Brought up amongst the subtle beauties of Japan...

the castles...

and pastries of Europe...

...dreaming of an Indiana childhood

"Longing for America: Notes from a Traveling Childhood"

Notes From A Traveling Childhood, Foreign Service Youth Foundation, 1994

I have been resting on my futon eating donuts and reading memoirs. This has been my mid-afternoon treat, before picking up my daughter at school, since my family and I moved from St. Paul to Washington last summer. The memoirs are those of people who grew up in places like the Bronx and St. Paul—rich memoirs thick with the creams and sausages and pastries of family lives deep-fried in a specific tradition and culture. As I read of the Czech grandmother's cellar full of fermenting sauerkraut and beets, of her garden of dillweed and rhubarb, and of the soft skin of her kissed cheek, my body floods, to the tips of my fingers and toes, with the ache of loss. My childhood as the daughter of a globe-trotting C.I.A. officer does not fit into the aspic mold of the American memoirs I have been gobbling of late...

The summer that I was eleven my family took home leave from my father's post in the rainy cobblestone city of The Hague, and travelled to the home of my mother's sister in Indiana. There, in New Albany, a tiny town set on the grimy flats near Louisville, I, the little girl raised on the scarlet, clanging funeral processions of Taiwan, the subtle silences of the Japanese, and the gorgeous cream puffs of Europe, was wakened to a life dream that would dog me forever after.

It was a glorious summer. Hot and sweaty and perfect. Every day, my cousins and I grabbed our suits, ambled down wide streets lined with small bungalows, cut through back yards and alleys, and ended up at the neighborhood swimming pool. There, luxuriously parentless, we cannon-balled and dolphined all day, watched over by a life guard who was my cousins' neighbor, and ordering hamburgers and cokes whenever we happened to be hungry. Every now and then a neighbor child would dash in, breathless, to deliver a message from my mother and Aunt Norma, giving us instructions as to when to come home, or where to meet them for an ice cream outing to Ben Franklin's. Usually we played in the cool, light-lanced turquoise of the pool until after five, returning home just as the platters of fried chicken and potato salad were being placed on the long picnic table in the backyard. At the pool, my cousins, and my mother's family, were known by everyone, and I was immediately accepted as one of the Guernsey clan. The sense of being known, of not having to explain who I was—Randy would simply say "This is my cousin," and that took care of it—was sweetest pleasure. As the foreign child of a "diplomat," I was used to having to offer polite explanations for myself, so this sense of being one of a gang was vanilla ice cream to me.

My brother and I slept on the top floor with the three cousins, in the carpeted, low-ceilinged attic where the air conditioning was a little too cold. Contented as a cocooned caterpillar in my sleeping bag, I read late into the darkness, after the nightly pillow fight, squirming a bit under my sunburn.

I enjoyed every second I passed in New Albany. I loved having an uncle—known to everyone in town by first name—who owned a car repair garage. I loved the old ladies with names like Thelma or Violet, who seemed always to be on their porches tending pots of flowers, and who waved as we played kick the can in the street after dinner. I loved the humble bungalows all the same but different, the nightly smells of barbecues, and the back yards with round, standing pools. It was a thrill to be able to dash headlong through the streets. More than anything, I loved having relatives. I fancied that I looked like my cousin Randy who was born only a week or two after me. Secretly I imagined he might even be my twin.

These New Albany days became my image of quintessential America. It was a vision of a bountiful, rooted, family-stuffed, unattainable life that I craved badly, like M-n-M's and Ripleys chips, throughout my exotic, itinerant childhood. From country to country, I took a picture of the New Albany summer with me in my carry-on bag.

Though half of me throve on my family's ramblings from place to place, the other half of me always yearned for a life in middle America…

With the sight of Dutch rainscapes and Bornean junglelands among which I drifted during my youth, I drank in a set of attitudes. These perspectives make up the contents of my traveling trunk; they are the inheritance from my particular childhood. First, I have a penchant for putting myself in new situations…

A second legacy of my upbringing is that I am, by inmost nature, a chameleon, a sponge, a being of multiple selves…

A third allotment from my childhood..Since living in one place for an extended period was not a possibility during my youth, departure, rather than remaining, has, for me, a silvery glow...

A fourth item that lies among the yellowing Belgian lace in my trunk is a hefty dose of ambivalence. As a result of having seen many diametrically opposed, and equally successful, ways of conducting most kinds of affairs, I am laden with an irrepressible habit of seeing two sides to everything…

A gut sense that I do not have a rightful place in any setting, that I do not quite fit in, and that I have no right to shape what goes on, not being a proper member, is a fifth bestowal of my upbringing…

It is the longing for America, of course, that takes up the largest space in the trunk of my traveling childhood. Like a bulky winter coat jammed on top, it cloaks the other items in the trunk. Yearning for ritual and community and belonging is the horse I ride.

I have lost something sweet and irreplaceable.

But another thing is equally true. I have sauntered away with riches…

My body floods with an odd but blissful sort of comfort in a strange hotel, with a culture to decipher spread out, like a grand meal, on the street below the window. And once down on the street itself I have simultaneous responses: I am both fascinated and homesick.

Will I ever feel like a legitimate American? I don't know. I am most comfortable and most myself as a foreigner. I might be most at home living part-time in the United States and the other part in another country. Or perhaps at a spot mid-way across a sea..

Selected Works

A story of growing up in the world of espionage
"A poignant chronicle of the diaspora of the heart--and the heart's quest and longing for that universal place called home." Wall Street Journal
Opinion/Cultural Commentary
In Britain or France my aging mother would have gotten better health care.
An exploration of Argentina’s past tyrannies, and my own
Literary Journalism
"...One of the most compelling, knowledgeable, and graceful books about the French soul that has ever been written by an American." -Richard Goodman, author of French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France
"The stories remain...etched in the reader's mind, etched as if by the harsh wind of Patagonia itself. Extraordinarily fine writing." -St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"An eloquent essay." -New York Times