Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Welcome home!

8 January 2010, Minneapolis, Minnesota USA

Why is it that I always return to Minnesota in the depths of winter? I arrived on Sunday, 3 January, after 24 or 25 hours of travel from Warsaw to Amsterdam to Toronto to Minneapolis, enduring beaucoup enhanced security checks. At Toronto, I considered asking for a male to do my third pat down but decided this was not the time to check the Canadian sense of humor. Thom, son of my friends Janet and Ed, was waiting for me at baggage claim in Minneapolis and so was my baggage. While Thom went for the car, I bundled up and dragged the suitcases to the fresh, albeit bitter cold, air. Despite the car fumes, it smelled as sweet as newly mown summer grass after all those hours of recycled airport and airplane air.

My early Monday morning walk around nearby Lake Harriet with friend Linda and her dog Daisy was challenging even with cotton tights under my jeans, but catching up with Linda kept my mind off the cold. Lunch with Ted, faithful burner of DVDs of my favorite TV programs, was at the Black Forest Restaurant where good company and lentil soup helped keep me warm. The rest of the day was spent doing laundry, grocery shopping and cooking. To my delight, Ed usually does the cooking, but he and Janet were still in Atlanta at a conference. Tuesday was “dentist day” -- time for a much-overdue cleaning and some repair work. A broken tooth that cannot be crowned on its own will become part of a new bridge in a couple of weeks. Oh goody. But that was a lot less costly than an implant at close to $5000 (which, by the way, was what I paid for my last car!).

After a quick stop at Macy’s to buy long johns on Wednesday, I drove to St. Paul to visit Christopher, my adopted grandson, and his parents, Sabrina and Mark. Sabrina and I were in the same Peace Corps group, and Mark was in the one after ours. Christopher is a typical two year old -- joyous, curious and in perpetual motion. He played with toys, banged on pots and nibbled at his lunch while Sabrina composed two huge lasagnes, one for dinner and one for a friend who’d just had twins. She also baked two delicious chocolate cakes. We demolished one lasagne and cake, then Sabrina and I chatted while Mark gave Christopher his bath. When I finally left, Mark was reading to Christopher in bed. Reading is one of Christopher’s favorite activities, so we already have something in common.

As I left Sabrina and Mark’s, I could feel a cold coming on. Back at the Fosters, I dosed myself with my favorite cold remedy from Macedonia -- usually three days of Kold 3 is all it takes to knock out a cold. And since then, I’ve been a slug -- laying low in my nightgown and bathrobe, reading, watching junk TV and napping.

9 January

It’s 2 degrees above zero Fahrenheit right now, quite an uptick from the 18 below we had this morning. I’m beginning to feel better thanks to my wonderful Macedonian cold medicine ... and of laying around not doing a thing. My apologies to everyone that I didn’t call this week.

11 January 2010

I’m still not used to writing the new year. It’s odd looking. I wonder what it will bring.

Shortly I’ll be off to the airport to see how domestic security has changed since my last flight to Detroit in May ’09. I’m going two hours ahead just in case. I’m off to visit my siblings’ and my only remaining uncle and aunt (our dad’s youngest brother and his wife). Since my sister and I visited in May for Aunt Betty’s 90th birthday, they have moved into an assisted living complex. It had become increasingly certain that they could not take care of each other properly in their apartment.

This won’t be the most fun week of the year. In the past I took Uncle Frank and Aunt Betty out for lunch or dinner or a ride once a day. And I joined Uncle Frank on his daily walk of all the corridors in their old three-story apartment building. But mostly we sat, read or watched TV, occasionally looked at old family photos, chatted and laughed. I listened endlessly to all the complaints that go with such long lives from bladder issues to what medicine was to be taken next. Several years ago I took my aunt to a movie and afterwards she gave me a jolt -- she starting talking about their sex life!

It’s going to be a long week of living in a motel and visiting. So I’ve decided that I’ll go to the YMCA every day to get back into some exercise routine and maybe take in a movie. Perhaps I can convince Aunt Betty to go with me. I’m also going to visit a high school friend that I haven’t seen in more than 10 years and two friends from Poland will come to see me just before I leave.

It’s ironic that I am spending time with Uncle Frank. I’m sure my mother is looking down at me and shaking her head. Why, you ask. Well, when I was a kid, Uncle Frank was single (he was 48 when he finally got married), and every holiday he drove from Jackson to McKeesport and stayed at our house for a week. Never stayed with any of his other siblings who all lived in the general area; always with us (except when I got married; he didn’t speak to my mother for several days because she asked him to stay elsewhere so my in-laws-to-be from North Dakota could stay with my folks).

But I digress --Sometimes Uncle Frank even brought “Aunt Whoever” along to our modest three-bedroom house. That meant we kids lost our bedrooms -- one to Uncle Frank, one to his female friend (this was, after all, the ‘50s when even TV’s Ozzie & Harriet didn’t share a bed and they were married). In August he’d come home for the Alleghany County Fair and drag us along but never stop for lunch. When I was in college, he was with us every single college break, and he’d keep track of me. That is, every time I went out or returned, he’d grill me -- where was I going, with whom, when would I return, etc. He was not my favorite uncle. But he is my uncle, the only one I have left and he’s also a little piece of my Dad. I see Daddy in his face and hear Daddy in his laugh, and I bite my tongue as my Aunt drones on about her favorite televangelist and my uncle groans about his aches and pains. My sister asked me why I go through this, staying there for a week when I know it’ll be tedious. And I guess it’s because I want these two remaining members of our family to know we care about them, because we do even if we aren’t right there. When I was living and working overseas, I could only visit for two or three days at a time. And they always bemoaned that I didn’t stay longer. I have time now, so they should get more of it. Some day when I’m old, I’ll need someone to give me some time. And I hope someone among my nieces and nephews will.

17 January, Detroit Metropolitan Airport, Michigan USA

Yukky overcast day outside but at least it’s not snowing or raining and the temperature isn’t too bad, somewhere a few points above freezing. Ewa, a friend from my Poland days, drove over to the hotel where I stayed last night. After we returned my rental car, we went out to lunch and talked ... and talked ... and talked. We had a lot of catching up to do as it’s been a few years since we’ve seen each other. Ewa (Eva in English) was helping the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Warsaw get started when I met her nearly 20 years ago. Born in Poland, she was a model at one time, something you can see in the incredible bone structure of her face despite its 78 years. She spent much of her life in Detroit where her late husband was an auto exec. I was supposed to catch up with Eve too. I met Eve in 1995 or ‘96 when we were both living in Warsaw; she’d just arrived, accompanying a lawyer-boyfriend whom she promptly decided to leave while also deciding to remain in Poland. She was a trainer for my Polish company, but she’s an accomplished artist too who started working at her art ... and has continued to do so. Unfortunately Eve slipped and fell on the ice and was unable to get together. Next time.

The week was about as I’d expected it would be on most fronts. I paced myself each day by visiting for a few hours, then leaving for a meal or to go to the Y. The assisted living facility is lovely -- decorated in a traditional style that residents would relate to, bright and cheerful with a friendly staff, lots of planned activities and a set meal schedule and balanced menus that are pretty good. We had parmesan-crusted tilapia the day I had dinner there and cheese omelets the day I had supper. To my surprise, my aunt no longer takes insulin for her diabetes; she’s eating properly and regularly instead. I was able to get her out twice, including a visit to their old apartment building (seniors only) where she had a chance to visit her friends. And I got my uncle out of his chair for at least one and sometimes two walks around the hallways of the facility each day. Of the two, Aunt Betty seems to have adjusted better. She looks more relaxed and 10 years younger. Naturally outgoing, she said no one talked much to each other before she moved in but she’s gotten them started talking. More sullen and quiet now, Uncle Frank does brighten considerably when one of the nurses comes to take care of his eyes or legs. I don’t think he wants to give in to being better off. They both watch out their window for the wild turkeys, rabbits and deer that come from a nearby forest to eat grains left by the facility’s maintenance person.

20 January, Minneapolis MN USA

Driving back to the house the other night, I noticed that a lot of Christmas lights are still up around homes -- colored lights outlining houses and evergreens, white twinklers in leafless trees, a large wreath made of colored lights. We’re well past the Orthodox holidays (not that many of the Orthodox Christian faith live here), so it’s odd to see this. Any ideas?

Yesterday was a busy day ... almost three hours at the dentist getting ready for a bridge. The time went very quickly, and I’m wondering if I fell asleep. My lower left jaw was very well numbed so I actually could relax. I’ve hated dentists every since I had my six-year molars yanked from my jaw when I was five. No pediatric dentistry in those days. The dentist laid the pliers, needles etc. right in front of my eye, and they were no less than three feet long. Plus while I don’t remember pain per se, the teeth must’ve been hard to get out as I remember a lot of pulling. The experience was pretty traumatic, and until I was out of college, I had fillings done without Novocain because I hated the needles so much. A very patient dentist in Marion, Illinois, helped me overcome that fear.

I broke this tooth while in London over the holidays, or more accurately, a large filling in one of my lower molars fell out when I was eating something soft, just like when it broke originally. Since the tooth was dead, it didn’t hurt and repair could wait until I returned to MN. Before going to Michigan, I spent more than two hours at the dentist having some small cavities filled and the ‘big break’ covered until I could return to be prepped for a new bridge. Prep was yesterday, including removal of a crown made while I was in Macedonia and installation of a provisional bridge. The final bridge will be installed in late April. Interestingly I have had crowns made in Poland, Uganda and Macedonia as well as the US, and the overseas dentists have all commented on my “beautiful” front teeth -- four porcelain-covered gold crowns made in the ‘80s -- and often call in their colleagues to see the teeth. Made by my current dentists, the crowns straightened my front teeth too. And my dentists have commented positively on my overseas crowns although the technology of those was usually older than what was available in the US.

Afternoon was spent at my condo cooking for my niece Tomery. She works long hours as a personal trainer and also in a supervisory position at her health club, and she isn’t much for cooking. So I volunteered to stock the fridge with easy to heat-and-eat meals. That meant my mom’s vegetable-beef soup and meatloaf, a new recipe for chicken chili and muffins; all were made low carb as Tomery’s on a low carb diet. Sent some meatloaf and muffins to my sister who loved the meatloaf and said the muffins ‘needed something but for diet muffins, were pretty good.’ Must work on that recipe!

27 January

“The current temperature is 5 below,” according to Minnesota Public Radio just now. That’s minus five Fahrenheit ... or for my European friends, minus 15 Celsius. Welcome to a real winter in Minnesota. Remind me again why I always seem to be here in January.

When I started what is now this blog, I often found myself commenting on the weather in Poland. Obviously this transplant had become a ‘true Minnesotan.’ Weather is the most common topic of conversation here, regardless of the time of year. Although the temps weren’t as low in Poland as I had endured in MN, they felt colder ... and this despite a down-filled winter coat. I decided it was situational. In MN I spent a lot of time going from place to place either (a) riding in a car with a good heater or (b) walking through heated skyways [above ground, enclosed walkways between buildings]. That meant the amount of time I actually spent ‘feeling’ the cold was minimal ... and well planned so I really dressed for it. Unlike some of my corporate colleagues, I never drove to work in just my business attire without a winter coat; many of them did since they went from garage to garage. I, on the other hand, always consider the ‘what if’ -- like what if the car breaks down or I’m in an accident without a warm coat and boots in 5 inches (about 12 cm) of snow? To my knowledge, none of my colleagues ever was and neither was I ... but I was a Girl Scout .. be prepared.

It is also, unfortunately in this day of luggage charges and limits, how I pack for travel. You just never know what you’ll want to wear until you awaken. So I usually pack lots of alternatives and generally they don’t mix and match as well as they should for maximum packing efficiency. (And of course, I’m always missing something I desperately want when it’s time to dress.) Adding the issue of footwear only increases my dilemma. Dress shoes, boots, walking shoes are the starting point. With all of the new restrictions, I am having to totally rethink my packing, wardrobe, footwear etc. as I prepare to leave for Washington, DC, for a month. The weather won’t be as severe there so maybe the minimum footwear will suffice. Hmmm.

These thoughts arise because I have already started to pack for DC but also because a good friend of mine is packing for a trip to Uganda where she’ll visit a good friend of hers who’s in the Peace Corps there. My friend packs like I do, or I pack like she does -- your choice. I remember when she came to see me in Poland years ago. Thankfully fewer restrictions in those days, but you do have to get the suitcase closed. My friend loves sweaters and got excellent buys on several when we shopped. Trying to get her suitcases closed was a scene worthy of an old movie. As she readies for Uganda, my friend has learned that international visitors are the ‘mules’ for expats: They bring along all the things we cannot get locally. That adds to the packing dilemma significantly as she’s learning and my sister found out when she visited me in Macedonia and brought along a cat litter box that has a cover, among other things.

24 February, Washington, DC, and Minneapolis MN

So much has happened since I journaled last. I hardly know where to begin. This will be a two-month entry since I’ve already missed most of February due to computer problems..

Mac definitely needed a new hard drive. While in MN, it started doing the same pre-crash things it had done twice previously in Poland. The Genius (that’s what Apple calls its in-store help desk folks) agreed but said this would take some time. Since I was leaving in two days for DC, he gave me the contact info for five Apple Stores near where I’d be in Alexandria. So my first trip after arrival was to Apple near my old office in McLean. They ordered the hard drive and said they’d call when it arrived, then I’d have a week to come in for the switchover. I was crossing a parking lot at Georgetown University Hospital on the 7th when the call came. My friend Regina’s surgery had been re-scheduled from 3 Feb. to 7 Feb. because her surgeon hurt his back. In the interim, snow began to fall ... and fall and fall. You may have read about the blizzard conditions in the DC area. It was a lot of snow even by MN standards. The downside was how ill prepared the cities and residents were, even with lots of forewarning. They just haven’t gotten much snow here historically, so few city snow plows, no requirement to move parked cars from street curbs or shovel sidewalks in front of homes and stores, and limited if any knowledge of how to deal with snow-covered roofs and icy gutters. But lots of talent for whinging about the situation. Those of us with experience and/or a sense of responsibility for clearing sidewalks and driveways shoveled a lot, followed by hot beverages and Aleve.

Regina was scheduled to be at the hospital at 7 am on Monday. To ensure we made it, she booked a hotel that’s on the hospital campus and arranged for a cab driver that she uses regularly to take us into DC on Sunday afternoon. We vegged that afternoon, ate dinner in a college cafeteria/dining hall and set the alarm for an early wake up.

The surgery went well, according to the doctor, and while Regina was in the recovery room, I got my exercise going for breakfast, trying to fill prescriptions and dropping off forms, all on different floors and in different buildings. GUH is a huge complex!

For the record, I want to say that Regina was a great patient. I know she has a reputation for being “bossy” but that sure wasn’t the behavior I experienced. Especially considering the pain, she was pretty laid back and eventually bored with laying in bed and watching HGTV and Food Network all day. We established a good working rhythm for meals, kids etc. Once the boys were back in school and she was comfortable getting up and down the stairs on her bum, we did a day out, running errands, having a relaxed lunch and generally enjoying the sunshine and fresh air after days of being stuck indoors.

Regina’s sons, Liam, 8, and Roan, 5, were out of school for seven days plus President’s Day, a long time. Cabin fever for all of us. They were good shovelers when asked to help but were less interested in playing in the snow than I was at their ages. Probably because they don’t usually get enough snow to build up a playing-in-the-snow tradition. To pass the time, I taught them how to cook and Liam how to play chess. Roan also wanted to play but had limited tolerance for the rules and loved to cheat. Both were very good at following instructions in the kitchen, which helped since coordinating two cooking kids was a challenge. We baked chocolate chip cookies and made cupcakes twice. Roan learned how to cut up cucumbers and cauliflower safely, and Liam grilled hotdogs and chicken. It was so much fun watching them enjoy each new accomplishment.

Liam got quite good at chess. I haven’t played in years so stuck to the basics. I don’t believe in letting kids win, but I stop regularly to show him a mistake he was making or a better move. He even won a couple of times. I hope he continues to play.

Because of the changed date of the surgery, I wasn’t able to stay until Regina’s follow up appointment as planned. I had made additional plans and airline reservations based on the original timing. So I left on Thursday evening (19th) after dinner. It was tough; the boys and I had struck a great relationship even though occasionally I had to be “the mean aunt” when they misbehaved. I’ll miss them. I had a good time looking after the house, kids and “my patient,” being busy all day but with time to relax too. I got addicted to HGTV and have decided to contact someone about redecorating my condo before I move in. Stay tuned in case I’m on TV!

My last week in the DC area was divided between time with my friend Aideen and her four-year-old son, Mickey, in Arlington, then a few days in the District with Peggy. Both are friends from my Poland days. Although dirty snow was piled on every corner and some sidewalks were still a slippy (that’s Pittsburghese for slippery) passage, I was able to walk everywhere or easily catch the Metro for a long haul. It was great to get out and enjoy fresh air and sunshine ... for a Minnesotan, the 40F temps in February were pure bliss.

It was a couple of days of reunions. Peggy hosted a “Poland” dinner for many of our friends from when we lived there. Ela and Chris live nearby as do Tamara and Michael and Stacey and Michael. Nancy flew in from San Francisco and Diane bused in from NYC too. Alfreda joined us to add a touch of the Balkans. I had introduced her and Peggy when I lived in DC, and we discovered they attended the same church but had not met.

Also had lunch with my old boss Oren from my Uganda days, coffee and sinfully good chocolate cake with Elizabeth from Macedonia, dinner with John, Lauri and Mimi (John was my deputy in Macedonia, my boss in McLean) and with Stacey, Michael and the girls. Mimi delivered my Girl Scout cookies; she was #1 seller in her troop, a natural seller like her dad. I squeezed in a few interviews to get some face time with international contractors who might need a short-term consultant. Those all seemed to go well ... so here’s hoping.

28 February, Minneapolis

Since returning to MN on the 24th, I’ve mostly laying low. My DC-acquired congestion got worse so I started on my Macedonian meds, which combined with mostly staying home, did the trick again. Then one day I awoke from a short nap and felt like I had something in my eye. Without thinking, I rubbed the eye and tried to remove what I thought might be a loose piece of mascara. No avail ... all I got was a flood of tears. Tried artificial tears and other methods, nothing worked. My eye got read and swelled almost closed. I decided to wait until morning to see how it looked. All night my eye teared, leaving salty residue all over my cheek and nose. The next morning nothing much had changed, so I called the doctor and got in that afternoon. He diagnosed an allergic reaction to something, although we could not identify to what. Five days of eye drops four times a day and I’ll be fine. I called my sister to change plans and learned she too had had an allergic reaction but in both eyes, slightly different symptoms, but at the same time as I had. Weird -- we hadn’t even gotten together yet.

This short month is over. I’m feeling a little guilty for being so bad at keeping up with this journal as several of you have emailed to ask. It’s comforting to know someone actually reads these. Thank you.

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