Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The snail rides again



We were telling friends at dinner about our snails.

Last year, I brought home 40 shells to use as decoration.

The next day Rick commented on the cute snail climbing up the window. The next 30 or so that he spotted he did not think were as cute.

How was I to know that there were live snails inside the shell?

About six months ago we found snails from time to time and finally one dead snail.

Last night as I was pulling the curtains in the bedroom closed when I saw on the patio, one snail crawling across the tiles.

Rick hopes that was number 40.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Memories of a lost Syria 2000

This painting of the old part of Damascus sits on my desk.  Every time I look at it, I am reminded of the sins against that wonderful country. The region has a history going back over 3000 years before Christ, with a rich, rich culture that has a depth that only many western nations could hope for.

I cry for that wonderful country.

I cry for the people whom I know that are still there living and whom I  love.

I cry for the refugees.

Why don't those that reject them realize it was the Western world with their attacks and bombings that have created these refugees? Why don't they realize that they could as easily, with a change in world power could be refugees too?

Here are memories of my first trip to Syria. Later trips were to see people that I cared for.


If someone had told me when I was a little girl growing up in Reading that one day I would peek in a Bedouin tent as sheep grazed nearby or that I would watch the Syrian army on manoeuvres near the Iraqi border, I’d have told them they were totally nuts. 

But thanks to Marina, I did all that and more. She was from Damascus and in 2000 was a neighbor and now a family member of choice. 

The destruction of this wonderful country, with its wonderful, educated population is beyond a war crime. That much of this lives only in my heart and memory is a great tragedy, not just for me, not just for Syrians, but for the world.

Palmyrian’s Roman ruins, etc. now under attack

Marina hired a car to take us through the dessert to some of Syria’s most historic sites. I’ve gotten use to seeing traffic signs for Paris and Milan, but Beirut and Baghdad were new. Almost as amusing was seeing a billboard with a totally veiled woman and the slogan in English was “German Fashion for you.” 

Our driver stopped at the Baghdad café and it so resembled the movie that I expected to hear the plaintive title song come across the dessert sand. Palmyria is a restored ruin going back to before and during Roman times. Isis has destroyed some of it.

Unfortunately, I was in the Tomb of the Three Brothers (which holds 360 graves) dating back to the two centuries B.C. when Saladin’s revenge struck. I desecrated the stairs and would have been perfectly content to have become the 361st laid to rest. 

As Marina steered me across the street to the toilets at the Cham Palace, I told her that the VIP on our car stood for Vomiting in Palmyria. 

I became a devotee of Syrian toilets, which are usually a key-hole shaped ceramic hole, tiled in with a hose for cleaning yourself and then the area. 

A person outside often hands you ONE tissue in return for money to pat yourself dry. An advantage of this type of toilet, is that it precludes anyone from saying to the person on the other side of the door “I’ll be out in one more chapter.”

St. George’s Monastery

The Monastery has been on a green mountain side since pagan times. The Ottoman killed all the early Christians who’d taken it over, but in the last century, the Syrian Orthodox Church has claimed it. 

Marina booked us into cells there, mine fortunately next to the toilets. As I lay on my cot I heard the Gregorian chants of the monks at Easter prayer. 

Dinner in the refractory was a silent affair except for the Bible reader. The priests fast during lent eating only once a day and then eat no meat or oil. However, the hummus, beans, salad looked like it would have been a great meal, but Marina insisted until my system adjusted I was to eat only boiled potatoes and pita bread. She relented and let me chew the fresh mint.

The monastery has a beautiful icon which was stolen and recovered by Interpol. The next morning when we were about to leave, the Bishop asked to see her. The monks prepared me a breakfast just because I was sick and Marina stood guard to make sure that no parasite from the food on the table would join any friends that might be lingering in my system.

Ebla

Throughout the trip I was constantly aware that I was in an ancient civilization. Walking in old Damascus on Straight Street, I knew was mentioned in the Bible. To stand in the church where the head of John the Baptist is allegedly buried, reinforces this, but nothing prepared me for Ebla. It was discovered in 1964. So far they’ve uncovered three civilizations going back 4000 B.C. and 15,000 letters on clay tablets. The guide was a Bedouin who spoke both French and English, called me madam, and showed me where the olive oil had been pressed so long ago and an example of ancient Greek graffiti. 

(Note: After a later visit I was given the contact with the Italian who translated the tablets. I visited him in Rome and had wanted to write a novel but with the war, it is impossible. The guide on the second trip welcomed me into his home and into places that would not have been accessible to the average tourist.)

Transportation

I saw the 1950 green Chevy that my ex-husband used to pick me up in when were in high school and
my first car a 1951 grey Pontiac and a old dodge with fins. In fact I’ve seen every car I ever had and a lot more. 

Most were reincarnated as taxis. I rode in more taxis the last two weeks then I  the rest of my life. To cross Damascus was under $1.00. 


We also took a Bus from Aleppo to Damascus, a four-hour trip. It was necessary to show your passport or identity card to buy a ticket. 

Ours was equipped with a movie, a sort of Egyptian Laurel and Hardy.

Restaurants and singers

Once Marina said I could eat again, I fell in love with a dish made with brown beans, chick peas, olive oil, garlic and yogurt. Unlike Switzerland where 10 p.m. is considered late, many restaurants have singers that start at 10 or 11. 

One singer sang tunes made popular by the likes of Englebert Humperdink, Dean Martin and Elvis Presley. The second did Charles Azanavour. 

Syrian singers combined rock and Arabian music.


I tried a water pipe. The waiter brought an extra mouthpiece. This tobacco was strawberry flavored. Young boys come with a brazier, adding hot wedges of tobacco to the pipes. A five-course meal for six of us came to $35 which would not have bought one dinner in an equivalent Geneva restaurant.

Veiled and mosque sitting

One of my neighbors in Geneva said once that she really believed as part of her religion she should be veiled. Yet as a feminist I’ve always found the concept difficult, but I refuse to judge others by my point of view. In Damascus the veil is not that common in comparison to some other cities. Older women are usually covered in black while younger women may wear long coats and scarves and the youngest just scarves. However to enter the large mosque in Damascus, I had to be scarved,veiled and shoeless. 

The Mosque was beautiful and peaceful. Sitting, my heels well aware of the soft carpet. Some Iranian pilgrims were sitting listening to Koran and crying. I couldn’t feel what they were feeling, only feel them feeling. How wonderful that they could find such joy.

Good Friday and Uncle Peter

Each of the Christian churches had a parade starting with the Flag of Syria followed by the church flags, the church band (some which have over a 100 musicians of all ages) and then statues. I was with Yara (who came to Geneva  to see Marina twice, once when Llara was here, and we invited our friends Sara and Tara just to be perverse) and we went to her Baptist church. 

She grabbed her Uncle Peter to translate. This man is in his late 70s and as he told the story of the resurrection, his face lit from within. He is balding with a few grey strands and a fringe, but it is a beautiful face. “I hope you understood my bad English,” he whispered at the end and insisted I go downstairs with the rest of congregation, where the minister glommed onto me. He had read English Literature before becoming a minister (I think half of Damascus studied English and American Literature and know it better even though I too majored in the subject. Their grasp of the American culture is truly impressive.)

Tooing and froing

Marina had tried to prepare me for the women. During the many visits they prepare food, talk, listen to music, etc. I spent one wonderful afternoon in Yara’s mother’s courtyard with several women. We were all opening nuts as she was baking sweets. 

The fountain in the courtyard was bubbling, the jasmine hung heavy on the air and their three turtles were scoffing down what vegetation they could find.

It doesn’t matter what time of day, lentil soup, fool, hommus, pita bread, kibi, tabouli, etc. is always ready to be served.

And they drink maté. A small glass is half filled with this grass like herb. Sugar is added and a few shakes of cardamom. A silver straw is used to sip it. Water is added several times before the maté is deemed no good and the procedure starts over. 

The support the women give each other is incredible. Even working women are usually done by 2 in the afternoon when most offices close for the day. Stores/Souks reopen after 5.

Ladies of the English Class

 Marina’s aunt has been taking English lessons.. She encouraged several of her friends who are in their late 60s and 70s to do this also, and they decided to show me old Damascus. Well we saw the place St. Paul was lowered in the basket, the souks, etc .They took me into the atiliers where they were actually making the furniture, the rugs, blowing the glass. Not the ones for the tourists, but the real ones.

Products

Except for cars, appliances, and Benneton (who makes many of their products in Syria) I saw no brand names. No McDonalds, No Coca Cola, no Pepsi, no Nikes, etc. Almost everything is bought from small stores or the souks. And yes, I did get a chance to bargain. Yara helped me do my Christmas shopping. I also bought Yara something she wanted. She thought she was picking it out for Susan, whom I told her had identical taste to her.

The National Museum

On my “You can’t leave Syria until you see the synagogue in the museum” instruction from Marina, Yara and I  popped into the National Museum. When we got to the ticket booth we were told we didn’t need them. It was too close to closing. 

As we were walking out with the rest of the people, a guard pulled us aside and took us on our own tour of the museum after it was closed. I did see the synagogue, and several special exhibits. Someone in Yara’s French class works there and saw us. He sent someone down to give us a special tour after the museum closed.

Misc.

To shake your head no, you tilt your head backwards instead of shaking it side to side and/or make a tittitit noise.

In a restaurant ladies room, a fully veiled Moslem woman touched her scarf and pointed at me. I thought she wanted me to cover my head with the scarf I was wearing around my shoulders. I looked confused. Then she touched my hair and smiled. The woman with her said, “It’s beautiful.”

In one town they only speak Aramaic, the language of Christ. There was a sign that said in English “Sandwiches, Cassettes.” I loved the juxtaposition.










Sunday, October 25, 2015

Walking vs.driving

One of the best things in Argelès village is the ability to walk everywhere saving hours of driving time. Usually my errand commute take less time than finding a parking place elsewhere.



This morning I walked all of two minutes to act as Rick's translator at the hairdresser. 

It worked. 

He came out looking like he wanted. I could have had them do a Mohawk and he wouldn't have known until the first cut.


Next stop was the butcher. That was about three minutes or would have been had I not stopped to talk to Annie, who runs the frame shop. The butcher picked out and cut up in exactly the right size my lamb for my Moroccan lamb stew. I could have ambled to three others.

Then less than 30 seconds to the green grocer. Elisabeth didn't do the two-cheek kiss...she hugged me. Can't imagine that happening at a supermarket.


Also in walking distance, a goodly number of our friends, a church, a doctor, dentist, physical therapist, pharmacy, art gallery, book store, library, antique shop, movie theatre, five bakeries, a traiteur who sells prepared dishes,  and ever an artist or two.



At least five restaurants are within a five minute walk but Bartavelle remains our favorite.



Tea rooms and cafés abound and we are still talking no more than five minutes from front door to destination,  BUT if you walk all of  20 minutes you are at the beach.


And if you feel religious you are at the church constructed in the 13th century. That is about seventy steps from our front door. As we heard bells this afternoon we guessed it was a wedding.




We do have a car (although I went 20 years without one and saved a fortune) which with luck we never have to use or almost never have to use. The last car I shared with a friend didn't use a tank of gas from Feb. thru Nov. Our goal for our next flat in Geneva will be to duplicate convenience by living in the city thus not needing a car.







Saturday, October 24, 2015

Last confettision

Last February, during Carnival in Argelès-sur-mer, our neighbor boarding the little open tourist train that was part of the parade signaled us to hop aboard.

We did and participated in throwing and were pelted with confetti.

 It was a memory-making moment and for weeks if not months after, we found confetti.

October 20th, some eight months later, when we were in a waiting room, we looked down at the floor.

There was a piece of confetti that had not been there earlier. No one else around could have donated it.

We thought it was the last one, but this morning Rick found one more. Maybe there is no last confettsion.




Thursday, October 22, 2015

Home again, home again jiggerty jig

Misty mountains muted the fall colors of the trees as we drove from Geneva to Grenoble...

We've done the route many times, but this one was the prettiest. The standard of wow-look-at-that is very high.

Then there is a blank as I slept. When I woke, the topography had changed to the vineyards, crusty rocks and scrub pines of Southern France. 

We made record time. Six and three quarters hour and if you are asleep it goes even faster.  When I used to travel with my friend RB2 we would barely be out of the driveway he'd tease, "You're still awake?" whenever we went any where. Part of the reason, I think of him as a brother wantabe, the teasing that is. If only when I have trouble sleeping, Rick would drive me around.

Coming into our street, our front door was covered with flowers. Our patio is full of flowers. My landlady had left red roses and a Danish friend had a single yellow rose. 

And there have been another kind of flowers. Hugs, including from the more reticent French, became abundant. 

After unpacking we walked around the village. The first person we saw was my favorite mammie who warned Rick to take good care of me. Then we were greeted by Laurent at La Noisette and Marco the artist who had taken off a lot of weight. He almost looked respectable. 

Marco brought a rose and a book to lay on my friend Barbara's final resting place. She sold books. Over the years, the villagers have staked out different memories in my emotional database.

My wonderful landlady brought down her fish soup full of salmon and shrimp that she knows we love. There were basics in the frigo so we did not have to shop.

The doorbell rang and PBJ (Swiss friends who we only see here) were there with more hugs. No, they aren't a sandwich but neighbors whose initials match the childhood lunch. Dinner is slated for Sunday night. Some day I have to make them one.



This morning on the way to say goodbye to C&W (not a store) who were returning to the UK and leaving at 9:15, I ran into Mattieu, the hotel owner. I still have to catch up with his partner.

Rick and I had an English breakfast at La Noisette, followed by more hugs and cheek kisses from people whom we know.

One of the reasons I love the village is that I get a chance to see people just by poking my nose out the door.

It will be a quick ten days. It will be a wonderful ten days.

Then we will jiggerty jig to Geneva until the new year.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Ten little indians

Decades before Political Correctness and as a child in nursery school, we sang about ten little Indians sleeping in a bed. One rolled over then there were nine. When nine little Indians were in the bed and one rolled over there were eight.

I now see it as a metaphor for death. Instead of Indians falling off a bed, friends, dear friends are falling out of life.

It started three years ago with the loss of Mardy, with whom I had 53 years of friendship going back to high school when the same boy dated us both. We decided we liked each better than him and we shared all the bad and good things thereafter. 

Then last November, Babette, the green grocer, came to my door to tell me Barbara had died in the doctor's office after telling a joke. Barbara had walked to the office after having a chat with my husband. A great death for her. Terrible for us.

In a small village the word had spread within an hour and Babette had a key to Barbara's house and found her address book but had no idea who should be called. She knew I would -- I did.

Walking by her store front now converted into a regular house is as the man who sells sausage says, "It isn't right, I miss her." 

I know. We were neighbors on Wigglesworth Street and on Delle Avenue in Boston. We owned a house together at one time in France. 

Barbara and I shared stories and lives since 1978 and worried about each others kids. We plotted how to make our lives better, what had to be done to reach our dreams. 

I am happy she had an easy death. I will never be happy she died. 

A Swiss gentleman I dated for 14 years died on Sunday. He was ten years older than I am now. He helped my French. 

There would be times he would be with my daughter and his kids and he and I would speak French. He would speak German with my daughter. I spoke Franglais with two of his children and French with other and sometimes Spanish was added when his daughter-in-law was with us. In a restaurant, any multi-lingual waiter serving the table would open and close his mouth trying to figure out which language to use. More than once they just placed a menu on the table and left.

Our relationship's ending was more a drifting away without rancor or pain. 

I want to tuck all the remaining Indians whom I know into their beds where they won't roll out of bed and stay in my life.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Why are you doing this to me?



This blog is eclectic in topic, but we regularly do stories on expat Americans, who have had their lives hurt or destroyed because of FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliant Act) shutting them out of financial markets where they live. The cartoon is from the Isaac Brock Society which is fighting back.



Arlene (named change to protect her) is asking why she is being persecuted by the US.

Her ancestors were on the Mayflower. She was once proud of her birth country.

No more.

Now she is afraid of it. 

Here is her story.

In 1975 she left the US to marry and stayed in her husband’s country, where she lived and paid all taxes due the Canadian government where the money was earned.

Forty years later she is a widowed senior citizen living off  a VERY modest retirement savings. All of her money was earned outside the US. Now she could be subject to paying up with unbelievable penalties on money that never touched US soil.

Only recently did she learn about the Citizen Based Taxation (CBT), which means that US citizens living outside the US must report and are taxable on every cent earned all over the world.

She also learned about FATCA, a US law that demands that banks all over the world report American accounts, just in case there is an American who is not reporting it to the IRS. 

The banks face huge fines if they don’t obey. Countries even have changed their laws under US pressure to make sure they are not shut out of the international banking system.

The US is the only industrialized country to practice CBT. These taxes, with only a few exceptions, are also payable in the country of residence meaning Arlene is doubled taxed on her meager retirement earnings.

After learning about CBT and FATCA, she said she, “spiraled instantly into terror, rage and untold depression. These feelings remain today. It was as if my entire world had crumbled beneath me.”

Many forms American expats have to file are sent the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network even though they have done nothing wrong. 

She said that the US has ,“made me into a criminal and was out to financially destroy me. Me, an almost 70 year old, whose only criminal activity to date had been a few parking tickets.”

She is trapped.
  • She cannot afford the high rates for a professional to put her in compliance. Most often these charges run in the four and sometimes five figures.
  • She cannot afford the $2,350 renunciation fee and would still have to file five years of back tax forms even if she owes nothing and five years of Fbars reporting her bank accounts.
She is afraid to:
  • Renew her US passport
  • Enter her bank who may close her account
  • Visit her children in the US
  • Attend the funeral of a US friend
  • Visit the graves of her US parents
Arlene is not paranoid nor alone. FATCA and CBT are threatening the financial security of 8.7 million expats in various degrees.

She asks, “Why are you doing this to me?”

There is no good answer.


Saturday, October 17, 2015

I've been called ( )

 It is hard to find a photo of vomiting that isn't repulsive.

Over the years I've been described by many titles
  • Daughter
  • Sister
  • Wife
  • Ex-wife
  • Writer
  • Journalist
  • PR Director
  • Divorcee
  • Consultant
  • Editor
  • Publisher
  • Friend 
  • American
  • Swiss
However more and more I'm becoming known as the "woman who vomited."

When I renounced my American nationality, I blogged how it upset me that I had to make a choice between being American and having a bank account in the country where I lived, Switzerland. I blogged it. blog.http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.ch/2011/12/one-of-saddest-days.html

I was so upset that when I left the Embassy in Bern that I threw up. 

I included that in my blog, which was picked up by journalists and groups who are fighting FATCA, the US law bullying non-US banks and other investment by threatening such huge fines and punishments that it is easier for them to shut out all ex-pats from all types of banking and investment opportunities.

I am not alone...other people who have been faced with financial ruin or returning to the US after building lives abroad are also renouncing not because they want to but because they have no acceptable choice.

Now, I meet people in the community who are fighting these draconian regulations, "Are you the woman who vomited."

On a recent radio interview one of the people about FATCA mentioned a woman who vomited after surrendering her US citizenship.

Of my titles, I think it is one of the more interesting.  The only problem I regret the necessity for my choice that led to it.