Is It Still Home? My Trip to America – Texas 6

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I lie in bed this morning a little longer, listening to the strangely comforting drone of the oxygen machine. We have no plans for today. Today it’s family time. It will be an up-day for Rhett, and there is time for me to read some of the magazine articles Natalie has written, chat with Rhett and Natalie, and share photographs of my family over the past year. Perhaps I can show them a little of my life before Peter died. I can show photos of family members who traveled across the world to attend his funeral. Perhaps I can go for a walk in Rhett and Natalie’s neighborhood, exercising off some of all that delicious food I have consumed in the past five days.

I think about Rhett and Nancy’s life. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have a terminal illness and be sick, year after year, wondering when the last breath will be. It has always my worst nightmare thought, as an asthma patient who suffered horrifying asthma attacks in younger years, to think of inhaling less and less air until you finally suffocate. Thank God I haven’t had one of these in decades. Still, the fear lingers. Rhett tries to reassure me, telling me he feels no pain. His oxygen machine can always adjust, giving him the level of oxygen he needs. Still. What a life. To have ever-diminishing energy.

I find in Natalie a kindred spirit and an inspiration. I have always found her to be gracious, calm, even-tempered, kind, and able to joke about some of the less pleasant things she is forced to endure. For me, she is the epitome of the devoted Christian wife, as I also strove to be. She has to constantly adapt her life to the ups and downs of her husband, as I had to do after Peter’s stroke. She has to find a way to live a life of her own, while always being available for whatever could befall her husband. And she does this with apparent ease, at least as far as I, an outsider, can see. She sees people. I have already met some of them – her cousin and her dear friend, both of whom she is close to and sees regularly. She does get out and take part in interesting things of life. She is active in their church, she sees the grandchildren whenever possible; she talks to her friends, her kids and grandchildren on the phone when too busy to get together. She reads and watches television sometimes. Natalie is beginning to feel more like a sister-in-law than a cousin-in-law. I guess that is only fitting, since Rhett was the brother I never had until I was six. In spite of the hardship each of them has to face, I find myself a little jealous of one thing. They are both of sound mind. They can carry on an adult conversation. This was hardly possible for me after Peter’s stroke. He was often in an entirely different world and unable to grasp his situation. It was a gift from heaven to have a husband I could care for and share some things with, after the agony of watching him in a waking coma for months, but I often felt lonely not being able to talk about my life with him in a way he could respond to. I missed my husband, even as he sat before me, even as we sat at the dinner table together, eating meals he helped me prepare.

I get up and walk into the kitchen, where Natalie is preparing breakfast. I share some of my thoughts with her. She laughs. “I’m no hero,” she says. Exactly what I told people who told me the same thing.

Rhett joins us for breakfast. It feels almost normal.

They tell me about a cruise they took to Alaska last year. Rhett would like to be able to travel with Natalie to Europe and go to England with me, where we could visit the homes, farms, churches and towns in Cornwall our ancestors dwelt in. Could he do this? They tell me how they traveled to the West Coast with oxygen machines, apparatus and all equipment necessary for survival, in addition to their suitcases. “A cruise is a great way to travel when you’re disabled,” they assure me. Rhett slept in the berth in their cabin on his down days, and on the up days he could participate fully in life on board. They met and became friends with another couple – it was wonderful! But could we do this? Rhett assures me he could, by flying first-class to England. Natalie’s expression reveals skepticism.

We look at family photos and then chat about this and that, and various family members. Eventually we get down to the subject I’ve been hoping to talk about – their view on the political scene in America.

“What do you think about Trump’s plan to build a wall on the Mexican border?” I ask. “You live in a border state. You see how many Mexicans and Hispanics are here.” Knowing that my cousins are politically conservative, I assume they will agree with Trump on everything.

“We don’t need a wall,” both chime in with one firm voice. “Even our Republican Governor doesn’t think we need one.” I feel reassured again. Maybe we’re pretty much on the same page.

I mention that I have downloaded the audio book Becoming, by Michelle Obama, onto my cell phone. I know my cousin doesn’t think much of President or Michelle Obama. This leads to a discussion of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. I have read a little about it and about police brutality, but I must admit, I am not very well informed. Here I get a very different response to the one about immigrants and the wall. “I think Michelle Obama has been a divisive force on this subject,” they say. “She approves uncritically of everything this movement stands for, and this movement is divisive. They have spread outright lies about some of the stories you hear in the news.” They go on for a while about how divisive America has become.

“Why can’t people just listen to each other, even when they disagree, without tearing each other apart?” they say. I heard the same thing from my sister when I visited her at Christmas. I decided while visiting her and her family that I would ask my questions of everyone I talked to on this trip, whether it raised hackles or not. I would express my opinions as well, in as kind and inclusive manner as possible. Why be part of the silent, frustrated masses, afraid to open their mouths because they have been shut down the few times they dared to talk about the issues that matter to them? Surely it is possible if we remain polite and respectful. I will not keep silent. I say to Americans, keep speaking. But even more than that, keep listening, and always stay respectful. I hope this culture of mutual respect and honest sharing of opinions while listening to one another can grow in the land I am proud to be a citizen of. I may not live there anymore, have questions about where home is, and been influenced by my life abroad, but I am still a loyal American. And I want to see our country’s people open up to each other! I am sure we have more uniting us than dividing us.

Rhett tells me about one of the favorite causes of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, the killing of black man Michael Brown by policeman Darren Wilson. He defends the policeman, who he says was terrified for his own life, and did what anyone would do in self-defense. I haven’t followed the story carefully, living in Europe, so don’t really have an opinion one way or another. But I tell Rhett and Natalie that my black relatives have told many stories about how they have experienced racism. We are listening and speaking respectfully to each other.

For the record, here is what former President Obama has to say about “Black Lies Matter”. I found this quote in an article in the online publication “The Undefeated“.

“I know that there’s some who have criticized even the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ as if the notion is as if other lives don’t matter. We get ‘All Lives Matter’ or ‘Blue Lives Matter.’ I understand the point they’re trying to make. I think it’s also important for us to understand that the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ simply refers to the notion that there’s a specific vulnerability for African-Americans that needs to be addressed. It’s not meant to suggest that other lives don’t matter. It’s to suggest that other folks aren’t experiencing this particular vulnerability and so we shouldn’t get too caught up somehow in this notion that people who are asking for fair treatment are somehow automatically anti-police or trying to only look out for black lives as opposed to others. I think we have to be careful about playing that game because, obviously, that’s not what is intended.”

Rhett then goes on to tell me a story of something that happened in his own childhood, while living in Texas. His father, my uncle, was a US Naval officer and the family was continually on the move. They lived in Brazil, Portugal, and various parts of the United States. I believe travel broadens one’s perspective on life, and so it was with my aunt, uncle and their family. By the time Rhett was a teenager, my uncle had retired from the Navy and the family decided to settle in Texas, where my aunt came from. My aunt and uncle didn’t believe in school segregation, so they sent their all their children to public desegregated schools. Almost everyone they knew was sending their children to private, segregated schools, but they courageously chose a different path for their children. One evening the family looked out their living room window to see a cross burning on their lawn. The Ku Klux Klan had targeted their family. The children remained in their public, integrated schools.

We go out that evening for dinner, oxygen machine and all, with a family friend of theirs. Over dinner I learn that this friend, a stranger to me, prayed for my husband with Rhett and Nancy faithfully for four years after he suffered his stroke, until he finally passed away last year. Something melts inside my heart. This is family, here in Texas, so far away from the northern State I grew up in, but we are tied together. Their lives are very different from mine, and we don’t always agree about everything. But here are people I can truly count on. I feel more settled and relaxed than I have felt in a long time.

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Is It Still Home? My Trip to America – Texas 5

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Now we’re finally getting weather more like I hoped to find in the South! I brought along clothes for every kind of weather imaginable – from bitter cold and snow, which I experienced in New York City for a couple of days, to sleeveless tops. We’re not there yet, but the sun is shining, and I only need a light jacket or sweater on top of my normal winter clothes when outdoors. Not so bad! And the sun is shining.

Rhett will be down for most of the day today, so it’s a day out for Natalie and me. We join her friend Jill and head for the Texas Hill Country, a geographically unique area and the border between the Southwest and the Southeast. It’s a pleasant drive through rolling hills wooded with live oak trees. Live oaks, I have been told, are oak trees that don’t shed their leaves in winter, hence the term “live oak”. You can find huge oak trees here that are hundreds of years old.

Live oak tree

Our destination is Myrtle Falls, where we are booked for lunch at the famed Blue Bonnet Café. Apparently this restaurant is so popular, you have to book days ahead of time to get a table here. “Wait till you try their pies,” promises Natalie. “They’re spectacular.”

There is a line outside the café when we arrive, but we don’t have to wait long to get inside, where we have to wait several more minutes. We peruse reviews of the restaurant posted on the walls from newspapers as far away as New York City’s Wall Street Journal.

Texas-sized pies here!

We peer at the pies displayed in the glass cases along the corridor. Massive piles of meringue or whipped cream alongside more modest-looking fruit pies. Hm-m-m. What kind of pie shall I order for dessert? But first we need a table, a menu, and then we can order.

I’ve been seeing catfish on the menus of the restaurants I’ve been in thus far in Texas. Apparently catfish is a popular southern, or Texas item. I’m familiar with catfish, having grown up in Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes. But in Minnesota, with its huge northern lakes and Lake Superior, the largest fresh-water lake in the world, catfish is considered inferior. In Minnesota, walleyes, lake or river trout and northern pikes are much more prized. But we’re in the South – or rather Texas, where the lakes seem to be man-made reservoirs. I order fried catfish. It comes with corn on the cob, green beans and a salad. It’s not bad, much better than I had imagined. Jill has ordered deep-fried okra as her vegetable. I try a piece. Wow! I thought I didn’t like okra, but this has everything – mushiness, rich flavor and a crispy crust. All the meals come with tender, luscious dinner rolls, which seem to be popular in the Texas restaurants.

Catfish for lunch!

And now for the hard decision – which pie to order. I love the tang of lemon, so opt for a lemon cream pie and coffee. It arrives with at least a cup of whipped cream on top! The other two order chocolate cream pie – one with meringue and the other with whipped cream. The pieces are huge, but I have to admit, I am a bit disappointed. In my piece I can barely discern the lemon. It is wonderfully creamy, but there is no tang to this pie. Give me a tarte au citron any day! Or my mom’s lemon meringue pie. That was was mouth-puckering tangy! The chocolate pies are likewise lacking in intensity. Oh, well. The pies are fine otherwise, and the lunch was, on the whole, delicious.

After lunch we explore the town a bit. It reminds me of Georgetwon, with small, tasteful boutiques along the main street. But there don’t seem to be many shops to choose from, so the town somehow lacks the charm that I sense in Georgetown. We find a lovely gift shop, though, and I buy some soap scented with blue bonnets. Oh, to be in Texas when the lupines, as blue bonnets are also called, bloom! Rhett has rhapodized about the field across the street from their house, transformed into a blue carpet humming with bees every spring. I have to settle for a picture post card. Texas is the “blue bonnet State,” it informs me.

Texas – the lupine State! But I can only see them in a photo on this card I have photographed.
Myrtle Falls, Texas

We drive a little outside the town and admire the landscape. Here I can really see that I am no longer in the eastern part of the United States. Not only are there live oaks, but also prickly pear cactuses. The homes look very different too, almost Mediterranean.

Prickly pear cactus in Texas Hill Country
Near Myrtle Falls, in the middle of Texas Hill Country
Palms and prickly pear cactus grace this Texas home

We drive on. We want to do a Texas wine tasting. Natalie explains that viniculture is becoming increasingly popular in Texas. We stop at the Flat Creek Estate, a short drive out of Marble Falls. It is beautifully serene, tidy with precisely pruned vines, reminiscent of vineyards I have seen in the rolling hillsides of Italy and France. I love the Meditarranean-style wine-tasting room! I could spend a couple of days here, which is entirely possible, because they rent rooms here.

Neatly clipped vines at Flat Creek Estate, Marble Falls, Texas
The wine-tasting room at Flat Creek Estate

We sit down at a table in the tasting room and order two wine-tastings, one red wine and the other white. We are going to mix and share. The friendly sommelier explains that most of the wines they sell are combined from several vineyards and mixed here. This is unexpected. In the vineyards I have seen in Europe, each vineyard tends to sell exclusively their own wines and not to mix, although I have seen shops that sell both wines from the vineyard and imported wines bottled elsewhere. Jill doesn’t like wine, so will not taste. Natalie and I sample the wines. We both discover that we like the same wines. As we leave, she asks me, “What did you think of the wines?”

“They were nice,” I say, “but I must say, I prefer the European wines I have had in Europe.”

“That’s just what your Peter said, last time y’all were here.” So, Peter and I shared the same opinon. I don’t remember either of us having tasted wine the last time we were here, but Natalie remembers. I am comforted, affirmed in my judgment from beyond the grave. I always thought Peter had excellent taste in wines. I sense companionship with him, even though he is on the other side of eternity. We are still in accord with one another, even in how we perceive Texas wine.

I finally get to pay for our wine-tasting. Natalie has been paying for me wherever we go, and I am impressed with her generous hospitality. Is this also Texas?

We drive home in the late-afternoon sunlight, and stop for gas. What a deal! Today, premium gas is going for $2.55 a gallon. The last I checked in Germany, it was about €1.50 a liter! Natalie explains. “Petroleum products are hardly taxed in Texas.”

Price of gas in Texas, February, 2019

We drop Jill off and drive home. Rhett is finally awake and up, and we can talk about the day. Natalie has brought two pieces of pie home for him, and he eagerly opens the cardboard box. He is so sick, but how lovely to be able to enjoy things like a piece of pie, no matter how ill we are.

Is It Still Home? My Trip to America – Texas 4

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Today is a “down day” for Rhett, but Natalie has it all planned for me, and it sounds good! I am opening up more and more to life in Texas. Natalie has written articles in a local magazine about various aspects of life in Georgetown, and from what I have read in snippets here and there, Texan life as it is lived in Georgetown sounds wholesome, a quality that appeals to me very much. I like the fact that the Christian faith is presented in this part of the country frankly, unapologetically and naturally. Of course it isn’t the only religion in America, but this faith and life philosophy is represented by a huge number of Americans. Why not be matter-of-fact about it, not overly defending it, but not castigating it either? Of course, in New York City, where I’ve just come from and where I lived for so many years, most people I knew don’t go to church, and there are probably many more non-Christians as well as people who practice different religions in New York than in Texas. Maybe for that reason, faith as expressed in organized religion seems to get pushed into the background of conversation and in the pages of newspapers and magazines.

We meet Natalie’s cousin Sandy for lunch. “Here we are – at Dos Salsas – the best place in all of Goergetown for chicken tortilla soup,” she suggests. The soup is delicious. My Peter would have loved it. I wish for a moment he could be sitting with me here eating chicken tortilla soup. We chat while eating, and I learn a lot about life for the retired in Texas from Sandy, who is taking courses at a “senior university”. She is taking one course in memoir writing and another on espionage during the Cold War. All students and professors at this senior university are senior citizens. I have never heard of such a thing – a university for senior citizens? “Oh,” Natalie and Sandy chime in together, “Georgetown is a mecca for senior citizens. You should see Sun City. This is a part of Georgetown where only senior citizens are allowed to live, and they have their own university.” I feel a pang of longing tugging at my heart. How I would love to take a creative writing course in English. Courses are offered in German here. But I don’t write in German. I could take an online course – I have a friend who has done this. But how nice it would be to have classmates you could share your writing with, people you could interact with face-to-face. Sandy says there are courses on all sorts of subjects. I’m not sure, on the other hand, what the big deal is about all these courses for senior citizens. I have no problem being in a learning environment with younger people.

Natalie and I leave Sandy and drive into the Georgetown town center. There is a main street in this town, and charming little shops and boutiques. I am reminded of Bill Bryson’s book The Lost Continent, where he travels from one small town to another, all over the United States, finding an appalling dearth of charm. The town centers, he says, have all disappeared, giving way to strip malls, chain food restaurants and shopping malls. He would be happy to discover Georgetown. Unfortunately for me, the day is rainy, so we have to walk through the streets with umbrellas.

Natalie is an expert on Georgetown, having researched and written so many articles about her town. She tells me that in 1976 an ordinance was passed in order to protect all the historic buildings in the town center. The roads and many buildings were also restored during this time. In 1977 the historic district was placed on a National Register of Historic Places.

Historic Town Center of Georgetown, Texas

Natalie takes me to the courthouse. What’s so special about a courthouse? I wonder. But I dutifully follow her into a splendid wood-paneled courtroom. “This is the room where the first trial against the Ku Klux Klan was won,” she says. “This trial took place inthe 1920s, and the room has not changed since that time.” She recounts the tale of what were actually several trials. The Ku Klux Klan practiced hate crimes against more than black people, she says. In this particular case, there was a white traveling salesman, Robert Burleson, who happened to be in Georgetown when the Klan targeted him, flogging and tarring him. Perhaps he held more liberal views than those of the Klan members. They were prosecuted by the young District Attorney, Dan Moody, who won a series of trials against the Klan. The jury gave the Klan members the maximum possible punishment in all cases, and from that time the power of the Klan in Texas was weakened. Moody went on later to become the Governor of Texas.

Courtroom in Georgetown, Texas. The first KKK trials to defeat the Klan took place here in 1923 and 1924.

We stroll along Main Street. Natalie takes me into a consignment craft shop. It is beautiful, with tasteful objects like quilts, pottery and gifts sewn by artisans from around Georgetwon. “This shop is run by senior citizens,” she says. “You have to be over fifty years old in order to display or sell your work here.” Even the women working behind the counter, volunteers, are over fifty.

Craft shop with articles created solely by senior citizens

I find a bib someone inscribed with “Spit happens.” This is just too cute. I buy it for my future grandson, who will be born in a few months, along with another small item, a cotton flannel padded burping cloth with a pattern of old-fashioned locomotives. I chat with one of the volunteers at the cash register, a German woman who now lives in Texas. It’s fun speaking German in this strange setting!

We continue along Main Street, browsing for a few minutes in a chic boutique. There seem to be no chain stores in this town. Everything is local and tasteful. We stop in a toy store/ice cream parlor. “You know how you were just speaking German? This place is run by Germans,” Natalie says. The toys are the kind I would see in a German toy stores, wooden Brico trains, wooden puzzles, and plenty of Playmobil and Lego. “The ice cream is a big drawing factor,” she says. People love to shop here and the kids get to combine it with ice cream.” There are unusual flavors here, like amaretto cheesecake, and more traditional ones like chocolate or strawberry. We each order a dish of ice cream and sit down and enjoy being kids again for a few minutes.

I am impressed with Georgetown. Yes, I could imagine living here!

Is It Still Home? My Trip to America – Texas 3

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The laundry worked out – sort of. I had to buy detergent from a vending machine. I poured the powder into the washing machine, as the instructions said, but when I went to collect the wash, I discovered that all the detergent got clogged up in the detergent receptacle. I should have just thrown it in with the wash! Now I have rinsed clothes, probably not clean. Oh, well.

We go to church today. Today is another of Rhett’s “up” days, but he’s feeling too down to go to church. Natalie says this has been happening a lot these days. I find out it is black history month. This is something that was never observed when I lived in the States. How is that going to play out in this almost entirely white Methodist church?

I don’t recognize a single hymn we sing. Later I learn that each of the hymns sung was written by an African American. So that’s why I don’t know these songs! Discrimination is not a stranger to the Church, sadly and unsurprisingly. A soloist sings a couple of spirituals I do know.

Natalie and I go out to lunch in another chain restaurant in the town the church is in – Georgetown. It turns out, Georgetown isn’t a small town at all. The population here and elsewhere in Texas has exploded in the past decade, and here it is now somewhere around 70,000 and growing every day. In 2010 the population was 47,000. People are talking about “Sun City”, a new housing development in Georgetown where only senior citizens live. Before I even arrived here, Rhett mentioned that I might want to consider living there.

We return home, and Rhett is feeling much more chipper. We sit around over dinner and exchange stories. Rhett is even funny, just like before! It’s good to be able to laugh. He even jokes about rednecks. Obviously, he doesn’t consider himself or Natalie to be a redneck. I have had the feeling talking to Northerners in America that they think every Texan is a redneck! Maybe he’s not as conservative as I thought. I find myself agreeing with most everything we talk about. He and Natalie went on a cruise to Alaska, with his oxygen mask a prominent feature of their trip. He still had his up and down days, but also got to see a lot. Now Rhett says, maybe we could go to England together – Natalie, him and me. He thinks he could do it if he flies first class, and Norwegian Airlines is offering cheap first-class tickets to England. Could we do this? Could I travel to England, to Cornwall, the land of our mutual heritage, with them?

Right now, Rhett has to do some heavy lifting. Furniture in the basement had to be shoved and carried into its rightful place, so that he and Natalie can have a bedroom again. Can he manage this? Natalie thinks it’s too much. She speaks to him about it, politely but clearly. No, he believes he can do this. They don’t want me to help. “It’s enough that you have to put up with this mess,” Natalie says. “I’m sorry you couldn’t even do your laundry here.” But I do some pushing and hauling, too, and they don’t stop me.

While we are pushing and shoving, Rhett’s cell phone goes off. “Check on that, will you,?” Rhett asks me. I run upstairs to the phone. It is an alarm. I turn it off. It says, “Take time out to pray for five minutes.” I run down to Rhett with the message. Apparently, he stops whatever he is doing, several times a day, to pray for people. I know he prayed every day for my husband after he fell ill. I am humbled. I don’t pray for anyone every day.

When we have finished all the work we can do for the day, we sit down in the living room. Rhett looks over some news site on his cell phone. “This is interesting,” he says. He reads about a new law in New York State that allows a woman to have an abortion right up to her delivery date. We are all shocked. I can’t believe it. Is this really true? Why haven’t I read about this in the New York Times?

Later, I check my New York Times website. There is an article about this law, but it makes it sound as though it were something only used rarely, and only when the mother’s health is at risk. I tell Rhett and Natalie, and they nod. I am somewhat reassured.

I go to sleep in the guest room of their home, feeling much more at home. I hear the drone of the oxygen machine. For me, it is somehow comforting, reminding me of the inhale-exhale sound my Peter made while in the hospital for months after his stroke. It is comforting to hear this sound of life, even if it is coming from a machine.

Is It Still Home? My Trip to America – Texas 2

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Today I must do laundry. I’ve packed about ten days’ worth of clothing that will need to be washed weekly, and shirts and sweaters for both warm and frigid temperatures. Here in Roundrock, in the middle of central Texas, today is like an average winter’s day in Germany, nothing like the warm, almost summer weather I had anticipated. This motel serves no breakfast – only coffee, so Natalie’s care package comes in handy. But there is a laundromat. I walk across the hall to the laundromat and try to talk to a Hispanic teenager doing what looks to be the family laundry. His English is sufficient to tell me that I need quarters to do the laundry – a lot of them. I don’t have more than one or two. I walk down a long corridor to reception. The receptionist, also Hispanic from all appearances, is engrossed in a long phone call. Finally she hangs up and glances over at me. “Excuse me,” I say. “I need to do my laundry, and it looks like I’ll need quarters. Do you have any?” She shakes her head.

“No, we’re all out of quarters. I can call and ask, but they won’t be able to bring me any until this afternoon. But you can go to the IHOP over there – ” she points out the window to a pancake restaurant across the street – “and ask there. Or at the gas station.” I see there is a gas station, also across the street.

I thank her and head out to the pancake house. No quarters. None of the guests waiting to eat there have any either. I ask at the gas station. No quarters. I walk down the road a ways to another shop. No quarters there either. And wherever I ask, I encounter people who look like they could be from India or Pakistan, or somewhere in South America. Texas seems to be full of immigrants! I go back to the receptionist and tell her I’m going to really need those quarters. I can’t do laundry for now, and there is nothing else to do but sit in my room and read a book or watch TV. I feel trapped in rural Texas.

A few hours later, Rhett and Natalie both show up at the motel to take me home for lunch. I’ve packed a change of clothes to bring along – we’re going to a Valentine’s Dinner at their church in the evening. It feels so good to see familiar faces! Natalie serves a delicious cream of shrimp soup she has doctored up, and a salad with some bread. I think it tastes great, but Natalie apologizes – she has only improved on a can of soup she bought at the supermarket. She leaves to attend a funeral. “You two can catch up while I’m gone – I’ll be back in a couple of hours.”

Rhett looks awful, attached to a breathing tube. Breathing is an effort. He looks exhausted, and this is one of his scheduled “up” days. His doctor came up with a way he could engage with some of the life around him, by decreasing meds every few days, so he can be awake and alert. But the “up” days are so strenuous, he has to sleep for two days afterwards. What a life! And this has been going on for years. I feel so sorry for him. He was so vital, so interesting and funny when I knew him during my childhood and youth. Now we have some interests, our Christian faith and our basic values in common, but politically he’s quite conservative, and I’m more liberal. It will be interesting to see what he and Natalie have to say about the political situation right now, and the wall that Trump wants to build in Texas. We talk a a bit about this and that, and I show some photos, but I can see just talking to me wears him out.

Chronic illness is one of the sad things about aging, and I am now among the ranks of the aging, at least statistically. My sister has had cancer and chemotherapy, and another sister has already died. She was only sixty-three. My husband has passed away, suffered a stroke that strucke him down even before he reached sixty! Old age hits some people awfuly young, it seems. I must be fortunate to be in such good health. It is hard to be here, watching my cousin suffer, but this is a part of life I must face.

He leaves to rest a bit, and I am left alone in the living room. I wonder what I’m doing here. Why did I come to Texas? Am I an intrusion for my cousin, or a welcome guest? I feel uncomfortable, wishing I were back in New York, or perhaps even in Germany. I feel very out of place here.

I read from the book I brought along until Natalie returns. “You may think this is hard on Rhett, having you here,” she says. “And any exertion is. But we’re so happy you came. Rhett has been looking forward to your visit and talking about it for months!” Okay, so I can at least trust that I am meant to be here, even if I feel trepidation right now. “And I apologize for the mess in the house. We’ll have your room ready for you by tomorrow night. Then things will settle down a bit.” Another reassuring thing to hear. Natalie is always so wonderful and understanding.

An hour or so later, we change into our good clothes and head out to the church. “We’re going to be spoiled,” Natalie says. “This is something the church does for the ‘more mature’ members, as they call us seniors!” I truly feel like a visitor from another country. Yes, we decorated shoe boxes in school as kids and bought valentines for our friends to put in each other’s shoe boxes, but all that has long since faded out of my life. The only way Valentine’s Day gets celebrated in Germany is that the florists advertize it, and people do buy chocolate or flowers for their sweethearts. I have always made or bought a card somewhere for Peter and bought chocolate or flowers, and he’s done the same for me. But the day doesn’t get celebrated institutionally, like here in this church, or like what I experienced at school.

Natalie used to be a teacher before she retired, and she has grandchildren who are in elementary school. “Nowadays, kids have to buy cards for everyone in the class,” she explains. “No more favoritism is allowed.” That sounds like a nice step up from kids in my day, when we each counted our cards, with some privileged few feeling perhaps smug or entitled, and others excluded. I was always in the middle somewhere, but felt bad for those who got few or perhaps no cards at all except the one my mother made me put in each kid’s box.

The fellowship hall/gymnasium is all decked out in red, the tables beautifully set. Everybody seems to be wearing red – even the men have red shirts on. Young people from the church escort us to our assigned places at tables, and then proceed to serve us. Looking at the people here, I feel a little as though I were back in Minnesota, where I come from. This church was started by Swedish Methodists, and still has many Scandinavians, the predominant culture I experienced growing up in Minnesota. There are some people of color here too, but here there is an atmosphere akin to what I experienced as a child in white, middle-class Minnesota.

A beautifully set table for Valentine’s Day!

The food is indeed delicious – chicken breast in a tasty creamy sauce, with potatoes gratin, vegetables, yummy salad, a fruit punch to drink, just like in my childhood experience. All served on paper plates and cups and plastic cutlery. Now that is different from Germany, where people have always been a bit “”green” and would be horrified at the idea of using paper and plastic. For dessert we get strawberry shortcake – and chocolate-coated strawberries! And everybody gets a red rose or a carnation.

strawberr shortcake for dessert

After dinner, people start to dance. Now this is something that never would have happened in our Baptist Church in Minnesota, and I bet still doesn’t! The couples look so happy, relaxed and elegant, moving together comfortably. We play a form of Bingo with questions about oldie music, starting from around the 1960s. Here I come in surprisingly strong, and between all of us at our table supplying answers to each other, Rhett wins. He looks happy, and people have been telling him all evening how good it is to see him there. It’s been a fun evening. I have truly enjoyed myself among these “mature” people, feeling very welcome and relatively comfortable in this setting in small-town Texas.

Rhett and Natalie drop me off at my motel. The receptionist has quarters for me! Life is beginning to look up.

Is It Still Home? My Trip to America – Texas 1

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Texas Hill Country

Texas. The name evokes an uneasy feeling among many Northerners – those who grew up in the northern States. It’s funny how people nurse their prejudices and pass them down onto their kids, their friends and loved ones. But my cousin Rhett does it too – he has teasingly called me a Yankee. The first time I was called a Yankee, it was in a very different, derogatory tone, in Scotland. I was waitressing for the summer in a hotel and restaurant, and a couple of the servers went out of their way to make me feel unwelcome. What is a “Yankee”, exactly? I, who have been called one, can’t say I know. But I know how I feel when someone calls me one. I guess Texans must feel the same way when people talk about them.

I was in Texas once several years before with my husband, staying with Rhett and his wife Natalie. We had a wonderful time, and I learned a bit about the history of Texas during that visit. Did you know that at one time it was a country? It was a sovereign country for nine years – from 1836 until 1845, when it joined the United States. Actually, during its history, six flags have flown over Texas. Hence the name “Six Flags” for the amusement park chain, whose headquarters are in Texas. Texas has belonged to Spain, France, Mexico, been its own country, then the United States, then one of the Confederate States, and after the Civil War, part of the United States again.

This visit to Texas will be much different from my light-hearted last one. This time I am alone, with only memories of my Peter. And Rhett is very sick with pulmonary fibrosis. This is one of the reasons I’m visiting Natalie and him. It’s only a matter of time before Rhett also leaves us, and I want to be sure to make a visit before it’s too late. I wonder how the visit will be this time? Will it be depressing? Will we be able to really talk?

I fly into Austin on Southwest Airlines, an experience unlike any other airline experience I’ve had. I like the way they run things – first come, first serve for the seats. You can begin signing in for your slot exactly twenty-four hours before departure. Unfortunately, I was in the Metropolitan Museum in New York City yesterday, and missed the opening gong and stampede following by two hours. All that is left by the time my number comes around is a seat in the middle. Oh, well, it’s only for a few hours.

We arrive in Austin in the early evening, and I find that I’m not too exhausted. But how will Natalie find me? She’s picking me up. The first problem is that one of my bags is missing. I check and recheck and check baggage claim again. In the meantime, I keep looking over my shoulder for Natalie, but she’s nowhere to be seen. I would assume she’d be in the arrivals hall at the baggage claim section, the most logical place to meet. I try to text her on my German cell phone. No connection, although I’m getting wifi. Why can’t I reach her? It takes me a while to figure out that I need to put a +1 prefix onto my American phone numbers, not the old-fashioned 001 I’m used to typing in. I go back and look for my luggage again. By now everything is off the belt, so I look at the luggage standing around. My suitcase is not among them. So I walk over to the claims desk and fill out a claim.

“Before I hand my claim in to you, let me check the pile of luggage one more time,” I say. I walk back to the luggage pile, and there is my suitcase! One problem solved. But I’m not reaching Natalie. Maybe she’s in the cell phone lot? My sister does that in Oregon when she picks up someone at the airport. What is a cell phone lot? They don’t have them in Germany. I sit down on a bench and start typing out a text message. As I type, an airport employee walks up to me. “Are you Noreen?” he asks. “Yes, I am. How did you know?”

“Your ride is waiting outside the door for you,” he says. “She asked me to give you this message.” We walk outside with him carrying my luggage, and before long, Natalie drives up. I notice that the air is warmer than in New York City, but not that much warmer. I heave a sigh of relief when I spot Natalie, and thank the employee. Natalie hops out of the car to help with the luggage, but the employee has already put it into the trunk for her. “Can I give you something?” Natalie asks him. “That was so kind of you to find my cousin.”

” I don’t do these things for money,” he says. “I just want to help when I can.” He smiles, wishes us a good evening, and leaves. Are all Texans so kind and friendly?

I am so relieved to see Natalie. Other than Rhett and her, I know absolutely no one in Texas. What would I do here without them? We start talking as though we had just finished our last conversation half an hour ago. She is caught up on my news because I’ve been writing round robin emails ever since my husband suffered his stroke. We chitchat about the time in New York, how Rhett is doing, then Natalie says,

“We thought we could put you up in our house from the beginning, but the house still isn’t ready, so I’ve booked you a room in a nearby motel.” She and Rhett had flooding in their home when they left town for a funeral in another city, and their sump pump broke down. That was weeks ago, but the house is still not ready. “Don’t worry, ” Natalie says. “I’ve packed you a care package to tide you over until tomorrow, and then I’ll pick you up. Now we’re going out to eat. It’s my treat.”

We go to a very Southern-style restaurant, the Cotton Patch Café, https://www.cottonpatch.com/, a chain restaurant that’s only in the South. It turns out it’s really Texan – it began in Texas, and the headquarters are there. One thing that makes it unusual for me besides the menu full of strange things like chicken fried steak, okra and catfish, is that it has a gift shop you can shop in while you’re waiting for your table or your food, stuffed with toys and all sorts of clothes and scarves, all very cute and American-looking, country-style.

After eating our meal, Natalie drops me off at the motel, just down the road. I am alone in Texas. I feel like I’m in another country that speaks English, except nobody in the motel looks like an English-speaker to me. The receptionist looks like he flew in from Pakistan. I see a couple of guests at the reception area speaking Spanish. Maybe I am in another country.

Is It Still Home? My Trip to America – New York City 7

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Our last day in New York City. We have seen so much, almost everything on my friends’ list, and more. There’s one more thing Johanna wants to do – visit the Metropolitan Museum. The guys aren’t interested in that. Instead, they head down to lower Manhattan. Johanna and I spend most of the day at the Met. She is impressed by its size. “We can never see everything in one day,” I have already told her. So we decide to focus on the things we want to do. She heads for the impressionists. I begin with the Dutch and Flemish masters because there is a special exhibit. I spend most of my time, though, in the American Wing, looking at early American art. There was an exhibit several months ago in Cologne called “Es war einmal in Amerika” – “Once Upon a Time in America”. I attended this exhibit in a guided group tour with some Americans and learned about artists I had never heard of, artists from as early as the time of the first settlers. I learned details about American history I had never known too. I hope to learn more about American art in this wing. I am not disappointed.

I even find some of the same paintings I saw in the Cologne exhibit, or similar ones, like these by the Quaker artist Edward Hicks, comparing the treaty between William Penn and the American Indians with the peace found in the Kingdom of God. The painting of the Garden of Eden clearly shows the connection with Quaker theology to me.

Edward Hicks “Peaceable Kingdom”
Edward Hicks “William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians”

Just as in the Cologne exhibit, I am entranced with the beautiful paintings from the Hudson River School. Here is one by British-born Thomas Cole. I learned in the Cologne exhibit that many of the early American artists were born or studied art abroad in Europe. Thomas Cole was a typical example, but one who used his art to not only depict the beauty of America, also comparing it with a heavenly kingdom, but also to warn against the destruction of that beauty. He was a critic of unfettered industrial expansion. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/15/arts/design/thomas-cole-american-moralist.html

Thomas Cole “View From Mount Holyoke”

In the Cologne exhibit I learned that at least one of the painters of the Hudson River School, Albert Bierstadt, was from Germany, and that he studied art in Düsseldorf (nearly a stone’s throw from Cologne), a city famous for its art school. He seems to have been influenced by the German romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich, one of my favorite German artists. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caspar_David_Friedrich

Johanna and I meet for lunch in the cafeteria and compare what we have seen. We are both impressed. Near the cafeteria there is more beautiful American art, Tiffany glass pieces, and other stained glass works by John LaFarge. I admire the glass and continue on to many of the furnished rooms Johanna has told me about, as well as some exotic musical instruments. What’s cool about this room is that you can actually listen to recordings of several of the instruments to get an idea of what they sound like.

We have spent an entire day at the Met! We walk back down Fifth Avenue and across to our hotel, where we all meet. We pack our suitcases and then go down to the theater district for pizza. Timo has heard there’s a good one called John’s of Times Square. https://www.johnspizzerianyc.com/ We are lucky to get a table! This place is crowded. But the pizza is authentic New York pizza, just what my friends want for their last evening in New York. And it is delicious! The restaurant also has very unusual architecture. I ask the waiter about this. “Was this once a theater?” No, he says. It was once a church.

We return “home” and finish packing. My friends thank me for a fabulous week. It has been really special. I have been a tourist in the city I once lived in. They have been able to do and learn about many things they would have never known about if I hadn’t been with them.

I will be back to New York at the end of my long visit to America. My friends – and I – are all curious to know if I will want to return here to live. So far, the answer is no. But I’ll talk about that later, at the end of the trip.

For now, there’s more to see, many more loved ones to visit. Tomorrow I fly to Austin, Texas, where I’ll be staying with my cousin Rhett and his wife Natalie.

Is It Still Home? My Trip to America – New York City 6

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Timo, ever interested in tall buildings, wants to see New York City from above, and decides the best location for this is from Rockefeller Center https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rockefeller_Center – the Top of the Rock. We of the older generation opt not to go up, but rather explore Rockefeller Center from the ground level.

Rockefeller Center

This is one location I am familiar with, but have never really paid much attention to. I have done temporary office work in one of the office buildings, have watched the Jimmy Kimmel show broadcast from here, have walked in the concourse countless times, have walked past Rockefeller Center on Fifth Avenue even more countless times, but have never been particularly interested in it. I now believe it is because I never understood it. I always wondered, why do all the tourists flock here? Even in the summer, if you pause to sit down among the flowers and flags of the promendade, you are likely to sit next to some tourist eager to practice their English on you. Why is this? Is it only the ice skating rink, or perhaps the famous Christmas tree? Then why the attraction all year round? Only because it’s on Fifth Avenue?

I pick up a brochure about Rockefeller Center in the lobby and read from it as we look, and weeks later, after returning to Germany, do more research on Rockefeller Center to understand it more fully. Now I think I could explain it better to tourists, and also appreciate it for myself much more as well.

The Rockefeller family has everything to do with Rockefeller Center – and New York City as we know it. That helps me relate to it better, but what about all the tourists or young people who have no idea who the Rockefellers were, or are? It seems as though one of America’s most influential families, one whose name I grew up with, has been quietly dropped from the public eye.

John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) was the one who first made his name. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_D._Rockefeller He is considered the wealthiest American of all time, and the richest person in modern history. He made his fortune in the oil industry, which began in the late nineteenth century. The Exxon Oil Company was formed from the Standard Oil Company, which he founded and owned. He was also a very devout Christian who fervently believed in philanthropy. His views on business and philanthropy were engendered by the words of a minister he met while young. The minister told him, “Make as much money as you can, and give away as much as you can.” So that is how he lived his life. He developed a philosophy of philanthropy, creating foundations to increase wealth devoted to philanthropy. The Rockefeller Foundation is one of them. This passion for philanthropy continued down into the following generations of the Rockefeller family.

And I suspect that John D. Rockefeller and his son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_D._Rockefeller_Jr. have had a much more substantial influence on my own life than I imagined. My father was also a devout Christian, also a Baptist teetotaller, who began his life in poverty. While still relatively poor, he, like Rockefeller, gave one-tenth of his money to charity, gradually increasing the percentage. He was also a Republican with moderate to liberal tendencies, like the Rockefellers. Did they serve as models for him?

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874-1960) continued to follow the faith and philanthropic practices of his father. He financed and was intimately involved with construction of Rockefeller Center. Columbia University owned the land, which they leased to Rockefeller. They are also the owners of most of the buildings, which the Rockefeller Center continues to lease. Construction of these buildings was incredibly important and helpful for the economy because construction occurred during the Depression years, offering employment to thousands of workers. It is uniform in style, a wonderful example of the Art Deco period. I never realized while working there how important Rockefeller Center is both architecturally and artistically.

Just down the street, on 53rd Street, is the Museum of Modern Art. The land and museum were gifts from John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who first lived in a house at this address, then had it razed in order to construct the museum for his wife, a passionate lover of art. He then moved with his wife and family into a forty-room triplex apartment at 750 Park Avenue. This apartment and building are considered the most exclusive of all apartments and buildings in New York City. Rockefeller also bought the land for the Cloisters and paid for the monastery buildings in Europe to be dismantled and brought, piece by piece, to New York City. He donated the piece of land that now houses the United Nations. What would New York City be without the Rockefellers?

The original tenants of the buildings at Rockefeller Center were businesses Rockefeller was involved in, businesses he thought would be profitable. Some of those tenants continue to operate there today. NBC, one of the largest US television networks, has been there since the time of Rockefeller. So that’s why all the NBC shows are there! Also, the RCA (Radio Corporation of America) recording label was centered here. One of the popular tourist attractions in New York City is an evening at Radio City Music Hall, located in Rockefeller Center. And the famous Rockettes, the kick dancers who dance at the performance, are named after Rockefeller.

Rockefeller Center originally consisted of fourteen buildings, now nineteen, extending between 48th and 51st Streets, and between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. They also own some buildings on the west side of Sixth Avenue.

The theme of Rockefeller Center is the humanistic “March of Civilization”. Hence the global symbols originating in Greek mythology, with sculptures like Atlas holding the universe on his shoulder, or Prometheus bringing fire to humankind.

Prometheus, lighting fire at the ice skating rink

The Rockefellers were cosmopolitans, interested in art and culture throughout the world. This love was demonstrated in the construction of Rockefeller Center. One building at its center is called the International Building. Another is called the British Empire Building. I always wondered why there were flags from so many nations at the promenade, and why institutions like Alliance Francaise, or shops like Godiva Chocolates, Victorinox, Lego or Swarovski Jewelers flank the sides.

Sculptors and artists the Rockefellers admired were hired to do the artwork. The themes are noble, meant to inspire, but to me they exude a similar feeling to architecture of the Nazi period. No wonder – it is from the same time – the 1930s and 40s. But to me, both also impart the sense that a message is being conveyed, be it propaganda or something morally uplifting. Throughout, though, is the theme of civilization marching on, ever more cultivated, ever more humane.


If you want to get a quick sense of John D. Rockefeller’s life manifesto, just read the plaque at the entrance to the skating rink. Or you can read it here. I find it inspiring. http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview/id/6595.html

“Wisdom”, inspiring those entering the GE Building. This quotation comes from the book of Isaiah in the Bible.

The Rockefellers donated this center to the City of New York as a place to benefit people physically, with the ice skating rink, culturally, with art work throughout, with entertainment through the NBC studios and Radio City Music Hall, commercially through shops and offices, and in tranquility, with the roof-top gardens, which are, sadly, now closed to the public.

I have heard that Brooklyn is the place where things are happening these days. I have been in Brooklyn several times, also as a social worker on home visits, but have never felt at home there nor had much knowledge of life there. I decide to check out one of the rooftop gardens. These gardens differ from that at Rockefeller Center in that they are agricultural, providing locally sourced produce to New Yorkers. I head for Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm. There are several rooftop gardens in Brooklyn, but I decide to go to this one because it is the easiest to reach from Rockefeller Center. https://www.timeout.com/newyork/things-to-do/the-best-rooftop-gardens-in-nyc Even so, it is not that easy to reach, necessitating not only a subway trip, but also a long wait for one of the infrequent buses and a bus ride. But I amuse myself looking at an old-fashioned diner, the kind you used to see in New York forty years ago. I check out the menus displayed in the window. These are quintessential New York breakfasts! Just like those I ate over thirty years ago, when I lived here. Only the selection is broader than in the old days.


Breakfast choices at a Brooklyn diner

I arrive in what appears to be a working-class neighborhood with some warehouses close to the river. I find Eagle Street, right next to the East River, and the house number where the rooftop garden is supposed to be, but everything is locked up – probably for the winter. Of course, I realize! It’s winter after all, only the beginning of February. How could there be a vegetable garden in February? The views of Manhattan from across the street are great. This could be the site of the next building boom, I think. And turn my head to the direction of the sound of saws cutting through metal. I see cranes. They’re tearing down a warehouse next to the river to build a high rise, obviously. Is Greenpoint going to become a noisy, trendy hotspot? I love the tranquility and seeming normality of this neighborhood.

Manhatan, seen from Greenpoint, Queens. They’re building, even here!

I do spot a café on the corner that looks possibly alternative, but that’s the only thing I see that looks even vaguely other than blue collar. I order tea there from someone with an English accent. I drink it and leave, eager to explore a bit. The buildings here are decidedly not trendy. Just functional row houses, many of them broken up into apartments, judging from the mailboxes. I see American flags in some of the windows, for me, unfortunately, a symbol of a certain type of conservatism. Why don’t all Americans fly the flag at their homes, ask myself, annoyed. Then I catch myself. I’m being judgmental! Perhaps people of all political persuasions do, and I’m so out of touch with life here I don’t know it. After all, I don’t know the people living here in this neighborhood. Perhaps because of this very aura of conservativeness, the neighborhood attracts me with its clean orderliness. There’s no stench of marijuana here. I encounter a nice lady from eastern Europe while walking, and ask her for directions to the subway. She can barely speak any English. This is supposed to be a fledgling artisic community. If so, it’s just starting to bud. I like the neighborhood. It is unpretentious, and it comforts me like the old flannel shirts I used to wear in my hippie days. I never had to iron them, never had to worry about how I looked. Here is a neighborhood where you can just be yourself. At least until the high rises take over.

Greenpoint, Brooklyn

I find a subway line that only runs through Brooklyn into Queens, never even crossing the river into Manhattan – the G line. I’ve never even heard of it! But this is the train I need. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/02/nyregion/short-trains-frequent-disruptions-once-mocked-the-g-train-is-now-cool.html I will have to switch in Queens, where I can get a train taking me to Grand Central.

My friends will try and fit a glimpse of Grand Central Station into the time remaining. I decide to have a brief look at the lobby before walking westward along 42nd Street to meet Johanna for a musical. Yep. It’s just as I’ve always known it, beautiful and tasteful as ever. How good that Jackie Kennedy Onassis saved this iconic Beaux Arts structure (1880-1920) from demolition. http://mentalfloss.com/article/62979/how-former-first-lady-helped-save-grand-central-terminal

I still have a couple of hours before I am to meet Johanna, and am also hungry. How best to fill this time? I start thinking about my son Jayden and his wife Dahee. How is she doing? Their baby is coming in a few months. Oh, how I miss them! But I just saw them – first, last summer when I visited them in Korea, and then when they came to be with Peter when he was dying. They stayed until after the funeral. What a support they have been!

A friend of mine in Germany told me before I left, “When you go to New York, be sure to go to K-Town and, if possible, eat in Miss Korea. They have terrific Korean barbecue there.” I decide to make a little detour and walk down 32nd Street to Koreatown, also known as K-Town, or Korea Way. New York has a Koreatown, a Japantown, a Chinatown, a Greektown, a Little India, and who knows what else?! I love that about New York.

Here, I expect to find a few restaurants with Korean stews and kimchee. I’m not very fond of either one. What I actually do find delights me.

Koreatown, New York
M-m-m! Nice crunchy Korean mandu – fried dumplings. Right in the middle of Manhattan!
Stuffing mandu.
Mandu – or Mando, as they call it here – and Kimbap, a Korean form of sushi.

I reluctantly finish my mandu and continue down 32nd Street. I see the Korean cosmetics chain Nature Republic has a store here. https://www.naturerepublicusa.com/ I buy a couple of sheet masks to surprise Johanna with on our last evening. We’ll have a bit of a spa experience at home before we go our separate ways, just like I did with Dahee in Seoul. I feel almost as though I have my Korean kids with me, seeing all these stores. I pass a restaurant with Korean fried chicken. We ate the best fried and also barbecued chicken ever in Seoul in a restaurant that looks very similar to this one. http://pelicanausa.com/ I quickly check my cell phone to see what time it is in Korea. Can I talk to Jayden now? No, it’s the middle of the night there. Too bad. I send the photos of Koreatown on to them and tell them I miss them. I miss them – and my husband, whom I will never again see on this earth. I can’t ask my father about the Rockefellers because he’s also passed on. Why does life have to be this way? Why is my family this way? Why are we scattered all over the globe? With a pang, I walk on. I am about to meet my German friends – in New York. Such is life in the 21st century. For my family, it seems, even more so.

I find Johanna near the TCKTS booth at Times Square. “Tickets to a Broadway show are outrageously expensive,” she moans. She wanted to see Anastasia. “The reduced rate tickets are $60! I don’t want to pay that much unless you do.” It was her idea to see this musical. I don’t really care. There is a movie showing, in German, just a couple of blocks from where we’re staying, “Never Look Away” (in German “Werk ohne Autor”), based on the life of the German artist Gerhard Richter. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerhard_Richter We opt to do this for the evening. Patrick wants to see this film too, and Timo decides to come along, even though he’s not that interested in art films.

We call it a day for sightseeing. We’ve seen enough for a while. We buy take-out food we can heat up in the microwave and salad for dinner, and rest or do our own activities for the remainder of the afternoon.

How odd to see a German film with English subtitles with Germans in New York. But it’s the one theater-like activity we can do where we can all really understand what’s going on. We find the film particularly interesting because Richter lives in Cologne, where we live. I find solace for an evening, and perhaps longer, in realizing I have touched base with my deceased father, husband, Korea, Germany and America, all in one day. We have just watched a German film in New York about a man who, in a way, is also an immigrant because he has lived in Nazi Germany, then in East Germany under the Communists, and now in Cologne in West Germany. Does he also wonder where home is? Does he, like me, struggle to connect all the pieces of his life?

Is It Still Home? My Trip to America – New York City 5

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Timo wants to see the architecture, especially to get a good view of the Chrysler Building – and all the other tall buildings. We walk again to Rockefeller Center and then take a cross-town bus to the East Side. I enter the Chrysler Building for the first time in my life. We can only see the lobby, but the lobby is worthy of a stop. Beautiful woodwork, beautiful masonry. This is truly a landmark building, to me much more interesting than the Empire State Building. The woodwork, the marble, the brass – it is all so warm and inviting. And imagine – gargoyles on a secular building! The gargoyles are eagles, the symbol of the National bird of the United States.

A gargoyle on the Chrysler Building
Woodwork inside the lobby – Chrysler Building
Ceiling and windows inside the lobby of the Chrysler Building

It is spectacular, but not enough to satisfy Timo. He wants a better view of the Chrysler Building.

“Why don’t we try and take a bus downtown?” suggests Johanna. “We’ve been on the subway so much, maybe we can get some good impressions of the city on the bus.” We’ve been trying to ride the bus, but have been unlucky enough to usually miss the buses we want to catch. But this time it works.

We take a bus heading downtown, getting off at Union Square, where Timo takes some more photos. Then we board another bus for SoHo. Today we’re going to explore SoHo (short for “South of Houston Street”) and take in a little of the Chinese New Year. And do Wall Street. And more. Another full day is planned. Time is running out – this is already our fifth day in New York, and there are only two more to go before we separate, I to go on to Texas, and my friends back to Germany. We’re tired, after miles of walking, but they don’t want to miss anything!

My niece Gillian has been staying in a hotel in SoHo, her favorite place in Manhattan. She’s a fashionista by profession, so she should know. I haven’t been to SoHo in years. We find her hotel, a quiet hotel on a short street. I would never have known to book a room in a place like that.

We need to go to the bathroom. It’s not always easy finding a place to use a toilet, since some restaurants are only take-out establishments. We find both a restaurant with restrooms and also promising-looking pastries at a bakery on Prince Street with a newspaper article in the window advertising the “Best Chocolate Cake in the U.S.” Well, we have to test this place! The cheesecakes look tempting too at the Little Cupcake Bakeshop, which has much more than cupcakes. http://www.littlecupcakebakeshop.com/ I have tea and a slice of another cake I’ve always been curious about – red velvet cake. It is delicious. But none of us tries the best chocolate cake in the US. We’ll have to go back to find out if it lives up to its reputation.

It certainly looks good! Little Cupcake Bakeshop in SoHo

We walk on in SoHo. I venture into a shoe store that has interesting, sturdy but feminine walking shoes. I need new shoes. But these are over $250! Above my budget. We walk down Broadway, snapping pictures of the beautiful late nineteenth century cast iron buildings this area is famous for.

One of many cast iron buildings in SoHo, New York City

Shopping is indeed attractive in SoHo. I show my friends a Japanese department store, UniqLo, known more for good value for the money than for high-end fashion. I was thrilled when a UniqLo outlet opened up in Cologne. https://www.uniqlo.com/us/en/stores-details/?StoreID=10200001&source=stores?utm_source=GMB&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=Soho We explore Banana Republic. These two stores are examples of chain stores found elsewhere in Manhattan and in other cities. But the shops are smaller and very attractive in SoHo. We find other small boutiques equally attractive.

We walk on into Chinatown. This is the first day of the Chinese New Year, February 5, and it looks as though all the Chinese in all five boroughs of New York have congregated here. We want to explore, but the streets are so crowded, you can hardly move.

A bank in Chinatown

We head for a park where there are supposed to be fireworks, or firecrackers, or something. We know we’re going the right direction by following our ears. The sound of firecrackers becomes ever louder. We find a playground with hundreds of Chinese children and families, and a carpet of pastel-colored paper confetti on the ground. Children are somehow setting off long colorful tubes that make noise, and confetti goes flying through the air. And it seems like everybody is wearing red or pink! I later learn that red symbolizes good luck, and also joy. We watch for a few moments, then head south, passing through Little Italy, where we board a subway for Wall Street.

Chinese children at Chinese New Year
Firecracker tubes and confetti carpetting the ground

It is afternoon, and we are hungry and tired. “We still haven’t had New York hot dogs,” says Johanna. So we buy hot dogs at a stand in Wall Street and munch on them as we walk around. What is this?! The commercialization of the New York Stock Exchange! As if it weren’t commercial enough. They’ve plastered the facade with a poster advertising Arm and Hammer baking soda! Anything to make a few extra bucks, I guess. They say money is king in New York. What will people in a hundred years think of scenes like this, public permission to deface buildings. It’s almost as bad as graffitti.

Another thing polluting New York City is the pervasive smell of marijuana. It seems people smoke it everywhere. It is no longer illegal to possess or to smoke marijuana. But the streets reek of it. I hope public smoking of marijuana can one day be banned.

The New York Stock Exchange, covered up in advertising

We want to visit the 911 Memorial museum, which offers free admission after 4 pm on Tuesdays. But it is not yet 4 pm. We find another museum, actually operated by the National Parks, which is also free and open – Federal Hall, at 26 Wall Street. It claims to be the birthplace of American democacy.

George Washington praying. A plaque outside Federal Hall.
Federal Hall. Worth a visit!

Patrick and I enter the museum, which is now located on the ground where George Washington first took the oath of office. New York City was once the Capitol of the United States! There is an interesting exhibit about the life of Alexander Hamilton. There seems to be a furor about a musical playing right now in New York based on the life of Alexander Hamilton. In the exhibit I learn that he was a visionary, one of the first to envision a federal, centralist nation, and also to plan a stable monetary and banking system. I wish I could go to the musical, but tickets are never available for this one. Johanna and I hope to see a musical tomorrow.

We all meet at the World Trade Center visitor center and receive our tickets. There is still an hour before we can enter the museum. Johanna and I walk around the concourse of the new World Trade Center, while Timo and Patrick explore outdoors. It is a beautiful, somehow comforting, yet inspiring structure. It feels like being in the hull of a light-filled ship, or in the womb of a loving giant mama.

One World Trade Center – “The Freedom Tower”
One World Trade Center concourse

The only problem I see with the concourse is that the shops are only upscale, exclusive ones. You can’t just make a quick jaunt to the pharmacy here after work and pick up something, as far as I could tell. I see no inexpensive fast food joints where you can eat a quick lunch. But then I haven’t had time to explore everything. Being inside the new World Trade Center is an eery feeling, especially because I worked in the old one for a few weeks many years ago, picking up a few extra dollars so I could return to Germany, where I met Peter. Now I wanted to return and marry him. I have often wondered if any of the people I worked with at that time were still working there when it was hit. I used to go window shopping or do actual shopping during my lunch breaks.

The mueum is now ready for the non-paying guests. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_September_11_Memorial_%26_Museum Johanna will not be joining us for this tour. Her memories of that day are too vivid and she is afraid of what she will see and feel.

The rest of us are taken down, down, further down on long escalators, into the bowels of the old structures. We see the concrete walls that held back the Hudson River, and metal girders. We see two rusty broken-off supports in the shape of a cross. I had read about that. We see the names of all the victims, gaze at them a while. There are audio-visual stories about some of the victims, bringing that day sickeningly back to life. We hear the voice of one of the victims, on the phone with his mother, telling her everything is all right. We quickly finish the tour of part one, and think we have seen nearly everything. A guard tells us there is much, much more to see in part two. Each exhibit is in one of the twin towers. We find the other tower and enter a maze of exhibit rooms with films and sounds of sirens. We see a fire truck and read about some of the fire fighters who gave their life here. We see dusty high heel shoes someone left behind to run away as quickly as possible. It is impossible to see everything in one hour. But in that somber hour, we are all brought back to that day in September, 2001 that changed lives everywhere. On that day, when I watched the towers fall on TV, I said to myself, “September 11 will be a day everyone will remember now.” And so it is.

Metal girders on the wall of the original World Trade Center

Each of us is on our own for this tour, reliving our own memories of that day. Sometimes we run into each other and compare impressions, then separate again. Except for the sounds of recorded sirens, conversations with the airport towers and films, the exhibit rooms are silent. Visiting this museum is a holy, private act.

We rejoin at our agreed time. We share memories of that day. We watch the water at the pool outdoors, and let the water wash over our souls, like a purification. We need some time to transition into mundaneness of everyday life.

Reflecting pool on the site of the old World Trade Center.

But we are hungry. We have decided to eat Chinese tonight in honor of the Chinese New Year in the area of New York where most of the Chinese immigrants live nowadays, in Flushing, Queens. We ride the subway for a long time, reminiscing about the experience in the museum, about our day. We eat a meal that is too authentically Chinese for our Western tastes, but we find something on the menu that we can eat. We are surrounded by dozens of Chinese families.

Finally, at around ten pm, exhausted from another long day, we ride the subway back “home”.

Is It Still Home? My Trip to America – New York 4

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The weather has changed! Yesterday was already turning sunny and quite a bit warmer. Monday is positively spring-like. We will spend the day outside.

We decide to do the High Line today, a highlight for Timo, who is studying city planning. And I decide to do some of it on my own because I want to see some of the neighborhood called “Hell’s Kitchen”. I have heard there is a lot of construction, and a struggle with what’s left of the old neighborhood fighting to survive amidst the aggressive gentrification going on on a mass scale here.

We begin by taking the 7 line train to Hudson Yards at 34th Street, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hudson_Yards_(development) ascending a dizzyingly long escalator until we emerge, onto a gigantic construction site! It is awesome, all the construction going on. A friend told me, with disgust in her voice, “Millionaires are building luxury high rise apartment buildigs and tearing down the neighborhoods people have lived in for generations. If you go there now you can see the contrast.” I am curious.

When I arrive, I see it, but am overwhelmed, intimidated, even a little frightened. The entire neighborhood is being rebuilt. All for millionaires? Do so many people have this kind of money? Who are these people? I have heard many of them are rich Asians. Who has that kind of money? Where do the many more low-income people go? Something in me recoils, but is also fascinated by building on this scale. I hear famous architects are making their name here. https://www.hudsonyardsnewyork.com/

Vessel at Hudson Yards

The strangest structure is this one. Another passer-by and I gaze at this, puzzled. Is it under construction? It doesn’t seem to have any function. People are walking in it, but where to? Is this some sort of giant piece of gym equipment? I later find out it is supposed to be the masterpiece of this project, the centerpiece. It is suppoed to stand out, like a twelve-month Christmas tree. It has been coined, at least for the time being, “Vessel”. It was designed by British Thomas Heatherwick and the Heatherwick Studio, and is intended to become a tourist site of its own. It is indeed a walkway, but will serve as a connection point between all the other surrounding buildings when they are finished. And yes, even this is not a gift to the poor. Just to enter this thing to get some exercise, you have to pay an entry fee.

Massive construction at Hudson Yards
Hudson Yards as seen from Chelsea Waterside Park
A millionaire is going to live here?

I do see a few old buildings interspersed between all these gleaming structures, but how long will they coexist with all this money and power? But even they are being purchased and renovated.

I walk past an old warehouse that looks awfully clean to be just a warehouse. Curious, I enter. I have seen buildings like this in other cities, even New York – old buildings that were once warehouses, but are now art galleries, shopping malls, or restaurants. Sure enough, this one is another example of this. I find it still needs some concept to make the space inside more attractive, more integral to the architecture. But perhaps it will find more investors and turn into some thriving place people throng to for meals and shopping.

This “Terminal Warehouse” is no longer used for that purpose.

Wasted space!
Inside the “Terminal Warehouse”
Street art along the High Line. Here are Andy Warhol and Frida Kahlo, painted by Eduardo Kobra. The mural is entitled “Mount Rushmore”.

I find my friends, lounging on platforms on the High Line. Somewhere along the High Line someone planted a tree in honor of my deceased sister, but I have no idea where that could be. Here I see no signs or placques about donations. But the day has turned out bright and sunny. It’s a beautiful, interesting walk. We can at least look onto the patios of some of these millionaires, if not look directly into their windows. There are also interesting wall murals along the way. https://madhattersnyc.com/2018/11/07/kobra-street-art-new-york-city/

I also see some of what my friend was talking about when she mentioned the few remaining old buildings in Hell’s Kitchen. Hell’s Kitchen is the neighborhood the musical West Side Story takes place in. At that time, it was the dumping ground for Puerto Rican immigrants. How times have changed!

Old and new still together
View along the High Line

It is mid-afternoon and we have walked miles already, but we trudge on. My friend told me we could continue our walk into Greenwich Village, walking all the way along West Fourth Street to Washington Square. This is the route we take.

We find the famous Magnolia Bakery on W. 11th Street and Bleecker. https://www.magnoliabakery.com/ We can’t eat our cake in the bakery, but the day is warm and sunny, and there are picnic tables at the playground across the street. I choose a piece of key lime cheesecake and some tea. They choose coffee and more German-looking streusel cakes, and we share with one another. I love New York cakes – at least the ones in bakeries like this! Here they use plenty of first-class ingredients. It’s important to me that my German friends enjoy American cakes. Germans generally think American cakes are too sweet and too few in variety. I am delighted, and they are surprised to bite into these fabulous American cakes.

Key Lime Cheesecake from the Magnolia Bakery
Cakes on display at the Magnolia Bakery

More cakes at the Magnolia Bakery
Washington Square

On, on we walk, through Greenwich Village, onto Washington Square, where hundreds of New York University students are soaking up the sun, some sitting on park benches, studying, as street musicians entertain them.

On, on we force ourselves to walk. It is late afternoon by now, but the sky is such a lovely blue. Who cares about blisters? Johanna has blister bandaids in her bag. They are here for the first time in their lives, only for a week, and they have to make the most of it. I endure with them. Their plan now is to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. “But let’s not walk to the bridge,” I entreat them. “I’ll never make it! Let’s take the subway.” So we get on a subway train at Washington Square and get off at Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall. There is a new path above ground, making the walk a lot shorter and more interesting than it used to be. The walk is beautiful, and in the late afternoon sunlight, warm.

Brooklyn Bridge in the late afternoon

“Even though we’re exhausted, we’ve got to get the view of Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights,” I say. I used to work in Brooklyn Heights, and it’s one of my favorite parts of New York. It would be – it’s also one of the most expensive, with old brownstone buildings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Henry Ward Beecher, the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Little Women, was famous in his own day as a preacher. He pastored a church in Brooklyn Heights. The poet Walt Whitman also lived here and wrote his famous New York poems from here. Somewhere in Brooklyn Heights modern celebreties like Matt Damon, Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz live. We must see Brooklyn Heights!

I take them to the promenade overlooking the New York Harbor. We stand at sunset and look at the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline, silenced, in awe. New York is such a beautiful city.

Statue of Liberty
New York at sunset

We eat delicious hamburgers at the New Apollo Diner http://newapollodiner.com/ in Brooklyn, our legs and backs exhausted, our feet blistered, but we are content. Brooklyn restaurants are not nearly as expensive as those in midtown Manhattan, and we have just feasted on one of the most iconic, visually satisfying treats available – anywhere.