Empire State of Mind

I feel the pull. I think it started with a picture. Or maybe it was just a word. But the roots I felt were slipping, slowly untangling and shredding have found a concrete barrier and tug me back towards them.

I don’t need much. Just a fix. Just to know it’s still there while we jump from place to place, circling the sphere like balloons.

I wonder where our daughter will find hers. Somewhere we happen, when suddenly she starts to grow downward, into the land itself.

I was born in Virginia, and then moved to Arizona, then back to Virginia till settling in Florida around age 6. For the next 10 years, swamps and moss and gators were my backdrop. But somewhere in the middle, on a trip to New York, I found the place I would first call home, and those last few years in Florida were nothing but waiting.

For my husband, it’s raw nature. As remote as can be, that is what he calls home. The place he can rest and sometimes dreams to be.

I know for some home is where they started, where they remain, and even if left for a little while, always return. Home for me was found much later than that, and perhaps I will never go back for good, but today it pulls and tugs at me. I am right back on the streets, with the smells and sounds that seemed to have no boundary with my body, as if the whole city were just an extension of my being and without it I feel a little less of myself.

Right before we left, before the boxes were packed and stored, before I would become a mother and before the world would become my backyard, there was a crazy afternoon when the sky of New York seemed to turn in on itself. I stood on my terrace and took it all in, memorizing it, inhaling it, so on days like today I could bring it out and stand back under it.

[photo taken by a friend from her apartment downtown]

[from my terrace, original light]

Take a deep breath

I am going to paint a picture for you. Imagine a small windowless room down a flight of stairs in a nondescript strip mall in the outskirts of Rome. Next door, to the right, is a pizza joint. To the left, a nail salon. In between these is an empty room that holds the flight of steps. Down this flight of stairs, in the windowless room, there are about 50 people all dressed in white getting ready to breathe. A shaman steps to the front of the room and tells everyone that the deep breathing they will all be doing for the next hour will perhaps bring out tremors, tears, joy or darkness, but to not be scared, as there are “helpers” there in case of trouble. The lights are turned off as deep drumming music begins. Everyone lies down on the floor. The helpers take their place along the walls, also swathed entirely in white. The “breathing” begins.

A have a friend in town from Los Angeles who follows this Shaman. He thought I might like to check it out.

Unfortunately, I don’t have white clothes (not something you buy a lot of when you have a toddler), but I do have lungs, so I thought why not. I’m always up for a new adventure.

Here’s why I should have said why not:

I was the only one in black.

My back pressed to the wall, I watched the bodies around me convulse as each and every one of them began to not breathe, but hyperventilate themselves.

I thought, okay. I learned this as a kid in a friend’s backyard in Florida. Only then you were supposed to hold each other tight till you passed out. Yes, stupid, but not a lot to do in rural settings. And it’s all I could think of sitting in that room. I wanted to shout out, “Of course you are going to “feel” something! You are changing the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body. It’s not magic.” But, of course, I had nothing but respect, so stayed silent and tried my hardest. I squeezed my eyes tight and puffed away, but I’ve never been one for really working out. Always preferred a glass of scotch or wine in front of a nice fire while everyone else skied down the mountain.

Apparently there are drugs involved sometimes. I think I could have used some.

This Shaman and his followers are all here for the Shaman’s wedding. He’s marrying a young California girl whom my friend introduced me to. She told me she loved me.

We were supposed to stay and “share” at the end but I sneaked out early. I grabbed a slice of pizza, jumped on the subway and the whole time, with cheese running all over my hand, was breathing just fine on my own.

And truly no offense, each to his own and yes, I do believe in magic.

Problems of the privileged

Kampala, Uganda

I remember once when my husband (then boyfriend), who had just come back from Kenya, sat listening to me patiently in NY as I went on and on about my problems. Oh, I don’t even remember what I was upset about. I am sure I didn’t get a job I really wanted, or a neighbor was being too noisy, or a friend and I had a horrible falling out, or perhaps I’d been sick and run down. He smiled at me and I asked him if he thought my problems were meaningless. This how he replied:

“No sweetheart, they are not meaningless to you. You must live in your world, stand squarely in your life, but your problems are problems of the privileged, remember that.”

Problems of the privileged.

Those words echo throughout me, pound against the inside of me daily.

It’s why, I think, so many people from my past don’t recognize me anymore. All their lips form the same words, “I’ve never seen you so happy. You seem so different.” And interestingly, I’ve never had more on my plate. I have a daughter to raise, a husband who travels, and no family or close friends around to help. I am changing careers and about to start school again full time. I am always tired and never seen to be able to do everything that needs to be done. What’s different is my perspective. It’s arguably the most important lesson I’ve learned by being an ex-pat and living all over the world. A lesson that started that day in NY, when my husband opened my eyes. Here’s what I see:

I met a Senegalese man the other day who asked me for directions. I didn’t recognize the name of the place he was looking for, so I asked to him to tell me what it was, as I know the neighborhood pretty well. He looked down sheepishly and said, “It’s a place that will feed you if you need to be fed.” I pointed him in the direction I thought I had seen such a place and asked him how he liked Rome, if he missed home. Yes, he missed home, was all he said.

Another person I’ve met is a woman who works at a café. Thirty-five and lovely, she’s not what you expect in an Italian with her sporting blond hair and blue-eyes. She hails from a small village up north and came to Rome seeking opportunity as well. She works six days a week, from 10 in the morning until just after midnight. She had a job in television, but couldn’t stomach the industry, so finds herself busing tables for a friend. She wants to have a child, but her salary is just too low and her husband isn’t working enough either and between the two of them they have no time to raise one anyway. For her the problems seem insurmountable.

Are her problems any less valid than his? Less real? Of course not. She’s looking at life through her own eyes and experiences and the culture that grew her. It’s all she knows. And he is living through his experience, walking the path laid out for him and hoping to divert it with strong will and a little luck.

I imagine it’s similar to those with a chronic illness who look upon those of us with health and feel impatience that we don’t wake every day and thank, whatever is we thank, for our good fortune.

Because we all have problems. It’s part of life. But I do remember always, as I was encouraged to do, and have learned by looking up instead of within, where mine fall on the scales.

The dog ate it

What some girls have for shoes, I have for rugs. Old, dusty, antique floor coverings make my heart pitter-patter like an untrained little lemur. This is why any rug dealer can see me coming a mile away and why, when we moved to Uganda without any of our stuff (which 3 years later is still sitting in a warehouse in Jersey), we ended up with 6 antique rugs  that cost as much as a pure bred stallion. One Mrs. Ali and her husband import (sneak) them into Uganda from Iran and Afghanistan and know their worth to empty-handed arrivals, especially to ones jumping up and down on top of them.

One carpet in particular made me want to wrap myself up in it and roll around like a flea. Partly the color of cream, it did not match well, however, with the red dirt of Uganda. After a while, I called Mrs. Ali to see if she knew someone who could clean it, and of course said she could clean it,  for a small fee, say closer to the buying of a pony.

I took the rug to her and was told to pick it up in a week.

Here’s what happened when I did:

“Hello, Sabrina.”

“Hello, Mrs. Ali. I am here for my rug.”

“Ah, yes. You did not tell me you have a dog. “

“Um, I don’t have a dog.”

“Yes you do.”

“No I don’t.”

“Yes you do.”

“No I don’t.”

“Then who ate it?”

At this point I started to well up. Not for the woman who was now accusing me of having a murderous dog, but for the fate of my dear beloved rug. Pulling it out from under the counter, she showed me the gaping new hole right in the middle of my masterpiece.

“What happened?” I asked her through gasps.

And this is where it starts to get weird.

She starts screaming at me that I have tried to trick her and brought her a clean rug that needed no cleaning after all and that my dog ate it.

“But, I don’t have a dog.”

“Yes you do.”

“No I don’t.”

Her eyes became enraged and I just wanted out of there because it was all so surreal, so offered to pay for my now ruined, but at least clean, carpet shred. “No,” she screamed and I feared smoke might soon shoot out of her ears, so I did what anyone would do in that situation: I grabbed my rug and ran.

And she gave chase.

Here I am, a small white girl with a large rug under her arm, running through a mall in Uganda, with an older Iranian woman chasing me.

Now, for any of you who have been to an African country, you know how quickly a crowd (or mob) can form. I was certainly  cause for that.

I ran to the parking lot, started my car, and just as I was about to drive out—and you can’t make this stuff up—Mrs. Ali threw herself on the hood of my truck! I slammed on the brakes and the crowds swarmed. A very large cop came to my window and asked what was going on. I tried to explain what I did not even understand, but it was hard to be heard over the screaming of Mrs. Ali. The cop finally said to her,

“She is offering to pay you for the cleaning, even with the damage. Take her money or leave her alone.”

But Mrs. Ali didn’t want my money. She wanted a dog.

The cop made her leave the front of my car and I started to drive away gently, parting the sea of onlookers, but here comes Mrs. Ali again.  She runs ahead of me and actually grabs a young man and throws him in the middle of the road. By this time there is a gaggle of cops and all I am thinking is, “Oh s^*t.”

I am ordered to pull over and here we go again. The new cop asks what happened as we each take our turn.

“I don’t have a dog.”

“Yes she does.”

“No I don’t.

And so on.

And this is why I love the officers of Kampala (or at least this one): he looked at her and said, “So, you are saying she brought you a clean rug to be cleaned and that she has a dog she’s not admitting to? Excuse me lady, but I think your nuts.” And then looked at me and shook his head.

But because the situation was so out-of-control by this point, he would not, could not let me go until UN security came to mitigate.

I called my husband.

“Um, baby.”

“Yeah, honey.”

“I’m in trouble. There’s this dog that doesn’t exist and I ran away with a rug and a woman jumped on the car and now the cops have me surrounded and could you come and help please?”

I think it says a lot that my husband did not find this strange coming from me at all.

Finally he arrives, and here is what he sees: hundreds of people gathered around our truck, cops at every window, me sobbing behind the wheel and an irate Iranian waving her finger.

I’d never felt so far away from Kansas in all my life.

They hashed it out. Forced Mrs. Ali to take the money for the “unneeded cleaning,” made me write out a receipt for “rug received” and finally let me go.

My husband told me to go home and let the dog out.


Yesterday, Rome filled and flooded with those who had come to see Pope John Paul II  beatified. Not wanting to fight the crowds at the Vatican, I went instead to the Circo Massimo, one of my favorite spots in Rome, where you stand in the shadow of the majestic Palantine ruins. Two large screens had been set up to watch the proceedings, the ground in front of them blanketed with pilgrims. It was a far cry from Rome’s birthday celebration just a little over a week ago in the same space. There was a palpable silence and peace that seemed to be pressing from above and rising from underneath, so that even the clicking of my camera felt shattering. What struck me most about my time there though, was not the proceedings going on, but a small old gypsy woman begging on the sidelines. I watched her, followed her, circled her, as her hand pleaded for mercy. But, hardly anyone gave. Most shielded their eyes from her, looking up, looking down, through. Here was a gathering of people to watch and celebrate the making of one who is now “Blessed,” because of the “miracle” he performed in which a woman was saved. And yet,  here was a woman right in front of them who needed a little saving of her own. Imagine if each of the 1.2 million people who came to the city had simply given her a dollar. Together, they could have all made their own miracle.

Nobody cares where Jack Layton was born

As a displaced Canadian, my husband occasionally (continuously) touts political systems that have more than two parties, more than red and blue.  Canada is heading to the polls on Monday and having their own bit of last minute excitement.

It’s actually a breath of fresh air in the free exercise of choice and discussion of substantive issues.  When compared to a prime minister cavorting with teenagers (Italy), a president embattled with ‘birther’ nonsense (US), or drowning in debt deceit (too many to list), the race in Canada is enviable.  Far from Canadian politics being quaint or boring, national campaigns by five political parties are giving Canadians something thoughtful to think about.

Go Canada!!

[May 2, 2011] Post-election update : Well, that didn’t go well.

The Princess of Rome

One day in Uganda I was picking up our daughter from a play date and wanted to take her picture with her friends. There were two little girls, one her age and the other a few years older, around 6. In the pictures, our girl and the friend her age are smiling and goofing and completely uninhibited, whereas the older girl stood ridged and uncomfortably self-aware. It was astounding to this new mother that yes, it all changes when self-consciousness sets in, when innocence is replaced by awareness. Not necessarily a bad thing, but a big moment and one I hoped would stay away as long as it could, so that our daughter could enjoy the bliss of ‘just being’ a little while longer.

I mentioned in an earlier post about moving to Rome and our wondering how a mixed family would be received and how it’s been nothing but welcoming. But it’s been so much more than that. You see, we came to a place where our daughter is a minority. In Uganda, she swam in a sea of sameness and it was mommy and daddy that were different. But here she would stand out, and I was so worried when we came that the self-consciousness moment would be forced upon her too soon. But wonderfully,  the complete opposite happened. Because Italians love life, and they LOVE children, and since it’s a live-out-loud culture, they make that known everywhere you go.

So yes, she stands out, but for all the right reasons.

For our daughter has become the princess of Rome. We cannot walk down the street nor go into a shop without someone pinching her cheeks, kissing her head, rubbing her hair, and always, always telling her she is beautiful. At a time in her life when her difference could have made her shrink, the Italians have let her stay young and wild and free.

I think of anywhere else in the world we could have gone: back to NY, where inappropriate questions (which we sometimes got when there on holiday) and/or indifference might have shaped her, or an area not welcoming to diversity which could have molded her, where we would have had to shield her, armor her.

But we came to Rome, where there are no questions, no looks, no comments, just a family with a really cute kid and people who like to celebrate that. I can’t believe how lucky we got by winding up here and I will forever love Rome for this priceless gift that they have given our child.