Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Community Within a Community - Carmen's Story

I met Carmen Villadar (@digitalfemme) on Twitter a while back, when we had an impromptu brainstorming session about business start-ups in the current economic climate. It was enough to convince me that we have very similar views about many things. Then she very kindly offered to proofread my blog posts and offer comments before I published them. It's great to have a second opinion before I "go to press."

When I started wondering about how other people coped, living in a country other than the one in which they were brought up, Carmen was an obvious person from which to solicit an opinion. She was born in The Philippines, but immigrated to Canada when she was three. After spending her childhood and young adulthood in Toronto, she moved to Texas to pursue a career in nursing. She lived in Texas for eleven years.

Participating in Second Life, a popular online "virtual world," Carmen met a man from Frankfurt, Germany. Cutting a long story short, they fell in love, and Carmen moved to Frankfurt in 2007. Once she was able to get her work permit, she became a freelance business English trainer. She now works in Business development for a company that is seeking to expand into Europe.

I wondered whether she had become involved with local organizations as a way of trying to become part of her local community. Actually, Carmen has taken a slightly different path. While she has been able to meet her personal goals, it seems to me that she is not sure whether she has really succeeded in becoming part of her community yet.

Each time she has moved, it has been because of a personal connection she has made. When she moved to Texas, it was because a family member living there recommended it. Her move to Frankfurt came about because of "Second Life."

Carmen has made many of her connections online, via Social Networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Her current job came about after a conversation on Twitter with an employee for the company and a Facebook chat with the CEO. Perhaps more importantly, these sites enable her to remain connected to friends from Toronto and Texas and to chat in English with friends around the world.

One of the biggest barriers to becoming completely comfortable in Frankfurt, where she currently lives, is not being fluent in German. What she has done to get around this is to build her own community, really a "community within a community." She has started a couple of networking groups in Frankfurt, Frankfurt Girl Geek Dinners, and Open Coffee Club Frankfurt. She feels safe within this microcommunity. Instead of breaking out into her locality, she invites people from outside to join her.

It occurs to me that Carmen could do what she is currently doing in Frankfurt in just about any part of the world. Could she be part of a new breed of "World-citizen," living in a world without borders?

I would love to hear your comments about Carmen's story. Perhaps I can persuade Carmen to stick around and answer any questions you have.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Adjusting To a New Community - Hannah's Story

A Guest Post by Hannah Katsman from A Mother in Israel.

I met Graham via Twitter and our mutual friend @leoraw from Here in Highland Park. On Twitter, Graham asked others to share the role that organizations play in cross-cultural adjustment. I offered to write about my experience immigrating to Israel from the U.S. with my husband and oldest child eighteen years ago.

Moving across the street takes a period of adjustment. Moving across cultures takes a lifetime. I went from being someone whom others consulted, to asking for help with the simplest tasks. When do the stores open? Where do I get a driver's license? How do I open a bag of milk?

Operating in a new language added another layer of difficulty. I spoke and read Hebrew. Yet I found I couldn't argue with the bank manager, or make small talk with the woman in the elevator. I could tell that the news was reporting on a sports game, but didn't catch which team won. Unless someone took pity on me, I had to ask for help or remain frustrated.

Besides my husband, who worked long hours, his aunt and uncle were the only people I knew in town. In the US I had many friends and could make new ones with confidence.Now I was an outsider, and forming new friendships took effort.Still, I made it a priority.

Humans want to feel needed, not needy. And the best way to feel needed is to become part of a community or group where you can contribute your time and skills to others. I was lucky to have a ready-made community that welcomed me.

A few days after I arrived a woman named Annie brought me to a talk at the local English-speaking chapter of a women's organization. The next time I was called about a program, I offered to make phone calls. It didn't take long for someone to invite me to join the chapter's committee where we organized meetings and fund-raisers, and had a great time. Annie and the women I met there are still my closest friends in Israel. They are my community and substitute family.

I reached another level of inclusion ten years later, after training to work as a volunteer breastfeeding counselor. Helping mothers allowed me to connect to women on a basic level and to overcome linguistic and cultural barriers. I remember when I ran into a native Israeli mother who had recently discussed her difficulties with me. She smiled warmly and held out her hand to take mine. At that moment I did not feel like an outsider.

I wish I could report that the warmth she shared remained with me until today. But after eighteen years the "Israeli" mentality can still drive me crazy. There are days I miss my family and old friends and wonder whether I will ever "belong." Then I remember that everyone feels misunderstood, displaced, or lonely at times. And I recall that through my role in local organizations I have made a difference (I hope) in the lives of others in my new, imperfect country. And that has made the difference for me.

Thank you, Graham, for giving me the chance to share my story.

You can read more about cultural adjustment, mothering, Israel and the Jewish community at my blog, A Mother in Israel. Or follow me on Twitter: @mominisrael


For those who want to read more from Hannah, here are a few posts from her blog that I particularly recommend:

Cultural Differences

Interview: A Christian Mother in Israel

Your Daughter is Smart, But . . .

Between Two and Four

When Neglect is "Normal"

As always, I'd love to hear from you. I'll make sure that Hannah sees any comments you leave here for her. Also, I'd like to hear from others who are living in a country other than the one they were brought up in. I'm thinking of starting a little guest post and/or interview feature.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

How I Got To Know My Community by Getting Involved

As I have written before, when I first moved to the United States in 1998, I was unable to work, since I was awaiting approval of my work permit. I didn't relish watching daytime soaps until I could work, so I started looking around to see what was happening in my new hometown. One day, I spotted a newspaper article about a local organization called "The Center For Community Renewal." I was intrigued, but a little wary that the group might be full of right-wing nutjobs who wanted to gentrify the town. The article included a telephone number, so I decided to call up to get a feel for the organization and what they were doing.

The person I talked to invited me to the group's next meeting, and I accepted. When I attended, I found a roomful of ordinary people, mostly involved with other local nonprofit and community groups. What they had in common was a feeling that Edison, New Jersey, along with many other places was suffering from a lack of community. Led by a Husband and Wife team, Ian Durand and April Cormaci, the group was brainstorming ideas about projects and programs that they thought might help foster a renewed sense of community.

Being part of this group led to a number of things for me. The people, in what was usually referred to just as "The Center," represented a wide range of people in the area, and I found out a lot about Edison very quickly. I made some excellent friends, people who are still friends today. It also got me involved with The Friends of the Edison Public Library, of which I am now President and my Wife is on the board. Above all, I found it an excellent way to connect to my adopted home. I would personally recommend that anyone moving into a new community try finding a local organization to join.

I would be negligent if I talked about my involvement with The Center For Community Renewal without saying a little about this unique and wonderful group and its origins.

In 1997, a friend told Ian Durand that he was not fulfilling his potential, and challenged him to come up with something completely different from anything he had done before. What Ian, a Canadian by birth but a longtime resident of Edison, came up with some months later was The Center. Many meetings with friends and family ensued. In a weird twist of fate, Ian's daughter was driving along a major road in Edison when she spotted a wallet. She stopped to pick it up and found contact details in it. The wallet was returned to its owner, a man named Dock Houk, founder of The National Heritage Foundation. In appreciation, Dock set up The Center as a non-profit under the umbrella of his organization and donated $1000 to get it started.

In Early 1999, Ian and his Wife April took a course during which they were challenged to create a major project unlike anything they had done before. Ian came up with a "Family Fun Day" in a local park. April came up with the idea of a huge book sale. That's the point at which I came in. "The Edison Book and Arts Fair" was the first of many local projects in which I became involved.

Have you joined a local organization as a way to get to know a new community? Have you found other ways to help with this process? If so, we would love to hear from you, so please leave a comment.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

O'Halloran's Irish Pub, Fords, NJ - an Irish Lament

I went out last night in search of a beer or two and some adult conversation. I had planned to visit "In-Laws," which stands where O'Halloran's irish Pub used to be. I discovered it had closed down. Several bars have been and gone there since O'Halloran's closed its doors. I ended up going to The Liberty Tavern, also in Fords, NJ, which was ok, but it reminded me of how much I miss my favorite local pub. If I could write lyrics, I would probably feel inspired to write a song.

It would seem appropriate that any song about a lost, lamented Irish Pub would have to have an Irish flavor to it!

They knew how to keep their Guinness in great condition. The food was good, even though for some inexplicable reason, they made round, flat, fried potatoes instead of authentic chips. The jukebox had a great selection, and the live music was always good. The staff were always friendly.

Above all, what kept me going to O'Halloran's was the people it attracted. Intelligent, friendly folk, who enjoyed stimulating conversation as much as a good pint.

O'Halloran's Irish Pub - Gone, but not forgotten. Sadly missed.

Friday, March 13, 2009

A New Jerseyan in England

I had a very interesting conversation via Twitter, the social networking site, over the weekend. I was talking with Debra Denton, known on Twitter as @debra47, an American woman married to an Englishman and living in England. In addition to us living in each other's countries (she also comes from New Jersey) and being married to a native, we have quite a few other things in common. She is also a blogger. Her blog is Power Pop Review. We both moved to another country to get married quite late in life. We also both met our spouses over the Internet because of a mutual love of music. As I have mentioned on this blog in the past, I met my Wife on the Internet discussion group for singer-songwriter Dar Williams. Debra met her husband on the now sadly defunct music site Audiogalaxy.

Our conversation began when a comment about wine evolved into a little conversation about single malt scotch, which I adore, but cannot really afford here in the US. Debra developed a taste after a tour of a whisky distillery a while back. What became the most interesting part of our conversation started when she asked me what I missed about England, apart from fish & chips and single malt scotch. I told her I missed my local pub. Of course, I might be missing it even if I was back in England. We talked about the alarming rate at which pubs in the UK are closing (at the time of writing, six pubs are closing each day). High beer prices and a recent ban on smoking in pubs seem to have resulted in most people deciding to stay at home. There they can smoke, drink cheap supermarket booze and watch their widescreen TVs.

Debra told me that what she misses most about New Jersey is being able to find a diner, with a huge, reasonably priced menu, open 24 hours a day. She believes that she is healthier since she moved to England, because she is able to walk much more than she was able to in New Jersey. Although my particular neighborhood is pretty walkable (I told her my family had walked to a new diner just the previous day, much to her surprise), much of New Jersey is not pedestrian-friendly. People get in their cars to drive a few blocks. On recent trips back to the US, Debra noticed that many "downtown" areas (town centres) have disappeared as large superstores appear on the outskirts of towns, pretty much sucking the heart out of them.

In my adopted hometown, Edison, New Jersey, many people work elsewhere, and only come back to Edison to sleep. With their long hours, there is no time to get involved in things going on locally. This is happening in the US and in the UK. Debra suggested that perhaps this lack of community is what has drawn both of us, along with many others, into Internet-based groups. I suggested that if more companies allowed their workers to telecommute when practical, it might help restore local communities because people would be around much more, and it would help the environment. Many employers fear that if they are not standing over their workers, they will waste time. However, I have found that telecommuting, with its lack of physical distractions, often results in increased productivity.

We discovered that we were both regularly asked, "Do you prefer it over here or over there?" We have the same answer too: "There's good and bad in both." We can both honestly say that there are things we love and dislike about our countries of birth and our adopted homes. We are caught between two cultures and we get the best and the worst of each.

We also both get comments about how our accents have not changed. Debra is asked a lot if she is a Canadian. I wondered if that was perhaps because people hoped she was not American, because in the UK, Americans have often been tarred with the "Bush brush." Debra says that she has certainly experienced some anti-Americanism, but that it seems to be subsiding since the election of President Barack Obama.

I have invited Debra to write a guest post in this blog, and she has said that she would love to. I think it would make an interesting counterpoint to my own posts here.

Are you living in a country other than the one in which you were brought up? Perhaps you have a friend in this situation. Please do post a comment and share your observations.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Teaching and Tarot

I work part-time for an online education company. One great thing about this is the commute! I work from home, at the kitchen table. This also allows me to stay home to look after my four-year-old daughter. The worst part of my job is having to work around my daughter. I end up working early in the morning, before she's up, again while she's at preschool, which only gives me a couple of hours, then again while she takes a nap, if I'm lucky.

The company I work for offers short, concentrated courses on a variety of subjects. The course material is web-based, and then there are discussion areas, where students can ask questions and get help. My job is to monitor the discussion areas, answer questions, and encourage students to apply and expand upon the lesson material.

I do enjoy teaching. It is most rewarding to see that "lightbulb" moment when a student gets excited about learning a new concept and sees its potential. I mostly work in an introductory Microsoft Access course, but also assist with Microsoft Excel and web design courses.

I previously worked for many years in IT, and I would say that this is the most enjoyable job I have had. I walked into it quite by chance when I first moved into the US about ten years ago, and was waiting for a work permit. I figured I should update my skills and signed on for a couple of online courses. I evidently impressed the founder of the company, who was my instructor at the time, and he invited me to join the faculty.

Just for something completely different, I also offer tarot card readings by e-mail. I have been reading tarot cards since my teens, but I only turned professional a year or two ago, after being persuaded by others that my readings were very good. I have a policy that is very unusual these days; I invite people to pay me what they think the reading was worth to them, within their means. I believe tarot to be a great tool for empowering others, and I get a great deal of satisfaction from helping people. I don't feel comfortable denying anyone the benefits that a reading can give, simply because they don't earn much money.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Don't say 'fannypack' around me

In England, where I'm originally from, "fanny" refers to a completely different part of the anatomy (Female genitalia) than what it does in the US. In the UK, we call a fannypack a "bumbag" (bum referring to the posterior). I just can't bring myself to say "fannypack."

But here's a funny thing: both words refer to the rear-end. But don't most people wear them at the front?

Friday, March 6, 2009

Ten Years

Today is my tenth wedding anniversary. Sometimes it seems like I have been married forever, and other times it seems like yesterday. It is true that many things have happened during the past ten years, and I hate to admit that many have slipped out of my sieve-like mind. However, my parents' fiftieth anniversary is coming up later this month. I can only imagine the things that they have experienced and forgotten.

As I described in one of my first blog entries, the date we were to get married was largely down to what was then known as the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service), what is now USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Services). I was in England and B. was here in New Jersey. We had no idea how long it would be before the INS approved our Fiance Visa, but we knew that we only had 90 days following approval to get married. We got our approval in December 1998, slightly earlier than we had expected, which meant that with the holiday season just around the corner, I had to make travel arrangements, and we had to plan a wedding.

Fortunately, B. and I had similar ideas for what we wanted from a wedding. We did want an occasion, rather than a simple official marriage. However, we wanted a wedding we could enjoy ourselves. We had heard all too often about couples who had big weddings and who had not enjoyed the day themselves, because the event was geared towards other people.

We agreed on the venue we wanted. The Palmyra Tea Room in Bound Brook, New Jersey, was a great place that we used to visit together. It had a wonderful Bohemian feel to it, with mismatched chairs, tables and china. It had an adjoining art-gallery, lots of books, tasty food and great people. Fortunately, although they had never done a wedding there before, they agreed to do it for us. We were to have the wedding in the art-gallery, and then we would move into the tea room itself for the reception. They would close for the day and provide the food.

The other preparations seem to have disappeared in a blur from my memory, but one thing that we were proud of was that B. and a friend actually made their own paper for the invitations. Since both B. and her Mother suffer badly from allergies to many flowers, we were to have artificial ones, and again, B. and a friend made the arrangements.

I do not have a large or particularly close extended family, and my parents don't fly, so my Brother was to be the sole family representative - and my best man. On the other hand, B. does have a large, close family, so the Brits were a little outnumbered. Fortunately, B's family are a lot of fun, and a rehearsal dinner ended up with most of us sitting underneath the tables, playing with kids. My stag night consisted of My Brother, a friend and I at our house with a bottle of Power's Irish whiskey. It was more fun than you might imagine, and we even managed to break some furniture!

The wedding itself, as planned, was a lot of fun, even for us. We had friends there who we had met on the internet-based music community where B. and I first met, so that did balance out B's huge family a little. One of them acted as DJ for the ceremony and reception, so the day was filled with the music we loved. The local Mayor presided over the ceremony, we drank "champagne" from a local winery, and a singer-songwriter friend performed for us.

The one sad part of the whole thing is that The Palmyra Tea Room is no more. It fell victim to Hurricane Floyd in 1999, when much of Bound Brook was completely submerged. Because of the huge cost of repairs, and apparent disputes with the landlord over responsibility for those repairs, it never reopened its doors.

One day, I'll write about our honeymoon, because, like our wedding, it was a little unusual, but so "us." For now, I want to take this opportunity to wish my dear Wife a happy anniversary. The first song to play after our wedding was "Love is the Ride" by Lucy Kaplansky. And it has been a ride. Sometimes, a joy-ride, sometimes a little bit of a white-knuckle ride. But I could not imagine sharing it with anyone else.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Ask any American what comes to mind when they think of Brits, and many will say "bad teeth." They picture the British mouth as being like something from a movie adaptation of a Charles Dickens book. Ask a Brit what comes to mind when they think of Americans, and many will say "outrageously perfect teeth."

I believe that there is a lot of pressure put on Americans by the media to have perfectly straight white teeth. It seems that many more children in the US undergo orthodontic treatment (braces, etc.) than in Britain. In addition, teeth whitening, whether by specialists, or by using over-the-counter treatments such as whitening strips, has become extremely popular. When I think of teeth whitening, I recall the episode of TV show Friends where Ross had his teeth whitened, with luminous results.

Teeth are on my mind right now, as I was at my dentist this week, and I am scheduled for a couple more visits. I suffer from dental phobia. People experience dental fear for a variety of reasons. In my case, it was a bad experience with oral injections given by a dentist in my teens. After that, it took over twenty years, a broken tooth, and a lot of persuasion from my Wife-to-be, to get me to set foot in a dentist's office again. Even talking about teeth or dentists would make me feel anxious, and it still does, particularly when I think of injections in the mouth.

I was very lucky to find an extremely sympathetic dentist who listened when I explained my problem. He prescribed me diazepam (Valium) to take the night before my appointment, so I could relax and get some sleep, then an hour before my appointment. Once I moved to the US, I found a wonderful dentist who specializes in using intravenous sedation for disabled and extremely fearful patients. For me, in addition to the Valium, he only has to administer nitrous oxide (laughing gas), which I love. I have often joked that I would pay good money on a Friday night for the nitrous. When I first visited my dentist, it was in a teaching hospital, and he used to joke to observing students that there was nothing wrong with my teeth, I was just there for the laughing gas.

As you can probably imagine, with over twenty years between visits to the dentist, I have had a few problems with my teeth. However, things could have been worse. I did not take great care of my teeth as a child. For example, I often used to wet my toothbrush to make it look like I had brushed my teeth.

I do have some aesthetic tooth problems that I have no intention of correcting. I have a small chip on a tooth where a kid at school, without provocation, decided to punch me in the mouth. I have a tooth at the front that grew behind the others. I was once a promising young trumpet player, and it was decided that to do something with that tooth might adversely affect my playing. Although I no longer play trumpet, I decided not to do anything about it after an enlightened American dental hygienist said to me that she felt that having crooked teeth was like having a distinctive accent.

My dental philosophy these days goes something like this: Do take care of your teeth. Brush and floss them and visit the dentist for regular check ups. Many dentists are great with fearful patients, so don't let dental-phobia keep you away. However, unless you have serious problems, I believe it is best to go for the natural look. In addition, unless you literally want to light up the room, avoid teeth whitening.

Where do you stand regarding dentists and dental work? Please leave a comment and let us know.