Saturday Morning Musings

Saturday 9 December

7:30 a.m.:  Coffee in bed, browsing the internet for cars (yes, I’m still looking but have survived surprisingly well without one so far).

8:50 a.m.:  Breakfast at Cenote, “East Austin’s Neighborhood Patio Cafe” while waiting for the local branch of the Austin Public Library to open at 10.00.  I will pick up two books I had reserved:  Getting Started in Consulting and The Gates of the Alamo.  A book for the future and a book about the past.

9:57 a.m.:  At the door of the Terrazas Branch of the Austin Public Library, I am impressed to see a small group of young men waiting with me.

10:00 a.m.:  The sliding door opens.  The group of young men rush past me and head directly to the restroom.  They live on the streets of Austin and the restroom is a place where they can attend to their needs in privacy and with dignity.  I have traveled throughout the developed and developing world and I have seen people living on the streets of Bangalore, Oslo, Colombo, Paris…still, the sight of them in one of the world’s richest countries depresses me.  It is heartening to observe the library staff who are kind and polite to everyone who enters the doors here.

Houston?  Why Not?

It has now been a few weeks since I came to Austin and I’ve just returned from a week visiting friends in Washington.  I have now decided to settle down in Houston rather than in Austin.  After years of visiting my parents in Houston and thinking “I could never live here”, I have to come realize that I could actually live here/there.  Here are some salient facts about my soon-to-be new home:

  1. Houston is the most ethnically diverse metropolitan area in the United States.
  2. Houston’s economy is larger than that of Norway and Sweden.  In fact, only 21 countries in the world have a GDP larger than Houston.  Houston is home to 26 Fortune 500 companies, many of which are in the oil and gas industry and thousands of people are  employed by the Port of Houston, NASA and the Texas Medical Center.
  3. Residents of Houston eat out more times a week than in any other city in America
  4. Houston is one of America’s “fattest cities” with an estimated 34% of the population classified as overweight (see 3 above)
  5. Houston has one of the best culinary scenes in the country (more than 10,000 restaurants representing more than 70 countries and regions of America) (see 3 and 4 above)
  6. It is home to the largest medical center in the world with 54 medicine-related institutions situation on 1,000 acres of land with an average of 7.2 million visits per year.  There are more heart surgeries performed in the Texas Medical Center than anywhere else in the world (see 3, 4 and 5 above)
  7. Houston is the fourth most populous city in the nation with 2.3 million residents (add one more in a few weeks’ time)
  8. Houston has the third largest number of languages spoken in the US surpassed only by New York and Los Angeles
  9. The first traditional Hindu Mandir in the US was built in Houston.. The BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir was assembled like a puzzle. Consisting of 33,000 pieces of Italian marble and Turkish limestone, the temple was carved by hand and took 28 months to build.
  10. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is one of the biggest rodeoNutella Ballss in the world, attracting 2.5 million attendees each year.  It is also known for serving foods like deep-fried Nutella Balls and fried Twinkies (see 3, 4, 5 and 6 above).
  11. Beyoncé is from Houston.

As I move into my 57th year on this earth, I have come to know a bit about myself and a bit about life.  Here is what I am pretty sure of this Saturday morning:

  1. I can change my mind whenever I want to and no one will die because I did.
  2. There is no perfect place to live but there are places that feel good, especially those where family and friends are close by.
  3. Living close to a green space where I can run has become a priority for me in my search for an apartment…that would not have even entered my mind 7 years ago.
  4. Living in a State where it is legal for licensed permit holders to carry a gun openly causes me more concern than if I lived in a State that did not allow this.
  5. Buying a car is a horrible experience…it just is…there is no way around it.
  6. Buying a bike is a pleasant experience…I want to buy one every day.

 

 

Buying a Car in Texas: Part II (or how not to buy a car in Texas)

I write this from the outdoor patio of Clark’s Oyster Bar where I have treated myself to a most perfect meal of lobster roll, slivered fries with rosemary and homemade sweet and sour cucumbers, all washed down with a glass of crisp Muscadet and topped off with a perfectly pressed espresso.  I really needed a treat today and I could not have found a better one.

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Solace at Clark’s Oyster Bar

If you are following from “Buying a Car in Texas: Part I“, you will know that I had settled on purchasing a somewhat sensible compact SUV with excellent safety features and a quiet ride. According to Consumer Reports, one of America’s most reliable sources of product testing and ratings, I should buy a Honda CR-V or a Toyota RAV4.   Armed with this in-depth online knowledge, I set out to buy one of those.

 

In preparation, I researched things like “what to look for in a car”, “how to negotiate the price of a car”, “what to consider when test driving a car” and “Austin’s best Tex-Mex restaurants” (that last one because I am always looking for a good Tex-Mex restaurant).  I had a checklist and a budget, both of which provided a useful baseline from which to measure how far away from them I would move in the end.   It was time to venture out into the oh-so-treacherous world of car dealerships.

My first dealership was nice enough but we did not see eye-to-eye on anything.  Clearly, our astrological signs were totally incompatible.  Although we gave it a good try, it just was not meant to be.  We parted friends but I do not expect we will see each other again.

My second dealership tried to meet my needs on several levels and I started to believe there might be a future for us.  However, a second date of mind-numbing boredom led me to the realization that we do not share the same values or approach to relationships.  I decided that a clean break was best for us both and I walked out, not looking back.

I met my third dealership online.  After exchanging a few pleasantries, we agreed to meet the next day.  My more modest expectations resulted in a few successful test drives.  I was impressed that he allowed me to drive the vehicles on my own.  He was not clingy and I liked that he valued my independence.  We were able to discuss openly our expectations of the relationship upon which we were embarking and we shared past mistakes, without judgement.  There was just the sticky issue of the dowry.  I left our first date feeling confident he would be able to propose something acceptable.  He promised I would hear from him the next day.

Alas, there has been no word from him: no email, no text message, no phone call.   I have, of course, considered the possibility that he got run over on his way to work or that he contracted a rare Texas flu that has resulted in total amnesia.  Most likely he is already in a relationship with another make or model.  Crushed, I sought solace in the arms of Clark’s Oyster Bar.  At least Clark did not let me down.

There has been one bright spot in this oh-so-treacherous world of car dealerships:  I had a solid and supportive shoulder to cry on in the form of my brother-in-law, Phil in Winnipeg.  Phil was at the receiving end of several frantic phone calls from dealership parking lots and more than a few text messages (my sister Carolyn played an integral role in facilitating these sessions).  Had it not been for his sound advice and calming words of wisdom, I would have abandoned all hope.

Yet, I knew there had to be someone out there for me…and I think I’ve found him.

Ray at Bicycle Sports Shop has introduced me to the pleasures of Specialized pedal-assisted bicycles.  In a city famous for its hills, I found it impossible to resist such temptation.   Ray and I spent two amazing hours together riding up and down hills, he a steady companion at my side showing me not only how to keep a steady course but also encouraging me to shift gears every now and then and, most importantly, to enjoy the ride.  I think Ray and I definitely have a future together…

 

 

 

Buying a Car in Texas: Part I

I’m pretty sure I bought a car yesterday.

I chose to relocate to Austin, Texas for many reasons, including the fact that I thought it might be a more walkable city than Houston, where my parents reside.  Having lived in European cities for the past 26 years, I have gotten used to walking, even as a means of transportation.  Putting one foot in front of the other has gotten me to work, to friends’ houses, to restaurants, to cinemas and, sometimes, from one part of a forest to another simply for pleasure.

I knew I would do more driving in Texas, a State with a population of 27.8 million people and 22 million cars.  Compare this to Norway’s 5 million people and 2.6 million cars.  I knew I needed a car. And, having lived in energy-conscious European countries who not only signed the Paris Agreement on Climate Change but also intend to honor it, I had decided to buy a long-range electric or at least a hybrid car.  At least this was my plan…

For the past two weeks, I have been driving a rental car, an SUV.  It is big.  It is really big.  And I kind of like it.  I like the height of the SUV:  it has the advantage of allowing me to see what is happening ahead of me on the crazy Texas highways.  It also has the disadvantage of allowing me to see what is happening ahead of me on the crazy Texas highways.

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Houston’s Katy Freeway

Although I have owned a car since I began to drive at age 16, I have not driven much these past years (ref. the paragraph about walking above).  When I sold my 1994 Saab 900S to my neighbor in Oslo, it had only been driven 218,000 kilometers (135,000 miles)…that’s about 9,500 km (6,000 miles) per year.

And, since I have not driven much these past years, I had forgotten some of the few but significant pleasures of driving on highways in the US.  On a recent drive from Austin to Houston for Thanksgiving, nearby motorists might have noticed me careening along at the speed limit of 75 mph (120 kph), singing along with the powerful vocals of Robert Plant to Stairway to Heaven blaring through the bluetooth speakers in my big SUV.  It was as if Robert himself was sitting next to me, and I liked it and I’m pretty sure he did too.

Now, rather than looking for a long-range electric or hybrid car, I have decided upon a somewhat sensible compact SUV with excellent safety features (airbags all over the place) and a quiet ride; this, to ensure that my duets with Robert are not dulled by highway noise and that we both enjoy a comfortable and safe ride together.

See also Buying a Car in Texas: Part IIrobert-in-texas (1)

 

Back in the US

I have cried twice these past two weeks since I moved back to the US:  the first time was when I found out that I would not be able to get a bank loan to buy a place to live because I do not have a job after the end of the year, and a second time when I found out I have to establish residency in Texas before I can get a Texas driver’s license and that it takes a year to become a resident of Texas.  Other than that, my reintegration has been a breeze.

Having lived outside of the US for 26 years now, I seem to have forgotten how to live in the US.  I am American, born in Dallas, Texas (doesn’t get more American than that…except perhaps if I had personally sailed in from England on the Mayflower in 1620).  I like root beer and Twizzlers.  I grew up watching My Three Sons and The Brady Bunch.  I have a social security number, the equivalent of a European national identity number…all things that define “American”.  But I don’t have a credit rating and, without, that, I might as well be from another planet, such as Europe.

I don’t know how to purchase real estate or how to buy a car here.  I don’t know which laundry detergent is best or what to wear when it is 60 degrees outside (seems hot, but it isn’t).  I forget that when an ironing board is priced at $17.97 I really have to pay $19.09 after the sales tax has been added.  I forgot how annoying it is to have to figure out how much to tip a server in a restaurant because they are not paid a decent wage at the outset.

But I have also forgotten how nice people can be here.  When turning the corner in a supermarket aisle, the person doing the same thing from the other side apologized profusely…for being there… for being in my way…for being.  Compared to Norway, where people never excuse themselves for fear of intruding in another person’s space, or France where people get angry because you are in their space and it is their space and why are you in it in the first place?, I find this surprisingly pleasant.

I went to the Yeti flagship store in Austin to buy one of their famous tumblers and the guy at the checkout asked me “So, what did you do today?” and, when I answered, it actually turned into a conversation…and the conversation was interesting.  I liked that.

I have been invited to lunch by a total stranger with whom I have had one email exchange.  She is a realtor I had contacted about purchasing an apartment.  When I told her that I could no longer consider buying since no one will lend me money to do so, she responded with a lunch invitation to a place outside of Austin…on a lake…

I do not know many people in Austin yet.  I like eating at restaurants.  This means that I eat alone at restaurants.  The average restaurant in the US caters to families, couples, people eating alone, polar bears, aardvarks…in fact, they cater to just about anyone (at least since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that made segregation in public places such as restaurants and lunch counters illegal).   It is easy to eat a very good meal for a very reasonable price, alone and comfortably.   I can highly recommend the tamale cakes at The Shady Grove.  Tamale cakes are an amazing combination of fried masa, pulled pork, queso, green chili sauce and pico de gallo (all staples of Tex-Mex cuisine).  I’m sure the tamale cakes taste just fine when dining with others but I think they must be even even more delicious when dining alone…especially when washed down with a Houston-brewed Weisse Versa beer (how could I possibly resist ordering that?).  The tamale cakes and the beer came to $17.00 (NOK 140)…plus tax…plus tip.

 

 

 

 

Our neighbour is now our dinner…

Two days ago I butchered a lamb… a whole lamb…really!  This was not just “any” lamb, it was a former neighbour of ours.  Bjørn Erik is a farmer who lives 1 km down the road (I know because I run this route often and when I arrive at his farm, my iPhone app tells me that I have completed my first kilometre).  He runs an organic sheep farm and we often make a point of stopping by in May during the lambing season.   Yes, the babies are very, very cute!

This year, Bjørn Erik asked if he could let some of his flock graze on Hans Einar’s pastures, since Hans Einar and his brother have become organic farmers and this was the first year that the pastures were certified organic.  In return for the right to graze, Hans Einar asked for a lamb.  We have taken to buying more organic meat (and eating less of it) so we looked forward to a years’ worth of organic lamb.

Hans Einar brought home the slaughtered lamb and two days later, while Hans Einar was busy at the college celebrating Christmas with his colleagues, I rolled up my sleeves, put on my apron and, with saw and knife in hand, set out to confront the challenge.  I was squeamish about the task  but figured that I really should be a more responsible cook and see close-up the source of my meals.  

This is the lamb as we received it from the abattoir:

The Challenge

The Challenge

Not visible in the picture:

1 saw
2 newly sharpened butcher knives
1 meat cleaver
1 Macbook Pro with a series of YouTube videos on how to butcher a lamb queued up.  

This is the result of watching 5 videos and 2 hours of sawing and cutting and trimming…

The pieces of meat I usually buy packaged

I ended up with 1 kg of lamb mince, 12 lamb chops (French-cut, of course!), 2 legs of lamb, 2 lamb shanks, 2 breasts, 1 rack of lamb, 2 lamb shoulders, 1 neck, 2 tenderloins and a bunch of bones were boiled and made 6 outside cats very happy.

What I Learned

The process was more physically demanding than I imagined and I would have liked a better saw (maybe an electric one!) however, the most difficult part was keeping track of the various cuts so that I could label them correctly before freezing.

The most surprising bit was that, during it all, I experienced genuine feelings of gratitude for the lamb that I had certainly crossed many times while it was out grazing and I was out running…my neighbour.

Tonight we ate our first “very local” dish, a slow-cooked lamb shank in red wine with cannellini beans.  It was delicious.

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From nearby farm to table...to stomach

From nearby farm to table…to stomach

Happy holidays and may you all be grateful for whatever you will be enjoying at table.

Regret Me Not.com

From time to time, while brushing my teeth or chopping celery or running, I come to think of things I regret having done or not having done.  Fortunately, I don’t have any really big regrets: my biggest being that I was not able to continue violin lessons when I was 13 because we had moved and there was no music programme at my new school.  To this day, when I have a close-up view of a musician playing the violin, I can almost feel the instrument propped between my chin and left hand as I slide the resined bow across the strings, sometimes even hitting a good note (I played for less than a year so good notes were a big deal).

But I do have some smaller regrets, and they are almost all related to things I said or, more often, things I did not say.  For instance, I wish I had been able to tell my 5th-grade French teacher just how much of an influence she had on my life.

Madame Bartlett came to my house twice a week for about a month to tutor me in the basics of French that I had missed when, in the middle of 4th grade, I was promoted to the middle of 5th grade and had to catch up.  I still remember sitting next to her at our dining room table, she holding up a pen and saying “stylo” and then holding up a fork and “fourchette” and me repeating “stylo” “fourchette“.

Not only did I become totally smitten with the language, something I maintain to this day, I became enamoured of Madame Bartlett…so much so that I wanted to be Madame Bartlett.  At the ripe young age of 11, French language and culture became a driving force in my life and I decided that, if I couldn’t be Madame Bartlett, I would be as close to her as possible and I set my vision on a life in France…it took me only 20 years to get there.  

Of course I didn’t know anything about Madame Bartlett, I didn’t even know her first name, but I was determined to become the person I thought she was.  I continued to study French through my university years and, when I moved to Washington, DC and was looking for a job, I decided that I wanted to work somewhere I could speak French…and I ended up at the World Bank (not bad for a frustrated violinist!).  Eight years later, a friend at the World Bank sent my CV to a friend of hers at the OECD in Paris and almost one month to the day after my interview, I moved to Paris.  From May 1992 until April 2003, I was Madame Bartlett and I really liked being her/me/us!  I wish I could find her now to tell her just what an impact she had on my life.  I think she would be agréablement surprise!

I have often thought how great it would be if there were a website where we could post positive things we regret not having said to people; a website where we could leave a note of thanks, fill in searchable details of a time, place and person and hope that the Madame Bartletts of the world would search themselves and find our expressions of gratitude.

If such a website existed, what would you say and to whom?

NoRegrets

A Final Journey – Einar Hem

Einar Hem, my father-in-law, passed away peacefully 7 days after his eldest son’s (my husband Hans Einar’s) 59th birthday.  Einar was 90 years old when he died, having lived a full life, almost every single day of it spent on the farm where he was born.  I live on that same farm and write this from the very room in which he was born, the first son of Klara and Hans Magnus Hem on 31 March 1923.

While it is clear from the many tributes paid to him at his funeral that Einar lived a rich life in which he touched many, it is in his death that I have come to really understand the man he was.

On the day the doctors told his wife, Alfhiild and Hans Einar that Einar was terminally ill, Hans Einar offered, and his mother accepted, that he and his two brothers would together make the decisions that had to be made regarding Einar’s treatment.  Hans Einar then rang his two brothers, Torbjørn and Arnfinn, and they agreed that Einar would receive palliative care only; there would be no treatment for the illness as Einar’s 90-year-old body would probably not withstand surgery or any invasive treatment.

Two days later, Einar was transferred from hospital to a nearby nursing home, where he was installed in a private room on a floor with 6 other patients and 3 nurses to look after them.  Hans Einar and I were waiting when he when he arrived by ambulance at the nursing home and I sat with Einar while Hans Einar went to talk to the head nurse about Einar’s care.  Einar had suffered from mild dementia for some time and was confused about where he was but was very aware of those around him and was polite and gentlemanly to all the nurses who came to look after him (he always did like attention!).

Because of his dementia, Einar was not told of his diagnosis or prognosis while he was in hospital and there was agreement within his immediate family that he would be told when the opportunity presented itself.  During the time Einar spent in the nursing home, he only asked one question: “Am I going to be here for an undetermined period of time?”, to which Hans Einar responded “yes, you are here for an undetermined period of time”.  It was never clear to me if it was the dementia that prevented him from understanding what was really going on or if he understood at some level but preferred not to address the situation directly.

The staff at the nursing home were kind and discreet.  Visitors were asked to leave the room whenever they prepared Einar for bed or when he was being washed in the morning. The nurses always addressed Einar directly and it was only if he was unable to answer their questions that they turned to a family member.  The staff not only cared for Einar, they cared for his visitors.  Although Einar was not eating much at the time, his family and visitors were provided with platters of sandwiches for lunch and we were all welcome to serve ourselves from the hot dinner fare that was provided to patients.

During the 5 days Einar spent at the nursing home, a member of his family was with him from mid-morning to late at night after he had drifted off to sleep.  Alfhild was at his side every day, as were his sons and there were regular visits from those grandchildren who live nearby.  There was never any agreed plan on who would come when, but there was always someone with him.  There were no activities to fill his day; rather, his family simply sat with him, talked to him when he was awake or talked quietly to each other while he napped.  There were tears and laughter and “hellos” and “goodbyes” and “see-you-tomorrows”, and with each utterance, we were acutely aware that it might be the last one.

Einar died peacefully on 21 November 2013 at 6.30 a.m.  By the time we arrived about an hour later, the staff had cleared his room of all clutter and Einar lay in his bed, lovingly prepared by the staff for his last visitors.  The room was illuminated by a single candle that had been placed by his bedside next to a vase of roses.  His family was able to be with him, uninterrupted, for as long as they wanted.

The next few days were spent making practical arrangements for Einar’s funeral and receiving family and friends who came by to pay their condolences.

The funeral service was a traditional one, held at the local church where Einar’s parents, grandparents and one of his siblings is buried.  The church was filled with over 200 of Einar’s family and friends and, given his advanced age and the fact that many of his contemporaries have already passed, this was indeed an impressive turnout.

Hans Einar gave a beautiful speech that touched on many of the highlights of Einar’s life: his birth (the first at the farm in over 40 years), the death of his father when he was only 7, his formidable athletic career and long-distance running times that make my half-marathon times seem like a slow walk, his meeting and marriage to Alfhild 59 years earlier, his life as a farmer (he was at his happiest while riding a tractor), his activities in the resistance during the war, his active participation in local politics and, perhaps most importantly to him, his life as a husband, a father, a father-in-law, a grandfather and a great-grandfather.  At one point in the service, Einar’s grandchildren were invited to place a single red rose on his pine coffin.  During the entire service, Einar’s youngest great-grandchild ran around the church, noisily reminding us of the energy of life at a time when we are so focused on death.

Einar’s three sons and his eldest grandchildren bore his coffin out of the church.  One of his granddaughters and I accompanied Alfhild behind the coffin and we stood outside in a light drizzle to receive the warm and heartfelt condolences of Einar’s community.  I was touched by the presence of our friends and those of Torbjørn and Arnfinn who showed up to support us.

Following the church service, everyone was invited to a reception with sandwiches, cake and coffee at a nearby hall.  There were some lovely speeches about Einar, some tears and enough laughter to remind us all of Einar’s dry and witty sense of humour.  As much as the funeral was a solemn moment to say goodbye, the reception was a celebration of Einar’s life.

I already knew most of what was said about Einar, from his own stories and from the meticulous scrapbooks he maintained about the history of the farm.  A few years ago, he asked Hans Einar to give him a photo of me so that I could be a part of that history, and so I am.

But what these stories and archives do not capture is what, for me, has become the real testament to who Einar Hem was in life, and that is how he was treated in dying and in death: with kindness and respect, with little fuss, surrounded by his family, and with his final life decisions made by the children he raised to be both compassionate and practical. And, while I understand it, I am saddened that, in many cultures, dying and death have become so planned, so legal, so complicated.  I have been lucky to be a part something different here at Hem and I am so grateful to Einar for that.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEinar Hem, 1923-2013