Thursday, July 21, 2011



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School's out for summer!” (feel free to sing along). We may not all be Alice Cooper fans, but that song rings in my head every year at this time. Summer is not just about sleeping in or no more homework and exams. For the expat, it often means “going home.” That home could be literally the house the family has left in the home country or, in our case, going to my parents' homes. Unfortunately, neither parent has the home in which I grew up. But, that fact matters less and less.

Home is a word I ponder, analyze, dissect until it fits the right context in which it is used. For me, “going home for summer vacation” simply means I'll be in Ohio at various houses that belong to relatives and friends. What constitutes home is, in the end, the heart I find opening each door. Hence, the cliché, “Home is where the heart is.”

Returning to the home country is a test of preparedness on everyone's part. On our first family trip back to the U.S. with both children, I literally typed out a list of every clothing item, toiletry, book, nearly every diaper I would need then checked off each item as it was packed. Keeping in mind, this also meant planning and pumping ahead enough breast milk for my five-month old to get by a few days. Now that my children have been on good solid food for years, I have backspaced over this requirement. I still make lists but they are no longer typed. One list I keep a copy of, as it does not change all that much, is the gift list: how much, for whom, dark, milk or white, pralines, etc. Coming from Belgium, I never travel without chocolate. Our appreciation and generosity of cacao never gets questioned...other ingredients of our expat life, however, do.

Language being my favorite topic, I'll start there. My family has to be patient through our first few days of adjustment. Not only are we jet-lagged, but we have to search for certain everyday English words. I speak English in Belgium to my anglophone friends, but it's not always the same household conversations. Plus, those friends are mostly British, so I'll ask someone to help unload the boot instead of the trunk. I'll ask for a biscuit but expect a cookie (which is also biscuit in French). My children speak whichever words come to their minds quicker, too. Their cousins kindly hold back giggles when asked, “Do you want to see my favorite poupée (doll baby)?” and “Where's my doudou (soft, stuffed toy)?”

After seven years abroad, culture shock comes oddly into effect as soon as we get back to the U.S. We pass through Customs on the East Coast, then proceed to Cleveland. Getting off the plane provokes the same feelings that choked me getting off the bus in junior high school. “How do I fit here?” I speak the language. I grew up with the same sights, sounds, stores. But as a mother, I have taken to seeing the world with and through my children. I now experience my hometown visits from a new perspective.

My motherly routine and outlook really took shape abroad. The most evident daily routine revolves around mealtimes. For us, dinner is around 7:00pm and can be an hour or two later in the summer when the days are longer. The children are used to a gouter (a snack) around 4:00pm. Being on holiday (vacation), we tend to indulge in apéritif (coctail hour). So, the children ask my parents when apéritif is. When I explain, they look shocked at my parenting. These were the same parents who would hide away all wines received as gifts in the basement (which consequently slipped away during my and my sister's college years). By the way, juice and pop are just as common aperitif drinks. In any case, there's no time for apéritif. Dinner is at 5:30. I have described to my children how when I was a girl, we had early dinners and then a bedtime snack. I do remember with delight those Oreos dipped in a cold glass of milk.

Not only mealtimes are different, but the food. My daughters have offered to make the vinaigrette for the dinner salad only to hear my dad reply, “No need, there's Ranch in the fridge.” I decided to go to the grocery for my mother one day. The girls came with me and started naming off what they wanted, too. “Chèvre. Brie.” Once I got to the cheese aisle, I could understand why more Americans don't eat such cheeses. They cost four times more than they do in Europe. Holding up a white can with an orange cap, my youngest daughter asked, “What's this?” Confusion wrinkled in my girls' eyes upon hearing, “cheese in a can.” (Honestly, I don't know any Americans who eat it, but just knowing it exists means someone does.) Another question popped out. “Why does this package say, 'Made with real milk'? What else could it be made with?” I don't know...nor do I want to.

Everyone likes to take it easy in the summer, especially with guests. We enjoy take-away food as much as anyone. After a typical summer day at the swimming pool, my dad enthusiastically suggested, “Hey girls, would you like to get a pizza tonight?” Immediately, he had the same confused look as the girls in the grocery store. “Could we have Pad Thai instead?” they asked. Having grown up on an Ohio farm on a steady mid-west diet of meat and potatoes, it was no surprise he had no idea what they were talking about.

Grandparents love indulging their grandchildren in the foods they enjoy. There is nothing my children love more for breakfast in America than bacon, eggs, and thick pancakes. My parents oblige quite willingly. Hamburgers are never in short supply either...even if never red enough in the middle for my daughters.

Around all these lovely meals and outings is appropriate etiquette. Both cultures have their unique manners. We inadvertently always hold the knife or fork in the wrong hand. My French husband reminds our daughters constantly to place both hands above the table, but no elbows. Around my mother's table, I have to tell them to put one hand on their lap.

Luckily, summer is the time for picnics – nearly the same even if pronounced pique-nique. Between family reunions, friendly get-togethers, and Independence Day, there is always enough hotdogs and hamburgers to enjoy. The kids run around trailing ketchup or sit under a shady tree – hands everywhere. The beer may not be the same, but the conviviality around the cooler is the same. As for the wine, a good Californian can be as rich as any Bordeaux.

As it so happens this summer, we are “staying home”. While the fireworks explode on July 4th, 14th (Bastille Day) and 21st (la Fête de la Belgique), family and friends gaze up at the same sky. Home is where the heart is. But sometimes, it is just where we find our feet.

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