bread shaped like a crown with a plastic toy king inside, and procrastinating parents vying to get inside the local Toys-R-Us.

Knowing, as I do, how much I loathe re-entry, I immediately drummed up a lunch date and tour of the Prado with Skinny Swede and our mutual Things. As an expat, it is imperative that one has something to look forward to after a trip to the homeland because, as the previous paragraph attests, almost everything makes one a supergrump. (I will save my story of the morning after clash with the grocery store cashier for another time – let me just say that, although Jesus would not have been proud of me, I was victorious in the end and there is nothing I enjoy more than proving a point and being right about it). So, yesterday, off to the Prado we marched since none of the Things had ever been there and I needed immediate re-inforcement of one good reason for living here in Madrid.

Mrs. Nato, down the street, had suggested to get the hour tour of the museum’s 15 masterpieces. Perfect for a group of teenagers with the attention span of toddlers and as great an aversion, right? “Gerry” (a.k.a. Gerardo) paraded us about, starting with the Flemish painters Brueghel the Elder and Hieronymous Bosch before moving on to Raphael, Fra Angelico, Sorolla (my personal fave), Goya, and Velazquez. The museum was crowded but not horrifically so. An hour with “Gerry” was just perfect. Strangely, my two teen Things liked the Flemish painters the best, not put off by Brueghel’s interpretation of death (an army of skulls skirmishing with the living) or the description of the imagery of a knife between two ears as a p!nis emerging from t!sticles* in the third part of the tryptich documenting hell. Sixty euros may seem like a lot for a tour but really, you can’t buy that kind of education.

During a post-tour beverage in the museum cafe, Skinny Swede told us about her family’s resolutions for the new year. One of the things I like about Skinny Swede is that she makes me look like a pussy cat of a mother, an absolute slouch. For example, this year, she is giving each of her two Things a certain amount of money (relatively substantial) which they have to use to plan a family activity, soup to nuts. They have to decide on an activity, figure out transportation, schedules, everything – an education in planning and execution. In November she gave her teen Thing the task of finding the local village square, armed only with a map, the entire family in tow. Five minutes away from their home, the trip took them over two hours. Map reading, what a novel idea! I am thinking of filching an idea or two of hers to improve my own parenting skills, so profound is my admiration.

And speaking of self-improvement, I have finally formulated my resolutions**:

1) finish Thing 3’s needlepoint stocking. I have had this on my list for the last four years but moved several times in that period so that was always my excuse. No more.

2) write something (?) and send it out for publication. At age 45, I think I am finally tough enough for a little rejection. The question is, what to write? Current ideas: finish/rewrite my project (still don’t know what to call it) based on the murder of a girl brutally murdered in Brazil. This one would take a lot of work. The suspects have, I think, been recently acquitted, in OJ Simpson fashion. Other ideas: travel articles or my actual memoirs (which means I can’t use all the good stuff here). I am open to suggestions, readers. Bottom line for you: I am only going to blog once a week.

3) expense tracking and asking a family member for permission before I buy something for myself in an effort to distinguish between need vs. want. My children are actually very good at this and have talked me out of a lot of cool stuff. Before leaving the US and the start of 2010, however, I stocked up on numerous needed items, displayed in the photo above. Sweet Virginia gets credit for the idea of photographing suitcase contents. I challenge you to tell me what I don’t need. (There are a few gifts in there too).

Wrapping it all up, I am looking forward to the start of the new year. By October, I will not be so thrilled as we face college applications for Thing 1, high school for Thing 2, and more mean girls for Thing 3. Right now I am going downstairs to put away my Christmas decorations since the Kings have come and gone, start some laundry, and look at the snow falling outside our cottage in Madrid. My next post will be a Christmas retrospective, complete with a photo of an American turkey. It was the best.

Questions for you (answer all to gain bonus points): what are your resolutions (and don’t be snarky and say you resolve not to resolve)? what should I write about in 2010? what in the photo above do I not need (hint: it is not the pink tutu for the housekeeper’s daughter – that was essential)?

Per “Gerry”. ! = e to avoid spammers.
** The Radish turned me onto this site for resolution making: 6changes.com/post/288806664/suggested


Filed under Family, Holidays, Life, Luggage, Misunderstandings, People, Religion, Shopping, Sightseeing, Traditions, Travel

Conversation with Dry Cleaning Lady

Complaining about the legendary rudeness of the citizens of my host country via email to La Guapa, an American madrilena living in Geneva, I learned a new word: perdonavidas. And here I quote, “It means someone who looks down their nose at others; they´ll condescend to allow you to go on living, te perdonan la vida, but that´s about it“. This after my experience last week at two local stores.

The first: an autosupply store. My car key battery died and after driving around for half an hour in the car concession area near my house, I could not find the VW dealership. I knew there had to be one closeby as every other kind of car dealership was in the same general vicinity: Ferrari, Porsche, BMW, Toyota, Citroen, Opel. But no, no VW dealership. So I stopped into an auto supply store to ask for help. Maybe they could fix it? The girl at the back of the store told me to go ask the cashier. She was pleasant. But the cashier could not help. He was not sure what kind of battery this very common VW key would take. I asked him if he knew where the VW dealership was. “Did you see it? Well, if not, it’s not there.” I asked him to ask the woman behind the desk if she knew. She left her computer and when asked, repeated what the cashier said, making the typical madrilena gesture of scrunching up her shoulders, putting her hands out, and pulling down the sides of her mouth, bugging out the eyes ever so slightly, and shaking her head.

In other countries, expats the world over have referred to this type of gesture as the “deer in the headlights” look. A shopkeeper or plumber might give you this look if he did not understand what you were saying, for example. You might return this look to the same shopkeeper or plumber if you did not understand what they were saying. Reciprocal, it is a look that purveys a genuine lack of comprehension. There is usually* no ill will associated with it. In fact, once communication is established farther down the line, the shopkeeper or plumber might actually try to help you, pointing you in the right direction, offering up a phone number of someone who can.

I left, went home, and got my spare key (which I am still using, a chore for another week, when I am mentally able to cope with this attitude for an extensive period of time).

Fast forward to the dry cleaners five days later. Thing 2 and I went to pick up clothes and do a little grocery shopping at the Dreaded Carrefour. Now, to get to the Carrefour, you have to get your cart outside the mall, popping in a Euro as a deposit which then unlocks the cart from a string of carts. I did this. Then you have to push your cart all the way through the mall down to the entrance; readers will remember that you cannot enter through the more convenient, and closer, exit. I did this. Then you have to show the Carrefour personnel that you are not bringing in items to Carrefour in your canvas shopping bags. I did this. After shopping, you have to prove to the cashier that the bags are in fact your own. Mission accomplished. Once loaded up, you are now at the other end of the Carrefour, closer to your car and the dry cleaners.

Now, I admit here that I goofed. I did not take my ticket in with me. I accidentally left it in the car.

If you are just picking up laundry, the 5 a Sec dry cleaners likes customers to use their automatic door. I had never seen one before moving to Madrid. After scanning your ticket, the dry cleaning trolley deposits your clothes at the door and you waltz off, pleased because you did not have to deal with a perdonavida.

But since I left the ticket in the car, I had to talk to Sra. Perdonavida.

Me: Por favor, would you mind looking up my last order in the computer with my telephone number?

Sra. Perdonavida: You don’t have your ticket? she said, scowling.

Me: No, I forgot it in the car.

Sra. Perdonavida: What is your number?

Me: 123-456-789

Sra. Perdonavida wrote down my number and said: The only order in here is the one you just dropped off. There is only one order.

Now, it is at this point that I smelled a rat. My Spanish, while far from fluent, is beyond Survival Spanish. I can communicate and I know my numbers.

Thing 2 volunteered to retrieve the ticket from the car and returned 5 minutes later.

I could have just picked up my clothes with the ticket and left. But what about the next time? What if my order wasn’t really in the computer? Ticket in hand, I approached Sra. Perdonavida again.

Me: Sra., here is my ticket. Would you mind finding that piece of paper with the number you wrote down on it? I would like to see if it matches the one on my ticket. Maybe my Spanish is not so good and I did not give you the correct number? Maybe I am going crazy? [Imagine me (me!) falling on my sword here].

Sra. Perdonavida, reluctantly riffled through her scraps of paper: Oh yes, the number is the same. But the order is not in the computer.

Me: Well, that is a problem then, no? What if I actually had lost my ticket? You would have had to search through all those orders to find mine! Que horror!

Sra. Perdonavida: I don’t know [insert madrilena gesture here]. There must have been a problem with the computer.

Me: But my last order is in there, right?

Sra. Perdonavida: Yes.

Me: Then you will have to forgive me if everytime I drop off clothes I ask you to verify that the order is in the system so my clothes don’t get lost!

Clothes in hand, Thing 2 and I walked back to the car.

Me: Now, what do you think just happened there?

Thing 2: She just lied to you.

Me: Right. She just wanted to make it difficult for us.

Ah, it’s going to be fun, going through this routine for the next three to five years. I have no way of knowing if Sra. Perdonavida really lied as I could not see the computer screen but I find it hard to believe that with only my order, the computer seized up and ate the input information. A little sick, a little twisted, no? I could go to a different tintoreria but really, it would be the same song and dance. I am just better at catching on to these idiosyncracies a lot sooner, a seasoned expat as it were. Now I just need to learn the words for “old biddy”.

Housekeeping question: How often do you mop your kitchen floors? Bathroom? Expat Princesses lucky enough to have domestic help, please respond in a manner that edifies us all instead of making us weep with jealousy.

*I say “usually” because some people in some countries become adept at perfecting this look even if they understand you, professional pretenders, as it were.


Filed under Domesticity, Family, Life, Misunderstandings, People, Spanish vocabulary

Hey Good Lookin’

What you got cookin?

My children are eating breakfast by candlelight these days before they head off to school. The sun rises and sets late here. The boxes are cleared from one room, la cocina. This morning I made my children a hearty desayuno of French toast made with icky Carrefour croisssants and fruta. Dinner will be some type of grilled puerco that I accidentally purchased before figuring out the price. Meal planning taxes my already strained brain.

That is quatro words for your vocabulary today on American Labor Day. Can you figure out what the words mean? Muy facil.


Filed under Family, Fine Dining, Holidays