Growing up ex-pat, as they say (and which I feel is not the true nomer for children like me), has many wonderful and interesting dynamics. For example, you most often do not look like the people who are your neighbors and go to school with, your parents have different comfort foods than you are developing, you have to navigate through social situations with different languages and accents. One of the most striking things is that family tends to be far away and are more like visitors. I know that in many places, such as in America, family live in different states but what may be different is that when there is a divide of country that there is not a shared similarity of existence. Once I lived in the US I had an uncle that lived in California and even though we both lived in different places with different cultures, the truth is that the cultures were not all that different and there was some sort of unifying sense… we were both in the same country and there is an amazing comfort to that.
When you live “overseas”, the notion that you and your grandparents, aunts and uncles, or cousins live elsewhere, is built in. Some people can navigate this well, and I am sure that others have a difficult time learning to visit those they love in their respective homelands.
One of the very first visitors of a familial sort that I can recall are my maternal grandparents. They were an amazing duo; they traveled voraciously and had wonderful adventures and loved doing those things and meeting new places. I think it is unbelievably fortunate that they were the first family I recall visiting. They were able to cross that unseen and unspoken continental divide and make me feel like my grandparents were visiting from the next closest big city. As is often the case in my family they were called by names that were not their given ones.
My grandmother went by the name of Zun; or as I called her grandma Zun. No one knows where this name came from, it was given to her by my grandfather, her husband, and it became so commonplace that even her friends would call her that (though, my family has a delightful penchant for nicknames and she (and the rest of my family) had many others as well). She was a beauty queen and well loved by all who met her. Her father had TB so she grew up in an Arizona TB sanitarium just a month after Arizona became a state, living in a community of half tent houses so those afflicted could breathe in the (at the time) healthy Arizona air. Her mother was a nurse and a very skilled seamstress and her father had been a railroad conductor, though he left behind wonderful poetry written in amazingly beautiful handwriting .
My grandfather was called grandpa Honey. It is a name that I apparently gave him. I imagine that in the times we visited as I was learning to speak that I heard my grandmother call him honey and as such I assumed it was his name and added that unto the word grandpa. He was an engineer in every sense. He worked in mines and with water systems. He helped with what we call Boulder Dam but others may know as Hoover Dam during the war. He had tried to enlist, but was colorblind and not allowed to join. It also seems like his skills were needed in Nevada as that is where he worked during the war. He loved his work, and he might have loved mines the best, though my mother says he helped build many bridges in Arizona over his lifetime. He died when I was very young. I have written a bit about that here and here. My memories of him are nebulous, I can’t remember his voice or even of him speaking much. I do remember his laugh and that he was unbelievably handsome.
Though they both came to visit, I recall my grandfather most, probably because my brother had just been born and my grandmother was busy helping my mom.
We lived in Spain and I must have been very young and I had been in a series of preschools, one of which was a Montessori school and another a Spanish one. The first preschool I had gone to was the Montessori where I was taught self sufficiency and the notion that if you can’t do something the regular way that you can figure out another means to accomplish that goal. The Spanish school was very formal and I was taught to cursty, a lot. Between these two schools I was given an ability that would enchant my grandfather.
When I was in Montessori I was too little to put on my coat effectively, the struggle with little bodies with little arms trying to slip their arms into their coat sleeves. So, I was taught to do somersaults into my coats. I would place my coat on the floor in front of me, the neck at my feet. I would tuck my hands just inside the sleeves and would do a somersault where upon at the end of which I would appear before all well coated.
For some reason, my grandfather was charmed by this. I don’t recall being taught how to do this, but I do recall how he marveled at my ability to put on my coats at this tender age. I recall our apartment in Spain, it seemed huge and grand with a lovely balcony and a very Spanish European look (that is, a Spanish rendition of Scandinavian minimalism, so think dark hand carved wood instead of light smooth woods). My grandfather would be seated on one of our wood and leather chairs, drinking red wine and I am sure talking about something wonderful and interesting. I would be playing on a rug at their feet, and a request for me to show how it is done would ring out I would shortly return from my room with one of my coats in hand. I would lay it on the ground facing him so that when finished and standing in front of them I would be there with my coat on and I able to finish the grand performance with my customary curtsy.
There is one other thing I recall pretty distinctly about my grandfather, and a trip he and Zun took to Spain. As one should do when people come to visit, we traveled to other parts of the country. One of those trips was to go see Granada. Granada is a beautiful city, but of course my living in the country in which it existed gave it a certain familiarity and I continued the customs I kept in Madrid. We had stopped for lunch at restaurant there. Restaurants can be the kind many are familiar with in the US (and especially my beloved western part) with small tables usually for 4 an, but in Spain with older buildings and smaller spaces, many smaller places with what a traveler might call “rustic flavor” includes high bar tables and the chairs that go along with them. So, we all stopped into a restaurant with this kind of seating and my small little body climbed up into one of these chairs, it was familiar I suppose. But, in some form of youthful exuberance I managed to fall off and split my chin open. I was taken to the nearest clinic, though it may have been a doctors office and was given stitches and these were covered by what I still recall as the biggest band-aid ever to have existed. My grandfather in a fit of grandfatherly indulgence took me to the nearest tourist shop and promptly purchased a complete flamenco outfit for me; the white dress with red polka dots, the special plastic tortoiseshell hair comb, the fan, the lace mantilla, the castanets, and most likely also the shoes to go with them. Oh, how I loved that dress, and I am sure I wore it every day for the rest of that trip, smiling youthfully at all who seemed to stop and chat with the little girl with a huge bandage on her chin. What I recall of grandpa Honey from this was his delight in seeing me traipse along the Spanish countryside in a long dress with folds of fabric swirling about my legs and treating it just like I would have if I were wearing my pants or a play dress. He would watch me climb the walls of a castle in my dress and just laugh, he had such a happy laugh when he was in Spain.
Grandpa Honey and Zun traveled enough that it is entirely possible they visited us more than once in any of the places where I grew up. How unbelievably lucky for me that they were like that. It was as close as I was ever going to get to having the experience of the nearby grandparents… They both fit in so neatly into my memories of them in terms of the places and spaces I occupied, especially as compared to my paternal grandparents who I don’t think liked to travel as much, that I may have been taking them for granted all these years.
There are many kinds of travelers, most of which appear to travel as consumer tourists. Consumer tourists are the tourists that visit the location for the sake of visiting it; to cross it off a list of places just to say that they have been there. They may often get stressed because the food it too different and they can’t find a restaurant that serves foods they know and are comfortable with so as to help them maintain ot regain a sense of place. While interesting to talk to, they at best are encyclopedic about their experience and at worst have nothing to take back from the country they were in other than their airline ticket. Most people travel like this, and really there is nothing wrong with it, it has fueled the economy of the tourist industry for ages and I value that contribution.
There is a term I have heard many military people use; “living in the economy”, and while it took me some time to understand what this meant I thought that there was an application for travelers and expats (non-military ones even). Living in the economy, as I have learned from speaking with people in the military, are military personnel and possibly their immediate family that are stationed abroad that live off base and do not buy their groceries solely at the PX, or frequent socials at the on the military base. Rather, they had a life that was not centered around the offerings that the military offered them. I am sure this can take on many forms and I have to admit that I don’t recall going to school with many children of military soldiers stationed abroad unless they were officers or affiliated with the local embassies, granted, there wasn’t a huge American military presence in any of the countries I grew up in.
There is another kind of traveler; one who is seems at ease being the foreigner in the country they are visiting and who manage to look at each occurrence during their trip as a chance to learn about the place and its people, history, culture in a very intimate way. Who has a deep interest in what is happening and the social structure the county has developed through time. They try the local foods, listen to the music, admire the local handicrafts and arts, enjoy the sights and sounds, but much more holistically. This is probably due to intent; they want to learn about the country, to let the country make some impression into their meaning of life. Some expats live like this, some travelers travel like this. I think my grandparents had this mindset.
My moving around so frequently really served to instill that in me, the need to find the place find a certain comfort in my place in it and lastly to learn from it. I meet well traveled people and look for that in them; I ask them questions to see if they were merely observing the country or if they were curious about the country. There is a huge difference. How lucky that my maternal grandparents were so curious. Their being this way allowed me to have grandparents that not only do I feel I got to know well, but that could understand my life, my sense of trying to navigate between cultures, my difficulty at finding the words in one of the languages I speak to communicate something and how wonderful to be able to recognize that as a gift from them.
Today would be his 97th birthday .He died from complications related to colon cancer. Today I had my first colonoscopy. I feel closer to him for this, for some reason. Hi grandpa Honey, I love you!