AN EXCERPT FROM
US and THEM
An American Family spends Ten Years
By Bill Meara
What happens if you take an American family and send them to Europe for ten years? In the summer of 2000, Bill and Elisa Meara, accompanied by 2 year-old Billy and 4 month-old Maria, left their home in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and moved to the Azores. There they experienced the highs and lows of diplomatic life on a small distant island. After three years in the Azores, they spent four years London and three years in Rome. Overseas they lived in two houses and two apartments, went to five schools, used four different health care systems, experienced one earthquake, 9-11, the terrorist attack on London, tea with the Queen, the election of Barack Obama… and all the ordinary things that families go through. They lived mostly with the locals, learned Portuguese, Italian, and a bit of Cockney, and made many friends (foreign friends!) They returned to the United States in 2010 with a changed view of the world. This is their story.
MOVING VAN BLUES
“Leaving is a little like dying.” Alberto the Trastevere shopkeeper
Over time, we began to suspect that we might not be temperamentally suited to the Foreign Service life. We found it kind of unnatural to always have a departure date looming in front of us. Many people live with the possibility of a move off in their future, but for us, it was not a possibility, it was a certainty. And we always knew exactly when we would go. Our Embassy ID cards had expiry dates that coincided with the month that we would be transferred. Sometimes I felt like a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk. When you met somebody new in the Embassy, you could often catch them glancing at the expiry date, trying to determine if it was worth the effort to befriend you.
Our suspicions about our unsuitability were confirmed when the departure date approached. With about three or four months to go, Elisa would start to get weepy at odd moments. The tears often wouldn't necessarily be associated with someone we'd grown especially close to – we knew we'd stay in touch with them. More often Elisa would get teary-eyed at the thought of saying goodbye to someone who was not really very close to us – a storekeeper, a cafe owner – but who had become part of our daily routine. These were folks we knew we would never see again.
At around this point I would usually have what we've come to call my Foreign Service dream. In this dream, I find myself packing up to leave the house or apartment that we've lived in for the previous three of four years. I find what appears to be a closet door that had somehow escaped my notice. I open it up to find a really fabulous suite of rooms leading to a wonderful beachfront patio... that we had completely failed to take advantage of.
Elisa also has some recurring dreams. In one, she goes back to one of the places that we’d lived before. She has with her a long list of people she wants to see. But time is short and she’s afraid that she won’t get to see everyone. Another of her dreams is more forward looking: in it, she’s in our new house, and she’s horrified to find that it is full of bugs (she REALLY dislikes bugs).
Most people with kids have a wall in their house on which the heights of their kids on various dates are marked. “Look how much Johnny has grown since 2006!” We have similar markings, but ours are on a piece of 2x1 lumber that goes into the shipping container every time we move. Even in the age of cell phones, most people know their home and office phone numbers, but by the time we got to Rome I had so many of these numbers in my head that I started mixing them up and blending them together.
Leaving Rome was very difficult. There was, of course, my traditional pre-move injury (this time: Achilles tendon). But there was a lot more to it than that. Italy is such a beautiful place, and we were leaving right at the end of the most beautiful season – the spring. We were leaving Europe, and going far away. Billy and Maria had reached the point where friends were really important to them – for the first time saying goodbye was hard for them.
Auguri Maria! -- Good Luck Maria!
Contributing to the trauma was the Italians' love for drama. They have a well-deserved reputation for bringing elements of theater into real life. For them, life is a stage. Also, with considerable justification they consider themselves to be very fortunate to live in Italy, and feel sorry for anyone who has to leave. They leave very infrequently – for most of them it is simply inconceivable to move far away from family, friends and good food. (Indeed, some Italians seem to harbor a sneaking suspicion that it is impossible to eat well outside Italy – Italian mothers have been known to pack foodstuffs – Italian foodstuffs – when going abroad on vacation.) This all explains the bits of theater that we witnessed each time we told someone we were getting ready to leave: Alberto the storekeeper, for example, threw his hands down, palms forward, and, with his brow furrowed declared, “No! Impossible! But WHY do you have to leave? You just got here!” It was a bit of theater, but it was reality-based theater – he really was sad to see us go. After lamenting our impending departure and sharing the sad news with co-workers and other customers, he summarized the Italian reaction to just about all departures: Shaking his head slowly he said, “Partire e un po morire!” (“To depart is a little like dying” or “Departing is a little like death!”) All Italians in earshot put on sad faces and nodded in agreement. Alberto was right. Departure is a little like death. Your daily routine disappears. Lots of things that you have come to enjoy will soon end. As you get close to the end, people start treating you a bit differently – unlike everyone else, soon you won't be around. We said goodbye and shuffled off, dejected, en route to the great beyond.
In the State Department's publications on how to deal with culture shock, they advise that moving back to the USA after a long period overseas can be one of the most difficult adjustments. Their publications on this is entitled “My Passport Says I'm American.” You are supposed to be “coming home” but you have been gone so long that it doesn't feel like home anymore. Congress was worried about this, so at some point they had mandated that Foreign Service personnel take “home leave” between assignments. This was apparently intended to keep us in touch with “home” and to prevent us from emotionally drifting away. We found that it didn't really work. We'd been back a couple of times for home leave, but each visit had made us feel more like foreigners – midway through the home leave we'd be yearning to head home… to London or Rome! Sorry about that Congress. Nice try.
How people react when they return to the U.S. depends a lot on where they are coming from. When you return from a long stay in a poor, despotic, conflictive region you are more inclined to look favorably on your prosperous and comfortable homeland. Not long after we came back to the U.S. after a two-week stay in the Dominican Republic, Billy and I were watching a TV report on how dissatisfied Americans are with the direction the country is going. Billy was scornful: “What a bunch of crybabies! At least they can drink the tap water!” I remember an urge to kiss the ground and wave the flag after coming back from Honduras, or El Salvador or Guatemala. But when you come home from the prosperous and democratic countries of Western Europe, well, being able to drink the tap water and vote is not really impressive, and the urge to put lips to dirt is not nearly as strong.
When you go through culture shock overseas, it is understandable: You know you have moved to a weird foreign place, and you expect to go through an adjustment. But when you move back to the U.S. the culture shock can be just as strong, but you can't really understand it. After all, you are supposed to be home. Even our kids seemed to know that returning to the U.S. was supposed to feel like homecoming: During one Home Leave trip, as our plane descended for landing, six year-old Maria – who had left the United States when she was five months old and had never been to Chicago – looked at the skyline of the Windy City and sighed, “Oh, it’s so good to be back!”
My first trip to a U.S. supermarket after four years in the Dominican Republic (1992-1996) had provided several of the little cultural collisions that eventually add up to full-blown culture shock. First I inadvertently took my cart with 40 or so items into the Express Check-Out (15 items or less). My fellow shoppers all gave me dirty looks. I couldn't figure out why until the cashier clued me in. I tried to make amends by telling the group that I'd been overseas for four years. The cashier wasn't buying it “Oh, and they didn't have supermarkets where you were?” she asked. I dug myself deeper into the hole when I tried to explain that in the DR, I'd had a housekeeper who did all the shopping. Apparently fearing a possible lynching, the cashier rang up my items as fast as she could. Then came a question: “Paper or plastic?” I really didn't know what she was asking me. I thought she wanted to know about how I intended to pay. “Credit card,” I responded. “Paper or plastic?” she asked again. Genuinely confused, I told her that my credit card was plastic. I think by this point the cashier just concluded that I was some sort of crazy person. She loaded my items into bags. PLASTIC bags!
Knowing that we'd all be going through culture shock, we decided to treat our new home as if it were another foreign assignment. As we'd done in all of our overseas posts, we'd try hard to keep an open mind. We'd keep track of the things we liked and didn't like about our new country of assignment, and, as we'd done in Portugal, the U.K, and in Italy, we'd discuss the pros and cons of the new place at dinner time. This turned out to be a very fitting and balanced way to deal with our new (old) posting in the United States of America.
The journey home gave us some very early topics for discussion. The abuse that U.S. airlines heap upon travelers these days, and the police-state treatment doled out by the TSA and the U.S. immigration authorities certainly didn't help engender a feeling of joyful homecoming. As soon as we got done with the authorities (“Sir, turn off that cell phone or I will CONFISCATE it!”) United Airlines canceled our connecting flight. We were all exhausted, but were now doomed to six hours of waiting for the next flight. I really knew we were no longer in Italy when, upon finally getting on-board the plane, I asked the stewardess for blankets for our very sleepy and cold kids. “Sorry, sir, blankets are for First Class passengers!” Welcome home 99 percenters!
On the other hand, our experiences with ground transportation were much more uplifting. We made several stops before arriving in the Washington area, and in each location we grabbed cabs at the airport. Perhaps subconsciously identifying with their foreign-ness, we struck up conversations with the cab drivers, all of whom were immigrants. We were struck by the deep affection that almost all of these men expressed for the United States and for the cities they had settled in. In San Diego and San Francisco, in Denver and in Miami, speaking through thick accents in broken English, almost all of them told us lucky they felt to be living in the USA, how much they liked the city they were driving through, and how pleased they were with their new lives in the United States. One Nigerian cab driver really got all choked up about how lucky he considered himself. This made us feel very good about the USA.
When we finally arrived in Northern Virginia, having escaped the clutches of the airlines and the TSA, we were delivered into the arms... of real estate agents and mortgage brokers. It's a wonder we survived. But we did. In short order we bought a house on a cul-de-sac and started to settle down.
Moving vans began to arrive at our new place. In addition to the much-awaited delivery of our stuff from Rome, it was time for the State Department to return to us the items we had placed in storage. One batch contained items we’d stored when leaving Virginia (2000). There was another batch from the Azores (2003) that included a full-sized swing set, and a third from London (2007). Some of our furniture had been mistakenly sent to Ghana (where it remains – we opted for financial compensation). As we opened these weird time capsules, I found myself wishing that more of it had gone to Ghana. There was stuff that I’d bought when I was still single. There was a TV that I’d had in the army. There was a lot of baby-related equipment. When we finally got around to selling the baby stuff on Craig’s list, they guy who bought the crib asked how old our baby was. “Thirteen!” I said. He looked confused. “Thirteen months?” he asked. “No she’s thirteen – she’s upstairs, on Facebook.”
Following the lead of the First Family, we got a dog. We named ours “Cappuccio” – that's what the Italians ask for when they want a Cappuccino coffee. Cappuccio's fur is the color of the foam. He is an English Cream Golden Retriever. The little girl next door (Abbey) always got confused and called him a Cream Cheese Golden retriever. And sometimes (just to goof with people) we'd claim that he was Spanish-speaking. Maria's friend Cecilia taught him how to jump hurdles, equestrian style, forcing us to buy a new, higher fence (thanks a lot, Cecilia). Thus he became known as “Cappuccio, the English Cream-Cheese Flying Latino Retriever.”
Our kids adjusted almost immediately. At this point Maria was only eleven and Billy only thirteen, yet they had lived in four different houses, in four different countries – they were ready to settle down. They loved the new neighborhood – there is a wonderful group of kids (and parents) on the cul-de-sac and they loved the fact that for the first time in their lives they could walk to the houses of friends, and hang out in backyards. Billy delighted in finding things that were better in the USA. He even declared that American pizza is better than Italian pizza. Maria frequently tried to defend Italy – she took a firm stand on ice cream, insisting that it was definitely better in Italy. Within days of moving to the new neighborhood the kids effectively put the foreign part of my Foreign Service career to an end by declaring that there would be no more of this moving-around-the-world stuff. They were home, and they intended to stay.
As we were trying to get settled, little reminders of our life in Europe kept popping up. The navigator in our car still spoke with a British accent, gave us distances in kilometers, and would instruct us to “proceed to the motorway.” We’d reach into our kitchen cabinet to find drinking glasses that used to be Shrek-themed Nutella jars (in Portuguese). The kids’ smart phones would buzz with text messages and Facebook status updates from Italy.
Our visit to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles was a culturally shocking adventure in security theater. Elisa's driver's license had expired while we were abroad, and the DMV insisted that she take a driver’s test (within 30 days of arrival). The first obstacle was proof of identity. There was a long list of acceptable documents, but your options narrowed considerably if you hadn't grown up in the United States (no “U.S. high school transcript” for you!) or if most of your stuff (including your original certificate of naturalization) was in a container on a ship somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. In spite of Elisa having in hand her U.S. diplomatic passport, we struggled most of a day to convince DMV that she was who she said she was. When we questioned the bureaucratic rigidity, DMV staff trotted out 9-11 and hinted that we were being uncooperative in their heroic efforts to protect the homeland. After of a full day of this, we finally made it to the road test... only to be told that Elisa couldn't take the test because our rental car was in my name (on this the problem apparently was liability, not terrorism). Horrified at the prospect of another day of ID inquisition, we ran out and tried (one hour before DMV closed) to rent a car in Elisa's name. No luck. We were about to give up when I decided to try one more thing. I took a look at the people waiting in their cars to take the road test. There was a young Latino guy there – we later learned he was an immigrant from Honduras. I went up to him and – in Spanish – explained our situation. I asked him if he would lend us his car. (For some reason, that's OK with the DMV.) He consulted with his girlfriend and gave us the thumbs up. Getting an assist from some recent immigrants seemed like a very fitting way to get out of this “us-versus-them” Catch-22. Elisa passed the test, and we escaped the clutches of DMV with our faith in humanity renewed.
So, we had our ups and downs, but just as in our other posts, as time passed we settled in we grew more and more comfortable, and the place started to feel like home. And just as in those foreign places we had lived in, in the USA we found things that we liked, and things that we didn't like, great strengths and difficult problems, good people and bad people. This all reinforced the main lessons that we took away from our ten years abroad, from our ten years with the foreigners.
ACHILLES HEAL …………………………………………………1
US: SOME INTRODUCTIONS……………………………………...3
WHERE WE LIVED: HOUSES AND ‘HOODS …………………..13
MILITARY MADNESS – WAR, BOMBS, AND BASES…………65
HOSPITALS AND DOCTORS…………………............................. 98
PLAYGROUNDS, PARKS, VACATIONS, PARTIES
(AND GOOD DEEDS)…………………………………………….111
DEATH CHEESE, AND CARS THAT CAN’T READ!
(LINGUISTIC ADVENTURES IN THE OLD WORLD)…………135
SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY………………………………….144
THEM: FOREIGN FRIENDS……………………………………..156
OTHER PEOPLES’ PATRIOTISMS……………………………….176
MOVING VAN BLUES – DIFFICULT DEPARTURES………….188
BACK IN THE USA………………………………………………. 193
CITIZENS OF THE WORLD………………………………………200
In print form the book is available from Amazon and from Lulu:
And it is available in e-book form from