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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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”.
Sunday, our second full day in the City, we go to church. We are all committed Christians, and finding a church we may have heard about as far away as Germany becomes as much a part of our touristic experience as any other. In preparation for this trip, Johanna mentioned a church I had been to once before with Peter, Redeemer Presbyterian Church https://www.redeemer.com/ on Park Avenue. It has the reputation for having good, solid theology, a church that thinking people can go to and be challenged by. I opt for the classic service because the time works well for us, so we go there together. Timo wants to go to a church where young people would feel more comfortable, so he and Patrick go to Hillsong Church. https://hillsong.com/nyc/manhattan/
At Redeemer Presbyterian Church, I notice that there is not a single black person in the entire congregation, but there are many Asians. There are also a few families there. The music is definitely classical, with a string quartet and old church hymns. It is the first Sunday of the month, so there is communion. For the communion, ushers come to us in our chairs, serving first bread and later grape juice.
After the service, Johanna asks if the way communion was served is the American way. It is not necessarily, but it is the reformed/dissenting church way, the way they usually do it in my Baptist church in Cologne too. But Johanna belongs to a Lutheran church, where everyone walks to the front of the church, and they stand in a circle together. “I don’t like this passive way of doing communion,” she says. “It’s so impersonal, perfunctory.” I ask her how much she understood of the sermon. “I got the gist,” she says. This was not a good choice of church for Johanna. As for me, it also feels a bit dry, but at least it is not offensive to me theologically. I have heard many cringe-worthy sermons in my life.
Johanna meets Patrick and Timo, and I separate to do some shopping. But we do talk on the phone before we part. Patrick and Timo loved the services they attended.
I have arranged to have dinner with my sister Beth and niece Gillian. I want my German friends to meet more of the English-speaking people in my life. Beth is the sister my sisters and I adopted, and she adopted us, at the time of the marriage of my sister to Beth’s brother. Gillian, living in Australia, has never been able to meet Beth, who has never been to our big family reunions, although most of us we have met up at smaller gatherings. But Gillian just happens to be in New York on business this week, and we have arranged to meet. The logistics aren’t all that easy. Beth has difficulty walking for more than about a block. Gillian has celiac disease and can’t tolerate gluten, but she is hoping to eat Italian food. The Italian restaurant Beth recommended has no gluten-free options – I went there and asked. So I go online, looking for restaurants in the neighborhood that have gluten-free pasta. I find one, the Serafina Osteria. https://serafinarestaurant.com/serafina-italian-restaurant-osteria-new-york
This is good news, but Beth tells me she can’t walk all the way to the restaurant. I call the restaurant and find that they deliver. We eat in, “at home”. After all, we are staying in a sort of apartment, complete with dishes, cutlery and wine glasses. Gillian brings wine. Beth brings us beautiful long-stemmed roses.
I organize more dishes, cutlery and glasses. Beth and Gillian, and my Germans all meet for the first time, in our apartment. We eat a delicios meal at home in peace and quiet, a rare thing in New York City restaurants, and laugh and talk, communicating in a language that doesn’t come very easily to Johanna or Patrick. Timo blends right in. After dinner, we watch the super bowl together on TV, the same activity millions of Americans across the country are doing in their homes too. American football is not a German sport, but Patrick loves American football. I am no football fan, and know very little, so my German friend Patrick explains the moves of the game to his American friend.
We wake up to another day of frigid temperatures in New York City. New York is much colder than Cologne! But we will not let a bit of cold weather deter us from our plans. My friends enjoy a breakfast of bagels and coffee. I eat cooked oatmeal, the same breakfast I always eat in the winter. We put on our long underwear and head out for Central Park. Central Park turns out to be my favorite part of the day, perhaps the highlight of the week, because of a couple of wonderful discoveries. We see lots of squirrels scurrying throgh the park, but one in particular catches our attention. It runs back and forth between the ground and its burrow in a hole in a tree. I love it – nature in New York! This squirrel knows nothing about rental prices in the city or gentrification. He lives the same lifestyle squirrels have been living for thousands of years, and it’s comforting for me to see this in Central Park.
The other discovery is a community of cardinals in the park. My last trip to New York City I saw a cardinal and thought it must be a rare occasion, because the only birds I usually notice are sparrows and robins. But here there must be twenty of them flitting around. What a wonderful aesthetic experience to see flecks of red hopping around the ground, then darting into the air and back down again!
On we march southwards, through the city. It is only noon, and my feet are already tired, and all we have seen is Central Park. We glimpse at the ice skaters at Rockefeller Center, and walk into St. Thomas Church and witness a wedding in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I love St. Thomas Church and walk in there almost every time I am in New York City. I once went to an unforgettable Christmas Eve choral service there. I love their boys’ choir and the liturgy of the service. But it is my first time in the St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I am not Catholic, so never found a need to be inside this church, but Patrick is. I am impressed by its size. Surely it must be the larget Catholic church in America, I think. It isn’t, but it is the largest in New York City. We walk past the New York Public Library. This is another place I have never set foot inside, but I have been told it is a worthy tourist attraction, its lobby so beautiful, you can rent it for weddings – for upwards of $60,000! https://www.nypl.org/space-rental/your-event
If only my Peter had seen this place, is the main thing I think, walking around the beautiful rooms with carved oak walls, golden molded ceilings and gorgeous masonry. This would have been heaven to my husband, who loved books – and maps – so much. He used to spend hours at a time, just studying maps. Once visiting friends in England, they drove us to visit a town none of us had been to, but they thought they knew the way. We would have gotten lost, had we followed their directions, but Peter assured us, he knew the way. He did, and they marveled at his sense of direction.
The NY public library has a room dedicated to maps. I mourn my husband as I marvel over the most amazing globes I have ever seen.
On we go, southwards on Fifth Avenue ever since Central Park. By now it is a bit late in the afternoon, and we are all feeling the effects of our long hike in our legs and feet. Now we are headed for our last destination, the Rooftop Bar at 25rd Street. A friend of mine in Germany told me about this place, not written up in the tourist guides, but known by many young people, including her son, who spent a semester at a language school near New York City. It turns out that there are several rooftop bars in New York, but this one seems to attract mostly young people. That’s what we see at this one at 230 Fifth Avenue. https://www.230-fifth.com/ The interesting thing about this place, to me, is the heated plastic igloos where you can sit and enjoy the view.
We drink a cup of hot chocolate for $10. We have to hurry, because the bar closes at 5 pm. The hefty price is worth it. We leave, inspired and strengthened for our return home. We have seen enough for the day.
Two hours later, friends of mine join us at our suite. We have a drink together, and head out again for dinner at Der Krung, a tiny Thai restaurant only New Yorkers would know about, it is so far west of Fifth Avenue. Because of its location and tiny size, the prices are reasonable. It’s fun exploring New York with New Yorkers. I enjoy introducing my German friends to friends from New York. I am in the middle, part of each culture. This must be symbolic of who I am. Am I a bridge between cultures?
Perhaps the two questions ex-pats ask themselves more than any other are, “Where is home?” And “What is home?” I certainly do. I recently heard a travel commercial today, trying to entice people to come to Denmark on vacation. They asked this very question, “Where is home?” For them, the answer was, home is where you feel secure and comfortable, and this is a state of mind. Therefore, presumably, you could travel to Denmark and be right at home.
I only have one major regret in life – I didn’t buy my apartment in New York City when I had the chance. My building was going coop, and I could have bought my studio apartment for $50,000. My father could have easily financed it for me too, but I didn’t want to owe him anything, so I never asked him. That apartment is now worth over $400,000, and there’s no way I could afford it, even it were available. If I had bought that apartment, I would have had my own abode in New York, the only place that has ever really felt like home. Or does it only feel like home when I return to visit, because nowhere else feels like it either? Because I got so sick of my entire life in New York City – twice, I only wanted to leave, and eventually did. But did I find home?
I don’t think of New York City as a place where I feel secure or even comfortable. But I do feel like I fit in. There’s room for everybody in New York! And there are eight hundred languages spoken there, making it the most ethnically diverse city on earth, according to the World Population Review. http://worldpopulationreview.com/us-cities/new-york-city-population/
I have an
inquisitive, curious nature, and I like to be involved in interesting
discussions. New York is discussion
paradise. People philosophize about
everything, and they’re really interested in what others think. Here, if you overhear someone talking about
something while waiting on line for your coffee (they say “on line” in NYC, not
“in line”), you can jump right into the conversation. People in New York are passionate about life
and all its details. You won’t find
passive bystanders here, but active participants engaged in conversation
wherever you go. They make eye contact
on the subway and smile at one another when they find something ironic or
amusing. Life is shared in New York.
There is so much to do in this city, I’m never bored. Home for me is not a place where I have to stay indoors to feel good. I can go outdoors and join the rest of the world in New York City any time I please. When I want to feel secure and comfortable, I can stay indoors and watch the same TV shows, cook the same foods, read the same books, or water the same plants I would anywhere else. But where else could I find such interesting people to invite over for dinner, if that was what I wanted to do? Where else could I sit in a café and enjoy such an intense discussion? That is the DNA of New York. Once New York gets into your blood, it’s like getting the hepatitis virus. My blood type is irretrievably changed after having lived there twice, for a total of ten years. I’m infected with the NYC virus. My blood type is NYC – both positive and negative.
And now here I am, returning to NYC – from Germany, my adopted country, with German friends. I was here a year ago after my sister’s funeral, where I attended the funeral of my friend’s father, and stayed with my sister. This time I have arranged to spend a week there as a tourist, spending very little time with family and friends. In fact, we will be staying in a time share apartment, just like many other tourists. Most Germans I know have never heard of a time share, something most Americans know about, so this is something of my culture I can share with my friends. How will this week be? How will New York feel to me, experiencing it again, but with Germans?
We – that is Johanna, Patrick, their son Timo and I – arrive at JFK airport on the bitterly cold afternoon of February 1. It is cold in Germany, but this cold is insane! Minus ten degrees Celsius and a huge wind chill factor. We can feel it walking off the plane into the terminal.
It takes an age to get through immigration, even for me, with the luck of going through the US citizen line. This time no one asks me any silly or loaded questions, simply welcoming me to the United States. When I arrived in Seattle, the agent leafed through my passport, noticed all the stamps from previous trips to Egypt and Turkey and asked in a friendly voice if I had family over there. It was only hours later that I realized this agent wasn’t merely making small talk with me. He was feeling me out to see if I was trying to smuggle some people from Muslim countries into the USA. That experience didn’t feel very welcoming. Today feels better, even though I’m separated from my friends, who aren’t allowed to go through the line with me.
I wait for over a half hour for my friends, wondering if they have somehow gotten through before me and are waiting for me somewhere. But no – immigration takes very long these days, especially if you’re not American.
We finally meet again, and leave the airport for the Airtrain, a monorail that circuits between the terminals and the Sutphin Boulevard subway stop on the E line, which is also the Long Island Railroad stop. I don’t know how to work the machines to get a ticket. I am just as much a tourist as my friends. We end up buying a ticket from a salesman at a kiosk, paying him a tip for the privilege of buying from him.
We enter the subway train and are immediately entertained by a performer who does incredible acrobatics on the train. I have seen performances like this many times in New York, so this feels familiar to me, and I know he expects about a dollar from each of us, which we gladly fork out to him. He leaves the car by forcing the door to the next car open, something that is strictly prohibited by the Transit Authority. But perhaps I am the only one who knows that, because everyone smiles, waving him a farewell as he leaves.
I had forgotten how long the ride is from the airport to 53rd Street and Lexington. Almost an hour long! New York is a huge city. We leave the train and I am disoriented and begin walking in the wrong direction until Johanna asks, “Aren’t we going in the wrong direction?” What is wrong with me? I have always been able to get around Manhattan. I just stand somewhere, figure out whether the Hudson River on my right or left is. If it’s on my right, I’m heading south. But this time I can’t figure out which side of me the Hudson is on.
Before we left Germany, I checked online where the nearest supermarket is. Morton Williams on 57th Street. I have never heard of Morton Williams. Another change in New York. There is also Whole Foods at Columbus Circle. I read about how Amazon bought them. When I lived in New York there was no such thing as Whole Foods.
Our suite is really nice! We will be living in more luxury than I have ever enjoyed in NewYork. I have a huge bed all to myself and my own bathroom. We have a microwave to heat food in, and a little drip coffee machine. I inquire and find that they renew the coffee supply each day, as they also do with dishwasher tabs. My time share is again proving itself worthy of the money I pay each year!
After checking into our suite and unpacking we head out for Morton Williams. I recognize Carnegie Hall on the way, and right across the street from there is Calvary Baptist Church, the church I belonged to when I last lived in New York. I scarcely recognize it now, a tiny structure sandwiched between two very high buildings. Normally, my trips to New York don’t take me to 57th Street or midtown Manhattan. No wonder everything seems so strange! But I am familiar with the choices available in a New York supermarket. We find everything we will need for breakfast tomorrow, when Timo will go out again and buy bagels. The bagels look really good. When it is time to pay, I am again overwhelmed. There are many cash registers with numbers. It seems you have to stand on line, like at the bank, and wait for the next available cash register. Some are unattended. Apparently you have to scan your own groceries and pay with a credit card. Can I do this? I can. I manage this as easily as if I had been doing this my entire life. I even ask for cash back, and get it. But only $50. Johanna and Patrick don’t know about cash back. I learned about cash back in Germany, where they even use the English word for this system of getting cash off your debit card when you pay for something with it.
Johanna and Patrick have a comfortable sofa bed they make up each day in the living room. Timo has a rollaway bed in the corner of the living room. We have a comfortable home for the week.
Prologue “What do you think you’ll do, now that Peter has gone?” My sister Jenna had flown halfway around the world, all the way from Australia to Germany, to keep me company, and to say her last good-byes to my husband Peter. I had done the same in reverse when her husband died. Our son and his wife arrived from their home in Korea in time to be with Papa for his final hours on this earth, and stayed for the burial. August 24, our wedding anniversary, was the day we said our final farewell to him. Now my kids were leaving, tearing another hole out of my heart. Why does my family have to choose homes impossibly far and fantastically expensive to reach?
My family of origin, which consisted of seven children, now down to six still living, is literally a micro-United Nations. We have all married or live with people from different cultures, races and countries. I went to Germany and married a German. There’s Australia, where Jenna and her family live. Japan, where my brother Simon lives with his Japanese wife and family. One brother is living in America, but with a woman from Bangladesh. My brother Jason, who also lives in America, married a Malaysian. Naila’s Sam is African American. Their son Blair longs to go back to Asia to live, where he went to music conservatory. Knowing my family, that is what he will end up doing. My son went to Korea to study, and met and married a lovely Korean girl, and settled down with her in Seoul.
Because my family is so spread apart, there are many places for me to go to. “Go on some long trips and visit all the people I love,” I answered. I had already been to Korea and Japan last summer, so I wouldn’t go there just now. I would go back to America, the land where I spent the first thirty-six years of my life.
I’ve been back “home” so many times over the years, but there are people dear to me whom I haven’t seen very often, some not in years, who live in America. Besides people, there are also places in America leaving holes in my heart, just like people. Places like New York City, where my soul seems to be drawn, like a magnet to its pole. The aching hole in my heart keeps finding reasons to go back to New York City and be filled again. There are a couple other places I love too. The Boundary Waters of Minnesota, too, where I was conceived and kept returning to, year after year during my childhood. The wild coast of Oregon, the State where my sister lives. She brings me back to the coast each time I visit her. Other places I’m not so familiar with, and there are still one or two others where friends live, but whose homes I have never seen. There is plenty for me to discover in the land of my birth. Where to go on this long trip back home?
My wonderful, strange friend “Serendipity” had already stepped in for me, months before I had any thoughts of going back to America. I had just come back from the States, where I attended both my sister’s funeral and that of my friend’s father. I wasn’t really looking to return to the States. But Serenditpity came in the form of a phone call a couple months after my return. My timeshare company wanted to know if there was some location my husband and I would like to travel to. “What? Didn’t you know? My husband had a massive stroke over three years ago and can’t travel!”
That was one of the biggest losses I have had to face since Peter’s stroke. He and I were such good travelers, and he was never as interesting or stimulating as when traveling. We fed off and nourished each other’s curiosity with our contrasting insights and information.
“Oh – I’m so sorry,” the voice on the other end said. After a pause, “Maybe YOU would like to get away somewhere. Is there anywhere you would love to travel to?” I couldn’t think of anywhere. All there was now was family, and I didn’t need a timeshare for that. A twinge of self-pity threatened to tug at a corner of my heart. Then, just as I was about to hang up in disappointment, I remembered New York City. “Well, there is New York City, but you never have any openings there.”
me just check,” the agent said.
“Ah, there is an opening at a hotel called The Manhattan Club for
the first week in February. Would you
like that? It is a suite that can sleep
“Yes!” I said, with no questions or doubts in my voice. So, months before Peter died, the seeds of a trip to the US were planted. I would be a tourist again in the city I spent ten years of my life in. As soon as Jenna asked her question about what I would do, I knew I would make a long trip out of this week in New York City. I also knew just how I would do it. I had already found friends, people who had supported Peter and me throughout Peter’s entire illness. These friends had recently asked if they could travel with me to New York City sometime. And the rest was there, sitting in front of my imagination like a trayful of goodies.
America seems to be slipping away from me, the longer I spend away from it. People watch TV differently. Now at least those of us with internet have Netflix and Prime, no matter what country we live in, but what do people in America watch? They eat different things too than they used to. What would I discover in the culinary landscape of America? New words keep creeping in, new expressions, new fads, new phobias. I am way out of touch with the bureaucratic side of America. I don’t have to deal with Obamacare or group health plans, thank God. But I wonder how other Americans deal with getting sick. How do they face longterm illness like I had just spent four years dealing with, as I became acquainted with the German system? By now, I know more about how Germans live than Americans, the people Germans keep asking me about. The longer I spend away, the less I know.
And then there’s the political scene. What on earth is going on in America, that a man like Trump can be President? How could the evangelical Christians ever support such a person? I consider myself an evangelical, but I sure don’t share any values with this man. Or at least, I don’t think so, but then we don’t get Fox TV in Germany. Still, I get enough information to ask how myself how Christians can explain their support for the current President and administration. It was time for a lengthy visit.
February is a strange month to travel, one would think. It’s dark and deathly cold. But nothing beats the winter blues like traveling, and where do many Americans travel to in the winter? To the South! It was clear to me that since the week of my timeshare stay in New York City was the first week in February, I would follow that week up by traveling to the three peope dear to me who live in the South. Everyone was excited at the idea of my coming, so I planned a trip lasting five to six weeks. I would not travel north this time to my brother in Minnesota. I had seen him last year at our sister’s funeral, and Minnesota is infamously cold and snowy in February. It would have to be the South – and New York, which is cold enough.
From New York I would fly down to Austin, Texas and visit my cousin and his wife. From there I would somehow get to Louisiana and visit an old friend from college. And I would travel by some unknown means from there to Tennessee to visit my brother Jason and family, who recently moved to Tennessee from California and were having some problems with their adjustment. Then I would travel back to New York City from Tennessee and have plenty of time for family and friends. I checked Google Maps. The distances between each of these places were quite far, but doable, either by renting a car or traveling by bus. Why not? I could take the Greyhound bus, just like Simon or Garfunkel does with Kathy in that song about being lost and looking for America. That kind of fits me, I thought. I feel lost too, and am looking for America.
there was Christmas to get through. One
piece of advice I got after Peter’s death was, “Whatever you do, don’t
spend this first Christmas alone. Go
visit someone in your family.”
By the end of October, the days were getting cold and the nights long. I sat in my living room, imagining Christmas. Would I buy a tree? No way! Why would I lug a tree from my car, spreading needles and scratching myself, spreading pine resin on my fingers, just for myself? The idea of decorating a tree and then sitting there all by myself to look at it made me so depressed, I knew I could not spend Christmas at home. I also missed my only other living sister Naila, who had not been able to come to the funeral. I hadn’t had much contact with her since we’d seen each other in Minnesota after our sister’s death the December before. Soon after her return home, a double whammy of bad news came to her. Both she and her husband had cancer! Naila ovarian and Sam prostate cancer. And both would need treatment. Naila went in for six months of chemotherapy, and Sam radiation therapy. Naila was told she needed to take time out from the world and go into a long hibernation of several months. She was too vulnerable to infections. She was also exhausted from chemotherapy. We wrote, but she didn’t want to share her burdens over the phone.
I risked phoning her on that long, cold night in October. Chemotherapy would soon be over and she was feeling stronger. Yes, she was up to talking now. “I miss you, Naila,” I said. “I wish I could just fly out there and see you for Christmas,” popped out of my mouth.
“Why don’t you do that?” she said. “We’d LOVE to have you! I just saw a commercial on TV from Condor Airlines. It looks like they have cheap, direct flights from Frankfurt to Portland.” Naila lives in Portland.
And so I
booked another flight – to Portland, Oregon, but it wasn’t direct. I’d have to fly to Seattle first.
In November, my dear friend Miriam from Seattle came to visit me for three weeks. Unable to come to be with me for the funeral, she offered to come and keep me company for three weeks. What a wonderful buffer that was from the pain of being alone! We went on a couple of short trips to nearby tourist sites, did Thanksgiving together, another hurdle I needed to somehow clamber over. We talked and cried nonstop for three weeks. And then, before I knew it, it was time to fly to the States.
Going to Oregon for Christmas was the perfect thing to do. Both my sister and her husband were feeling pretty good by the time I arrived. I was a caterpillar cocooned in familial warmth. My nephew Blair, living for the time being with his parents, is a fabulous cook and we were treated each evening to feasts. The Christmas tree was decorated when I arrived, and everything was as I remembered a Christmas or two in the past, spent with my sister. But there were stabs of pain, too. Remembering a Christmas and other visits to Oregon with Peter stung. He loved Oregon. We had sat on the living room couch, opening Christmas presents together. Now I had to sleep alone in the same bed we both had slept in on our many trips to Oregon. Mornings, we would gaze together at Mount Hood, sometimes peeking through our bedroom window, sometimes hiding from view.
Together we discovered a popular Oregon activity – tide-pooling. On several vacations at the beach we would head for the rock pools formed at low tide, identification book in hand, identifying and marveling over the sea stars and anemones. Sometimes we would see little crabs climbing miniature rock cliffs. We had enjoyed the seagulls and pounding waves together. Sam and Naila’s home is our son’s American home, and Oregon became our home away from home, after my parents had both passed away and their house was sold.
But there is comfort in shared sorrow. There is healing in pain that is shared. I felt warm and secure, spending Christmas with my family. The warmth spread over the pain like a balsam.
I had asked Naila if there were any choral concerts in Portland during the Christmas season we could go to. I love the Christmas concerts in Germany, and was singing in several myself with my choir and vocal ensemble. It would be nice to partake in some of the lovely things of Germany in Oregon, I thought. “There’s the Festival of Lights,” my sister said. “For two weeks or so before Christmas, an abbey in Portland puts up loads of Christmas lights and choirs come from far away to sing in the chapel. We could do that.”
We did that. We went out in Portland drizzle to see the lights and hear some music. That was perhaps my first truly touristic American experience this trip. The abbey gardens were giddy with lights of every color and shape, everywhere you looked – overwhelming after years of pristine white lights in Germany. Almost all the Germans I know consider colored lights to be garish.
stations, like stations of the cross, with recordings recounting the Christmas
story. The choir we heard wasn’t very
good, in my estimation, but at least they were singing Christmas music. And I was doing something Christmasy with my
sister, who a month before this could not have left the house.
I baked their favorite Christmas cookies for them. We went to church together, and we watched TV together. We discussed politics. Here my sister and I were of kindred minds. Her entire family and I felt alienation from the current political situation in Washington. I discovered something in this alienation that I hadn’t expected. Naila and Sam, also evangelical Christians, feel alienated from the political attitudes of almost all the people in their church. They say this sense of alienation is not unique to them. Evangelicals all over America feel politically estranged from other evangelicals, something that never existed before the last election. The estrangement is so severe that people even feel unable to talk about their opinions with one another.
So Naila keeps company with Rachel Maddock. “Let’s watch Rachel Maddock,” she said. “She explains it all better than anyone else.” We watched Rachel Maddock and fretted together. Here, even on the political level, we were able to share our feelings.
I did get sick while in Oregon. I came down with sinusitis and by New Year’s Day really needed to be treated badly. “I’ll take you to urgent care,” Naila said. I had to ask what urgent care was. Another new development since I have lived in the States. A pretty cool thing, actually. You can go there at any time, even on New Year’s Day and be treated, generally by a nurse practitioner. There is no such thing as a nurse practitioner in Germany, nor are there urgent care clinics. Naila’s urgent care clinic accepted my German insurance card, so all was well on that front. And with medication, my sinuses were also soon healed.
I had booked an airline ticket I could change. Perhaps, if all worked well, I could also visit Miriam in Seattle at the end of my trip.
Things did work out, and I rode the Amtrak train to Seattle in the New Year. Miriam greeted me at the train station, just as I had greeted her at the Cologne train station just two months before.
Miriam lives on a island off of Seattle, which to me has always sounded very romantic. I was so curious to see how she lives! Of course,you have to ride a ferry boat every time you go to the mainland, but the ride is only fifteen minutes. Miriam tells me that the wait can be up to an hour and a half, however! This island is lush with majestic pine forests and huge ferns.
There are so many forests, human settlement feels like something of a rarity. On this island, Miriam and her husband live close to nature. I thrilled to see an everyday occurrence for them – deer grazing in their garden. Beautiful blue birds and squirrels came to feast on peanuts Miriam’s husband feeds them every day.
This is America too, the America I love, just like the Oregon coast. Here I saw the Puget Sound, dotted with so many islands, so peaceful it reminded me of a lake in northern Minnesota. When I am out in nature in America, I feel in touch with myself, with my family, the animals and all the other people living in America. Peter had never been here before, so for the last part of my journey I felt less pain, enjoying this beautiful landscape with my friends.
Watching the Puget Sound in Washington with Miriam, I remembered also having stood a few days before on the Oregon Coast. There, in contrast to the still waters of the Sound, I had experienced the foaming, turbulent waves coming from the same ocean. Even more than the calm water, tamed by the many islands in the sound, it was the surf that touched me the most. The surf, pounding and crashing onto the rocks, transforming into dazzling waterfalls, calmed my soul.
I had gone for long walks along the beach each morning, allowing the constant movement of the waves to move my turbulent heart. I would stop and feast my eyes for minutes at a time, gazing at the powerful waves. I missed Peter, but also felt the peace of sensing that he was perhaps somehow standing there with me. Perhaps he was also able to see the perfect rainbow given to me one morning, a promise of happier days to come.