Archive for the ‘A Cross-Cultural Marriage, Expatriate Wife’ Category

It was sometime in the mid-1980s, while visiting friends at the university where Ravi and I had once taught, that I told an anthropologist about important differences I noticed between the various countries where I had been living and working. I attributed the differences to the agricultural base, whether it was wheat-growing or rice-growing. We discussed my observations at some length and he included them in a footnote, crediting me, to an article he was writing for an anthropological journal. I had left academia in 1968, had become an expatriate wife and mother following Ravi from country to country as he followed his career. For myself, I did research projects, went back to school for two years with the kids, and finally, on a consulting basis, did evaluations of primary health care programs in developing countries. For a number of years I lived in Turkey, a wheat-growing country, and did a rural-to-urban migration study while there. In India, broadly, the Northwest is wheat-growing, while the East and South are rice-growing. I had done health care related research projects in both the regions, and of course, had visited Ravi’s family across India, from Bombay, Delhi, Benares, Calcutta, down to Bangalore. In rice-growing Indonesia, I worked in rural and urban contexts with Ministry of Health colleagues across Java, Madura, Sulawesi and Sumatra. (Somalia, where I lived and did research, was a tribal, pastoral nomadic society, like the Arab Bedouins, with yet another, quite different pattern of psychological-cultural characteristics.)

Woodcut by Piero Crescentio

Thrashing wheat in Delhi, at Humayun’s tomb

I told my anthropologist friend how different the wheat villages were from the rice villages and how the differences affected me.When I first lived in Turkey, in 1968, farming was still traditional, not very different from earlier Europe or northern India, rather like peasant farming. Tractors were still rare. The village was a compact settlement of a hundred or so households, sometimes more, surrounded by wheat fields, pasture, fallow land, wooded areas. Travel time from one village to another was considerable. At the center of production was a man with his plow and an ox, mule or horse. (I wrote here on women’s role in the economy of a traditional Turkish town.) Inheritance was from father to son and women were outsiders who married into the family.

Planting rice

plowing the field

I first went to Bali in 1978 and after that, until 1994, to the other islands. As I  crossed Indonesia it was the nature of the farming more than the shape of the villages that caught my attention. Without actually studying the agriculture, it was obvious to me that rice farming is multi-phased and especially complex in the relationships required between farming households within the community. I describe Bali’s farming complex here   The man and his plow and bullock were there but as one part of the work sequence.

Women worked in the planting, weeding, harvesting, and they participated, at least in Bali, in the community’s agricultural decision-making meetings. (a photo of the woman’s blade for harvesting rice is here.) I read that in Java, descent is reckoned from both the father’s and the mother’s family line.

By habit, I view life from a sociological perspective but psychologists also have found differences between people dependent upon one or the other of the two basic food crops. (Maize/corn was the base in native American civilizations and the potato in South America.)  Psychologist Tim Talheim did research in China, on individuals in both the wheat-growing north and the rice-growing south. I found the results fascinating and relevant to my particular interests. Ordinarily, China had not been a culture I read or thought about but last year an archeological discovery having to do with amazing art lead me incidentally into months of acquiring background for understanding Indonesia. The discovery related to the 8,000 terracotta warriors that for millennia have kept watch over the tomb of China’s first emperor. Two of these remarkable statues had been shown in an art museum and I saw them. The Terracotta Army depicts the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, in 210–209 BCE. Based on DNA evidence, archaeologists now think Greek sculptors could have trained the local artists, indicating that the north China civilization, based on millet as its grain, had early-on contact with Indo-European culture via Central Asia and the northern steppe – and with growing wheat. Entirely separately, in South China, by 7500 BCE, rice-based agriculture had developed along the Yangtze River.   Here for a map showing where rice, wheat, corn are grown in China.

migrations of Dai people

It was in the Yangtze River Neolithic based on rice, before the northern Han expansion, that the agricultural people of the S.E. Asia have their origins. They are the Austronesians, named for their language family. Genetic research shows that an ethnic minority in southern China, the Dai, are the people from whom the Indonesians are descended. Most likely their ancestors came from the region around the Tonkin Gulf, the homeland of the Dai, and migrated to Indonesia through the Vietnam corridor. (I previously wrote here, based on linguistic theory, that the indigenous people of Taiwan were the original Austronesians. That now seems unlikely. For Japan’s deep history, see comment five below. )

Tim Talheim and his research team propose that a history of farming wheat makes cultures more independent, while farming rice makes cultures more interdependent, and these agricultural legacies continue to affect people in the modern world. He reports that the northern Chinese seemed more direct, while people in the south were more concerned with harmonious relationships and avoiding conflict. They tested 1162 Han Chinese participants in six sites and found that those in rice-growing southern China were more interdependent and holistic-thinking than respondents in the wheat-growing north. To control for confounds like climate, they tested people from neighboring counties along the rice-wheat border and found differences that were just as large. Individualism is often considered a trait related to modernization but it did not fit the data. The wheat-growing/rice-growing differences persist with urbanization and modernization.

Quoting from the National Geographic article –  “To see if these agricultural differences led to contrasting psychological traits, Talhelm’s team recruited 1,162 Han Chinese students from around the country and showed them sets of three objects, such as a train, a bus, and tracks. When asked to pair two of them together, volunteers from rice-growing regions were more likely to choose holistic pairings based on relationships (train and tracks), while those from wheat-growing areas chose analytic pairings based on abstract similarities (train and bus).”

From a New York Times article, social psychologist Hazel Rose Markus asked people arriving at San Francisco International Airport to fill out a survey and offered them a handful of pens to use, for example, four orange and one green; those of European descent more often chose the one pen that stood out, while the Asians more often chose the one more like the others.

For another study, this time in Starbucks.

I wonder how Ravi would have chosen. His family was both north Indian and south Indian. Oddly, for example, for him a proper Indian main meal included both wheat chapattis and rice. In making a pair from the bus, train and tracks set I agonized over my choice. I am from a wheat culture but as a professional woman felt more at ease in rice culture countries, in cultures where even in the traditional sectors of the society women participated in public life. I will reflect more on this as I write about my experiences in Indonesia. One aspect that immediately comes to mind is my American habit of smiling at people in public and how this affected me, as a woman, in the various countries where I lived and worked. I describe that here.

Addendum — I wrote here of my first experience, other than Bali, in a paddy rice village and remarked on ways in which it was different from with the wheat societies I grew up in. My working in public health shaped much of how I understood each culture I came to know.



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Two years and some months ago I began a conversation with myself about an idea Ravi, my brilliant, charming husband, had presented to me when we were first married and he was still a graduate student newly arrived from Bombay. It had to do with a difference he had discovered on how Indians and Americans imagine the course of one’s life. He said Americans picture life as being on a trajectory beginning in childhood, rising to a peak in middle age, then declining into old age, and he contrasted this with the Indian view of a life lived in four stages. I set down here what he told me, with photos of him. (A photo of me in my fifties is here.) A traditional statement on the four stages of Vedic life, of Student, Householder, Post family and Sannyasa, is here.

Over time and with some thought, I developed a version of the stages of life model that made sense to me: The first stage is for learning; one is a student. The second is for family and work, the third dedicated to the community, and in the fourth stage one turns inward for reflection and peace of mind. I discussed the four stages here, elaborated it further here, and explored the psychological aspects of being in the fourth stage of life here.

When Ravi and I entered what he would have considered our third stage of life, at age sixty-five, we returned to the U.S. and moved into a house down the road from his brother. I explain, here, in considering where an expatriate goes to retire, why we went to this place and not elsewhere, but once having decided, I again launched into the time consuming process of setting up house and home for us. We were coming from twenty years lived in Paris where Ravi had been an haute fonctionnaire in an international organization and from where I had worked on a consulting basis with UNICEF, WHO and other international organizations in the planning and evaluation of rural primary health care projects in Turkey, India, Indonesia and once in the States. Not only had we returned to live in a medium size American city, it is a Southern city and I am a Midwesterner. Regional differences in America are not as pronounced as in other countries, but they are nevertheless real and I felt them. Ravi and I began our third stage of life, what Americans call retirees or senior citizens, while settling into a non-home place. After more than twenty years here it is still not quite home, but in the fourth stage of life maybe that no longer matters.

For more than a decade, until Ravi slide into his prolonged dementia, described here, I was active with various citizen groups concerned with community affairs, but while caring for him became disconnected from them. Currently, nice people invite me to join one or another senior citizens group and I decline. Invariably, I am at least a decade older than even the oldest of their members. I tell them my age and explain that although I am healthy, I am not a senior citizen, which I consider the third stage of life. I am elderly, in my fourth stage of life, and have already lived five years beyond my life expectancy. Generally, an explanation fails to interest them, so I let it be. Besides, I now think I should modify my version of the fourth stage of life.

I’ve been thinking, too, that I might anglicize “stages of life,” return to my anthropology days and use the idea of age grades, a universal in societies at all times and everywhere, one of the two basic principles for classifying individuals, the other being gender. In every society, one is either male or female and of a particular age grade, either a child or an adult or an elder, and this held until recently when, in the 1940s, Americans acquired a new, additional age grade. Adolescence, the transitional phase from child to adult, was transformed into “teenage” and a person of that age became a “teenager.” I was in my teens at time, totally unaware of being anything other than a high school student. My girlfriends and I were not  “Bobby Soxers” mad for Frank Sinatra, the forerunners of girls going crazy over the Beatles and other pop singers, but by the time I became an adult the teenage phenomenon was universally recognized. In their film on the history of youth, Matt Wolf and Jon Savage begin with “teenager” being an American invention, a way of viewing adolescence as a definable period of life with its own characteristics and not simply an early phase of adulthood.

In an email to a young friend, a woman in her early thirties, I mentioned that “teenager” had been invented when I was in my teens and she responded that for her generation it is the “twenty-something” and the notion of quarter-life crises. She had read and was fascinated by the book by Dr. Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist, “The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter — And How to Make the Most of Them Now.”

My friend wrote that it would be interesting to delve into the sociological and psychological/physiological underpinnings allowing the advent of both age grades, and I agree. I was mother to three teenagers and remember vividly what that meant, as well as watching Ravi cope with being father to teenage boys when he himself had never experienced adolescence as an age grade. In those years, in the late 1970s into the ’80s, the neurological sciences had not yet revealed to us that during the teen and early twenty years the brain is changing, developing and not yet mature. I should have guessed it, though, simply from anthropological studies. In many societies, adolescent boys (but not girls) are given free rein to behave in ways not acceptable for either child or adult.

I also have memories from a study I did in the 1950s of a Mexican-American community and from living and working in the 1960s and onward in Mogadiscio, Ankara and across India. I observed changing perceptions of adolescence, of adolescents being considered as young adults, then because of social and economic change, and growing knowledge of the adolescent brain, the gradual introduction of a new age grade into society. But this is too complex to discuss here. I’ll return to it later.

Traditionally, all societies had three age grades: child, adult, elder, but I once read, long ago, in a study of traditional Eskimo life, of a family and their dog sled on the move, father controlling the dogs, mother and grandmother walking alongside, two small children riding. Finally, grandmother could not keep the pace and they stopped, built a small igloo for her to lie in until her final days while the family, in mourning, continued on in their search for food. In extreme circumstances, survival is not for the elderly.

In more settled communities, however, and throughout history, a number of individuals lived on into old age, preserving and transmitting knowledge through the generations. I wrote in the previous essays about ancestor worship and the leverage that gives elders in the family and the community. Here and here for life expectancy rates when estimating how many old people were around in different eras.

This article on life expectancy in the Middle Ages is equally fascinating.  It gives the age and the cause of death of adult members of the royal family of Wales in the 1100s and 1200s CE. Considering only those individuals who lived into adulthood, who survived the high death rates for infants and children, the median life expectancy for women was 42/43 years, and for men, 48/49 years. Six of the twenty lived to 50 years and beyond, two of them into their 60s and one woman into her 70s. By contrast, for ordinary people living in the villages, archeological evidence from their cemeteries shows no one living past 45.

What can I say about childhood as an age grade?  In my urban lifestyle, childhood is the time for learning, for enculturation, for play, and school attendance ideally beginning early, at age four or five years, and continuing into adulthood, for girls equally for boys. In other cultures, at least in the past, children begin by age six actually working for the family and the community. By puberty they are being initiated into their adult roles. An excellent description of childhood in preindustrial Europe is here. At that time, and until the era of modern medicine, about one third of the population would ordinarily have been under the age of 14.

Religious ceremonies mark the individual’s transition from child to adult. I am familiar with the Christian First Communion.

In literature the phase, Coming of Age, is used to designate the social rituals and often the personally significant experiences that mark a young person’s transition from childhood to becoming an adult. We have the coming-of-age story, the bildungsroman novel, and the coming of age movies.

Adulthood is the central and longest age grade. For men, adult activities vary enormously. They are what we know and read about as history. For women, until very recently, adulthood meant children and maintaining the family. In societies before or outside of modern economies, from menarche to menopause the typical adult woman was either pregnant or lactating, which are states during which she did not menstruate. If menstruating, she was confined for days each month in a woman’s hut. When cloth became available a woman could make a pad to catch the blood rather than go into hiding with a few other women. I came of age in a time and a place where commercially made napkins were available to use during menstruation and available toilet facilities allowed a woman to participate in public social life. I was free and tried to ignore the snide remarks boys made about a woman who annoyed them “being on the rag.” Here for a video of bright and active girls discussing how they manage menstruation in their modernizing lifestyle.

Despite all sorts of change in technology, the economy, the social system in countries around the world, urban and rural, until very recently, the lives of women remained essentially unchanged, limited to family roles – marriage, giving birth, rearing children, preparing food, keeping the home, engaged in outside work only when compatible with those fundamental responsibilities. In the private realm of life, in the home, in the women’s world, traditional life continued. Outside the home, in the public realm of men, life evolved and changed while women raised the children, instilling in them the traditional attitudes and values they would carry into adulthood. Thus, fundamental aspects of the culture persists through the centuries, even millennia, despite larger societal changes, and this has to intrigue anyone who reads history. One of my favorite examples of the persistence of culture is of Roman soldiers reporting on the women of Gaul spending so much time and trouble on their appearance. It’s the same impression I had of French women, and of the importance of their femininity, two thousand year after the soldiers had left Gaul. Or of Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s writing about democracy in the young country, America, and how his descriptions of American culture are recognizably American, even today. ….

However, a technology invented and distributed in the 1960s is changing much of that, making possible one of the most profound changes in human history. The reliable contraceptive has made possible the opening of non-family roles to women, of women participating more fully in public life. I was in my early thirties when the Pill came on the market. I felt it was a revolution in the making, and it is happening. It seems, for example, that Twenty-something is mostly about women in their twenties. What I read on-line is about a lifestyle concerned with work, clothing and appearance, dating, thinking about when to marry and have a child. All this is another matter, one to be explored in a separate essay.

Is Senior an American age grade? Perhaps. It generally means age 65 plus. If so, I’ve gone through it. I’m an elder in my fourth stage of life, creaky, slower, less sure-footed, more easily tired, but still relatively healthy. I count my blessings from having come of age when America was entering its most prosperous period ever and when medical science had advanced sufficiently to give me advantages over women barely a generation older than I. When, for example, my son was six years old and had strep throat the doctor prescribed an antibiotic and the illness was cured. For a friend some twenty years older than I, antibiotics were unavailable when her son at that age was similarly sick and she had to keep her active, lively boy quiet, out of school and in bed for months to ensure he would not develop rheumatic fever and a consequent damaged heart.  Wherever we lived, in the different countries, I could immediately identify the medical facilities and personnel we just might need. Dentistry improved enormously during my lifetime, especially through periodontal care, and I still have my teeth. When I was in my early twenties, older women told me that each baby costs the mother one tooth, or more.

So I continue on with life and expect I will eventually move into its last stage – fragility — when what I want, what we all want, is an ideal and totally unachievable ending to life on this earth, to fall apart all at once, as in an old poem, “The One-Hoss Shay” that I discuss here.

Years ago, being practical and to protect my children from the expense and trouble of caring for me, I took out insurance for palliative care at the end of life.  I read articles, as here, about how I will think and feel at that time, in that situation. I wrote here of Ravi’s ending, of the romantic love that took us into marriage, of how that love continued. I am in tears as I recall his last moments but he was at peace and that comforts me.


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It was 1980 and I was in Makassar, then called Ujung Pandang, at the medical school and visiting government officials, being briefed on the Ministry of Health’s national rural health program I was to evaluate. I was in the city for three days and on later occasions returned only to pass through on my way to other places in Sulawesi, to its small towns and villages. Later I will post my photos of the towns and the very agreeable people. At the moment, though, I am thinking about my two photographs from Makassar. I had seen hardly anything outside the medical school and government offices, so when a student, a bright young fellow, speaking excellent English, invited me to his home, to meet his parents, and to take a walk around his neighborhood before catching the plane to Jakarta, I gladly accepted.

at MakassarAs he and I walked and talked, with me regarding him as a possible interpreter/assistant, I noticed nothing about the shops or buildings or much else worth comment, except that certain walls were marked by bullet holes, which I ignored. We were in a Chinese ethnic neighborhood; discussion of previous civic strife and politics had to be avoided. Besides, an odd, unkempt space with a European style monument caught my attention, and being told it was the remains of an ancient fort, I had to explore it. To me, ancient European in Asia meant Portuguese and I imagined this to have been a fort like those Vasco da Gama and his successors established on the Malabar Coast of India. at Makassar entranceThe name, Makassar, sounded vaguely familiar. I thought maybe, just maybe, it was because Ferdinand Magellan had come to Makassar and I wanted to believe it were so. I wanted to tell Ravi I had seen Portuguese influence in Indonesia similar to the Portuguese influence he discovered when the family moved to Bombay. It always amazed me that he had learned Portuguese and actually spoke Portuguese with the Brazilian students on our campus. On the plane out of Makassar I wrote to him about my abandoned Portuguese fort, unaware that on the very same day he was in Lisbon, Belem Tower in Lisbonat a conference, and he wrote to me from there, remembering the time we had visited Lisbon and the beautiful Belem from where the ships had sailed. I liked this image of us communicating between the two ends of historic events.

Subsequently, the program I worked in took me across Indonesia, experiencing the culture from the perspective of primary health care and the local community. I soon forgot this Makassar incident and the two photos ended up in a box with other snapshots of my life away from Ravi. He, not I, put together our family photo albums; only recently have I begun bringing out my Indonesia memorabilia, trying to make sense of that part of my life.

Indonesia map with Moluccas circledI now realize, alas, that my story of an ancient Portuguese fort was not based in reality. I had known a little of Magellan’s history. Indeed, he, like other Portuguese adventurers engaged in the highly lucrative, highly dangerous spice trade, had sailed in this territory, the future Indonesia, searching for the islands where the spices grew and also to gain any advantage he could against Arab, Chinese, Spanish and Dutch traders, and, of course, against local rulers and traders.

Remains of the Portuguese fort in Malacca

Remains of the Portuguese fort in Malacca

Magellan participated, 1511, in conquering the Malacca Sultanate (south of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, across from Sumatra) on the Strait of Malacca, the main shipping channel, to this day, between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. There they built their fort and established a base from which to trade, explore and control the competition.

From Malacca the Portuguese found their way to the Spice Islands, the Malukus, east of Sulawesi. Magellan, however, like Christopher Columbus, reasoned that by sailing west he could find a better, safer route and, being out of favor with the Portuguese power elite, persuaded the Spanish Crown to finance him. He sailed, with his five ships, across the Atlantic, down and through the Straits of Magellan into the Pacific on a horrific voyage and died at Cebu in the Philippines. One ship and 18 of the original 237 men returned to the harbor in Seville on September 6, 1522, three years after they had set sail. They had circumnavigated the globe. But relevant for me, Magellan never touched the Indonesia I came to know in Sumatra, Java, Madura, Bali and Sulawesi.

Makassar and the Portuguese

Makassar and the Portuguese

I learned from this excellent website a little of the Portuguese role in Makassar’s history. It was not about conquest. Instead, during the 1620s, Portuguese merchants, some 500 of them, were settled in the Kingdom of Makassar, trading in silk, cloves, textiles, sandalwood and diamonds, and on good terms with the Sultan; he welcomed them, allowed them to keep a community and build a church because they helped the economy and acted as allies against the encroaching Dutch.

However, in 1641 the Dutch conquered Malacca, gained control of the Strait of Malacca and drove out the Portuguese, many of whom moved to Makassar, increasing to over 2000 the number of residents in its Portuguese quartier.

In 1660 a Dutch fleet attacked Makassar and Fort Panakkukang. Apparently, its “defensive structures” was a simple dirt wall built in 1545 by Raja Tunipalangga. The conquering Dutch forced the Sultan to expel the Portuguese, which he did reluctantly. The Portuguese left Makassar over several years, moving to the Indonesian islands of Flores, Solar, Timor; Macau in China; Siam/Thailand; Batavia/Jakarta. I see on the map that a sub-district of Makassar, at some distance from the fort, is named Panakkukang.

Fort Rotterdam

Fort Rotterdam

I read, and see in photographs, that Fort Rotterdam, built in the late 1660s, is near, or at, the place in my two photos.

Fort Rotterdam

Fort Rotterdam

Again, I do not remember seeing anything resembling the buildings and grounds of the Fort. Given my lack of background in Dutch colonial history, I may have seen them and whatever was distinctive about them failed to register with me.

Except for Bali, which is special, and going in and out of Jakarata, Makassar was my introduction to Indonesia. By then I was living in Paris, explained here, and it was convenient for me to stop in India, visiting Ravi’s family, on the way to and from Jakarta, making a transition between the two cultures so close in time that I could not help but compare my experiences in each. In both India and Indonesia, my friends and colleagues were from that country, and although I enjoyed all of them equally, they were different from one another. What strikes me at the moment is that the British colonial past was far more evident in India than the Dutch colonial past was in Indonesia. (I have written at some length about the British influence on Ravi.) I was often struck by my Indian friends’ apparent lack of interest in preserving, even noticing, India’s ancient treasures, while in Indonesia friends and colleagues took me to see fascinating things from the Indonesian past. In Surabaya, on a Friday afternoon after work, someone secured a jeep and we went into the countryside to see a Majapahit ruin. In Bali, a friend took me to a remote mountain village where the original Balinese lived.  When I had meetings to attend in Bandung, a colleague arranged for us to take the train, perhaps making its last run, up past the green hillside rice terraces and palm trees, an unforgettable landscape, and after our meeting, not to the Dutch colonial town or a tea plantation but to the hall where the 1955 Bandung Conference had been held. In Bukittinggi they told me about the people whom the Dutch defeated, taking over an already developed area. And my memories of Yogyakarta … … I could go on and on. Indonesians were discovering their own rich history of complex, highly developed civilizations that flourished long before the Europeans arrived. That no one even mentioned Fort Rotterdam to me is understandable.

I will reexamine some of my experiences with working and being with friends in Indonesia and sort out the Dutch influences or lack thereof. I regret, for example, not having seen the Batavia part of Jakarta, and I will search for more information about the delightful guesthouse and lovely neighborhood where I regularly stayed when in Jakarta. An Indonesian anthropologist introduced me to it because she knew I would be comfortable there and not in a hotel.

Returning to my two photographs — They leave me puzzled. What are they picturing? Was I sitting on the Fort Rotterdam wall? What is the stele for? Maybe someone who knows will let me know. I love receiving additions and corrections on what I write. So – if you know something about the history of Makassar and about my photos, please share the information with me.

And go to the next post, here,  where I discover more photos and retrieve more memories … ….





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I wrote in my comments on The Keeper – The Legend of Omar Khayyam (Part I here ) that it is an enjoyable, quite good movie, but far from historically accurate. Something about the characters and events that Kayvan Mashayekh wove into his imagined history of Omar Khayyam bothered me and I needed to know why. I had questions and finding the answers would not be simple. The search for information had me feeling I was lost in an intellectual wilderness. Persia has a long and complicated history. I felt disoriented and often considered giving up but each time returned to reading and thinking about this far land with its strange, unfamiliar names; I stayed with my time-consuming efforts to comprehend these ancient cultures. I needed to sort through and embrace what I had learned. I may now be an elderly American woman living in America but my sixty years plus in a cross-cultural marriage as an expatriate wife and mother complicated my sense of identity, shaped the way I think, and think about myself. I care about the history depicted in The Keeper … . It is the history of people I once knew and loved. Two of the countries where I lived and worked and had friends, India and Turkey, were throughout their histories deeply affected by what was happening in Persia. My husband, being Indian, admired Persian poetry and art. My adopted son, born and raised in Somalia but culturally Indian, is Shia, a Persian influenced Islam. (see here about nowruz) In Turkey, I knew something of the Persianized Seljuks who preceded the Ottomans into Anatolia.

Additionally, the movie is about a great civilization, among the first civilizations on this earth. I like tracing it from the Neolithic in Anatolia to its Bronze Age to its Iron Age, to the Indo-European language and forward, all carrying me back to my days in anthropology, capturing my imagination. And I am enamored of Persian art.

As I have written, I liked The Keeper … but nevertheless have questions. I wish there had been a way to show that the brilliant Omar Khayyam (1048 – 1131),was not a lone, idiosyncratic scientist and philosopher, that he lived during the great Islamic Golden Age,  — but I may be expect too much of  the movie.Seljuk Empire

Omar Khayyam Map Crusader states 1135 CEI do question, though, historical inaccuracies. The movie’s implied connection between the First Crusade (1096-99) and the Seljuk Sultan Malik Shah lying dead in a tent on a field of battle does not make sense. Omar Khayyam lived in Khorasan near the Caspian Sea, in Nishapur and Samarkand, and he served in the court of Sultan Malik-Shah in Isfahan. While still a boy, Malik Shah (1055—1092) had fought alongside his father, Alp Arslan, in Syria. Later, as Sultan of the Seljuq state, he spent his time fighting uprisings in the far east while his powerful, brilliant vizier governed the vast Empire for him. Malik Shah died while out hunting, not in battle, possibly poisoned by supporters of the vizier, whom he had dismissed from his service. After Malik Shah’s death, and that of the vizier, the Seljuq Empire fell into chaos as regional governors waged war against one another and the Crusaders both captured Jerusalem and established the crusader states of Jerusalem, Tripoli, Antioch and Edessa.

I wondered how the Director of the movie, Kayvan Mashayekh, had tied together the lives of his three main characters, Omar Khayyam, the Sultan’s vizier who was also Khayyam’s teacher, and Hassan, the friend Omar met through the teacher. I imagine that Khayyam’s teacher/vizier is based on Nizam al-Mulk, vizier to Sultans Alp Arslan and Malik Shah, an historic figure whose personal history and the books he wrote are well worth being considered in modern studies of government and governing.

Mashayekh may have taken an elaborate mythical story by Jorge Luis Borges, a novelist and poet fascinated with the Oriental Other, and used it as the basis for the movie’s plot.

Assassination of Nizam al-Mulk

Assassination of Nizam al-Mulk

In the story, three young friends, Nizam al-Mulk, Omar Khayyaam and Hassan al Sabbah formed a pact, agreeing that if one should rise to prominence, he would help the other two to do likewise. Nizam al-Mulk was the first to succeed, rather spectacularly, becoming vizier to Sultan Alp Arslan, and as promised, he offered his friends positions of rank within the court. Omar refused the offer, asking instead to be given the means to continue his studies indefinitely. This Nizam did, as well as building him an observatory. Hassan accepted the offer but had to flee after plotting to dispose of Nizam as vizier. The story has one of his supporters assassinating Nizam al-Mulk.

Hassan is a fascinating character. In the movie, he is pictured as a religious fanatic who threatened Omar for holding open and tolerant rather than orthodox religious beliefs and tried to have him killed. In actual, historical accounts, it was the Sultan’s widow, not Hassan. who turned against Khayyam. Under Seljuk rule, Sunni Islam, not yet securely the people’s religion, was being rigidly, dogmatically enforced as the state religion. (It is likely that Khayyam’s father was Zoroastrian, the original Persian religion). Khayyam, to prove his loyalty to Sunni Islam, went on the Hajj to Mecca and Medina, after which he was allowed to work as court astrologer, then permitted to return to Nishapur, where he was known as a scholar, and continued to teach astronomy, mathematics and medicine. In his problems with the clergy he reminds one of Galileo.

Omar Hassan al Sabbah paintingHassan seems to be based on Hassan al Sabbah, a figure both of history and myth. Marco Polo visited Khorasan in 1273, almost 150 years after Hassan al Sabbah’s lifetime, and he repeated in writing local stories about Hassan al Sabbah using hashish to lure young men into his private army of warriors known as the Assassins, a word derived from Arabic for hashish or from aschishin, follower of Hassan.

A number of the tales woven around Hassan al Sabbah are of high drama, sinister deeds, violence, exotic lands, weird rituals. Others give an account of him as wise and educated, a missionary for his religious sect, a resourceful leader of his community. All the stories involve his mountaintop fort, Alamut, Persian for “Eagle’s Nest,” which he acquired either, depending on whom one reads, by deceiving the man who held it as a fief or by preaching his faith so convincingly to the fort’s garrison and inhabitants that they preferred him as their master and the original master had to leave. (Alamut is noted on the Seljuk Empire map.) In the movie, I think the scenes taking place in the Alamut fort were filmed in the Bukhara fortress.

Hassan al Sabbah (1050 — 1124) was born into a Shia family, grew up in cities near today’s Tehran, converted in his teens to the Shia Ismaili sect, and lived in Isfahan. To further his studies and his understanding of the Ismaili faith, he went to Cairo, center of the Shia Fatimid Caliphate, where the rulers supported scholars and libraries and granted freedom of thought and reason to the people.

Al Azhar Mosque in the 10th century

Al Azhar Mosque in the 10th century

They also encouraged the arts and Fatimid architecture is outstanding, including the Al Azhar Mosque and madresa, the first university in the East and perhaps the oldest in history. Hassan al Sabbah studied Ismaili doctrine for some two years in Cairo, then traveled widely as a missionary for the Ismaili faith.



In 1090, he took possession of Alamut Castle, the base from where he founded the Nizari Ismaili State, a nexus of strategic Ismaili strongholds, each with an Eagle’s Nest fort, in Persia and Syria, set in hostile Seljuk dominated territory. His defending force was the famous fedayeen, the Hashshashin, the Assassins. He managed his military force effectively, governed well and was widely known as a learned man and a scholar. He knew the Qur’ān by heart and had mastered much of the scientific disciplines of his time. alamut-castleImportant for the future of Nizari Ismailism, he made Persian the language of their holy literature, which ensured the unity and aided in the survival of his relatively small but prosperous and significant international religious community. In 1256 his successors finally surrendered Alamut Castle to the invading Mongols. The remains of the castle, much visited, are on the top of the mountain in the photograph.


Curiosity about the background of The Keeper – The Legend of Omar Khayyam led me into weeks of reading and thinking about his Persia, then about Persia as the world’s first great civilization and its history of invaders — the Greeks, Arabs, Seljuk Turks, Ottomans and Mongols. It has been amazing, and enlightening. I am still absorbing what I learned and especially what I believe is relevant to understanding today’s conflicts in the Middle East. Maybe later I will look again at the bits of information that touch on my personal life, such as my delightful Ismaili friend in Mogadiscio and my experience in the late 1980s when I wrote a research paper for today’s Ismaili Eagle’s Nest, the Aiglemont Estate near Paris. And about visiting the Al Azhar Mosque.



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Ashraf's photoGoing through our family letters yet again, I found this lovely photograph on a notecard from friends, Ashraf and Kavita, long ago. They had made the card of white art paper with his photograph on the front and beneath it, in her elegant handwriting, “Topkapi Palace, Istanbul” and “Summer ’93.” Inside the card she wrote a verse from The Rubiayat of Omar Khayyam and a comment to Ravi and me. Many features of the card, besides the art with which the whole was made, linger in my mind and I want to talk about them, about the mosque and its architect and about the Rubaiyat, but Ravi is gone, as are friends from that time in my life. So, instead of sharing thoughts in discussion, I put them in writing.

First. Ashraf and Kavita were an attractive young couple, our neighbors in America, both teaching in the university, in the English Department, living in their lovely home near the campus, involved in the arts and the local community.  They met in Bombay as university students, he from North India and she from South India. Although neither was raised religiously and neither engaged in religious practices, the Muslim-Hindu divide remained more than either of their families could accept in a marriage, so when an opportunity arose for them to study, and finally teach, in America, they took it. In American society they were simply Indians who dressed and behaved respectably, like other people around them, and when they became citizens their acceptance as American was confirmed, eased by their coming as a couple, not with a large family or as part of a migrant stream. They assimilated and blended in.

Ashraf took the photo from a pavilion in the Topaki Palace, a magnificent walled complex of buildings and gardens that, beginning in 1465, was for almost 400 years where the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire resided.

Scale model of Seraglio Point with the Topkapı Palace complex

Scale model of Seraglio Point with the Topkapı Palace complex

It housed, as well, the government, schools, mosques, a library, kitchens and numerous other buildings for accommodating its 4000 or so inhabitants, and is now an amazing, beautiful museum. For a brief video of Topaki, here. For the really serious, here. I discovered that the word “kiosk” refers to something other than a newspaper stand. Köşk is Turkish for pavilion, a small open structure, usually decorative, usually situated near a main building. Lady Wortley Montagu, the wife of the English ambassador to Istanbul, introduced “kiosk” into English through a letter, in 1717, to another Lady of the aristocracy, describing a “chiosk” as “raised by 9 or 10 steps and enclosed with gilded lattices.” (I include the remarkable Lady Montague in a discussion of 18th century portrait paintings and the Turquoise dress fashion here, in Thoughts on the Movie “Belle.”)

Inside the notecard, Kavita wrote, “My dear Ravi and Iris, I love the view from this pavilion and Ashraf managed to capture some sense of the glory days of the Turkish Sultanate – long since ‘crept silently to rest.’ ” suleymaniye mosque exterior viewThe glory Ashraf caught is expressed in the Süleymaniye Mosque seen in the distance sitting atop Istanbul’s highest hill, overlooking the city, built in the 1550s by the great Sinan, Mimar Sinan, Architect Sinan, a figure in history who became real to me in the way that an American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, is part of my thinking about buildings and the built environment, as are others, like Palladio and Corbusier. In Ankara my research project involved me with the university’s Faculty of Architecture (I described it here), where I learned that in Turkey architecture is an honored profession and the greatest architect of all was Sinan, architect and civil engineer to Suleiman the Magnificent/Süleyman the Lawgiver/Kanunî Sultan Süleyman, and after his death to Selim II, then to Murad IIIA video of Sinan, a Divine Architect. The stories of his brilliance are many, to which I can add another I heard in Ankara.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

It had to do with experts from Italy who studied the Hagia Sophia and decided, after making all their calculations, that a metal rod should be inserted in the dome to strengthen it, then discovered it was already there, done centuries ago by Sinan.

The mosque most visited by tourists in Istanbul is the  Sultan Ahmet, the Blue Mosque. My memories are of the Süleymaniye. Twice on a visit to Istanbul I went alone to the Süleymaniye and sat calmly, quietly for a long while, feeling a profound awe and sense of peace.

Selimiye mosque

Selimiye mosque

Years later, in Edirne, the Ottoman’s first capital city, I visited the Selimiye, Sinan’s beautiful mosque with its beautiful dome. This mosque was different; there the feeling was surprise and delight, very like one feels in a great gothic cathedral.


Through a verse in the Rubaiyat Kavita reflected on the fate of the once rich and powerful Empire that had “crept silently to rest,” She wrote in the notecard:Omar Khayyam

“For some we loved, the loveliest and the best That from his Vintage rolling Time has prest, Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before, And one by one crept silently to rest.”


The Rubaiyat, meaning a poem consisting of four lines, of Omar Khayyam, a poet otherwise unknown to us, translated into English by Edward FitzGerald in 1859, was popular reading for my generation in college. We often quoted from it, as does Kavita, but I suspect it had more meaning for her and Ashraf than for me. They had grown up hearing tales of great Empires long gone, like the Maurya Empire and the Mughal Empire, while Americans were still reveling in the American Century, before the inevitable comeuppance of change.

I have learned since that poetry was the least of Omar Khayyam’s accomplishments. He was born in 1048 CE and lived into his eighties, a Persian mathematician, astronomer, philosopher and poet, an influential scientist, known in the history of science for his writing on mechanics, geography, mineralogy and astronomy.

Adelaide Hanscom - Omar Khayyam, tr. Edward Fitzgerald: (1905, 1912)

Adelaide Hanscom – Omar Khayyam, tr. Edward Fitzgerald: (1905, 1912)

But the Rubiayat is how we know him. The verses speak to us, although we may not always agree on exactly what they are saying. I interpret the verse Kavita quotes as the gentle recognition that everyone, the loveliest and the best, even those who lived in glory, will finally come to the same inevitable end. The meaning of this and other verses can be understood in many ways, depending upon how one understands the key words. The poet makes many allusions to wine and the vineyard. Are the verses an invitation to living without thought of the future, indulging in wine and wantonness, or are words like Cup, Vessel, Grape, Wine and Flowers symbols with deeper meaning? Knowing a little of the man and his culture I would certainly endorse the latter.

What seems to be a reasonably good movie from 2005 of Omar Khayyam and his life is available on-line —  “The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam.”  From an interview with the Director:

“The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” was once one of the most-read collections of poetry in the United States. Khayyam was an 11th-century Persian poet. Mark Twain and Ezra Pound spoke of his brilliance. There were clubs devoted to studying his four-line poems. Maybe this one will ring a bell: `Here, with a loaf of bread beneath the bow, a flask of wine, a book of verse and thou,’ it ends, Rubaiyat cover`beside me singing in the wilderness and now wilderness is paradise.’ Sometime after the 1950s, Khayyam became popular mostly with college students.  Now he’s making a return as the subject of a lush epic film and a new scholarly book. The film is called “The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam.” It was made by an Iranian-American lawyer, Kayvan Mashayekh, who left behind that career to tell this story. He spent seven years making the movie in five cities on three continents. He even convinced Vanessa Redgrave to appear in it.

I will watch the movie soon on DVD and comment.

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I have written about many aspects of my life in a cross-cultural marriage and then into the expatriate life, first as a graduate student with Ravi, then children and teaching in the university, living in Mogadiscio, in Ankara, back to the States and on to Paris, about making a home for us and trying to keep my professional identity alive, about being a mother and having friends in the expat life. A short story, An Expatriate Wife in Paris, is taken from my experience and knowing younger expat wives, here.   But now has come the time to add a few notes about the fourth stage of life.

The fourth stage of life — I wrote here that Ravi, as Indian, saw life in four stages: Student, Householder, Post family and Sannyasa. When he and I entered what he would have considered our third stage of life we returned to the States, to North Carolina, and moved into a house down the road from his brother. I explain, here, in Where does an expatriate go to retire? why it was to this place and not elsewhere. I once again launched into the time consuming process of setting up house and home for us in an unfamiliar culture. Both America and I had changed in my twenty years away. Culture shock is as bad coming home as going abroad. At least this time I spoke the local language, if with an accent. I am a Midwesterner, not a Southerner.

Until recently I found the stages of life model little more than a curiosity, but now, at my age, I prefer it to the American view of life’s trajectory. The American model, as Ravi saw it in the 1950’s, is a path from childhood to a peak of performance in middle age and on into the decline of old age. And there is the obsession with forever young through technology and with considerable expenditures of energy, time and money.

Ezekiel Emanuel, in a widely discussed article, expresses his views on the issue. He declares that he does not want to live beyond 75 years. He cites studies showing that productivity, and especially creativity, decline in the later years of life, and more importantly, that old age is typically plagued with physical and mental decline and illness. After 75 he will refuse all medical treatment; he does not want to artificially extend his life expectancy, and I agree, with the caveat that he is speaking from the perspective of a man in his late fifties, not as a seventy-five year old. At eighty-four I no longer have diagnostic tests done for any ailment and will not again have surgery. I do, though, take a diuretic and an aspirin against high blood pressure, a vitamin D supplement and keep informed on food and nutrition. I have not yet decided what I will do if/when a serious chronic illness sets in. I had a knee replacement at 68 that was expected to last for 25 years. I wonder now what happens if I outlast the knee. My one large medical expensive is for dental care; I want to keep my teeth. (Preventive dental care is a much-neglected health care issue everywhere.)

In my view, the metaphor of moving from one stage to another fits the natural progression of one’s psyche and physical being better than the American rise and decline, but the Indian perspective comes from an ancient, stable, slow-changing social order. I need to adapt it to my own time and culture.

While thinking of the first stage as that of the child and youth I recalled reading of an exchange in the 1950s between Margaret Mead and an Indian anthropologist. She had, as a part of her research into personality and culture, made movies in three cultures of a mother giving her baby a bath. When other anthropologists viewed the films in an international conference she was surprised by an Indian colleague’s question. He asked her why she was doing so much research on the past. In an earlier article Mead had described the American home as a launching platform for the child. The child is given preparation for life and then is expected to leave, find or create a job and make it on his/her own in the world. The child in a traditional Indian home was taught traditional roles, with the boy as a student learning the family occupation from his father or a guru. There, raising a child was reenacting one’s own childhood, watching a child learn what one had also learned at that age. To Margaret Mead, a child was the future; to the Indian a child was continuity with the past.

In modern society, “student,” the youthful years, is still when one learns the basic skills, occupational and otherwise, but in these fast-changing times, learning necessarily continues throughout all phases of life. Many people change careers mid-life, which often requires returning to school. Continuing education is required in most professions. A person can even decide to turn inward and change a personality trait. Learning continues throughout life.

The single best yardstick for measuring a person’s likely life expectancy is education. John Rowe, a health-policy professor at Columbia University and a former CEO of Aetna, says, “If someone walked into my office and asked me to predict how long he would live, I would ask two things: What is your age, and how many years of education did you receive?” A college degree is a proxy for other aspects of a person’s life, such as higher income, smoking less, less likely to be overweight, etc., but it is more than that. More years in school also makes it more likely that a person learns how to continue learning and is better able to deal with our rapidly changing technological and social environment.

Despite countless changes in the nature of the family, “householder” is still the second stage of life. Even without having a child or children, most people need to establish a couple bond that is socially and legally recognized as permanent. Hence, the movement for gay marriage. “Home” is almost a sacred word. Except for three years with my grandparents, I grew up in homes where my father placed me; they were never my home. When Ravi and I married, I created a home and three years later two children were at its center and we later brought a third child into our family. When Ravi decided to leave the States I followed him because we all needed that home. Despite its down side I enjoyed the expatriate life that resulted but am still uncertain regarding the pluses and minuses for my children. The consequences for their friendships and mine have been troubling. A word here on that.

In the third stage of life as traditionally imagined, the man, having completed his obligations to family, retreated into the forest to contemplate spiritual matters and prepare for the Sannyasa phase of life. I doubt that very many men actually did that but it was an ideal and I know of men who turned to the study of religion after the children were married. The wise elderly man appears in stories as an idealized figure. I also remember talk among Indians about arranging marriages for daughters. The phrase was “get them off the old man’s back.” (The phrase “old man” was a term of respect; in American culture it can be mildly insulting.) In modern times the third stage of life begins close to or in retirement, when a person is still middle-aged, maybe late middle-aged, and free to expand his/her range of interests. This assumes, of course, a certain level of income. Consistent with the spirit of the philosophy, it is a time for using one’s experience and skills to move beyond self and family to serve the community.

For me, the idea of a fourth stage gives salience to the stages of life perspective. Old age is not merely decline from a productive middle age; it is, for me, at least, a different state of being, one I am trying to understand. I am less strong, have less stamina, and due to a diminished memory, can no longer multitask. Nevertheless, I am healthy and able to deal with nearly everything except driving outside the neighborhood or at night, an important limitation. (I have never had good stereoscopic vision and am not enamored of driving.) My most recent thoughts on myself as sanyasi are here.

I now ask myself questions about the meaning of this stage of life. In the past, in China and its neighboring countries and throughout Africa, ancestor worship placed the elderly in a special role in the family and community. It was, and probably still is, widely believed that the dead take an active interest in living relatives and can act to benefit or harm them. From this belief flows the need for elaborate rituals in the home and community that honor the ancestors, and after having paid respect to the deceased ancestors, paying respect to the elders who will soon become ancestors. If the old person dies liking the people around him/her, s/he will more likely be willing to help them from the spirit world.

It must have helped to have, given life expectancy at the time, only a small number of old people in the home requiring care and attention. On the other hand, households were multigenerational, with children and adults interacting and the entire family participating in religious and community activities. And women limited to the home, available and responsible for care-giving.

Quoting again from What Happens When We All Live To 100, the American social trend has been away from constant interaction with other people —fewer two-parent homes, fewer children per home, declining participation in religious and community activities, grandparents living on their own, electronic interaction replacing the face-to-face in everything from work to dating. Prosperity is associated with smaller households, yet the large multigeneration home may be best for long life.

I think about matters such as life expectancy and life span because it is interesting, not only because it has personal relevance. Life expectancy, usually measured from birth to death, has been increasing, and will continue to do so for some years, largely due to decreasing rates of infant and child mortality but also to improving health and medical care. An interesting statistic is life expectancy at each age, here. In times earlier than shown on the chart, fewer adults lived into their sixties or seventies, although it is recorded that a few, usually women, lived well into their eighties. We can guess that illnesses, accidents, warfare and famines shortened life expectancy but did not affect the natural life span that is intrinsic to human beings, however long that is. How long, given the best of circumstances, can a person live? to one hundred years old? I don’t want to think about it.

Next, I’ll move on to my usual concern – the cross-cultural, expatriate wife and the peculiarities of her lifestyle. What does the fourth stage of life bring to her and how does she manage all that?

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The beginning of the story is here — followed (preceded on-line) by Part II


Dear Aunt Sara,                                                         London, 24 October 1994

Hello from London. Amy and I took the train on Friday to Calais and the boat across the Channel to rendezvous with Samantha and meet her daughter, who is two years older than Amy. Amy and I are staying in St. Albans with Nicole, a friend from Ja­karta days. Her husband was transferred here six months ago. It is wonderful to see an old friend and I know that she and Samantha will like one another. Nicole and I and the kids came to London by train for the day to meet Samantha. We plan to be regular tourists every day until Friday.

Mom wrote that she has been on the phone with you. She is happy that you and I are corresponding. Since Dan likes and respects you, she wants you to talk him in to set­tling down in the States so that she can be a real grandmother to Amy and see me more often. Please help her understand a little better about my life. When I am with her and Dad and the family back home I no longer fit in. A few years ago Amy and I were home for Christmas and the house was busy as usual. One evening after dinner everyone was sitting around talking about what they would be doing over the holiday. There would be parties for the kids, some would go skiing, a Christmas play at the school. Diane, Aunt May’s daughter, said she would give a New Year’s Eve party at her house this year and Uncle Harry was invited if didn’t get drunk like he always does. This set others to telling stories about previous New Year’s Eve parties. Paris BaliI must have been looking bored because Mom, trying to include me, asked what Dan and I had done last New Year’s Eve. What a question! That year we were living in Jakarta and had gone to Bali for the weekend because I wanted to see the traditional dance-drama. Ever so gracefully, Balinese girls in amazing costumes dance to music played by boys in the gamelon orchestra. I was going on and on, describing the dance, then realized that everyone in the room was staring at me. They didn’t know what to say. My story broke the mood, was a total conversation stopper! They think I am weird. Nice. Interest­ing. But weird.

Love, Alyson


Dear Aunt Sara,                                                       Paris, 20 November 1994

St. Médard

St. Médard

I remember you talking about how you always kept Thanksgiving and Christmas. I try to keep 4th of July; kids love it and it’s part of their history. Now I am figuring out how to arrange a nearly authentic Thanksgiving Day. Dan can’t take off work. Amy has school but she will go to a church meeting with her American friend. For dinner we invited a new American fellow and a French couple from Dan’s office and Samantha and her husband. I think I’ll invite François, too. We will dine a la Americaine. I’ll persuade Amy to tell our guests about the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving. (Have you read Art Buchwald explain Thanksgiving Day to the French?) Fortunately, I brought two cans of cranberry sauce back from the States last summer. My French oven isn’t designed for roasting a humongous stuffed turkey, but I’ll manage. I finally discovered an African market off rue Mouffetard where I can buy brown sugar and yams. If I can’t find a pumpkin I’ll make an apple pie. (I bought a houseplant at a shop across from the St. Médard church. La Mouff is a fun street.) Cooking will be lots of work but I can do it. Dan and Amy feel unhappy if we don’t keep all the holidays.

Love, Alyson


Dear Aunt Sara,                                                       Paris, 6 January 1995

Here I am, writing again. I’m feeling miserable and weepy. Been either crying or on the verge of tears all day. Samantha told me this morning that her husband is being posted to a country in South America. She is packing up the apartment. They will leave in two weeks. And, just as bad, Amy is miserable be­cause Anita’s father was transferred and the family is moving. Then François called to tell me that he has accepted a fantastic job in Nice.

What will I do? I can’t bear the idea of making new friends. And what would be the use? We are always moving away from one another.

Love, Me


My dear Alyson,                                                    New York, 13 January 1995

I am glad I called you last night. It helps to talk.

I hardly know what to say. Leaving friends is the worst part of expatriate life. I grieved over the loss when a friend left or I left. I still miss people I haven’t seen for years.

I thought Paris would be easier because it would be relatively permanent. I thought I would make friends and become involved, as I had before, but it did not work out that way. My French was not fluent, not nuanced enough for comfortable, relaxed con­ver­sa­tion. Without a position in a university or with a research group I could not con­nect with scholars in my own field. Eventually I found a few French individuals who liked me well enough to be patient with my clumsiness in their language; they said that my accent did not hurt their ears. However, Bob and I never built a social life with French couples. I heard an interesting bit of advice from one consultant, a French woman whom an American multinational hired to run orientation sessions for the wives of new managers from the home of­fice. She told them not to bother trying to become friends with French people. She drew a diagram on the board, with a se­ries of concentric circles representing French social life. In the small inner circle was the family and friends from pri­mary school; in the next layer out were casual acquaintances, people you get along with but do not spend much time with; and in the outer ring was everyone else. Her diagram of American life had many small overlapping circles, explaining that in America people have multiple, shallow, temporary relationships with one another. She explained that the French do not allow many people into their inner circle; therefore, forget it; make friends among the expatriates. She added the caveat I heard often from French acquaintances, that once a French person becomes a friend the commitment is forever. I will refrain from commenting on her generalizations, except I think she does not take into account changing patterns of big city social life and her diagram of American social relationships expressed a stereotype rather than reality.

I made friends among the French and the expats. The trouble was that Paris is a city of transients. My friends were mostly young and they were in Paris for school or research or at the entry level of a career. I would create an agreeable social circle, go off on a conference or a visit to the States and return to find that half my friends no longer lived in Paris. I hate to think of how many farewell luncheons I gave and attended. One be­comes wary of investing time and emotion in someone who will be moving on.

I still did it, though. What can you do? One needs friends. We always hope to meet again.

In Paris I met a woman who has her own firm for assisting the families of man­agers being transferred overseas. She holds sessions with the husband and wife before they leave, giving them some insight into what they will face. Then she meets them in the country, guides them through the shoals of locating a place to live and schooling for the children. She enlightens them on the local culture and gives them useful formulas for functioning in it. Corporations hire her for her services and she is doing a roaring good business. The global economy is not something remote and abstract. It is directly shaping your life.

The last time we talked on the phone you were optimistic about Dan being transferred back home and you resuscitating your career. Do you truly believe he will refuse the next overseas assignment offered to him? Think about it. No expat wife I know, except for the embassy and military wives, intended to spend her life as an expatriate. But it happens. If you want your marriage with Dan and for Amy to know her father you may have no choice. It is obvious that he loves his work. Could he earn as well or rise as high if he were to stay in the States? I followed Bob because I believed firmly in keeping our family together. Besides, I like that slight edge of excitement that comes with being a foreigner. But the world has changed since the Cold War ended. I did my research and was out there when our government had solid reasons for investing in Third World countries; the countries were critical for our military strategy against the Soviet Union and communist China. We had the Peace Corps and the U.S. Information Service with its wonderful libraries and education/propaganda programs everywhere. A few officials in the Embassies considered my well-intentioned efforts at understanding the traditional culture possibly useful, certainly harmless, and included me informally in discussions about local development programs. I rather doubt that I would be happy in today’s big business internationalism that you face.

I wonder if the expatriate life will affect you as it has me. I am at ease everywhere and at home nowhere. (I borrowed that from Nehru.) Even back in the States I am not at home. Often in a conversation with friends I have to ask for explanations and they are surprised. They know the popular culture and I do not. I would like to talk with them about what I was doing at the time but my stories would bore them.

Nevertheless, let us focus on the positive side of our nomadic lives. Think of all the fascinating places where you have lived, all the traveling you have done. You are not building a career but you do relevant volunteer work in situations that offer extraordinary professional experience that you can one day turn to your, and other’s, advantage. You make friends with exceptional people. There are many pluses.

Love, Sara


Dear Aunt Sara,                                                        Paris, 14 January 1995

I am trying not to be lonely. François is back in Paris and he is thinking seriously about accepting a job in a hospital here. He says he misses me. I met a Swedish woman, Amy’s school friend’s mother. She may be interesting to go around with but I don’t know as yet. I shouldn’t jump into relationships. She was on her way to an M.D. when her hus­band decided that he would pay lower taxes and rise higher outside Sweden. She and François and I are meeting tomorrow for lunch.

I am taking a course in psychology at the American University in Paris. I need graduate level science courses; psychology should count and AUP is accredited. It is something to do until I can begin the Master’s at home. Dan nearly fainted when he heard how much the tuition costs but I’m feeling edgy and could end up getting involved in something really foolish if I don’t keep busy. I’ll also take a continuing education course in nursing next month through that health professions organization I told you about.

I told François to go back to his job in Nice. He agreed. That will make my life less complicated. I guess.

Must run.

Love, Alyson


Dear Aunt Sara,                                                        Paris, 21 February 1995

This has been a crazy month. Going to classes and doing the assignments anchors my mind and keeps it from drifting too far from reality, at least for awhile.

Now for the big news. Dan has gone with a new firm and will be based in Canada. Don’t know whether it will be Montreal or Toronto. French or English. He will leave next month. I’ll stay here with Amy for her, and me, to finish the school term. We haven’t told Amy yet about the move. It will put her in a state of shock. Again. I have to think about how to help her face leaving her friends and the school.

In about six weeks I’ll begin packing and get bids from three or four shippers. Since I know two American women who work with shipping companies I’m not com­pletely in the dark about how to proceed. Dan’s company will fly us over in March or April to begin our search for a house and a school for Amy. I must settle her in, while also setting up a home for us. After that, I will think about my going back to school. Nursing schools in Canada should be similar to the system I know. At the American Hospital in Paris, a number of health care professionals from Quebec were hired because they had American style training. Maybe I can even get a job.

Here I go again. Tell me, should I be happy or sad about moving on?

Love from your global nomad

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