So what do I make of parents, children, obligation and entitlements?
I was feeling pretty foul today; raging at the uncertainty and tired of the insomnia, and weary from living in a state of readiness unknowing when we'll get the command, leap over borders and go. There are piles of things, detritus from my closet of doom littering the wave lines of my floors. Things need sorting and putting away. Things need selling. Things need purging.
And suitcases need packing. Stella and I have decided to take our vacation, contract or no, move or no, we're going. Now, visas needed transferring from one passport to another. A trip to the airport immigration office slated to eat up our entire afternoon.
Yet. My girl who doesn't sleep, she put her head down on her Papi's pillow and closed her eyes. I left the piles to be piles, trusting that she'd wake in time for us to make it to the visa office. I laid down next to her, and closed my eyes too. This, her first nap with her face squished into a pillow, was to be savoured.
She stayed that way, soundly sleeping for two hours. And I did too.
We almost missed the immigration office. But we didn't. We got to the airport and everything worked out. Everything will be fine. People always say that in crisis, in the face of tears and stress. You never believe them, do you.
But then it is. And you are. And you do.
So, about that move. You know, that one that is supposed to be happening in about six weeks? The one about which we have no details. Still.
Mhhhhhmmmmmm. That one. The one that makes me want to punch people in the kisser. Hard.
I still don't know anything. And that sucks. It's like, hey, here's this really crazy, disruptive event that is going to happen in your life, and guess what? We're going to leave it a surprise until the very last second, because we know how you like to keep things exciting and stuff.
You know, you don't need to know what's going to happen in your life anyway! You can just not take your holiday! You can just cancel your dream-of-a-lifetime trip to NYC! And Blogher 2012, you didn't want to go anyway. I know you bought the tickets and stuff already, but meh. You're totally over it. And important things like, you know, your cats, and future potential baby number two, current real life baby number one, furniture and possessions, moving companies and containers traveling across the pacific and where we're going to live and the all important question of whether or not to pack away mid-weight sweaters? Whatever! You don't need to know! Only we need to know. Because we are the Powers That Be. And we have all the power.
I know that there are worse things in life. And I do feel like a pack of whinging jackanapes complaining. But still. COME ONE. Six weeks and no idea what's happening in my life? I think that deserves a swift kick to the blackberry.
And, anyway, I'm not sure if my waistline can withstand many more glasses of anti-anxiety wine / stress chocolate in my face hole, nor do I have faith that my husband will tolerate much more of my rage shopping.
We're moving. We're really moving. Maybe in as little as six weeks from now.
But we don't really know.
We still don't know if we're going to take a vacation this summer. If our cats will stay in Japan, and break my heart. Or if they will become Canadian mouse hunters, or possibly American living room lords, and empty my bank account.
I don't know.
I'm not sure what awaits me where we're going. I don't know the degree of the heat, or the weight of the humidity, or the vehemence with which the traffic blares, or the brightness of strangers' smiles.
I don't even know when I can tell you where we're going.
I don't know if I'll be retching my guts out, the price paid for unnameable fruit, luscious and ripe. I don't know what lusty spice awaits, what sour piques will awaken the palate. What strange textures, and unknown flavors will capture my heart. I know nothing of the islands we'll visit, of the sandcastles we'll make, the white-knuckle flights on dodgy airplanes, under the burden of broken air conditioning and a mysterious stomach bug.
I don't know if I should get a typhoid vaccination. Or how I'll get a mumps vaccine for my girl before we leave. Or a final shot inoculating her against polio. And do I need to horde children's Tylenol? Sunscreen? Multivitamins? Headache pills? Natural insect repellent? Children's books? WIll I need sweaters? Do pack them away and risk mouldering? I need a new pair of jeans, but is there a point? Will I even wear them there? Are sundresses to shoulder-baring and indecent?
I do know that I'm excited. In this moment right here, after a noodle dinner with my family and an evening bike ride, I'm happy. I know that some days are hard. And some are wonderful. I know that sometimes I cry, and sometimes I get on with it, and clean out the closet, making piles, this one to keep, this one to sell, this one to toss. And some days, even, deep down in hidden depths I relish the adventure, and feel lucky that I have this story to tell, this story that I don't yet know.
You guys, I have something to tell you.
We're moving. Hurrah!!! And also, poopsicles.
I can't tell you much more than that right now. Because part of the blogging busienss model is to be cagey and dramatic and keep people guessing about what is happening in your life and why you need to be so dark and poetic and say stuff without actually saying stuff.
That and also because Mr. Chef has not officially signed anything. Nor do we have any tickets. Or visas. Or ideas about what we're going to do with our fur children. Who are not invited. Wah. Wha. Also WAHHHHA. (PS totally unsarcastic. I'm, like, legit supersad about this.)
What we know is that it's happening. Allegedly. Sometime. Maybe August? Like right around the time when I'm supposed to be on vacationn? The vacation to replace the one that had to be canceled at the behest of the company because of Important Secret Spy Chefsicle duties?
Anyway, aside from pooping in my pants, and being insanely excited about the prospect of new vistas, new firends, new foods, and possibly a drinking out of a coconut with a straw while hammocking my heart out, I'm spending my time alternating between having anxiety attacks about what needs to be done before we go and wanting to stick my head in a sandbox full of Xanax and IGNORE IGNORE IGNORE. I'm also making lists. Lists. Lists. Lists. Then ignoring my lists and complaining about just how much there is to do and how I have no idea where to start because there's so much and I need to write it all down and colour code it all and then make spreadsheets and deadlines, and then I freak out because that just seems like so much stuff and so I'd better just drink a beer and watch Breaking Bad.
When I was a girl, I used to dream about hotels. A night in a huge bed. Crisp white sheets. Room service. Slippers and bathrobes. Pool swimming. It was the stuff of magazines, of plush privilege. And so beyond my reach. Staying in a hotel meant you had arrived; I so wanted to arrive.
We never traveled, growing up, except up and down the great lakes to my grandparent's cottage. Resources, temporal and financial, were meager. In my family, we ate store brand cereal for breakfast, and dinner was cow’s tongue with raisin sauce because it was cheap, but seamed fancy. In the summer, three of us piled into the back of a red k-car, legs sticking to vinyl seats, and stop touching me! she's on my side! STOPIT as we drove four hours and hours through the Canadian shield. We didn’t stop at McDonald's for lunch, but ate brown bread sandwiches from re-used milk bags. Economizing. We slept two to a bed in a cramped cottage, and I dreamed that maybe one day we'd drive to Florida and play all day in the waves then sleep in a big hotel bed at night.
Then, at twenty-four, I found myself with my boyfriend in a car, being driven up a palm-lined lane to the soft orange light of a luxury hotel. I was terrified and thrilled in equal measure. My chef was starting a new job on a new continent, and I was coming along with less than a thousand dollars in my bank account. I had no plan, no idea how I'd finagle my legal status after my tourist visa ran out, but the pain of being apart was worse than the unknowing. I’d figure out my visa situation, and I'd find a way after my bank account ran dry.
We arrived at the hotel, and doormen in opulent silk guided us from the car. There were sleek black cars parked in front of the doors, and a Channel boutique in the lobby. I was wearing my best outfit; it was from H&M.
I always thought room service, crisp white sheets, and calculating tips for the house cleaners was beyond my reach, yet there I was living in a hotel for a month as we waited to find our apartment. I had room service palak paneer for dinner whenever I wanted it, but I never knew how much to tip, conflicted because in comparison to those who brought me my meal, I was rich, but every dollar mattered to me, and once my money was gone, there was no plan.
Now, all these years later, I’ve married that boyfriend because the pain of being apart is still greater than the anxiety of not knowing what will happen or where our life will take us next. I still watch our dollars, but I no longer fear that they'll dry up.
Tomorrow we’ll be celebrating six years of marriage, and I'll be counting the many ways in which these six years have realized the impossible, and looking forward to all the impossible possibles in the six years to come, and the six years after that, and then the next six years.
Who knows what is to come. I'm imagining starting our adventure all over again in a new city in a new country and in a new language. We’re talking about chaos, and humidity, new faces open and warm. I'm longing for markets filled with fruit I’ve never before seen, dishes pungent and spicy, rickshaws, motorcycle taxis, batik prints, heat, traffic noise, horns, dust, and adventure. And, perhaps, as a treat, a weekend away somewhere in a nice hotel on a beach with sand so white and water so warm. And crisp white sheets on a big hotel bed, and room service for breakfast. I'll tip the service staff and not worry about the dollars, and we'll three sit on the bed and eat waffles and tropical fruit, he and me and our little girl.
A month ago, I wanted to see the future. I wanted to look into the unknowable and know.
This week I got what I was looking for, an answer to a big question. But that’s only opened more cans and more worms and I want more more more. The details, the minutia, the timeline, specifics. I want to know particular smell, pungent and ripe, on the North-East street corner of my future. I want to know the sound of the taxis and motorbikes, the dust, the exact weight of the humidity at 11:37 AM. I want to know what the light will look like, filtered through what kind of smog, and at what angle the sun will hang while my girl naps, and who her friends will be, and will she go to preschool, and will I be able to find peanut butter and chia seeds. I want time to speed up while I eddy and billow around my apartment, and put things in boxes and check things off lists. But I can’t yet.
I want to tell you about the thoughts swirling around my mind. I want to write about how I filled five pages of my notebook with things that need my attention. I want to tell you of adventure, heat and chaos, and newness and hopes and dreams and fears. Maybe I also want to tell you that trying to be mom enough almost broke me. I want to write about what I know about attachment parenting and feminism, and how potty training is going, and what it taught me about instincts, achievements, and “shoulds.” I want to tell you how I haven’t been writing because I’m too afraid. And that when I sat down and made my to do lists, under the heading of Writing, there was one dash. And nothing else except butterflies.
Some of these things I can’t talk about yet. Some, I just don’t know where to start.
Instead I closed my computer, I sat on the floor, criss-cross-apple-sauce, and counted my breaths.
Then I lifted my screen and I could just write.
It was my day to sleep in. But I woke before dawn, convinced that I could smell something damp and growing. I worried about mould, and I couldn't sleep.
I spilled my smoothie all over the counter. Twice. Pureed blueberries and kale juice pooled, stagnant, and then drifted, ominously towards the floor.
I forgot to buy water. And mushrooms, which are an essential ingredient in tonight's dinner. Fifteen precious morning minutes slipped into history by as I tried to find my phone, and get it into my bag.I forgot where I was going, what I was doing, piles of paper in hand, as I wondered towards the front door.
I'm trying to keep it together. But I'm preoccupied, anxious and not here.
I thought we would know something by now. Where are we going, what's happening? When are we moving?
Big boys were in town this week, and meetings were scheduled. My husband and I agreed not to get our hopes up. We said the meetings were nothing, just checking in. We said that we wouldn't know, and we'd be fine with not knowing. That if we didn't move till after the summer that would be fine. It would give us a chance to put some extra money aside. We are happy enough here, it would be okay.
But we're not really happy here. And it's not really okay.
My hopes crept up. I couldn't nudge them down. I thought that at least we'd get an indication. Third quarter. We're looking at either x or y country. In my secret heart, I told a story about a look-see trip. Somewhere warm. They'd show us a nice apartment. And then we'd go back to the hotel, and we'd sit in the lounge sip champagne, and dream together, the three of us. And we'd be so happy.
Instead we got nothing, no details. An assurance that a move was in the works. But when and where is privy to only the big guns in Hong Kong. As a consolation prize, they handed us an empty promise of further details at a later time.
But when, and where, and who? We have no idea. My life is on hold until some bigshot makes a decision. And we just wait.
I'd like to live my life. I'd like to buy a lamp and know that it will work where we live without a voltage adaptor. I'd like to plan a vacation, and know from which airport I'd leave. I'd like to have an answer for people who ask me what's happening. I'd like to start thinking about when we could maybe have another kid. I'd like to start thinking and dreaming about the time in between now and a million years from now.
Pleas fates, please throw me a bone. Give me a clue. This waiting and wondering is hard work. I'd like to lie down but the pins and needles hurt so.
Linking up for Just Write.
Excuse me while I revel just a little longer in the memories of our China trip. Can you tell that I had, like, THE BEST time evah?
Life in Japan is quiet and unvaried and somewhat cloistered. There are days when my most thrilling experience, my most intense and rewarding social interaction (I mean, outside of that with my child) is the transaction with the cashier at the grocery store, whom I do not even understand.
So going to China, I returned to where where I have real life human friends, where I lived thrill, and excitement, noise, and passion, and dirt and craziness, fireworks, and near-death taxi rides, good food and bubbly. It reminded me of myself, of who I was before Japan. I mean, I even went out! Without my kid! In the evening! To a bar! And drank the hell out of three beers! And smoked a cigarette! And talked to people! I worried that I had forgotten how. But it turns out, it's like riding a bike.
So I feel new, and fresh. Like these pictures, which, obviously because their clarity and sharpness, were taken in Shanghai by Emily.
Stella is wearing a skirt that I bought in the furniture market in Beijing. It's made in the traditional style of the Miao, and ethnic minority who live in the South Western part of China. The real skirts are typically made out of richly patterned silk and are stunningly beautiful. This one is woven, and quite cute, I must say.
Miss S, the budding clotheshorse, is now demanding that she wear skirts all the time. On the weekend, she may or may not have insisted that I take off my skirt and let her wear it. Because pants are totally unacceptable.
Skirt - Beijing Furnature Market
Top - Target
Cardi - H&M
Jacket - Baby Gap
Socks - Smartwool
Wanna connect on Facebook? I'm here.
Oh, hey, to all of you who voted for us on Top Baby Blogs, a big, heartfelt thank you. It's silly and somewhat vapid, but I like seeing our wee blog progress up the charts. I mean, we're by no means bigtime, but still. So thank you. It makes me happy. And if you wanted to throw a vote my way, well, please! I'd love it!
I'm behind the Great Fire Wall. And the powers that be have decreed that my random ramblings and pictures of my dissident child are too sensitive for the eyes of decent Chinese people. So, basically....there will be a whole lot of silence going on up in here until I'm back on the other side.
Until then, wish me luck as I descend the length of half the country in a train with my one-year-old, about 100 kg of luggage, and all the goats and chickens.
There’s a lot of waiting and wondering in Expat life. Rumors and whispers and and emails that you read, and re-read a million times in hopes that you can discover some hidden meaning, or decode a implied message. Maybe he knows where we’re going? Maybe she’s heard? Maybe that call to a co-worker, asking after us, is a sign. Is that off-colour joke holding a cryptic message?
You hear something, and your heat starts racing, and you begin imagining newness, and envisioned tropical heat warms your toes for the first time in a week. Mangos and rice and banana leaves flash. Dirt and pollution and stinky canals. Tuck tucks, getting lost, and forgetting the word for “thank you”. Beaches, apartment hunting, redecorating.
I’ve been dreaming of tropical locals this week. Checking expat forums, wondering what life is like over there. In that place that I can’t name because it’s probably just a rumor or a coincidence or just a funny and completely irrelevant tidbit that falls thoughtlessly off someone’s tongue.
We’ll be the last to know where were going and when we’ll be going there. We won’t hear anything about our move until it’s upon us, and the it’ll be a thrilling flurry of quotes from moving companies, cat paperwork, last minute shopping, boxes, and critical decisions about what goes by air and what by sea. Just help me cross my fingers that wherever it may be it’ll be warm and there will be friends for me to meet.
NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches
It's fast approaching the end of the year which means we have time for just one more Expat Dispatches for 2011. As always, your faithful expat dispatchers from the four corners of the globe are:
North: Linda in The Netherlands at Adventures in Expatland
South: Russell in Australia at In Search Of A Life Less Ordinary
East: Me, Expatria, Baby, in Japan
West: Maria in Canada at I Was An Expat Wife
The December edition of NorthSouthEastWest is something very dear to our hearts. It’s the thing or things that drive us crazy as expats. This month’s theme is therefore an open invitation to have a good ole fashioned rant and is called It’s driving me round the bend!
Over at In Search of a Life Less Ordinary, I share my (absolute lack of) love for packaging in Japan.
At Adventures in ExpatLand, Russell is wondering why it’s always so flamin’ hard to get any sleep in Australia;
At I Was an Expat Wife, Linda examines the discomfort of discomfort;
And here at Expatria, Baby, Maria is breathing a sigh of relief to be free of the expat hierarchy.
So sit back, enjoy these four no-holds-barred posts, and look forward to a wonderful festive season wherever in the world you and yours may be!
Hating The Expat Hierarchy
by Maria Foley
I have many memories of our family’s years in Singapore, and most are suffused with a warm, rosy glow. It was a great place to live: fabulous weather, good food, wonderful friends. My kids were deliriously happy, and that fact alone would have made it Paradise. The only thing marring the perfection of living in Singapore (aside from the crazy drivers, the chewing gum ban, and the SARS outbreak of 2003) was the existence of the Expat Hierarchy.
Singapore has such a massive expatriate population that it was inevitable an expatriate taxonomy would emerge. Lumping all foreigners together under a single expat umbrella seemed crude and clumsy, considering such a wide range of nationalities, demographics, and socioeconomic levels meant that our outsider status was often the only thing we had in common.
It’s human nature to compare ourselves to others, but I’d never considered it a competitive sport until I lived in a so-called expat community. I wasn’t used to being so nakedly judged by the car I drove or the bag I carried. I guess I was naïve, but this was a type of culture shock I hadn’t anticipated, and never really got used to.
Placement in the hierarchy was determined by two different scales:
The Rags/Riches Scale
Also known as the “I’m Richer Than You” scale, this involved a complex logarithm based on such criteria as residential neighbourhood, domestic arrangements (maid? gardener? driver?), expatriation package (club membership? travel allowance? First Class, Business, or the dreaded Economy?), and legitimacy of status symbols (real Louis Vuitton, or Johor Bahru knockoff?)
The Newbie/Veteran Scale
Sometimes referred to as the “Been There, Done That” scale, based on number and length of previous expat assignments plus the desirability and/or exoticism of assignment locations. (Extra points awarded for enduring sudden evacuations (due to natural disasters or social unrest), hobnobbing with celebrities, or living in a locale that was “so pure and unspoilt before the tourists discovered it.”)
I couldn’t stand the subtle and not-so-subtle fishing expeditions for information that would make my place in the social pecking order clear. (For the record: I scored points for living in a nice neighbourhood and flying business class, lost points for not having a maid, and evoked pity for carrying a logo-less bag and buying my clothes at the Gap.)
Not everyone played the game, of course. I met a lot of people who couldn’t give a toss about who washed my dishes or made my sunglasses. They were far more interested in determining shared values and interests than they were in scrutinizing class markers. I liked to call these folks “my friends.”
Surrounding myself with genuine people turned Singapore from a nice place to live into a real home. And while I miss that home — and those people — very much, I’m happy to report that I don’t miss the expat hierarchy in the slightest.
Twenty-two years old, and freshly returned to North America after a year spent in France, I was craving junk. Almost twelve months of craft cheeses, bread, crunchy, golden and exquisite, and choucroute rich, fatty and sour, all I could think of was a peanut buster parfait at Dairy Queen.
And so, that’s what I ordered on my first post Europe outing with my girlfriends. Waiting at the counter, I counted out my change. I had just enough, without having to break a twenty.
The cashier announced the total; about 50 cents more than the listed menu price. I was shocked. I fumbled for a moment, confused at the discrepancy, wondering if she was trying to rip me off. As I handed her a twenty, I asked her, cocksure with my newfound French recalcitrance, why the price was MORE than what was listed on the menu board.
“The tax,” she said, as though I was the biggest idiot in the world. And I kind of was for forgetting about that detail, so pervasive a part of Canadian life.
After a year of paying exactly what was listed on the price tag, an add-on tax seemed foreign to me, despite the fact that for 21 years of my life it was very much native.
And so goes the way of the expat. As we move through foreign lands, our own ways and modes of being slowly erode, and we disremember what once was natural.
This trip back to North America is no different. I’m forgetting how to be a North American. In my mum’s minivan waiting for a light to turn, a wave of anxiety pass over me, as I fret about what lane I should be in. Is it the left? Or maybe the right?
When I return to my hometown, I’m lost, turned around, amazed at how the landscape has changed in my absence. My aunt gives me directions to a shop that I want to check out. She names off roads and landmarks. They sound familiar, but I can’t place them in my mental map. Routes that were once part of my regular territory are now uncharted. I’m from there, but not really any more.
At a coffee shop, I’m paralyzed with self-doubt for a moment. Where do I order? What kind of drink to I want? How does this work, exactly? I feel exactly as I do when freshly arrived in a new country: unsure, self-conscious, strange. The girl behind the counter senses my hesitation and I want to explain, I’m not from here. But my pale skin, my familiar accent, the car keys in my hand betray me. I’m from here, I guess. But not really.
Stella and I are heading back to Japan this week, and I’m looking forward to being back at home. I’m from there. But not really.
NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches
We’re back — four intrepid souls who swap guests posts each month from the far corners of the globe. We are:
North: Linda in the Netherlands at Adventures in Expatland
South: Russell in Australia at In Search of a Life Less Ordinary
East: Me, in Japan at Expatria, Baby
West: Maria in Canada at I Was an Expat Wife.
The great philosopher Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Let the examinations begin! Our theme this month is self-knowledge, or what expat life has taught us about ourselves.
At I Was An Expat Wife, I learned that tolernce is much easier in theory than it is in practice. At In Search of a Life Less Ordinary, Linda realized that the more she learns about expat life, the less she actually knows. At Adventures in Expatland, Maria learned that within her timid exterior — deep, deep within — beats the brave heart of a gambler.
Please do read our stories, and share some of your own in our comments sections. We’d love to hear what expat life has taught you about yourself.
And now, on with Russell's post wherein he learned to trust his gut and remain true to his values in his search for a fulfilling expat life.
All expats are not the same.
But we do all have a vision of why we became expatriates and what we want our expat life to look like.
My own journey wasn’t the result of some high-faluting international assignment with a global corporation. I was not packed off to the tropics with wife in tow, dog under one arm, and a big house and eager manservant waiting for me at the other end. Joining the increasingly mobile ranks of professional transplants from around the world was simply not to be read from my tea leaves.
Dare I say that my expat journey was more personal? It was a self-initiated search for a different way of life. It was a self-funded move to a well-researched location in the hope that it could provide unique and exciting experiences, opportunities and adventure not readily available in my home country.
I yearned for a better work-life balance away from the intensity of London commutes and traffic and noise. My entire being cried out for a more natural environment with mountains, ocean, freshwater lakes, and abundant wildlife. I wanted to enjoy my job but I wanted to love my home life more. I craved a wholesome existence, focusing on family, downtime and fun. The lifestyle I sought was an active, outdoors and environmentally-focused one. Most importantly, it would bring a peace and calm to the intensity of my pre-expat life and would wrap me and mine in these core values that I so passionately believed in - and that were the driving force behind my expat move.
The problem was that it didn’t take long before I lost sight of these values. Within two years of my first international move to a place where my value system was almost entirely fulfilled, I was challenged with job insecurity and role dissatisfaction. On the basis of career, and contrary to my gut instincts screaming at me to pull back, I moved my family cross-country to a second expat home and completely skewed my long-held values in the process.
Looking back, I realise I’d reverted to the old ‘me’, the person who put the lure of an interesting job before the possibility of an exhilarating life. When faced with uncertainty and unease, I’d farewelled my intrinsic beliefs in how this expat life should be and replaced them with a single goal: to find a better job.
Arguably, I paid for the price over the next few years, unhappy with my decision and based in a city that didn’t tick the boxes and satisfy the soul. In ignoring my instincts and those niggling doubts, I’d landed us in an environment that was neither particularly exciting nor very stimulating. Life outside work was staid and routine when we should have embraced this new city. The outcome was always going to be the same. We were destined to move once again.
I learned much from this experience. I started to trust my instincts and believe that my core values were important to me. My next (and current) destination tied me back into many of those values I held dear: the improved location; better work-life balance; outdoors lifestyle; laidback way of living. And this much became obvious – I needed to always put these values first and remain true to the vision of what my life is and what I want it to be. By doing this, I would guarantee a match between what was dear to me and a location that could provide this.
Expat life has taught me that there are a range of ideas and desires that we expats go in search of – these are our core values. Whilst not all of these values can be found in every destination, some are absolutely non-negotiable. By trusting in my instincts and listening to my core beliefs in this final expatriate move, I had regained my focus on, and belief in, what was important and necessary for international expatriate happiness and fulfilment.
Expatriation continues to teach me that not all expats are the same - we want different things and have different needs. I learned that on my own expat journey, I will stay true to myself and believe in core values and goals. They are the key to a successful life lived abroad for, without them, an expat life is not all that appealing.
Image: Photography by BJWOK / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Russell VJ Ward
Russell is a British expat living on Sydney’s Northern Beaches in Australia writing about his search for a life less ordinary at www.insearchofalifelessordinary.com. He can also be followed at twitter @russellvjward.
Down the hill and across the street there is a large and significant shrine. Stella and I pass through it almost daily, a shortcut on our way to the park. The air is always a couple degrees cooler there. Groves of ancient trees form arches overhead, and I can smell dew settling on the lawns, the only grass for miles. Gravel, carefully pulled by rake into clean, straight lines, crunches under my bike tires as we pass.
Stella and I went for a stroll on Saturday evening. The shrine is busy on the weekend. Weddings, ceremonies, festivals, and flea markets are hosted here. This particular Saturday, a Kendo lesson was underway. As we approached, we could hear the twap thwap of bamboo swords as teenagers and children, some no older than 6, were gracefully springing forward on bare feet and whapping each other on the heads.
I thought Stella might be frightened by these strange figures, dressed in armor and wielding weapons. But she was enthralled. She stood still for five minutes. And then signed "baby, baby," as she pointed to the smallest warriors and then tried to wriggle out of my grasp and join the fray.
We met a pair of twin girls, five years old. They marched through the lawns with Stella, chanting "ichi ni ichi ni" as encouragement. Their father, glancing back from his lesson, smiled at us. Soon the sun was setting, so we said good bye and the girls each gave Stella a small, green acorn.