Archive for August, 2013

Moving On, Part 2

by on Saturday, August 24th, 2013

Along the Neckar River

Carol’s story

Part one of the memoir deals with the years 1949 to 1960, while this part leads up to my first job in Asia in 1984.

In 1960 my dad took another leave of absence in order to teach for a year at the University of Tübingen in the southern part of West Germany. We went over on the MS Berlin, an old ship from the line Norddeutscher Lloyd line, dwarfed on the dock between the USS United States and the HMS Queen Mary—both passed us twice, once in each direction, on the eleven days it took the Berlin to get to Bremerhaven. For me the crossing was wonderful. I’d just left high school behind and spent the summer taking university classes and hanging out with older, sophisticated music students. The Berlin was full of Fulbright scholars, all college graduates. My cabin mate was a Fulbright student from Puerto Rico. We met a couple of boys and spent every evening in the bar, sipping fancy drinks like Jamaican Punch, which was only 15 cents on the high seas. On the last night the bar was full, so we bought a magnum of champagne to drink on the deck. I was in love with the romance. Offhandedly. on the train the next day my dad told me to be careful in the coming year, that Germans didn’t make very good husbands.

The Alte Aula

Nothing really quite compared with being eighteen and arriving in a university town right out of The Student Prince. Some of my classes were held in buildings which had been remodeled in 1488, for example in the Alte Aula, the old hall where Hegel had once taught. Before they were admitted as regular students, Americans had to have their first two years of basic college courses. So I was admitted as a special student, and my dad arranged for my professors to give me oral exams at the end of the semester so I could get credit for them when I returned. This was essentially individual study, and that appealed to me. I took good notes during lectures and spent a lot of time looking things up in libraries. In Germany higher education was almost free. My tuition for one semester was $25.

German universities took good care of foreign students, probably because some of them, like African students, would go home to become important people. So university foreign students’ office arranged tours for us, set up language classes, assisted people with housing—whatever. In February 1961, six months before the Berlin Wall went up, we took a trip to West Berlin. We had an overnight stay in Bamberg, where to my shame I saw how much rowdier the clubs were in the American zone than they were in Tübingen, which was in the French zone. In Berlin we got taken around a lot, for example to streets where one side was in the East and the other side was in the West. We were told that if the bus were to overtake another vehicle on the road we might get shot at. We visited a center for East German refugees. The pro-West rhetoric was poured on pretty thick, but I knew not all of it was bullshit. In Hamburg my tough, much-admired Latin and science teacher had explained matter-of-factly that she wouldn’t be going swimming on our class trip. We found out hadn’t been swimming since she’d escaped East Berlin by crossing the Spree with gunfire overhead.

The highlight of the trip was meant to be a meeting with Mayor Willi Brandt and his people, who served us very good wine. Brandt presented his views on negotiating with the East, which seemed reasonable to me.  The real highpoint of the trip, though, came in the evenings when I went to through Checkpoint Charlie with a good-looking German student who’d come along as an assistant to the tour leaders. His name was Ernst Zorrer, he was the president of the university socialist student organization, and we were becoming quite friendly. In East Berlin we went to bars where we drank beer with the locals, asked questions and heard the opposite of whatever we’d been told on the other side. The East Germans seemed to have a fair amount of freedom to speak their minds. Students in our group bought books in East Berlin which not unavailable in the East, as we’d been told, they were only illegal in the West. Their books were later confiscated at the post office near our hotel. I bought only a Hungarian cookbook which made it back all right.

Ernst and I saw each other a lot, although his socialist friends were very critical of his dating an American. At that time most of the young Germans I knew rejected the behavior of their parents’ generation and called themselves “European,” not “German.” I rejected nationalism altogether. It was tedious going through the where-are-you-from routine. “Well, the southern part of the US.” “South America?” “Arkansas.” “Arkansas?” “Where Little Rock is.” “Oh, where the racists closed the schools rather than admit black people.” It seemed there was always something, whether it was poking fun at the US warning labels on cigarette packs or speculating about what the new President Kennedy was going to do. At least that McCarthyite Richard Nixon hadn’t won. Or the talk about my nationality could go the other way, with middle-aged women telling me how thrilled they’d been at the end of the war to be liberated by blond, blue-eyed Americans “who looked just like us.”

On New Year’s Eve, 1960, my father had discovered that his 18-year-old daughter could not dance. What followed was three weeks of nightly ballroom dancing instruction which lead to my being able to follow anything—dipping this way and that, spinning 180-degree turns, fast German waltzes, anything. At that time in my life he couldn’t possibly have given me a better gift. Every weekend the university sponsored dances in the student union, and I danced with guys who were so good everyone else cleared off the floor to watch—just like in the movies. Ernst took me out to dinner in restaurants and at the French officer’s club and brought me fruit baskets of roses from his mother’s house. I was enchanted.

The problem was he pressured me too much. Grudgingly, I said, okay, “I love you too.” Then he wanted us to get married and go off to Switzerland to work as translators. I was not that enchanted. I was doing well in the German-to-English translation class where the instructor and I were the only native English speakers, but I was very aware of my limitations. I was also too young to get married. I was uneasy about the resentment he had against children who played with their food. How would our children understand that he’d almost starved after the war? I suspected my dad might be right about German patriarchal attitudes–although of course I didn’t have that language in 1961. And I freaked at that crazy glint Ernst had in his eye—once, briefly—when he spoke of his own political destiny. When my dad offered to put me through another year at Tübingen, I said no. I was afraid of caving into Ernst’s pressure to get married. My dad promised that if my grades were good enough to get me into the Phi Beta Kappa honorary society, he’d send me to Europe for my first year of graduate school.

Wedding photo

Back in the States, life was a lot easier for me than it had been in high school. I knew people who were doing interesting things, like organizing sit-ins in order to integrate the main college beer joint. I had a new boyfriend who knew the bar owner and trusted him not to bring in someone who was underage—which I was. So I found my life not too bad. After an argument with my dad about curfew (actually about the boyfriend), we agreed that I’d move into a dorm on campus, where my room became the center of late-night discussions on all manner of things—politics, literature, sex, the meaning of life. My grades were far from Phi Beta Kappa. The boyfriend left for Texas. After a melodramatic three weeks of wearing black and writing in my room,  I started dating a graduate student in the English Department, a man of French and Norwegian extraction whose last name was pronounced with an accent grave on it, Dussère, which I thought was far more unusual and cosmopolitan than Thomas. He was good-looking, sexy, sometimes witty, my parents liked him better than the two previous boyfriends, and I didn’t know what else to do with my life, so at twenty-one I married him. I also loved him, but it took me years to figure out my head was still stuck in the movies.

We spent the two summers before the wedding working in Yellowstone National Park, where David made good money as a bellhop and I worked first as a cabin maid and then as a soda jerk/waitress. Our friends included year-round employees who traveled the tourist trade circuit, people very unlike myself and the bookish liberals I usually hung out with. David considered my adjustment worthy of a name change, and so did I. I began calling myself “Carol” instead of “Carolyn,” which sounded far too much like the bookish, girly (incompetent) person I actually was but didn’t want to be.

After David’s M.A. graduation and the wedding, we moved north, where he had a job teaching English at the University of Wisconsin—Superior. I graduated from there with a major in English, a minor in German and enough Education credits to qualify for a license to teach in public high schools. His idea was that I would put him through school. My idea was that we would live a sort of liberated, Parisian Left Bank lifestyle. It wasn’t until well into the engagement that I discovered he actually expected me to do housework. We rented a huge, high-ceilinged apartment that had been a suite of offices, and we led a somewhat bohemian existence with a lot of parties. As a friend of mine put it, I was “a lot more independent than most wives.”

After two years we’d saved $5,000. It was ear-marked for his graduate school, but I talked him into going back to Tübingen for a year. After all, it had been five years. It was time. So we went. As far as the marriage was concerned, it was probably a mistake. I didn’t understand his inability to pick up the language.  I’d always seemed to breathe it in with the air. I resented being shackled to him as a translator, even when we were in Italy, where I first used my high school French and then what Italian I could pick up.

One day in 1965 I ran into Ernst as he stood on the street handing out flyers about a demonstration against America’s war in Vietnam—opposition to the war started earlier in Europe than it did in the States. He’d been to Africa with the German Peace Corps, the German Development Service, and his political commitment had grown. He looked very good. We talked for a couple of hours. That was the last I saw him. Years later, in 1972, he appeared in a San Francisco Chronicle article about six German students who’d been arrested in Greece for their opposition to the Junta. They were accused of belonging to an organization which was suspected of trying to hijack a plane that JFK’s son was said to have been on, so a lot of speculation. That’s Ernst, I thought, fighting for democracy in Greece.

For my academic future, the trip to Europe was good. Even though secondary education in Germany was far superior to education in the US, by graduate school the we’d caught up enough that I was adequately prepared for seminars. When I started applying for high school jobs in the US, I discovered I couldn’t get one without a personal interview, but I could get a teaching assistantship while working on an MA in German literature. We went back to Arkansas. I got the MA and then a full-time job teaching German and English at Arkansas State.

Jonesboro was a revelation—287 miles and a hundred years from the town where I’d grown up. Fayetteville was a town in the liberal, northwest corner which had seceded from the Confederacy. On the five-hour drive across the state, you could track the change as the Volkswages with Eugene McCarthy bumper stickers were gradually replaced by pick-ups with George Wallace stickers and no taillights. As we drove into down, past rows of shanties and then the wealthy neighborhood, I predicted that before the year was out we’d be invited to join the country club. And we were, although of course it was a new country club.

Politically, the university was undergoing rapid change. Win Rockefeller, a liberal Republican, had just been elected governor, making the university president’s connection with Gov. Faubus pretty useless. But politics was everywhere. Major decisions were said to be made at the weekly luncheons at the bank which I refused to attend. The dean bragged that a black student in his classes would have to do an A’s work to get a C in the class. I got on well with most of my students and some of the faculty, but I didn’t fit in. One of my students was convinced I was a foreigner who was lying about her nationality.

David finished up most of his graduate work, and we moved back to the Wisconsin State University system. He taught English. I took studio art classes, taught German for a semester and tried to establish my own ceramics studio. The crack in the marriage turned into an abyss. Ms. Magazine appeared on the market, and I became even less of what he’d wanted, namely an easy-going woman like his mother who admired her husband’s French charm and ignored his foolishness. During arguments I was no longer cowed by his turning red in the face and roaring like a lion. So then the question was what’s next? My art teachers expressed no enthusiasm for my going on to art school. I considered classes in welding at Western Wisconsin Technical Institute until someone told me I’d have the same trouble selling wrought-iron railings as I had selling studio pottery. If I took a factory job I’d have to raise my hand every time I wanted to go to the restroom. But graduate school—I could get a teaching assistantship in a couple of weeks. I left.

My graduate work at both Arkansas and Kentucky was good. Both German departments were far better than the name of the school might suggest. I worked hard. At Kentucky I also got caught up in the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment, writing articles for the school paper, appearing on television and the radio, doing teach-ins, helping to organize demonstrations for women’s rights or civil rights or Kentucky coal minors or gay rights or against racism or US military involvement in Latin America. At one point the head of the German department said he’d seen me on television and invited me into his office. I was sure I was in for a scolding about inappropriate behavior, but he only wanted to tell me how good I’d looked on the news. (I’d looked very academic.) I was ambivalent about really playing a leadership role because I suspected personal political ambition might steer me away from the anonymous grassroots activism I believed in. Still, it was fun. I carried the banner for Kentucky National Organization for Women down Constitution Avenue in the largest feminist parade in American history. I have never felt more patriotic than when demonstrating against the government.

1978 ERA demonstration in Washington

The NOW banner

But back in the real world, Ph.D. in hand, I discovered the teaching jobs in higher education were drying up. I took a job at Louisiana Tech—another bad fit—for one year, went back to Kentucky and took a job at the University of Arkansas for two years before I went on unemployment. In three years I’d published my doctoral dissertation as a monograph with a German academic publishing firm. I’d co-authored a book with my father. I’d gotten three substantial articles and maybe ten reviews in academic journals. I just didn’t see how I could work any harder. I applied everywhere and figured that there were probably 10 to 15 job openings annually, nationwide, in my field and maybe 400-500 people applying for them. At interviews people would tell me they were amazed at the kind of candidates they could get, people like me. Still, the odds were not good. I applied for all the German teaching jobs I could find and wrote 220 application letters to university presses in the US and Canada. I applied for jobs in Japan teaching English. I got nothing.

So now what? A friend gave me a copy of What Color is My Parachute? I couldn’t read it. I didn’t want a new career. But I figured out I did want to live abroad, which my early experience had prepared me to do. I wanted to keep writing, although it didn’t have to be academic writing, and I wanted to keep teaching. That realization led me to the one thing I’d sworn I’d never do. I went back to graduate school.

Even though I applied three or four months after the deadline, my credentials were good enough to get me teaching assistantships in both schools I applied to. I decided on the University of Pittsburgh because it was urban and east coast—well, kind of, or at least not as much America’s heartland as Illinois. I fell in love with Pittsburgh. Nowadays, when people ask me where I’m from I say that’s my home of choice.

In the 1980s an MA in linguistics with certification in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) was more than sufficient for what I now proposed to do, travel the with two suitcases and a typewriter. As it turned out, the new career started when I got a letter from a company I’d written to about a German teaching job in Nigeria. They were now in the TESL business, and they were offering me a job at Xiamen University in China. I asked advice from everybody in the department. They said take the job. I took it. And I found out that Xiamen was exactly where I was meant to be.


Moving On, Part 1

by on Sunday, August 11th, 2013

The Thomas family 1955 passport photo

Carol’s story

This is the first part of a memoir on living abroad and in the United States. It deals with my life from 1949 to 1960.

It all started in 1949 when I was seven and my brothers were five and two. My father had received a Fulbright fellowship to do research abroad, so my parents rented out the house, packed the five of us in their new Ford—which they had to sell in order to pay for our passage over—and drove to my grandparents’ farm in Upstate New York. In an attempt to shield her grandchildren from postwar deprivation, my grandmother begged my mother to leave us behind with her. At least the baby. I overheard and expected to find the Europeans, particularly Germans, so poor they were living in caves, cold and barefoot.

We sailed from New York in an ocean liner converted from a battleship, the first of our six transatlantic crossings we were to make as a family. It was luxury: white linen tablecloths and attentive waiters, seven-course meals, orchestras playing in the lounges, a library, card and shuffleboard tournaments. In those days Europe was further away than it is now, as evidenced for example by the fact that, months after the end of the World Series, my father still didn’t know who’d won.  The New York Times didn’t carry sports.

The Thomases with Madame and Roger Lepage

In 1949 the Duchy of Luxembourg had not yet become an international financial and corporate center. There was no expat community. Only two or three other Americans lived there, and I don’t think I ever met them. The city was a thriving metropolis with tourist attractions like the Roman ruins. For the first six months we were in the city, living and taking our meals a family-run hotel called the Hotel Lepage. Monsieur was a pot-bellied, good-humored man, an accomplished chef who took his work seriously. We children were told not to ask for ketchup for our French fries. Monsieur could barely tolerate putting salt shakers on the table because the cook was the one who knew how much salt the dish needed. The Lepages and my parents became lifelong friends.

I was put into second grade in the girl’s side of a large school which was probably public-supported, but with Catholic religion classes I was allowed to skip. My classmates were thinner than I was and wore cotton pinafores over their hand-knitted wool clothes. My chubby cheeks, curled hair and foreignness made me an instant hit. One of my friends told me later that when I was introduced to my classmates they’d whispered among themselves, “Ooh, let’s teach her Luxembourgish.” It was a time of great nationalistic feeling, but Luxembourgish was considered a dialect, not a language, and our classes were taught in German.

I got along well with my classmates. During recess we played marbles in the schoolyard. During class I was included in whatever cutting up was happening, and once I had to stand behind the roll-out blackboard. I made reasonable progress, though the math class was far more advanced than the arithmetic classes I’d had in the United States. I couldn’t handle the dip pens we were supposed to load with ink from the bottles on our desks. The two halves of the nib kept spreading apart, leaving big blotches on my copybook.

Within a short time I could speak German and Luxembourgish. We had French classes at school. In the evening I could practice with the Frenchman who came to the hotel regularly for his glass of wine. I was very proud when asked to translate from Luxembourgish for my mother and my language-professor father. Once I added that my mother was so stupid she couldn’t even speak Luxembourgish. She wanted to swat me.

During the daytime my brothers went to a crèche which the state had set up so the children’s parents could both work. My two-year old brother soon became the spoiled favorite. Mother said that once when she showed up early he was banging on the kitchen door demanding a treat. When the Duchess of Luxembourg came to visit, Ricky was the one selected to present her the bouquet of flowers.

After about six months, we moved from the big city to a small, picturesque farming village with gabled houses and piles of straw and manure in the yards in front of the houses. One side of our house was a stable for animals—so people and animals could keep each other warm—but now empty. My parents hired a local girl to clean. The laundry she boiled in a big pot in the back yard, lifting each piece from the pot with a stick and flinging it on the wooden table, where she scrubbed it with great vigor. Instead of attending a big city school where I had to do long sums and communicate in four languages, I went to a two-room village schoolhouse where I learned to knit and tried to draw straight lines without a ruler. At lunchtime it was my job to fetch a loaf of bread from the bakery, which meant getting past the nasty gander across the street without getting bitten.

My parents bought a black 1929 Chevrolet. Getting it started was a two-person job, with my father turning the crank in front and my mother pumping the gas, afraid that the engine would start up with a jolt and break my father’s arm. The car stood high off the road and would swerve a bit in high winds. Groups of kids used to spot us, then race us down the cobblestone streets on their bicycles. If we were going downhill, they would win. Sometimes when my dad asked directions, the traffic policeman would hop on the dashboard and take us there, just like in the movies. The car came along on the ferry when we went to Britain to look at poets’ cottages.

At a fair in Brussels we came across a horse ring, which my parents assumed was a pony ride for kids. There were no customers yet. Dad got me a ticket and put me on a horse. Arriving customers were all adults. When the starting gun was fired, all the horses started up galloping. I’d never been on a horse before and didn’t know to pull the reins back. I kept yelling “whao,” but the horse ignored me. As it ran toward the starting ramp, my dad leapt on the back of the horse behind me and pulled on the reins. Everyone applauded the American cowboy who’d saved the little girl in distress—just like in the movies.

Those were happy times, but with two incidents which made me think. Once when my brothers and I were out in the fields where the maid’s family was harvesting the hay, her grandfather asked me, “When are the Americans going to bomb Luxembourg?” As if I knew and were partly responsible. When I asked my mother about it she only said he was senile and didn’t realize the war was over. The other incident occurred when we took a trip on the Rhine and landed at a German town which had been badly bombed—this only happened once because my parents usually checked out the various destinations before they brought us along. Most of the buildings in this town had lost their second stories, and what remained was barely upright rubble. In one of the houses a radiator was flying aloft like a white flag from what had been the second floor, attached to a piece of pipe. The children were poorly dressed and barefoot. I had on a pair of black patent-leather dress-up shoes which were too scuffed up for party shoes, so I had to wear them for every day—I didn’t want to. The children spotted them, and they followed us, yelling and pointing at my wonderful shoes.

Eventually we had to go home. In the parlor of my grandparents’ house one of the relatives picked up my little brother, now three, set him on the piano and said, “Ricky, say something to us in Luxembourgish.” That little boy looked around the room at all these people who didn’t speak his language and then refused to speak for six months until he learned English. I translated for my mother, although I don’t know how often.

I was not happy back in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where the popular kids all came from families whose lives centered around the country club. The only thing I felt I had going for me was my trip to Europe, and none of them wanted to hear about it. I tried to make friends with the poor kids from outside of town—I was curious—but they dropped out of school after the third grade. My world was just too small. It had no sooner opened up for me than I was stuffed back into a small box and the lid closed. In third grade I flunked math. At night I worried about having spilled ink on the cover of my math book, which was orange and had a big three in the upper left-hand corner.

McCarthyism had taken hold of the country. Once my dad asked me what exactly my teacher said in class when we did the pledge of alliance. I said she didn’t comment on it, but the question told me my father held different views than he suspected my teachers did.

My life was uneventful. I was a somewhat above average student. I played violin in the youth orchestra at the university. At twelve, I was 5’3” and uncomfortably aware of being one of the tallest kids in school, but then in 1954 I moved on to junior high school, where there were enough tall boys that I was now a lot shorter comparatively. On the first day of school, three months after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court, the Fayetteville schools were quietly desegregated. Our homeroom teacher made a little speech about how the black grade-schoolers would no longer be attending their own school and the high school students wouldn’t have a long bus ride down to Fort Smith. It would mean less hardship for them, and the school district would save money. Socially, the races didn’t mix.

The following year my dad took a leave of absence in order to teach at Hamburg University. Hamburg was a revelation to me. Everything but a few blocks in the old city had been flattened by American bombs during the war. In the ten intervening years the city was rebuilt into a vast landscape of gleaming, five-story apartment blocks and other buildings—above five stories, the buildings had to have an elevator. In the middle of the city was a lake, with canals stretching out from it like spokes in a wheel. For me the best was public transportation: subway-elevated trains, streetcars, buses, ferries, taxis. I could pay a fare and spend hours riding around looking at a wonderful new world. I loved the city.

The W.O. Curshmannstraße

I attended what I later learned was the perhaps the most demanding scientific school for girls in West Germany, the Wissenschaftliche Oberschule der Curschmannstraße für Mädchen. It was tough. We had fourteen subjects, nine of them academic classes which met five or six days a week and five non-academic subjects, like drawing and gymnastics, which met only once every two weeks. Some evenings my Dad translated my science lessons into English—orally. He read them once and I had to remember. I had a tutor for mathematics and Latin, so one foreign language learned through another foreign language which I now had to relearn.  I still remember the gist of the Latin rule for the use of the subjunctive.

Our homeroom teacher taught us Latin, biology and physics. Since the academic subjects were stretched out over several years, we lingered over the details, such as the skeletal differences among birds, cats and humans which accounted for the differences in the ways their bodies moved. We flew paper airplanes from the balcony of the auditorium to watch them glide in circles to the ground and drew detailed pictures of skeletons. It was not at all like my one year of biology the following year in the United States with the hasty memorizing of genus and species names for plants and animals, which I forgot directly after the test.

Before we’d left the United States, I’d been to a boys and girls party where there was a lot of smooching and groping going in the dark. At thirteen I was not ready for that. The dress I’d worn was dark blue with pink and white puffed sleeves and a bow at the neck, a party dress probably purchased for a youth orchestra concert. I felt so out of place that in Hamburg being in a girls’ school was an enormous relief. I could run around in baggy sweaters and grey wool pants and just be 13 or 14. I did have one date with a very cute boy in the neighborhood, but it was supervised and so formal it could have come directly from the pages of Henry James. The best time I had that year was camping on the grounds of a rural palace with a troop of German girl scouts.

In the early summer, my class spent two weeks in the island of Sylt in the North Sea. Our class consisted of maybe 25 to 30 girls, all Germans except for a British girl who’d lived in Germany a long time and two Americans from a corporate, decidedly affluent class. I got along with everyone. By this time I’d grown used to the sweeping generalizations my classmates made—Americans are good in drawing but bad in gymnastics. On Sylt we ate real German peasant food, including black bread that was nothing like the moist, foil-wrapped variety from our Hamburg delicatessen. This bread did not crumble deliciously in your mouth. It was dry and coarse and needed lots of soft toppings and liquids to get it down. My compatriots ate it the way they ate bread at home, munching out the center of each slice and leaving the crusts on their plates.

One afternoon the class was examining a ground cover and learning that it was made up of tiny evergreens which the wind had prevented from growing more than a few inches off the ground.  The other Americans weren’t there. The teacher said, “Tell me why they don’t eat all of their bread. Your classmates are upset at this waste of food.” I said, “In American some kids do that, but I was not raised that way.” One of my classmates said, “No, she’s exactly like us in every way—exactly like us.” The others agreed. Their approval felt like an embrace.

The three of us on an Austrian sailboat

So by the time I was fourteen I’d learned some lessons really well: the United States doesn’t have all the answers, in fact some things—like social programs, education and transportation—are done much better abroad; whether it’s fair or not or trivial or not, people will hold you accountable based on your country of origin, and you need to determine how you will react to that; coed schools are harder to adjust to; growing up feeling that you’re entitled to more than others because of your nationality or race or social class doesn’t mean you are entitled; and finally, it’s possible to be happy and to fit in outside your own country, in fact, being a foreigner makes the differences between you and others easier to explain.

I’d learned another lesson during my first two weeks at Curschmannstraße when the Latin teacher told me, wryly, that the German teacher was offended because I hadn’t greeted her on the streetcar that morning. A German student would have put one foot behind the other, bent her knees in a swift curtsey while saying, “Guten Morgen, Frau…” whatever-your-name-is.  To me this meant two things: first, if you live abroad other people are at least ten times more likely to recognize you, the foreigner, than you are them; second, if Germans don’t like what you’re doing they’ll tell you.

Back in the States, on the first day of school my brother Laurie had to wear his German leather pants to school–nothing else was clean–and thus started a school-wide rumor that a Swiss boy had showed up who spoke no English. I thought it was cute, but Laurie refused to wear the pants again.

My family had returned to a country which did things we did not believe in. In 1958 the state legislature passed its own version of McCathyism, called Act 10, which required each state employees to sign a document listing the organizations she or he belonged to. The legislators said they were after communists, but in fact they were after those liberals at the university who supported organizations like the NAACP. My father fretted over what to do. His friends were moving up north. He had little money, a mortgage, a wife and three children. He signed. For years I felt he shouldn’t have. In the summer of 1958 I went to camp with girls from Little Rock who’d sat out a year of school because the governor of Arkansas had closed the city’s public schools rather than allow them to be desegregated.

1959 Senior Scout Roundup. I’m in the front row, second from the right.

My social life consisted of camping with Senior Girl Scouts, playing with the high school band–I’d given up the violin which I played fairly well for the tenor sax which I played very badly–and dates with a good-natured guy named Charlie. Charlie drove a 1956 Chevy, which he loved to talk about. That was fine with me. In the South those days, girls were not supposed to be know-at-alls, and I knew talking about cars was safe topic because I knew nothing about them. I still don’t. Not until college did I began to see that being well-adjusted to small-town high schools in the 1950s was no guarantee of future success.

My classes were so uninspiring that between August 1956 and August 1960 I read novels and slept until we returned to Europe.