Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Big Decision

I've been posting selections from Voluntary Nomads since last September -- a story from each chapter of the book, about 15 per cent of the whole -- and today's is the last excerpt. From Part Eight: Bolivia Cliffhangers, Chapter 33:

The Big Decision

Tina joined us in La Paz for her third Christmas visit and we made our requisite trips to the big market for hand-woven aguayo tablecloths and to Elizabeth's shop for gifts and souvenirs that Tina wanted for her friends. Fred and I had a lovely time during Tina's visit. Tina, not so much. Two days after Christmas she spoke her mind at breakfast.

"The last thing I want to do is to hurt your feelings…."

In the pause that followed I gathered courage to face her next words.

"You know how much I love you guys, but…I want to change to an earlier flight…. I have a life and I want to get back to it."

We put her on the plane on December 30, instead of January 10 as planned. That meant we would be apart on her twenty-second birthday, the first birthday without us in her entire life. I put on a serene front but my insides ripped asunder. Letting go required a strength I wasn't sure I had.

In the car on the way home from the airport, Fred and I blinked our swollen, blurry eyes.

"You know what?" I said. "She's right. I think we should leave early too. I have a life and I want to get on with it."

Until that moment we had dithered about setting our retirement date. We wanted to collect our reward of early retirement and live closer to our families, but we had financial fears. With twenty-five years of service, counting his four years in the Army, Fred's annuity would equal fifty percent of the average of his highest three years' salary. The loss of my income would reduce our total budget to about one third of our current spending power. I thought of a pie chart and visualized a one-third-sized wedge. Small. Less than half.

Still, I had read Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and I understood how it was possible to live a fulfilling life on less money. The question we had to ask: how much is enough? Our situation would have been more daunting if we hadn't experienced our quasi-hippie period in the early 70s when we learned to make do with much less. Also in our favor was the state of mind we had maintained over the years, living frugally and saving well.

Fred said he was willing to continue in the Foreign Service as long as I would go along. But I was ready to leave it behind. After years of re-inventing myself at every post while staying within the identity of Fred's wife and Dakota and Tina's mother, a basic instinct prodded me to pursue a deeper knowledge of myself. I needed to explore who else I might be – potter, artist, singer, quilter, marathon runner, who-knows-what -- and I wanted to do it in New Mexico. ###

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Sunday, January 1, 2012

One Way Home

From Voluntary Nomads, Part Eight: Bolivia Cliffhangers, this excerpt from Chapter 32 shows one way to escape a demonstration --

One Way Home

          Within a month of our arrival in La Paz, I found a job in the Narcotics Affairs Section (NAS). Although the name sounds sexy, this department did not promote doped-up trysts but rather the business of drug interdiction, a somber and dangerous undertaking. My job entailed only office work, however; no danger for me. The senior secretary in the office, Lisa Fowler, young enough to be my daughter, and an innocent newlywed accompanying her husband on his first overseas assignment, heaved a sigh of relief when I let her know I was not at all jealous of her seniority. We got along great.
The NAS office occupied the northwest corner of the third floor of an old bank building leased by the embassy. A long wall of windows faced the same direction as the embassy's entrance. One of those windows still bore the scars of a recent demonstration -- cracks in a star-shaped pattern from the impact of a medium-sized object, maybe a brick or rock. As the newest member of the NAS staff, I sat at a desk in the corner of the reception area. Everything about the office seemed decrepit. Heating pipes exposed their peeling paint and electrical wires drooped in random loops hanging here and there. The air smelled like ancient Incan relics from the downtown black market.
In spite of the rundown physical environment and the serious tone of the war on drugs, my office mates were cheerful and upbeat – when they were there, that is. Since most of the coca-growing and cocaine labs were in the jungle region, the staff traveled often, leaving Lisa and me to run the office.
Demonstrations flared up in front of the embassy about once a month. I was relieved to learn that the demonstrators marched to protest Bolivian, not American, government policies. However, our embassy was located right across the street from the offices of the Bolivian Labor Department. Normally we had plenty of notice before a scheduled march and our security office closed the embassy for a couple of hours and advised everyone to draw the drapes and stay away from the windows. The demonstrators would gather at the top of the street at noon and chant their way down a dozen blocks to the Labor Office, exploding half-sticks of dynamite and throwing bricks at windows along the way.
One particular demonstration played out in a different way, especially for me. This time we had only a few minutes' warning. And it was late in the day, 4:30 PM, almost quitting time at the embassy, and I was alone in the office. When Security announced that the embassy would be locked down in ten minutes, I reacted without considering the consequences. I shut down my computer, grabbed my purse and sweater, rushed down the stairs and out the door. In the back of my mind I pictured flagging down a trufi (share-taxi) on the next street west of the embassy and arriving home in Achumani in thirty minutes, long before the demonstration hit its peak. But when I reached the next street, which was a major taxi route, there was not a single car as far as I could see in both directions. I learned later that part of that day's protest included a taxi drivers' strike, but having no idea in the moment, I hurried along in a direction that I hoped would take me to another taxi route a safe distance from the demonstration.
I crossed street after street as empty as if a major evacuation had already occurred. I began to perspire. I might have been walking fast enough to break a sweat, but I also felt a sense of impending doom. Maybe I was in serious trouble. Best-case scenario, I faced a ten-mile walk home in the dark. Located so close to the equator, La Paz days and nights were of equal length year round, so the fact that it was summer didn't help me, other than providing survivable evening temperatures.
The end-of-the-world appearance of the streets continued until I reached the Prado, the city's downtown area. Traffic appeared to bustle as usual until I noticed that the assortment of vehicles included neither taxis nor minibuses. I reconciled myself to the prospect of a long hike in inadequate shoes because I am neither brave enough nor foolhardy enough to hitchhike. Anywhere. Not in La Paz, Bolivia, of all places. I turned toward home with determination and strode forward, fantasizing about a miraculous rescue coming before holes appeared in my shoe leather.
A passing shot of color caught my eye. I watched the big yellow bus roll past and discharge a passenger on the corner. I had seen these buses every day but never gave serious consideration to riding one. Their routing system was a complete mystery to me and I couldn't imagine being able to manage the embark/disembark procedure. The Cholita buses, so called because of the preponderance of bowler-clad Aymara lady passengers, moved along at about ten miles an hour unless picking up or letting off, when they slowed to five miles an hour, requiring the passengers to scurry alongside before getting on or after getting off.
I noticed the lengthening shadows and shivered at the cold strip of dampness between my shoulder blades. I amped up my courage and made the leap onto the next Cholita bus. I scrambled on board and paid my fare, the equivalent of ten cents. I found a vacant seat near the back and prayed that this bus would take me closer to home. From my vantage point I could watch the other passengers and analyze their arrival/departure techniques.
Most of my companions that day were Aymara Indian women, dressed in their ample layered skirts, carrying who-knows-what-all in their multicolored hand-woven aguayo cloth wraps, bowler hats perched on their heads at a rakish angle. I would have been happy to eavesdrop on conversations, but no one spoke. I tried to relax and enjoy the atmosphere, but whiffs of odd odors kept me on edge. I could detect food smells and sweaty smells, but there was also a nostril-crimping undertone that reeked of waste and rot. I squirmed a bit and estimated how long it would take to travel ten miles at an average speed of 8 miles per hour.
I lost the urge to gag as soon as I recognized the shops of Calacoto. Elizabeth's store, where we shopped often for rugs and souvenirs, never looked as good to me before. If the bus continued on this main street, I would be able to jump off at the corner two blocks from our house. I wondered if Fred knew I was unaccounted for. He might be locked in the embassy still, or he might be home already. In those days without cell phones, we were accustomed to spending considerable time out of communication with each other. I hoped he wasn't worried about me.
As the bus started up the hill toward Achumani, I prepared my exit strategy. Stand up, proceed to the side exit and face the door. Wait for the bus to slow as it approaches the corner by our local butcher shop, hold the pole in a firm grip, and exit running.
When I hit the road I stumbled, flailed to regain my balance and – success! I huffed my sense of relief and crossed the main street at our corner.
Lights glowed in our windows and warmed me with a welcome sense of home. I found Fred in the bedroom changing out of his work clothes into his comfies. He had arrived only minutes before, surprised that I wasn't home, but not worried yet. I enjoyed telling him the tale of my journey. He made me promise that was my only ride on a Cholita bus. When I told my friends, their reaction made me feel as brave as nineteenth century explorer Isabella Bird. Lisa, my office mate, gave me a miniature Cholita bus tree-ornament that reminds me every Christmas of my potential for spunk. ###

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Amazon Cruise

Dancing in the Rain

Today's Voluntary Nomads excerpt comes from Chapter 31 of Part Eight: Bolivia Cliffhangers:

The Amazon Cruise

We called one of our excursions in Bolivia "The Amazon Cruise," although that sounds grander than it was. We didn't cruise the actual Amazon. We putt-putted down the Mamore River, a tributary of the Amazon, for three days on a boat not much fancier than Humphrey Bogart's African Queen. To get to the boat, we flew to the town of Trinidad and chartered a bus from there to the river.

As our small plane carried us from the runway at 13,000 feet up through the Andes and back down to sea level, we passed between snow capped mountain peaks looming higher than our cruising altitude on both sides -- more spectacular than the IMAX movie experience – I hung on to the armrests as if I could keep the plane airborne by myself.

Our embassy CLO (Community Liaison Officer) had organized this trip and chartered the boat we would take down the river. We knew all of the passengers, but we partied the most with our friends Paul and Vicki. The fun started early because of Vicki's fear of flying. She swigged a pre-flight dose of courage and continued to drink, as fast as the attendant could serve her, all the way to Trinidad. Vicki personified life-of-the-party all morning.

The bus we caught at Trinidad kept the fiesta theme going with its splash of colorful decorations typical of the region. The worn-out shock absorbers were equally typical of rural Bolivia. We didn't care. Like a bunch of kids on the way to summer camp, we sang songs (led by our tipsy first-grade teacher of course) and laughed and chattered all the way. The sun shone in a cloudless sky. The tropical humidity brought curls even to my stick-straight hair.

The boat looked sea-worthy to me, but I wondered how our crowd could fit on it. When the door of our cabin opened, I understood. Inside I saw a cot-sized bunk bed. That's it. There was just enough room for one person to stand beside the bed. When Fred and I were both in the room, one of us had to crawl into the bed to allow room for the other to change clothes.

One toilet/shower stall served all passengers. I could tell that the shower used murky river water, so I didn't bother with it. I inferred the same about the toilet and lost the tiny spark of enthusiasm I might have had for swimming in the river. Learning that the river hosted piranhas and crocodiles convinced me to stay dry.

Fred, however, trusted that the captain wouldn't encourage any dangerous activity. He swam in that malignant stew of microorganisms and sharp-toothed predators as did a few others, including Vicki and Paul. He also went crocodile hunting. I kissed Fred goodbye when he left on that excursion, not knowing whether he would return in one piece if at all. He was one of six bold hunters who crept out that night. They beamed a bright light along the shoreline to attract the baby crocs and then kidnapped the unwary beasts with their bare hands. Sport for the hunters brought terror to the crocodile nursery, but the catch-and-release escapade ended happily for all.

The day the rains came, our captain asked for volunteers to catch fish for dinner. I raised my hand. Fred looked surprised that I would do such a thing, but he volunteered too. An older fellow and his grandson joined us, and we stepped into a flat-bottomed wooden rowboat with a crewmember/guide who supplied us with waterproof slickers and fishing gear.

The guide handed each of us an ordinary cane pole equipped with twelve inches of steel leader attached to a barbed hook baited with chunks of raw beef. He demonstrated the proper fishing technique. First he dropped the baited hook into the river. Then he slapped the water's surface vigorously for a few seconds with the tip of his pole, and wham! I flinched as he jerked the fish past me into the boat. The guide cautioned us to fling our hooked fish toward the bow of the boat, away from our feet. Using his deft and heavily scarred hands, he grabbed his fish, stabbed it between the eyes with a short knife, and removed the hook.

A gentle rain kept the swarms of mosquitoes at bay and we merry anglers fished for an hour. We caught over forty piranhas and had them for dinner that night, the smaller ones in a savory soup and the larger ones fried to crisp delectability. We nibbled tiny bites, to savor the flavor and also to pick out the numerous tiny bones.

Fred had befriended the captain, trading manly tales and drinking beer with him as he piloted us down the river, and the captain returned the favor by giving Fred a shellacked piranha skull as a memento. We have displayed it on our mantelpiece ever since, to the grisly fascination of our grandsons.

We went on shore once to visit a village. The people lived a simple life with few possessions. Everyone we met wore a smile; most of the younger ones wore only a smile. The village occupied a clearing in a forest of mango trees. We slipped and skidded on the slick conglomeration of rotted mango fruit and river seepage. The sweet stomach-turning odor and proliferation of flying insects drove us back to the boat within minutes. I might have enjoyed the fresh fish and fruit diet, but still I felt glad that I wasn't born to be a resident of the Amazon jungle, prey to the biting hordes.

The rain continued, sometimes heavy, sometimes light, but always steady. We continued to party, as unstoppable as the falling rain. When we had consumed all the beer on the boat, the captain announced that we had set a record. We didn't see pink elephants then, but we did doubt our eyes when pink dolphins cavorted in the water ahead of us. They were real, the captain assured us – a species of fresh water porpoise in shades of pink darkening to purple – colorful beings rollicking in the bow waves of our boat.

At the end of the cruise we expected to reverse our earlier journey. But the unusual amount of rainfall had created a soupy mess where the road used to be and our bus stayed stranded miles away in Trinidad. We had to settle for the best alternative – our group hired two flatbed trucks whose drivers were willing to brave the conditions. We piled in and scrabbled anxiously for a handhold.

The trucks fishtailed down the road, sliding from one side to the other, swerving too close to the edge of a three-foot drop-off to the ditch that ran beside fields of manioc and maize. I clung to Fred and Fred clutched at a splintery board that jerked back and forth with the movement of our truck. As the trucks sashayed, the mud flew and splattered us from head to toe. I clamped my lips closed and kept my head down, grateful for the shelter provided by the bill of my cap.

I feared for our lives, but neither of the trucks overturned or got permanently stuck. We were a stunned bunch of Yankees who disembarked at the airport. Bystanders' incredulous gazes followed as we scraped mud clods from our bodies and straggled single-file toward the check-in desk. ###

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Awed by the speed of a passing Venetian

Excerpt from Voluntary Nomads, Part Seven: Austria Adventures, Chapter 30:

A week after I ran the Vienna Marathon, Fred and I caught the early morning train for a mini-vacation in Venice. We chose the same quaint hotel where Fred had stayed with his friends a couple months earlier. Ochre plaster walls and antique furnishings provided a mellow old-world backdrop. Fred and I exchanged looks of wonderment as we followed the dwarf concierge up the narrow staircase to our floor. The stage was set for romance, mystery, and intrigue.

We strolled to a small neighborhood trattoria where we relaxed in candlelight and enjoyed the best meal of our lives -- baby clams bathed in an unbelievably delicious wine sauce that sent our taste buds to paradise.

After lingering over a second glass of wine, we meandered back to our room, anticipating sweet dreams. But during the night, our hotel lost most of its romanticism. The windows, open in a vain attempt to catch a cooling breeze, overlooked a waterbus stop. Traffic was heavy and midnight conversations were loud and boisterous.

Well before dawn the next morning, the rest of the romantic air leaked out of our hotel when the fish stall beneath our window opened for business. The musical tones of the fishmonger's patter could have been tolerable, but can anyone luxuriate in bed and relish the smell of dead fish? Ah well, we had plenty of sightseeing to do, so we got up and got going.

At breakfast we learned that sitting down to eat in Italy doubled the bill. A helpful British bystander explained that almost all coffee houses and sandwich shops had a counter where patrons could stand while they ate. He advised us to avoid sitting at a table if we wanted to save money.

We walked what seemed like a hundred miles, seeing all manner of wonderful art and architecture. The pace surprised me. Venetian women in elegant suits and spike heels speed walked everywhere and they gave us lollygagging tourists the evil eye. Window-shopping was definitely unacceptable in Venice. Fred and I reacted to the censure and focused on museums and churches instead of shop windows.

To get another perspective of the city, we rode the entire route of the main waterbus that circled the city and offered a picturesque view from the water. At lunchtime, we got off at a random stop and wandered the labyrinth of alleyways until we found a café. Sophisticated Venice-wise tourists now, we savored our spinach/mozzarella sandwiches while standing at the narrow street-side counter.

At the end of our dream weekend, we boarded the night train and found our sleeper coach for the return trip to Vienna. I recall having some anxiety about what our teenage children might have done for entertainment during our absence. ###

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Saturday, December 17, 2011


Graduate and Proud Sister

Vienna, Austria, 1991. In the middle of our sixth Foreign Service posting, sixteen years after signing on, we realized just how close we were to empty-nest-time. From Voluntary Nomads, Part Seven: Austria Adventures, Chapter 29:

Dakota went to Turkey on his senior class trip in May and returned mere days before graduation.  High school graduation. Where had the time gone? I recalled our photo of not-quite-two-year-old Dakota in Washington, DC, all dressed up in his new Winnie-the-Pooh outfit, ready to fly to Tehran in 1975. Now in 1991 our handsome eighteen-year-old son stood at the beginning of a new path to his own future.

More interested in music than in academics, Dakota decided to stay with us in Vienna for a year of study at the American Institute of Music (AIM). To fill the time between graduation and the start of classes at AIM, he signed up for the summer work program at the embassy. The personnel office did their best to create jobs for teens, gave them a courtesy security clearance based on their parent's background investigation, and paid them to help the gardeners and caretakers or function as security escorts for workmen in unclassified areas of the embassy. Before Dakota got a job through that program, I had a brainstorm: he could do my job while I went on home leave. My boss and the Brookhaven Lab accountants approved the plan.

I wrote glossaries to automate the correspondence that Dakota would have to generate and streamlined the daily routine as much as possible. The story had a perfect ending. Dakota did great work, and I still had a job when I got back. And Dakota survived his two-month bachelor experience as well.

Meanwhile, Tina flew to Washington, DC to spend time with her girlfriend Alex Asselin from Dominican Republic days. Fred and I rode the train to Frankfurt where we could catch a direct flight to Dallas. This was our first time on a night train and our first experience in a sleeping compartment. Novels always describe the wheel clicking rhythm and rocking motion as soothing and dream promoting. But it reminded me of my father pushing on my shoulder to get me up for school, wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up.

In the middle of the night, Fred got up to pee. Being a considerate guy he didn't turn on the light. He groped in the dark to find the floor-level cupboard that held the urinal, a quart-sized vessel with a handle at one end and a spout at the other. After using the urinal, the traveler was supposed to return it to the cupboard where the angle of the shelf would automatically tip the contents (onto the tracks below, I'm guessing).

Fred fumbled the cupboard door open, removed and used the urinal. Bumping and clunking noises followed.

"What the hell?" He flicked on the light. "Damn."

The overhead light glared upon perplexed Fred holding one of his shoes. I watched him pour the contents of his shoe into the urinal. And I giggled. Giggles escalated into belly laughs that disintegrated into hiccupy guffaws. Fred laughed then too, although he didn't seem quite as amused as I was; maybe he wasn't quite as loopy from sleep deprivation, or he envisioned putting his foot into a damp shoe in the morning.

In Dallas we launched our visit to Fred's sisters who lived within the Texas Triangle, as we called La Porte (Laura), Conroe (Pat), and Austin (Beth). Party, party, party. The Austin segment included a side trip to Port Aransas where I got the second worst sunburn of my life, blistering my calves, during a long walk with Fred up and down the beach.

After our whirlwind tour of the Texas Triangle, we flew to Albuquerque and met up with Tina for our visits to my dad and his wife Bea in Los Lunas and to Fred's parents in Roswell. Tina toured the UNM campus, one of her options for college. She also got her driver's license and practiced driving in my dad's Goldie, a venerable Pontiac sedan. Fred spent the whole vacation feeling sick. We wondered if it might be a recurrence of dengue fever that had first infected him in Somalia and then again in the Dominican Republic. He felt better by the time we topped off the home leave experience with five days in DC getting physicals and taking care of other business.

When we arrived back in Vienna on that August day, home never looked so good. It would have been perfect if our suitcases had arrived with us, but international travel is not all wine and roses after all. Our bags showed up two days later. ###

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Half Century

Bicycle Reststop

Today's excerpt from Voluntary Nomads takes us to Austria in the spring of 1990.

Spring weather turned our attention to bicycling. Fred bought a set of detailed maps of the many bike routes throughout Austria. Once he and I had explored the area in and around Vienna, we put our bikes on the car-rack and ventured into the countryside. We rode much of the time on designated bicycle paths and some of the time on country roads. Outside the city, Austrian drivers seemed less hurried or harried and they gave the utmost consideration to bicyclists; I felt safe. Often we cruised those byways on Sundays and found the quaint little towns virtually deserted. I imagined all the families gathered at Oma's (granny's) house for dinner after Mass. I pictured us as colorful figures on a scenic postcard.

Out in the country, we rode among the hills and valleys, and once we pedaled the perimeter of a potato field. There, in the middle of nowhere, we came upon a small wooden shed with rustic picnic tables outside. Inside the shed, refreshments were sold, including beer and wine. More than just cyclist-friendly, this was cyclist-heavenly.

Half Century
Our lovely bicycling excursions over the summer gave me the idea for a birthday trip to celebrate my fiftieth. One of our map packets featured a trail that ran along the Danube and I chose the portion from Passau, Germany to Melk, Austria, a trip that would take three days.

To catch the train to Passau we had to get up at 4:45 AM. We packed our saddlebags the night before and, after some fiddling around, discovered that Fred's bags fit on my bike and vice versa.

We rode our bikes in the early morning darkness with perfect visibility thanks to the bright streetlights. I shivered a little in the wind that made sixty degrees seem chilly.

Traffic on the Gurtel was a little scary. Where could all those people be going at 5:30 in the morning?

Although we purchased our passenger tickets in August, we had to get tickets for the bikes on the day of travel, September 12, my birthday. The man at the ticket window spoke perfect English and handed Fred our tickets as he directed us to take our bicycles up to the platform. Fred assumed that the ticket man meant we should take the escalator along with the regular passengers.

The world switched to slow motion as Fred performed a wild acrobatic routine with his bicycle caught in the escalator's claws. Before the comedy had a chance to turn into a tragedy, a Turkish newspaper vendor stepped in to pull the red emergency ring. The escalator stopped immediately, but the alarm system set off a clamor of bells that centered everyone's attention on Fred's drama. While Fred pulled himself and his bicycle and his baggage together, I stood paralyzed, my view of the world still in shocked slow-mo. An important lesson: bicycles and escalators are best ridden separately.

After that, boarding the train was a snap. This was a special bicycle train with half the cars designed to transport bikes. In typical Austrian fashion, the train got underway right on schedule. As the wheels clickety-clicked along, I watched blue sky replace clouds and improve the outlook for today's forty-four-mile leg of my birthday bike trip. ###

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Sunday, December 11, 2011



The trip to our next post, Vienna, Austria, in 1989, marked a milestone for us -- the kids and I had never traveled without Fred before, not once in our fourteen years of moves overseas. I suffered from that uneasy feeling of something missing. To add to my discomfort, our two flights were late and later and we had to sit on the runway in New York for three hours due to bad weather somewhere nearby. Ugh. I tried to snooze away the transatlantic flight, but every time the bliss of sleep approached, my flopping head jerked me back to consciousness. At the end of a very long night I blessed our sponsors, who met us at the airport. If I had the energy I would have shouted halleluiah when I saw our bags bump through the black rubber flaps onto the carousel. Our gentle sponsors delivered three weary bodies to Apartment 2/3 at 16 Chimanistrasse in the Nineteenth District of Vienna, Austria, our home for the next three years.

Jet lag weighed me down like a lead cape and I dragged through the next few days, receiving our airfreight and the embassy welcome kit, plus figuring out how to get Dakota and Tina to their school orientation.

Vienna's fabulous public transportation system lay almost at our doorstep with a bus/tram stop less than a block away, on the route that ended at the foot of the hill occupied by the American International School (AIS) campus. Many of the passengers on that route on the day of orientation were the right age to be AIS students. One boy in particular attracted my attention with his animated conversation in the seat ahead of us. That was Sam Torabi, who became one of Dakota's best friends and his future college roommate.

After the kids' introduction to AIS, we looked forward to Fred's arrival on the following day. He had seemed sad about sending us ahead to post, and I thought of a surprise to welcome him home and cheer him up. I stocked the fridge with an assortment of a dozen different Austrian beers and posted a rating sheet on the fridge door.

"What's this?" Fred pointed to my hand-lettered chart.

"Look inside." I swung the fridge door open. "Ta Da!"

Fred's eyes sparkled and he reached for his first tall white and gold can of Zipfer. After finishing the home test of canned beer, Fred switched to bottles and homed in on Gösser as his number one choice in Austrian beers.

We learned that our new home had a former life as officers' quarters during the American occupation of Vienna following World War II. Our place was formed by the removal of dividing walls between two adjacent two-bedroom apartments. On the ground floor we had two main entrances, two living rooms, two dining rooms, one kitchen, and one laundry room (formerly a kitchen). Two staircases led to the bedrooms, two on each side, and bathrooms, one on each side. We put the kids on one side and us on the other and designated the spare bedroom as guestroom/office. There was a door between the guestroom and Tina's room, but Tina decided to put her dresser against it. She might have been guarding her privacy or merely creating more options for furniture arrangement – she didn't say which.

The apartment had a total of six doors to the outside world – the two main entrances plus glass doors from the kitchen, one dining area, and both living rooms -- and I expected to receive a key ring worthy of a castle's chatelaine. I was surprised and impressed that one key opened all six doors as well as the main gate to the compound. The price tag for duplicate keys for the kids came as a shock. At $20 each, those keys should have been silver-plated.

I dove into German lessons at the embassy and let the personnel office know I was looking for work. Dakota and Tina started highschool, made friends, and seemed happy. But I noticed that Dakota wrote "Hell" on the top left hand corner of the envelope addressed to his friend from the Dominican Republic. If he did feel banished to Hades, it wasn't long before that feeling faded in the presence of new friends and the experiences available with all of Europe as a playground. ###

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