Friday, December 20, 2013

Happy Holidays!

Dear readers from wherever you are (there are lots of you in the USA, but also Canada, UK, Germany, Serbia, the Netherlands, Italy, China, Israel and Ukraine)
in a blink of an eye it is almost Christmas and in case I won't be able to write a new post, I want to make sure my best wishes of happy holidays reach each and every one of you!
Have a wonderful time with family and friends!

Will be back soon,

Monday, December 16, 2013

The business of staying healthy in the USA

You will never know how important health care is, till you badly need medical attention. The moment you have to deal with your health insurance as a student or newly hired worker in the USA, you realize that this is a world of its own. Most of the times health plans are already offered to you by universities and companies and this can spare you an endless search in comparing insurances' costs. The health plans provided by universities are pretty comprehensive. If you have to look for one yourself, the principle is the same as shopping for the most convenient phone plans. But you'll see the discrepancy: your health cannot be compared to a cell phone! That is an aspect that can give you the chills. The concept for Europeans is quite new, as we have a social healthcare that covers everything and we don't really think about it. We take it for granted. In America it is not so.
First thing, read carefully the insurance policy, what is included, what is not, co-payments, dental and vision. These are all aspects that will make you raise both eyebrows, but you must think in these terms: your health is an investment you want to protect. 
If you ever need medical care, be ready and patient, not only will you have to put up with your physical ailment, but also you will have to fill out an incredible long list of questions and honestly when you are sick, it is really difficult to manage. Usually in Europe patients talk to doctors, probably in the USA doctors cannot be bothered by patients' complaints and they'd rather read. Though, I must say I had a very nice doctor while at university who was very easy to talk to. The system of filling out papers is quite obsolete and clunky. The problem is that there is no central system that allows to share your medical information among hospitals, health centers, different M.D.s; in this way, you fill the form in only once without writing your medical history over and over again. So, whenever and wherever you need it, your information pops up on the screen of every doctor's office. Wouldn't that be practical and efficient? In Europe we have a card with a microchip that contains all these data and every time I go for any visit they already know who I am, without writing my name two hundred times.
One other thing: keep a close eye on every single item that is listed in the medical bills you receive. There are mistakes (a needle, a bandage, a plaster, etc. ) and most of the times it is to their advantage, go figure! It goes without saying that, when you need medical treatment because you are really ill, you don't really feel like putting up with all this accounting that demands your fullest and undivided attention. Most health insurances offer routine check ups and highly recommended screenings. However, when you inquire a bit more, it turns out that these check ups are not free at all, they can cost you quite a lump of money (the screening I was eligible for was around $400). Another aspect regards medications. Now, here I really have troubles understanding how it works.
A medication I got for free in Europe (one blister for 50 days), in the USA I had to pay (actually it was co-pay), around eight dollars for 30 days. Can you imagine what it would cost without insurance?! Anyhow, the issue is that this medication in Europe, if I were to pay it in full, would be 2.89 euros. The only difference between the two medications is the price, being the components identical. How is it possible that in the USA I spend a lot more despite having health insurance (which incidentally happened to be one of the most expensive/comprehensive ones) and in Europe for EXACTLY the same stuff I pay much less even without insurance?? Does it just come down to American pharmaceutical companies' greediness, where their profit margin is huge, taking from both insurance and insured? It would be cheaper to import some medications from Europe.
For serious medical conditions and or procedures, you must be aware of what is awaiting you. Take giving birth for instance, it is also quite a lucrative business. Despite being a natural event-and wishing all the best to mother and child, like a short and painless delivery!- sometimes there are complications, unfortunately. I want to report some data I have found on this website, where you can find more if interested:
Childbirth centers, which provide a wide range of services for home births, water births and similar average the lowest cost, at $2.227. However, always do your research first: see what they offer and ask for the total costs. Keep in mind that if something goes wrong, either to mother or child, they still need to be taken to hospital. Birth centers in the North East charge around $4.800. But if we stick to hospitals, the prices range from well above $10.000 up to $ 24.000. According to these data, a vaginal birth in hospital with no complications is on average $ 10.657, but if you aren't this lucky and need a cesarean with complications you'll end up paying almost $24.000. These costs DO NOT include additional anesthesia for either births (vaginal and cesarean), newborn care and maternity services. Even the duchess of Cambridge didn't cost so much to British citizens when she gave birth to their royal heir. In fact, it seems the costs were about $15.000, and she got a suite all for herself!
Also tourists must be warned that before leaving they must be covered for the time of their stay. Even minor health issues can ruin your holiday when the bill is presented to you, and I am not talking about open-heart surgery. Plaster casts, insulin drips, calling an ambulance, each can run up to $2.000 and more. Spend some money on a good insurance: if you don't need it, you might think it's money you wasted, but if you ever end up needing it, you'll be so thankful you spent it.
Even though you are young and fit, never underestimate health care because in case you'll ever need it, you might end up paying bills for the rest of your life. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

I refused an H4 visa because I chose freedom

For two years I had been living a relatively quiet life of an immigrant student's wife. I tried to keep busy from the very first moment we moved into our new life abroad. I had left my job back at home and finding myself alone was a challenge. Now I could pursue other things I hadn't had the time to do before, but at the same time I was intimidated because I had a lot of time to manage on my own. I tried to look on the bright side. Being on a J2 visa, I immediately applied for an employment authorization card. Eventually, I found a part time job I loved. I considered myself extremely lucky because I had found an occupation that kept me busy and allowed me to stay among people. Life was looking good and my sanity had been preserved for a while.
Things started to shake again when my husband was offered the H1B visa, which meant for me to pass on an H4. This visa, as most immigrants' spouses know too well, implies many limitations. I was to give up my financial independence and my professional career. My higher education degrees were nothing more than trophies used as wallpaper. I was forced to give up everything I believed in and worked for. The prospect was very ominous.
In the meantime we also had moved to another place, closer to my husband's workplace. The friends I had met in the previous two years were also moving to other destinations. I began to feel totally deserted, lost and useless. The delicate new balance I had created abroad was starting to crumble. The situation deteriorated pretty quickly; I got sick and spent time in and out of doctors' offices to find out the cause of a mysterious allergy that was tormenting me. I was losing my strength in body and spirit and I realized I had to do something before it was too late.
Slowly and painfully I started to realize that I couldn't beat this system that denied me to be who I was and who I aspired to be. With an H4 visa, I was to sign away my freedom and I couldn't force myself into something I also believe to be fundamentally unconstitutional. In fact, I felt this visa status was violating and contradicting many primary constitutional rights. An oxymoron: a legal paper that limits or denies your rights! What happened to Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin's Declaration of Independence? Did they really mean that all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights, including the pursuit of happiness, or some men are more equal than others (to paraphrase George Orwell)?
I felt very confused; in the land of the free I had no freedom. Within legality, since I had come to the country following all the red tape to the dot, I was limited in many ways that forbade me from living my normal life. This is a country where slavery has been abolished, women have the same rights as men, a nation populated by immigrants (not to be sarcastic here, but how many can really trace their roots back to Pocahontas or Sacajawea??), and yet, LEGAL immigrants' wives are at the mercy of their husbands, depending on them for everything. Are you kidding me?!? There is something against nature in this perverse system. Many immigrants' wives can't cope with this situation, they feel unwelcome, unwanted and invisible; hence, in the best scenario they decide to leave: empty handed, abandoned and broken in their spirit and in their lives. 
I was wasting my days, my life, away in a nasty place that I was loathing by the minute. The system wanted to reduce me to a role totally unsuited and anachronistic for today's women. After long and serious considerations, I came to the only possible conclusion: I was to leave if I wanted to recover and regain health and happiness. It was the hardest decision ever. I was leaving a country that despite everything I still loved for many reasons, but obviously for some others I started to hate. 
This adventure was also taking a huge toll on my marriage. However, despite the odds, I have been very lucky. Unlike many husbands who decided to follow their careers, my husband followed me.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Pilgrim fathers and today pilgrims: preparing for your own Thanksgiving in the USA

It is that time of the year when knives are sharpened and plump feathery beasts are served on elaborated tables as guests of honor. If you are in the USA, you mustn't miss this national celebration: Thanksgiving. The American tradition wants to commemorate the first harsh winter of the Pilgrim Fathers, who supposedly celebrated with a banquet the abundance of this rich land and thanked the Lord (I guess) and their kind neighbors (the original inhabitants) for the protection, help and generosity given to them. In fact, they had a lot to be thankful for.
When we went to see Plymouth plantation and the Mayflower, visitors get a little taste of what life could have been like when the first pilgrims and puritans set foot on the new continent. Seeing what they had to go through, I thought that if it had been up to me, there would be nothing to celebrate today! I would have turned the boat around. Their desperation had been strong enough to make them put up with all the hardships they were about to embark. Religious persecution in England must have been a far worse demon than a bleak stormy ocean, unfriendly savages and overall a life of deprivations (but after all, they were puritans, so I believe they didn't expect to find Las Vegas on the other side of the world). 
But let's go back to that winter in 1620. The first immigrants had made it safe and sound on a wooden ship after a month sailing from England to Cape Cod, which is a miracle by itself. Close your eyes and try to imagine sharing a common room/deck with more than a hundred people for more than a month with almost no food left!? They must have been extremely disciplined, no doubt about that. I am saying it only because I can imagine myself getting cranky, complaining about the food, lack of privacy, seasickness, noisy and smelly travel companions...probably, after the second day of navigation they would have thrown me overboard!! As pilgrims of the 21st century, we can hardly take a flight of 9 hours without complaining, can you imagine a voyage longer than a month in ghastly weather conditions?! 
I swallow hard and proceed, I am thankful I can travel by plane, even though I am not a fan. We, modern pilgrims, also have a share of issues when coming to the USA; from less than relaxing flights, which can drain you out if you are a nervous type by nature (sometimes I feel like getting on my knees and kiss the ground under my feet), to even far less friendly airport security checks. My first time in the USA was greeted by a brutal "unwelcome to the USA" in Denver. I had no idea what racism and profiling was, but I learnt all this all too quickly in the longest and most extenuating 3 hours or more I was held for questioning by a nasty C.B.P. officer-woman. Hard to believe that a high school student would spend a summer abroad to study the language! Anyhow, after that first shocking experience, I have traveled more and met definitely nicer and friendlier C.B.P. officers. At JKF I met a really nice border patrol officer and we both had a hysterical laugh. I was asked to take my sneakers off. The only problem was that the day before there had been a power cut on all the East coast, nothing was working and passengers had spent the night sleeping on the floors. It was August, very hot and humid. With a smile on my face and not at all embarrassed, I asked him if he was sure, because my shoes were a bacteriological bomb judging by their smell! He cracked down laughing and I was glad: some people have a sense of humor and I love laughing! 
However, back to our story of almost four century ago: landing successfully on the American shore was only a brief moment of glory for those brave souls. There was no hotel or already set up lodgings to welcome them with a warm shower, warm food, proper clothes and nice clean sheet to sleep in. They were welcomed by a cold winter and the wilderness of New England. Not surprisingly, half of the people who undertook the first voyage died in the first winter in Plymouth, MA. They had to be self reliant in everything and rely on each other. The housings they built were unfit for that climate, as well as the seeds they had brought from England which were almost useless to cultivate in that environment. They were doomed if it hadn't been for the intervention of some friendly Natives, the same ones the puritans called "savages", the irony here is the pot calling the kettle black. In fact, the puritans had a weird way to show their gratitude.
It is very likely that some indigenous people were moved out of pity or human kindness towards the helpless hoard and their help was crucial for the survival of the Europeans through the first winter. However, as history teaches, the relations must have been chaotic from the very beginning to say the least. Despite the help received, the puritans didn't trust their neighbors and soon enough built fences and towers around their settlement. On the other side, the indigenous people felt a danger coming from those newcomers who were spreading and taking over their land. And their fears came true. Not even twenty years later several tribes like the Pequot, who were originally located in the south east corner of Connecticut, had been declared "banned", the few survivors left were sold as slaves. The pilgrims had indeed a weird way to show their gratitude. Prosperity was finally coming to them and nothing was going to stop them.
But now back to us, and to the turkey awaiting! Being away from home will make you feel a bit homesick as this festivity is typically celebrated with family and friends, so don't pass on invitations of friends to stick together for this holiday. Enjoy their company and taste the typical American cuisine: cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, stuffed turkey, gravy, pumpkin pie and pecan pie. Let's get in the mood and think: what are you thankful for? 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Green card: thanks but no thanks!

If you have been in the USA long enough, you must have heard a great deal about the green card, the last step before applying for the American citizenship, only for those determined enough and not easily put off by long and extenuating procedures to apply for it. You have worked so hard, you made it where other people failed or they just weren't as lucky as you, but finally you are there at the final step of a long process: you are eligible to apply for a green card. A dream that comes true for some who long for this piece of paper that can elevate them immediately to a status of "almost American" compared to the lower status of "legal residents". Finally you can enjoy some real freedom: you can apply for jobs, change jobs, get in and out of the country avoiding that long line of "Non-US residents" at the airport. That's all good and fun! 
And yet, a few people turn this prospect down. The first reaction you get, when you tell people that actually you were in the process of getting a green card and had second thoughts, is 'you must be mad'.
When I still was in the USA, I was told of a German woman who moved in a little village close to ours. Nothing special, if she had come into the country with any type of visa, but within our international group the word spread that she actually got in because she won the green card lottery! The exciting thing, for us all, was that she didn't have to deal with all the paperwork we had to (true, she had to do different and more stuff anyway) but she skipped all those stages where we were. We all wished we were in her shoes, after all it's an opportunity that is given based purely on luck, you don't really have to work or study for it. You must still be eligible, meeting some criteria, but from there on, it is all downhill. When a year had almost passed, we learnt that she had had enough and was going back to Germany. We were speechless: so soon! What made her change her mind?
Similar stories though can be found everywhere on the Internet.
I mentioned before the stories of friends of mine married to American citizens. You'd think the process for them was straightforward but it still took them time, effort and money (yes, there are a lot of fees to pay!). It seems that whoever planned this procedure wanted to discourage people from tying the bond. Anyhow, these couples successfully went through the application process and got the green card. After living for some years in the USA, they moved to their native countries and didn't bother to maintain their green card, in fact you must spend an allotted time per year in the USA, and that's how they lost their green card!! Despite what outsiders may think, they have no regret whatsoever. But whenever they fly back to the States, their families get separated: daddy with kids born in the USA go in one line, mummy and kids born outside of the USA, go in another. I don't know why but this idea freaks me out.
And at last, it was our turn: we got offered a job and the lawyers started the engine. We were rolling with both applications for the H1B visa and the green card. But when everything started sinking in, both of us got cold feet. I still don't know if it was the right thing to do or we threw away the biggest chance of our life. So far though things have been good and we can't complain.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Ellis Island: who knew?

When I visited Ellis Island and its awesome museum (yes, it does inspire awe because of the human history and stories it contains), I was deeply moved by the entire experience, which should not be part of America alone, but a treasure of all mankind. Witnessing what immigrants had to go through, from the voyage by sea to the severe medicals they had to undergo, was a lot to take in. The system was in some cases brutal, for instance, if one of the immigrants had a disease, they were immediately separated from the rest of their family (like in a concentration camp, I thought), and boarded on the ship to be sent back to an unknown future. Hence, ship companies, in order to prevent these situations, applied even stricter rules for their passengers to save their own interests. Passing through the rooms where people were examined and questioned gave me the chills; that is where I learned the story of an admirable man, Fiorello LaGuardia, whose career started here as an interpreter and helped many immigrants getting through the interviews. If only those walls could talk how many stories they could tell!
At the end of the visit, in the computer room, I accepted the challenge, or rather the invitation, to check if any of my own relatives had passed through its doors. To me was nothing more than a game because, as far as I knew, none of my ancestors had moved farther than 50 km from their native village, let alone crossing the ocean in those steam ships! In my mind I was giggling at the idea of imaging one of my folks, people from the mountains, undertaking this adventure in open sea. I wanted to prove the computer wrong 'see, told you I am the first one ever in my family to have set foot on American soil', which of course makes you stand up in the family!
My fingers started tapping on the keyboard. My jaw just dropped: I had found my maternal great grandfather who arrived at Ellis Island in 1912, more than a century ago. He came from a village that at the time was in Austria, and he was 32. He was so old, I thought, for that time. Looking at the dates though it made perfect sense, probably he was running away from the great war, who knows? But why leaving all his family behind? Probably he couldn't afford to pay for them all. He was already married and had some kids (one of them was my much beloved and missed grandpa).
Without realizing, I started crying. I felt so stupid for thinking those petty things a little while ago and laughing about it so lightheartedly, while now I was facing the whole tragedy of a man who was there for a better future, like all people who had passed there. I had so many questions and once I was back home, I was able to ask them to one of his children who was still alive.
When I was in New England I thought that was a terrific opportunity to grasp, so I convinced my husband to explore the place where my great-grandfather had lived. I delved a bit into his story and found out that he was headed for a mining village in Vermont. We drove to this village, forgotten even by God, and my mind went stray. 'How did he reach this place at the beginning of the 20th century?' It was Thanksgiving day and while everyone was eating turkey, we left our car and browsed around the area. It felt chilly, "was he covered enough?" I tried to find a sign of his passage. Dilapidated buildings, almost a ghost town, no sign of human life. I felt a pang 'certainly this place has known better days' I said to myself. But deep down I was crying' why on earth did you leave your lousy village to come to a shitty place like this one? Couldn't you have picked a warmer and nicer place, for God's sake?" He must have heard me and for my insolence he punished me straight away!! In fact, all the pictures I took of that desolate place to show back at home were gone, my camera just vanished like in thin air!
I have all the admiration in the world for what my great-grandfather went through. Four years later he left the USA, moved back home, as penniless as he left, he died of emphysema caused by his years working in the coal mines. Another forgotten soul that contributed to making America big.

Monday, November 11, 2013

When immigration policy fails

A frequent topic of discussion with my international friends in the USA was our visas.
We were comparing, evaluating, estimating our "alien status" as if we were talking about our own babies. If you think about it, a visa is a process that has nothing to envy to a pregnancy. It takes time and preparation. And once you are delivered with it, you suddenly are charged with joys and responsibilities. Welcome to the craziness of the visas' world!
Once you are hooked up in the carousel of visas and you think you are all set, think again! You have to learn all the limitations that come with you visa,  about leaving or not the country, having to leave the country or not. Do you think things get easier once you get the green card? Wrong again. Two friends of mine married to American citizens, said just forget about it! They went through a lot to get their green cards, eventually moved back to their countries, respectively France and Brazil, and never bother to maintain their green cards, which among many things imply having an American address and spend X amount of time per year in the USA. Guess what?! They are happy people even without it! To tell the truth though, I wish I had it only to avoid the endless line at the airport when you fly in. After such a long flight, another nightmare is about to begin: all non US-passengers are lined up like cattle and treated like suspects. Guys seriously, do you look at me? After a 9-hour flight my neurons are not even connected. Not only do I look like a zombie but walk and talk like one: I could kill for a bed and some sleep! And for the record, it is only a figure of speech...
But let's go back to visas. There are too many and I am only familiar with few of them.
In my previous post entitled "I have been offered an H1B visa" I warn my young readers against fab offers, sometimes too good to be true, and in this article I will still talk about H1B visas in this time of worldwide economic crisis.
Getting an H1B visa is not an easy job. Very often people who get to this stage are those ones who, after graduating from an American university, find a company that will sponsor them, investing in their skills. But not all degrees are the same: a scientific and technical background is highly requested and valued, whereas humanities are not equally considered; so if you studied electrical engineering, you are more likely to get a job than if you ended up with a degree in literature. Sadly this is true everywhere.
But being a foreigner is twice as hard when applying for a job, especially in a time of economic strains. Instead of helping out the economy in these tough times, immigration policy does the opposite by tightening up its immigration laws, slowing business's growth and targeting foreign workers inefficiently. When immigration policy dictates times and ways to companies and business in general, it is really slowing down and jamming their productivity. On this issue, you might find interesting these articles on CEOs asking for strong action about immigration policy:

Having assessed though the needs of big companies to have international qualified workers, now let’s see the same issue from the worker's perspective.
As I already said in previous posts, for a worker whose paperwork is in order, it is frustrating to be limited within the law by the law. Rather than tackling the real issue of illegal immigration, immigration policy goes after qualified, legal workers. By the way, this has created a lucrative "spin off business" where immigration lawyers charge an arm and a leg to both companies and foreign workers to deal with the paperwork!
But let's face it: it is easier to go after those ones who are "visible" to the system than chasing the "invisible" who are a commodity for the American economy. The invisible, illegal workers, are underpaid and do jobs that Americans don't want to do. Hence, it is convenient to turn a blind eye on the whole issue, swiping the dust under the carpet. Both contenders in this game win because both get what they want: the pragmatic, cynical America has cheap, un-insured labor so that it can afford to keep motels and restaurants open 24/7 and on the other side, the illegal workers who have their "dream" to work for. The only loser in this game is legality and the other side of those foreign workers who comply with the rules. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Women pioneers' life: now and back then

When we arrived in New England at the end of a steamy summer, I wanted to make sure we had every possible aspect sorted out to face the cold winter. I was so excited: I had read so much about these places and its history and finally I was about to experience it first hand. We had our winter gear shipped from Europe to our new address, my husband also made sure I had all movie entertainment available whenever I needed it (I had all my TV series, movies, even cartoons that would keep me company in those long lonely, cold and stormy days). Besides having the apartment set up in proper order, we also started stocking up on supplies of stuff we needed for those crazy situations (aliens invasion, nuclear war, etc...just joking.. mainly for awful weather conditions that basically forbid you to get out of the house for a couple of days, if you are lucky).
We undertook this project very eagerly and with a high dose of adventure; we never had to do anything like this before and the excitement was running high. Preparation was the most fun, we wrote down a list of basic things we thought we needed in case of emergency to get us through a couple of days, no more. If worse came to worst, we thought, they would sent the National Guard to the rescue. So here it is:
1. some extra blankets
2. an inflatable mattress (don't ask me why, but we ended up using it many times)
3. a first aid kit and medications (make sure you keep your prescriptions with you and never run low on those!!), tissues and wipes
4. a torch (or even two) and batteries
5. candles (my favorites are bee wax, a bit pricy but totally natural, last longer and give more light, besides the smell that I like)
6. matches and lighters
7. a radio, make sure that before a storm you have all your electronics like cell phones and laptops recharged (in case of a power outage)
8. a stock of bottled water (we usually bought two of the 24 pack), milk, chocolate, canned food, fresh fruits (like apples, bananas and oranges that last longer), dried fruit.

Eventually we ended up needing all of the above! Needless to say that if the roof of your house gets blown away, you need more than the things listed. The area were we lived in was hit hard by a series of natural events: in one year only we went through 7 major snow storms, 2 hurricanes, 3 tornadoes and 1 earthquake. Even though we took weather alerts and warnings seriously, you can't be prepared for the unpredictability of the weather: tornadoes and hurricanes caused heavy damages to houses and people around us. But the apartment building where we lived was untouched by them; it was only snowed down heavily, which in most cases  means a power cut. However, we got lucky once again because the longest power outage we had, lasted about 6-7 hours. And that happened on Halloween: hard to forget! That is when our inflatable mattress came in handy as we hosted some friends whose apartment was affected by the power outage for a couple of days. I was happy I could provide a warm and safe shelter to my friends!
One thing though I learnt is that we could not rely on electronic entertainment alone, so we had to be more resourceful and turned to old-fashioned activities, which we enjoyed immensely. In one season we did seven jigsaw puzzles of 1000 pieces each.
If my expectations were met so far, as the weather went, what I didn't expect was the length of the winter season. Honestly, I quite enjoyed the white landscape and I had to make the best of my situation in the first year I was there. Hence, I turned to my old favorite hobbies to keep myself busy: baking, cooking, reading, going to the sport club for some laps and eventually I spent quite a lot of time doing jigsaws and watching some good oldies, which in that context were almost therapeutical.
I was thrilled because I was living an American adventure but soon my enthusiasm started to dwindle. I couldn't just stay home and play "wify", I needed to get out and stay among people, be productive, useful, in one word become part of the society. I didn't mind back then as I still don't mind now being a housewife but that is my choice, I could never stand for the imposition.
On one stormy afternoon, I began scrolling the list of movies and bumped by accident into "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" and I started watching it. I immediately felt a strong kinship with Milly, the female character. Probably because of the loneliness and the long winter I was witnessing from my window, I had to think of all those women who like Molly had to endure much more. Sitting in my warm and cozy living room, I felt projected back in time, but the wilderness outside was exactly the same. I was also leading my pioneer life, working alongside my husband, doing my woman’s chores: cleaning, scrubbing, washing, baking and cooking (thank God, no wood chopping and food hunting or gathering). The only activities I could do because my status didn't allow me to work. 
The story is told in a lighthearted way but it also entails some critical all time issues like the place and recognition of a woman within her family, her society and ultimately her country. Milly fights hard to gain her place and respect of people around her. I felt for this character who, with the prospect of a better future, rolls up her sleeves and works hard despite the hardships she faces and I felt I was doing the same. I was working for my family, despite a society and a country that had neither place nor recognition for me. 
Milly became my heroine, the epitome of all those women, silent protagonists, who have been the backbone of the American dream. Women who worked along their husbands struggling to provide for their families but content and grateful for what they had built. Milly is the spirit of pioneering which I embraced wholeheartedly. If America hadn't had an army of Milly Pontepee, there would be no American dream to sell today. But for us, foreigners, it is a different story.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Europeans who came back

Every time I meet with people who used to live in North America, I love to hear their stories as re-pats. I guess I can't help myself but I really have to find out if the reasons they decided to come back are the same as mine. Here are some stories people shared with me throughout Europe. 
All these stories have a common link: these people I met are highly qualified/skilled workers who were offered an opportunity that allowed also the rest of their family to experience life abroad. However, after so many years (in some cases a significant amount time, that you'd think by that time you either make it or break it), they decided to go back to their roots. 
A Dutch couple, who were well in their sixties when I met them, spent 8 years in Canada and they offered a very simple explanation to my question: they decided to go back to the Netherlands because they felt their home country could provide a better education for their three children. Likewise a German couple, who spent 5 years in the USA, had a similar story: education was a main factor that brought them back. This is a common issue that many Europeans face when tackling their children's education. We trust our school system, especially Northern European countries that regularly stand out in international student assessments' rankings. However, since the experiences of these families, the situation, as far as education goes, seems to have improved especially for Canada. In fact, in the latest PISA study of 2009 conducted by OECD, Canada placed sixth worldwide improving its education system by leaps and bounds. Education is the foundation that defines our identity, beliefs and ultimately leads us to our professional career; therefore, providing top quality education becomes the prime concern especially for highly educated parents, whose expectations for their children are quite high.
Social and cultural aspects might also contribute in the decision process of leaving. Despite the common belief that wants Americans easy-going and friendly, there are objective difficulties in establishing durable friendships. I don't want to oversimplify or sound harsh but Europeans perceive Americans as shallow when it comes to relationships. Now, this aspect deserves a bit of delving into its cultural causes. I have observed it many times: Americans don't mean any harm, it is only a cultural aspect that has to be understood in order to avoid puzzlement and disappointment. Because of the frequency of their moves from one state to the next, from one job to another, they need to make friends easily, they invite them over, give them their car key, overall being very helpful and generous. They are simply terrific! However, when one moves away, everything it is as good as forgotten. They are very practical, if you have a material problem, they can help you out. Europeans, on the other hand, tend to build more meaningful lasting relationships nurturing quality over quantity, and allowing time to get to know people. Europeans mainly rely on their friends for moral support and confide in them, something Americans don't do because they pay their psychotherapist for the sphere of emotions and feelings. These are very generic considerations made throughout the years and that's just what they are. For the record, I do have American friends and we have been in touch for over twenty years.
Another interesting factor that popped up talking with mixed-couples was the overall quality of life and location. Italian-Americans, British-Italians, French-Americans, all these couple left the USA because, in their case, they couldn't deal anymore with the sense of loneliness and abandonment typical of the great provincial America. The vastness and solitude of rural America is a scenario quite different from the skyline of NY or LA and this comes as short as a shock, especially when you come from the hustle and bustle of European towns. Buying the fresh French baguette from the bakery just around the corner is not the same as driving your car for miles to the closest grocery store and running down an aisle to buy plain industrial bread.
Talking to people about their experiences abroad is quite an eye-opener. In my last months of stay in the USA, I was torn between propagandist ads running through mind "fulfill your American dream" and the realistic vision stating "look around yourself, there is no dream here". I realized I was not the only one who went through this process of revelation; confronting each other's experiences has been enlightening and extremely helpful to see how re-pats are immunized by the charms of the American dream and how they appreciate and re-evaluate things they have back home.