A Farewell

Roughly seven and a half years ago, we flew to Costa Rica and ten days later bought a house there. It wasn’t impulsive, but it flew ever so slightly against conventional wisdom. Every single manual/website/blog/advice-dispenser/busybody will tell you that before moving to Costa Rica, you must live there for so-and-so long, you must move from region to region to identify the area you like best and so forth. Advice acknowledged.

Atenas.May.2017.08-1230008

Let’s look at this from our perspective. When I was 27 years old, I abandoned my career path and moved to Fort Worth, Texas, USA. Two days later I married someone I barely knew and I mean that quite literally because we had spent only 15 days in each other’s company before we got married. Fifteen days as in 360 hours. That happened 40 years ago this coming Christmas season and we’re still together and loving it and each other. We moved many times within the US, buying and selling seven homes along the way, not counting our places in Costa Rica and France, nor our residence and the guest house we built on our ranch in Central Texas. When looking for a place to live, we do all the preliminary work online, including political situations, health care, infrastructure, climate and so forth. The rest is simply gut reaction. Our combined judgments may not be statistically relevant, but they’re pretty sound nevertheless. Besides, at my age and life experience, I can pretty much determine without a test period if either high humidity and a lot of sand or a mountain perch with a far view work better for me.

During these 40 years, my husband traveled across the globe on business, continuously learning about other cultures. While I ferried our son from home to Montessori School and back, he traveled from Buenos Aires to Kathmandu and beyond, and was I ever jealous! While I isolated catfish retinas under dark-red conditions in my lab, he conducted workshops in the shadow of the holy site of the Borobudur in Indonesia. We rarely traveled together during those years because our respective work schedules diverged too much.

After retirement, we utilized Home Exchanges as a way of traveling far and wide as we hadn’t been able to do in our younger years. Shanghai, Munich, Sydney, Santa Fe, Granada in Spain, or Granada in Nicaragua, we loved to explore those towns! Through home exchanges, we had a chance to travel through the alphabet together, experiencing life in foreign cities from Amsterdam to Vancouver, sometimes for a month, rarely for less than a fortnight. Our home in Costa Rica soon became our most valuable exchange token. Who doesn’t want a tropical vacation in CR, right? Barry, who made all our exchange arrangements can tell you that he received 400+ exchange request per year for our place in Atenas.

But no more. As of now, we’ve reduced our real-estate holdings to one residence, our home in France. We sold our place in Lomas del Paraiso, Atenas, Alajuela, Costa Rica, lock stock and barrel, including the Honda Element that we imported from Texas and all the linens, pots and pans, tchotchkes, and the art work on the walls. All we took with us were personal items like our swimsuits and my Zwilling kitchen knives, that have accompanied me on my life’s journey for almost as long as my husband. We also packed up our Boruca masks that I bought from the artisans during an educational event in Atenas to which I was invited two years ago. This is the post I published in 2015 about that day:

Las Artes y Los Borucas

We’re sad to leave behind the most delicious tropical fruit paradise known to man, faithfully supplying me with a daily dose of my beloved maracuyá juice and juicy pineapples for Barry’s breakfast. We will also miss the ever-changing and entertaining views over canyons and volcanic mountain ranges rising above the Central Valley, itself stretching far below our terrace and lap pool.

Lomas.33-1240010

7 h in the morning – looking S over the Central Valley

Lomas.34-1230364

mid-morning around 10 h – looking S over the Central Valley

Lomas.35-1230909

18 h nightfall – looking W with mists rising from the canyon floor below us

But the saddest “things” to leave behind were not fruits or views, however delicious or spectacular. They were not even our resident Greater kiskadee’s loud territorial cries, awakening us every morning at 5:30 sharp nor the world’s best sherbets created by our friend Alex, but Alex himself. Him and all our other friends in Atenas, Americans, Ticos, Germans, Canadians, Belgians, Frenchies, Brits, every one of them shall be sorely missed!

Owing to our extensive travel schedule these past two years, we had not returned home to Costa Rica in 18 months, trusting our managers of long standing to supervise the running of our property with its lineup of exchange partners and paying guests. They were not just managers, though we remunerated them quite generously, they had been our friends as well. A few years ago, they even acted as our dog’s foster parents while we were abroad. Based on this relationship, we gave them an exclusive listing last September when we made the difficult decision to sell. After five months with only a few showings and both promised second showings never actually happening, we told our manager/agent that we needed to list our property with other agents. Shortly thereafter our renters submitted a purchase offer directly to us, which we accepted – precipitating a shitstorm of epic proportions. Our managers/agent declared themselves our enemies, calling us liars and cheats. They dropped us like the proverbial hot potato, terminating all services without notice. True, we sold to buyers who had approached us directly with their offer, thus cutting out the agent. Since there was no prior interaction between agent and buyer, this was legal and customary. Our agent didn’t bring this client, nor any other clients, thus she hadn’t earned a commission. Nevertheless, the vicious venom was hurtful and the unpleasantness dragged on over many weeks, revealing also that there had been some mismanagement, especially in the pool and yard care and in the supervision of the gardener. We had learned earlier that the mandatory yearly car inspection hadn’t been done and found out eventually about a serious equipment theft which was never resolved.

As if to make up for this heartbreak, our friends and neighbors up the hill dove in with practical help and encouragement despite going through some difficult times themselves. Their unwavering support was calming and reassuring, they simply enveloped us with their goodness and love. Your wings, Marcella and Mike, are without any doubt of archangelical proportions!

During our last few weeks in Costa Rica, we tried to hang out with as many people as we could between sorting belongings and canceling services, strengthening bonds and even forging new ones. A lot of hugs remained unhuged because I got pretty sick and had to step back from human contact for a lot longer than anticipated. Nevertheless, we generated many lovely memories with our friends in Atenas, especially with a certain couple in Roca Verde, who would restore our joie de vivre with their signature Negroni cocktails and lovely dinners every time we thought we had lost our spunk for good. Thank you, Judy and Neal!

Costa Rica is well known for its incredible bio diversity. When you live there, you’re never really alone. You share your space with untold members of the living world, sometimes a little too closely, but more often than not, a delight to observe.

Lomas.27-1230712

Lomas.09-1230146

Black iguana youngster, still sporting a lot of green,

Lomas.32-1230423

while mama is almost done with her latest molt.

 

Lomas.10-1230313

My Kangal Dog Otto’s resting place

 

 

 

Lomas.30-1230960

“Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.”  Henry David Thoreau

 

Distinctly Different Vistas

We left France recently for our first trip back to Costa Rica in 20 Months, más o menos. The contrast between small town Saintes, Charente-Maritime, and small town Atenas, Alajuela, couldn’t be more pronounced if you tried! With a few of the pictures I took during this last week, I can illustrate the dichotomy between the tranquil life along the Charente river and the dramatic natural forces on the slopes of the Cordillera Central.

On our last day in Saintes, I discovered “our” swans on an outing with this year’s crop of cygnets. Framed against the backdrop of 2000-year-old l’Arc de Germanicus, they are the perfect symbol for life in rural southwest France.

Saintes.Swans.2017.01-1220893

Saintes.Swans.2017.03-1220900

While I was watching, the parental units brought their swanlings a little closer to the left bank to teach them the swan-ly skill of underwater grazing.

Saintes.Swans.2017.02-1220902

Saintes.Swans.2017.04-1220905

Mute swans, Cygnus olor, Anatidae

 

Version 2

Close supervision of the fuzzballs brought quick success. 

Finally, even sleepy number seven joined its siblings.

Saintes.Swans.2017.11-1220942

That’s easy, dad!

In contrast to the gentle breezes and mild temperatures of southwest France, we arrived in Costa Rica to an atmosphere of nearly saturated humidity, so moist and oppressive that even the cashier at the supermarket had to wipe her face repeatedly with the collar of her polo shirt while she was checking us out. If the locals can’t stand it, how am I supposed to cope? Our customarily crisp and brilliant sunrises were also a bit on the murky side.

Atenas.May.2017.01-1220947

05h28

Atenas.May.2017.02-1220952

05h40

Fortunately, the weather has since reverted to normal, with pleasant mostly sunny mornings and thundering afternoons, befitting the early rainy season.

Atenas.May.2017.04-1220986

06h25

Atenas.May.2017.05-1220989

06h26

The hillside across the canyon hasn’t fully greened yet,  but it’s early days – the rainy season has barely started. However, when it does rain one can’t easily ignore it!

Atenas.May.2017.03-1220974

15h34

My circadian rhythm has reset itself, adjusting to the near equatorial day with daylight from 5h00 to 18h00 and brief dawn and dusk periods. In Costa Rica, pretty much the whole country rises and retires with the proverbial chickens, except the party crowd in posh Escazu, of course. In addition to the properties of lux influx, I postulate that an adaptation to the local alimentation greatly influences my Tica-style sleep-wake cycle. After all, one can not possibly start the day in Costa Rica without a serving of Gallo Pinto, can one now?

Atenas.May.2017.06-1220993

Speaking of food, Costa Rican ants like their protein, too. It took a steady stream of tiny Formicidae roughly 36 hours to completely strip this beetle of all nourishing organic matter. A contiguous ant-highway extended along my bathroom tile grout for several meters between the supine victim and the outdoors, moving along with single-minded determination. Amazing!

Atenas.May.2017.07-1220995

The statuesque lady below, sunning herself on our cement pool surround is a member of one of our resident Black iguana families, Ctenosaura similis, Iguanidae. They live on the hillside below and above us and their extensive escape tunnels incorporate our rainwater drainage system. Iguanas are pretty shy and tend to disappear rather quickly when they detect you.

Atenas.May.2017.12-1220957

Atenas.May.2017.13-1220958

The spikes on the iguana’s tail give them their other name, Spiny-tailed iguana. 

 

Atenas.May.2017.14-1220964

Another iguana family lives in the steep mountainside opposite our back door. One of the cave entrances is five or six meters above our carport. They do enjoy sunbathing, so in Costa Rica, I have a much greater opportunity to observe iguana than swans!

Atenas.May.2017.10-1230082

Atenas.May.2017.11-1230090

Both locations, Saintes and Atenas, are gorgeous in their own way, don’t you think?

Atenas.May.2017.08-1230008

05h29, May 31, 2017

 

#CreatingEquality

“Creating Equality” was the 2017 theme of the 39th LGBTIQ Rights Parade in Sidney. The event drew about 200K spectators to enjoy the enthusiasm of the 12K participants, while roughly 200 floats formed the backbone of the parade. The news media speculated that the wet and blustery weather adversely affected the numbers of spectators, however, I didn’t notice any dampened spirits among the participants from my vantage point across the street from the official staging point.

From our spectacular high-rise terrace, we had a bird’s eye view of the activities below, as parade participants and floats gathered in ever-increasing numbers from midday onward.

sydnet-parade-01-1150591

Liverpool St. [directly below] and College St. [right-hand] had been closed to traffic and parking for 24 hours since early morning. Eventually, four rows of floats would line up there to commence into the parade route [exit stage right]. Hyde Park became the dressing room and practice stage for all our chorus boys and girls.

sydnet-parade-06-1150581

sydnet-parade-08-1150596

sydnet-parade-09-1150605

One of the floats assembling curbside

sydnet-parade-10-1150608

This float eventually morphed into a Pacific Island outrigger canoe with a Polynesian sail – something we just happened to have seen in a museum in Melbourne a few days ago. Around five in the afternoon, the entire intersection presented such a hectic activity level that I went downstairs for a closer look. Our building was effectively fenced & boarded off from sidewalk and street in front. Thus our elegant marble stoop with its protective awning turned into a rain-proof grandstand overlooking a small section of Liverpool street and Hyde Park with its energizing activities.

sydnet-parade-13-1150642

sydnet-parade-29-1150770

sydnet-parade-18-1150661

The intricate Pacific Islander costumes

sydnet-parade-28-1150748

Has anyone seen Justin Timberlake?

Sydney’s gay and lesbian Mardi Gras began as a civil rights rally in the late 1970s. It was born out of solidarity for New York’s Stonewall movement and called for an end to discrimination against gays and lesbians in Australia.

Sydney.Parade.72-1160223

The 78ers continue to raise their voices in the effort to persuade Australia’s leaders to legalize same-sex marriage. Strong opposition to gay rights persists, especially from  religious groups who have described mardi gras as a “public parade of immorality and blasphemy.”

Uniquely Australian – the parade participation of the Sistagirls from Tiwi Island off the northern coast was a first this year. Read about their story here in Johnny Lieu’s Mashable report.

Sydney.Parade.57-1160118

The 2017 theme “Creating Equality” was poignantly represented in oversized, individual block letters spelling EQUALITY which displayed photographs of, well, human beings. These are your brothers and sisters, your children, your friends. They are also parents and spouses,  why should they be lesser citizens, still?

Sydney.Parade.61-1160201

Sydney.Parade.70-1160301

But this wasn’t just a political rally, most decidedly, this was a Gay Pride Parade! As was demonstrated by the more flamboyant costumes …

Sydney.Parade.71-1160302

Sydney.Parade.69-1160291

… don’t you wish you had the gumption 🙃 ? Nevertheless, my legs were getting tired and I went back up to take a few more shots of the beginning of the actual parade from our lofty perch.

Sydney.Parade.76-1160418

After the Dykes on Bikes roared by, members of the First Nations opened the Parade,

Sydney.Parade.77-1160436

closely followed by our 78ers – and we were finally on our way to a remarkable and glittery event in Sydney, Australia.

Sydney.Parade.78-1160472

Election Day

November 8, 2016

Election Day is finally here and we’re watching a life feed from the US. The screen shows a street scene labeled Lexington Avenue in NYC, where Trump is expected to cast his vote soon. We see guardrails barring the sidewalk and police officers milling in chatty groups. Some minutes later an extensive motorcade arrives. The Trump family and their innumerous entourage climb from their extra-large SUVs under heavy secret service protection, who, their vision protected by dark-tinted glasses, relentlessly scan the street and the windows above with tense demeanor, while the crowd jeers and boos. The candidate directs an abbreviated salute toward the masses before disappearing into the voting facility, followed by a gaggle of cameras recording his every move. We catch glimpses of him and his expressionless wife with her coat elegantly draped over her shoulders, matching gloves crushed in one hand – before we switch channels.

It will be a long night for us here in France. We’re six hours ahead of the East coast of North American. Realistically it will be 3 to possible 5 in the morning before we can expect to receive any news. For me, this will only be my second presidential election after having lived for 34 years as an alien and as such being excluded from participating in the democratic process, both in my chosen homeland and my native country. It is, I have to say, quite ironic that as soon as I was finally allowed to vote, I moved abroad, using mail-in ballots to exercise my newly granted right and privilege to cast a vote.

Naturalization 2012

Remembering the Road to my US Citizenship

I began my life in America as a “Greencard” carrying alien. Since I didn’t flee persecution or oppression in my homeland, it always seemed to me that I wasn’t a true immigrant in the traditional sense, so I remained an alien. Mostly, though, I have to admit, I wasn’t ready to renounce my European citizenship and over the years, nobody thought much about it anymore.

This complacency ended some thirty-odd years later. Now retired, we purchased a secondary home in Costa Rica, where I gained residency status as a German citizen. Spending more time in CR than in TX, we soon discovered that the US government doesn’t like its green carded people to go gallivanting among Central American volcanoes. One is supposed to keep those alien feet firmly planted on American soil or risk reverting to 90-day tourist visas. Losing Greencard status, I learned, would jeopardize my pension & health benefits. After all those loosey-goosey years of alienship, it was finally time to commit to the United States of America.

Well, it’s never that easy or straightforward, is it? I needed to be an American citizen for my hard earned benefits, but I also had to remain reasonably Germanic for my Costa Rican residency, and I was still not ready to forfeit that European citizenship. After all, it signifies that one can live and work in roughly 28 countries without a permit or a visa or any other legal challenges. Those are privileges you don’t give up easily. A fine conundrum it was!

A small constitutional change seemed to offer a solution, though. The German government had ratified an amendment allowing dual citizenship under limited circumstances, which came into effect in 2000. Since then, by law, I could be both German and American. But in order to acquire dual citizenship, one first has to petition the German government for permission to obtain an additional passport. Without this permission, called a “Beibehaltung” one’s birthright is automatically forfeit the moment one applies for another citizenship.

Reading the instructions to petition for Beibehaltung, I realized that I didn’t fit the application profile. I wasn’t working for a German company with a US presence, I had no German pension claims, nor did I have any government investments, not even a tiny Bausparvertrag. I do not own any property in Germany, I have no bank account there and aside from high school summer jobs and the measly, supplemental income I earned as a student at university, I have no work history in the country of my birth. Alternatively, my application for Beibehaltung would have qualified were I under consideration for a position in the US requiring a security clearance based on US citizenship – highly unlikely for a woman my age! I couldn’t demonstrate any tangible connection to the country I had left almost four decades earlier. Family ties didn’t count, I was told, one can always visit mother on a tourist visa. The narrow chance I had left was an essay all applicants are required to compose. This essay is meant to explain in one’s own words why the petitioner feels he or she should be allowed to keep his or her German citizenship.

I let her rip with a vengeance. Five pages of how-dare-you-question-my-right-to-be-German and so forth, family name going back to 16th century, invoking jus sanguinis and whatever else came to mind. For example, one of my mother’s cousin’s daughters, Marlies Dumbsky was the 2008/09 Deutsche Weinkönigin, the German Wine Queen representing German wine producers globally. A position which is quite difficult to attain, requiring extensive knowledge of viniculture. Yes, cousin Marlies featured prominently in my essay as prove that my everlasting family roots are perpetuelly and firmly lodged in German dirt. Once I felt the essay was finished, I took it to the Germany Embassy in San José and asked one of their counsellors to give me feedback. It took her a long time to read through the pages and then she looked at me for yet another long moment, my heart pounding away. Finally, she said: “Your passion comes through loud and clear, but could you sound a little less angry? The government approved this law, not the hapless civil servant sitting at her desk reviewing your petition. She might take offense.” Sage advice! I returned home to our mountain perch above the town of Atenas and, while watching the mist drift through the gentle curves of the mountain ridges across the Central Valley, I softened my pure, boiling outrage to a slightly more conciliatory and, I hoped, pity-inducing narrative.

I was tremendously fortunate. Only a few weeks later I received my Beibehaltungs certificate and was free to fill out the lengthy application form for citizenship in the US.

A process, it seemed to me, I had endured once before, when applying for our marriage permit prior to arriving on the American shore on December 26, 1977. As the foreign-national fiancée of an American citizen, I had to fill out stacks of forms and questionnaires. The questions posed were intrusive, rude, very detailed, and repetitive – to catch you in a lie by rephrasing a question over and over again. They asked my personal history, that of my parents, my health records, my education, my financial situation, my travel history and any and all connections to the dreaded communist portion of the world. Has a government official ever asked you to put in writing whether you’ve worked as a whore or have been a member of a communist organisation? I’ve often wondered which action would’ve been considered to be more despicable.

To play it save, I neither mentioned being a founding member of a leftist environmental protection organisation, nor that I had traveled repeatedly to communist countries, namely East Germany or the DDR, as we called it and a couple of others. They didn’t ask for reasons, just for destinations. But listing five trips to Treptow, Ostberlin, or to Budapest, Hungary, or to Split, [then] Yugoslavia, doesn’t really mean anything, does it? They might jump to the conclusion that I am a lefty sympathiser, lest they learn of my brother-in-law’s sister, who, trapped in East Berlin after 1961, was raising a family there and always needed supplies desperately. Official rules, instituted by the post WW II Occupational Forces of Germany, including the USA, stated that my brother-in-law, as a citizen of West Berlin, wasn’t allowed to cross into East Berlin, wasn’t allowed to visit with his kin. I occasionally helped out carrying stuff across to her. While in Ostberlin, I would buy textbooks, which were vastly cheaper in the DDR, poorly printed on tissue thin paper, but inexpensive, perfect for a student. I remember getting lost once during one of these uncomfortable visits to the gray-on-gray hostile sidewalks of East Berlin, where any westerner, no matter how drably dressed stuck out like a tarted up party girl. I wound up in this beautiful park, but as I was walking along, I noticed more and more soldiers in Red Army uniforms, all of us seemingly drifting in the same direction. They scared the bejeebers out of me, those innocent young boys from the Ural Mountains and beyond. I had inadvertently stumbled into a huge Soviet War Memorial and felt like a minor John le Carré character without any of the required survival skills.

And what was I doing in Hungary? Well, some friends and I took forbidden English and German literature and textbooks to a dissident family in Budapest, quite illegally and stupidly. On our way back, we were even more stupid when we approached a remote border crossing between Hungary and Austria in the sleepy, early morning hours smuggling out a box of life songbirds for scientific research purposes and a Kuvasz puppy, which could very well have been a shortcut to the gulags. But when you’re young, you feel both righteous and invulnerable. Our hosts in Budapest, a couple who had been university professors but a Soviet-directed purge had cost them their positions and thus their livelihood, simply because they were Jewish. They needed our western books because they tried to support themselves through private language lessons. Their daughter, roughly my age, was forbidden to attend university. She worked as an interpreter for Russian and German in a large government factory. She had dedicated her life to escaping the Soviet overlord, deliberately making no friends, never going out dancing, never attending a colleague’s birthday party. She nurtured no emotional connection outside her family, so she wouldn’t hesitate to run for her life when the opportunity presented itself. A year after our visit, her secret network got her out. I have always wondered and worried about her parent’s fate subsequent to her defection. However, those little anecdotes didn’t fit the format of the questionnaire, so I kept my mouth shut about the Soviet soldiers riding in the back of all the trams and buses in Budapest, kalashnikovs at the ready. Neither did I mention how people lived in formerly beautiful townhouses, in grande buildings from the capital’s glory years during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, still showing the ravages of a war that had ended 25 years earlier. Those once elegant apartments were ruthlessly subdivided among residents. Two rooms per family, the lucky ones getting a kitchen, others maybe a bathroom. Sometimes the plumbing even worked.

I suppose, it would have been safe to list trips to Split in Croatia owing to the official connection between my alma mater and the Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries there, where we sometimes spent a few weeks for field studies, but why rock the boat?

After the US government granted permission for this marriage between an American citizen and a foreigner, we had 60 days to actually get married or the permit would be null and void. A shotgun wedding of a different kind! Before leaving my homeland, I had to report to the American embassy in Hamburg. The consul asked me to raise my right hand and swear an oath not to attempt to assassinate the president of the United States of America. Little did he know that I am left handed. I was required to enter the US through Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., where I was pulled aside by the FBI for fingerprinting and further questioning. They also collected a bunch of documents from me, including health records and financial statements, as well as x-rays proving I didn’t import any tuberculosis bacteria. Thus vetted, I was allowed to journey on to Ft.Worth, Texas, where we got married two days later, but not without first taking the required Wassermann test in the filthiest doctor’s office I had ever entered and where I was afraid to sit down or touch anything lest I get infected with unspeakable diseases. This was the doctor who did all the official tests for the Tarrant County Clerks Office …

Back then, if you followed the proper guidelines, the US government handed you a Greencard without an expiration date. For 30 years I had the same old ID until biometrics became fashionable and the agents at the airports started to give me grief about my outdated card, forcing me to exchange it for a technically advanced model – with an expiration date.

Back then, in the 70s, we were all so innocent and trusting in ways nobody in today’s world would believe. My husband and I didn’t take our honeymoon till roughly a year and a half later when we were moving from Fort Worth to Houston and we were pregnant with our first child, thus it was the last opportunity for us to vacation à deux, so to speak. On the spur of the moment, we spent our last dime and flew to St. John in the British Virgin Islands. This being British territory, we had to re-enter the US on our way back home. My husband lined up in the queue for citizens, I in the non-citizen line, where I showed my German passport upon reaching the desk. The immigration agent had served in Germany, he told me, and he enjoyed practicing the few words he still remembered. Then he asked me for my Greencard, which I had left at home, naturally. You see, since a Greencard is such a valuable document, I didn’t want to risk losing it during a beach vacation. In my naïvitée, it hadn’t occurred to me that for an alien, her Greencard is the equivalent of a passport and she definitely needs it to be allowed back into her guest country. Nowadays, I would’ve been marched into an interrogation cell and questioned for hours – at best. Back then, the agent just waved my husband over and told him to take me home safely. Those were the days!

Certain Events in the Year 2012

On January 25, 2012, I mailed in my application package for citizenship in the United States of America. Again it took considerable time to fill out the lengthy government questionnaires. This time, the most difficult section to complete was a list of every single time I had left the country, including destinations, reasons for travel, and exit and re-entry dates. Does anyone remember when they took a vacation in 1983? If it was memorable, one might remember the destination, but the precise date? This is, however, required information because an alien is supposed to spend certain consecutive numbers of days in the country in any given year. I recreated an approximation of my travel activities over the last 34 years to the best of my recollection, including a number of “roughly” and “thereabouts” behind the dates, thinking to myself, shouldn’t they have those dates in their databases???

Yes, they have the data. Again, It’s about tripping you up. Thus you disqualify yourself from consideration for citizenship, or so I was told.

There’s one major issue to consider for anyone who is applying for citizenship. Once you’ve filed your paperwork, you are no longer allowed to leave the country. Period. We returned from Costa Rica on January 24. I filed the next day and figured, for someone with my record of 34 years as a tax-paying alien, plus my pre-wedding clearance status, it couldn’t possibly take more than three months to achieve citizenship. Ha! Naïvitée thy name be me – still.

My immigration process seemed to progress quite nicely. I received confirmation of receipt of  my  application  immediately,

Naturalization 2012 – Version 2

Lady Liberty holding the Light for us Immigrants

followed by notices of scheduled appointments in San Antonio for biometrics and such, until the Great Silence ensued. Week after week of nothing. Meanwhile, as the months passed by, our tickets back to Costa Rica burned holes in our pockets. In May my husband returned to Costa Rica, reuniting with our dogs while I remained on the ranch.

A few weeks later, I finally received my invited to the all-important Citizenship Interview, scheduled for July 17, 2012 almost six months after sending off my application. To my great dismay, however, the appointment was canceled. As you can read in the linked post from 2012, I found the letter of cancellation in our mailbox on my way to the interview in San Antonio.

I ripped up the envelop in anger, but it occurred to me later that I might need it to document what happened. So I fished the pieces from my wastebasket and reassembled the potential evidence. The cancellation notice was mailed on July 10, short notice indeed!

Naturalization 2012

Back home from the mailbox, I immediately tried to call USCIS, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, on their toll-free 800 number. While waiting in the calling queue, I googled the San Antonio field office and found a direct number. However, I struck out there. The automated menu demanded the input of a contact name which I didn’t have. Speaking to several USCIS agents that day, I eventually understood that the agents manning these phones are insidiously adept at leading you down the garden path straight to a lovely pond with dragonflies hovering and you might as well just go ahead and drown yourself since there’s never an answer forthcoming, ever. One agent actually read passages from their online USCIS manual which was open on my computer screen. Ma’am, I said to her, I’m reading this as we speak, but it doesn’t pertain to my problem. Silence. Long hours short, I was not, under any circumstances, allowed to speak to my alleged case officer in the alleged San Antonio field office. Why not, ma’am? Because that’s not part of the protocol. May I have his or her name? No, an individual officer’s name is immaterial to the process. Absolutely, ma’am, but I need that name to speak with him or her. You can’t speak with them. Well, ma’am, if I have a name I can call the field office directly. No, that number isn’t available to the public. I just called it. Where did you get that number? Mr. Google supplied it. Impossible. That number isn’t available to the public. I’m not the public, ma’am, I’m a registered applicant for immigration. I’m also a taxpayer, ma’am, for almost 40 years, ma’am [unspoken: I’m paying your salary, Bureaucrat!]. No matter, THEY will contact you if necessary.

The state-run machinery invented yet another neat little trick in this twisting Möbius strip separating a prospective immigrant from his or her [alleged] case officer. Although one isn’t ever allowed to call, one may request an interview at a field office through an online form in the USCIS website. Many people can, but not those with active cases, like mine. We will be contacted, if necessary. Should it ever become necessary, in their judgment.

What I haven’t mentioned yet was an innocent little sentence in my correspondence which deeply worried me. It went something like this: if you don’t hear from us within 90 days call this number [the number I had been calling all day]. For unknown reasons, without an explanation, I might be looking at several more months before my naturalization can be realized. My husband had been back in Costa Rica for two months already and I hadn’t seen my dogs in six months. For all intent and purposes, I was and continued to be a prisoner of the United States government.

In many ways, I cherished those lonely days of my imprisonment on the ranch. I walked for hours most days, enjoying the fierce nature around me. But without my Kangal dog Otto, I was scared at times. Aggressive feral pigs especially can be a concern in such remote areas, and Otto was also trained to warn me of rattlesnakes. Even though I was always armed with my .375 short barrel revolver when out and about in the wilderness, I never felt entirely comfortable without my dog nearby to protect me. Sometimes a week or 10 days would pass without encountering another human being. I enjoyed this solitude, taking pictures of birds, raccoons, and deer, but I resented being treated like an imbecile in the ongoing matter of my immigration, which forced me to take wildlife pictures rather than rejoin my family in Costa Rica.

Not getting anywhere on the phone, I drove down to San Antonio without an appointment, without a name, strictly on spec. I was hoping to get an opportunity to talk to an officer in the system to offer my cooperation in moving my case forward. If I could find out the reason for the cancellation of my interview, maybe I could correct the problem somehow, or so I reasoned with myself. My six-hour round trip didn’t achieve anything. After some hassle simply to be allowed to enter the building without an appointment, I ultimately spoke with someone who told me that there were no problems regarding me or my application. Rather, he explained to me, during an election year, the officers are dealing with an unusually high number of applications, which had unfortunately led to backups in some cases. Overwhelmed, are they? And this election year business just jumped up and bit them in the arse, did it? Of course, it must have, since it only happens every four years with some regularity.

Having not been able to get a single intelligent sentence out of la Migra, I buckled down to some serious internet research. Let’s widen the circle of immigration culture. Are there any fora where immigration is discussed? Of course, there are, but unfortunately not a one useful for an elderly retired broad who seems to have become invisible to her own case officer. Think outside the box, woman. What happens after the interview? What happens after the application for citizenship has been granted? Naturalization! The citizenship ceremony. The swearing in. The Oath! Who conducts naturalization ceremonies? Judges.

Finding the relevant court, the relevant federal judge, his court schedule and a phone number for his courtroom took some time. I was certainly lucky that San Antonio supports a comparatively small immigration operation and there were only two federal judges who handled the brunt of the naturalization volume. One judge in particular seemed to conduct most of the July – August – September ceremonies that year. His bailiff answered the phone and listened to my vague notion about her judge somehow being able to help me with my quest for citizenship. Well, she said, you need to talk to Amada [not her real name]. So I called her. Amada listened to my tale of woe and brusquely announced, she’d call me back in a day or two. Yeah, I thought, of course, you will.

But she did.

And she told me an amazing story.

After my application package was received at the intake location near Dallas, Texas, it was logged in, and the information I had provided was scanned into the Homeland Security world of e-documents, which made me officially an immigrant applying for citizenship.

Shortly thereafter, Amada told me, a box filled with citizenship applications, including mine, was ACCIDENTALLY shipped to the permanent archives of PROCESSED and CLOSED files somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. These archives are vast underground bunkers, designed to store the government’s tons and tons of bureaucratic detritus in the form of paper records. Do you remember the closing scene of the “Raiders of the Lost Arc” movie, showing Hangar 51, the immense storage facility? Like that.

Let me spell it out for you. While Homeland Security sent me reassuring messages over a six months period, while I was ordered to San Antonio for biometrics, while my citizenship interview was scheduled, while all these positive indices pointed toward my imminent naturalization, my file had disappeared in early February already and without it, my application could no longer be finalized. Rules specify that the original, hardcopy citizenship application must be signed by the applicant after her interview to conclude the naturalization process. USCIS canceled my interview when they realized they couldn’t find my file and blatantly lied to my face when I came to San Antonio to ask for their help.

This sad saga of an immigration interrupted had another weird twist. My late brother Charles, who was widowed in 2011, became more and more concerned about his status as an alien after his American wife’s untimely death. Having lived in the US for twenty years as a Greencard holder, like me, he decided it was time to become a citizen, like me. Since I had done all my preparation in Costa Rica and then mailed my application on our first day back in the country, Charles and I didn’t realize that we had filed nearly simultaneously. His interview, like mine, was scheduled during July, but in the Dallas field office. Unlike mine, his citizenship interview did take place as scheduled. However, it didn’t conclude as expected. The case officer told Charles that he had passed with flying colors … and that they would let him know when to come in for his final signature. What? Upon his insistent probing, she finally admitted that his file was currently misplaced and they couldn’t finalize his citizenship without it. If you don’t hear from us within 90 days, call this number.

Yep.

How often might it happen that two siblings, after having lived in-country for decades, file for naturalization in the same week, independent of each other, without knowing about each other’s applications, and their files wind up in the same errant box disappearing in Hangar 51? Magical, ever so magical.

Did USCIS contact either one of us in February saying, sorry, there was this little snafu and we need you to apply again, no extra cost to you? No. Did they contact us at any time after the first week of February and explained any ongoing difficulties? No. I assume, they didn’t know what had happened until actively started to look for the hardcopy files. On desks piled high with case files, on credenzas piled high with case files, on any horizontal surface in any USCIS office piled high with case files. Why, pray tell, why are we still following the hardcopy, paper trail filing system? Wouldn’t digital documents and retinal scans be ever so much more efficient? But, at minimum the officers working at those desks buried under mountains of files should make an effort to recognize their cases are actual human beings and stop lying through their teeth!

It appeared that my case officer lodged an unsuccessful search request sometime during the application sequence. There are internal rules specifying how many days have to pass between search requests, I was told. In the end, the officer was just too busy keeping up with his daily caseload to remember the one that had slipped through the cracks and the search was abandoned. Filing another request to locate my file was initiated by Amada on my behalf on July 26th. She was forced to put down her foot once again after my file was indeed rescued from the silence of the tombs, but the transfer to Texas was estimated to take another month or more. Upon her gentle insistence, my case officer requested an urgent and expedited courier service and my file landed on his desk within a week. Thus, my interview was rescheduled for Friday, August 10th. Hallelujah! Thank you, Amada!!

After all the trouble Amada took to make this happen, wouldn’t it have been ironic if I had failed the citizenship quiz? Luckily, though, I did pass and my case officer was happy to inform me of my upcoming naturalization ceremony at the end of September. The end of SEPTEMBER, officer? You are joking, right?! No, he explained to me, the August naturalization ceremony had already been fully booked some time ago. It was an especially festive occasion with television coverage, speeches by special guests and a band. It was to be held in an auditorium with historical significance in Texas which unfortunately could only accommodate a small number of new citizens. I was floored. Pleading with him to understand how important it was for me to be able to travel as soon as possible, he offered to check again and disappeared for a long while. When he returned, he wouldn’t look at me and mumbled something about me having already been pre-registered for the August event. My guarding angel Amada at work, again!

Released from Homeland Security, I jumped in the car and drove to the Courthouse where my angel worked. I stopped briefly for some flowers and then knocked on her door. We met face to face for the first time and I had an opportunity to thank her for her inspired intervention in the awkwardly grinding, rusty wheels of bureaucratic misery. I don’t know how and when I got home on that Friday, but for once it was a happy three-hours drive .

On Monday morning Amada called me with a question. Do you want to be sworn in today? Hell, yes! How? She had noticed that the judges’ calendar was somewhat light that afternoon, so she had asked him if he would stay and take my oath of allegiance. She told him of the mishap of my disappearing file and my need to be able to travel abroad as soon as possible and he took pity on me. Without delay, I jumped in the car and drove the distance to San Antonio with a mad grin on my face.

Naturalisation ceremonies necessitate quite extensive logistics executed by the USCIS. The officers have to fill out a catalog of documents later to be lodged in their bottomless archives. They also have to ready a short questionnaire which each immigrant is obliged to answer truthfully only moments before being sworn in. A USCIS officer must be present to witness the ceremony and vouch for its correctness. Last but not least, Homeland Security must provide the naturalization certificate, which I’m holding up in the picture below.

naturalization-3514

The Honorable Federal Magistrate Judge John Primomo in his Chamber after my Naturalization Ceremony, 13 August 2012

Since both Judge Primomo and Amada were concerned that I was missing out on a truly memorable moment in my life by foregoing the chance of participating in the communal event a couple of weeks hence, they did their utmost to make my private Naturalization Ceremony very special indeed. They are both such caring and loving individuals, whom I want to thank again from the bottom of my heart!

Driving back to the ranch afterwards I was a little reckless, I have to admit, since I was determined to make it to the court house in Kerrville, our county seat, to file an expedited request for a passport the very same day I became a citizen. Happily, I got my paperwork in just under the wire. This was really important, because now that I was an American citizen, I could no longer leave or enter the country with my German passport plus Greencard. The Greencard was forever null and void and as a citizen one has to use an American passport to cross borders.

After all that excitement, it was back to regular ranch activities, simply waiting for my passport to arrive.

A couple of days later, however, I received a call from the USCIS field office in San Antonio. An officer X introduced himself and requested that I return my citizenship certificate to their office right away. It took me a while to get the story out of him. Since my naturalization was somewhat rushed, and generally came as such a surprise to the department, someone in the office prepared the wrong certificate. Apparently, there are different types of naturalization certificates. They all look the same, the information on them is identical, yet, somewhere in the fine print they’re identified as either administrative or judicial. I should have received the judicial edition, as I was naturalized in chambers. By mistake, however, I was presented with the administrative version.

My first question was: does this in any way, shape or form affect my actual citizenship? No, he said, no problem there. Alright! So I told him that he would have to contact the State Department, because they have my certificate to issue my first American passport. I also told him that I didn’t care what it said on the certificate as long as it pertained to me and garanteed my citizenship. Well, appearently that was a no-go, he wanted it back. Since the State Department doesn’t return the “original documentation” together with the expedited passport, it’s anyone’s guess, when the certificate might be returned. Unfortunately, I couldn’t guarantee to give it back before my departure for Central America.

We had a few more of these phone conversations before I left for Costa Rica. By that time, the State Department hadn’t yet returned my documents, and as I told Officer X, I wasn’t about to wait around for the certificate to arrive. Even though we finally agreed that I would hand over my citizenship certificate as soon as I returned to the States, I was a smidgen worried to be arrested before boarding my plane, but my travel kachina kept me safe.

Naturalization.08-3722.jpg

I returned the certificate after we came back to the ranch and received the proper judicial edition through certified mail. Except. Except it had the wrong date of naturalization on it. Madonna y Madre, can’t they get anything right?

Naturalization 2012

Third Mesa Corn Maiden kachina doll & Zuni cow, even the Yaqui bowl, laughing about yet another erroneous immigration certificate

Eventually, I received the correct certificate.

My brother become a citizen roughly four months later, after they finally found his application, too.

Including the time for my Beibehaltung, it took about eighteen months to be legal in both the Americas and in Europe. Considering how difficult, puzzling, expensive and at times scary it was for me to deal with these government entities, I can well imagine the terror this process might elicit in potential immigrants, who don’t have a 40-year working relationship with American bureaucracy, who don’t have an American-born spouse, who might not be fluent in English, nor have the resources to keep plugging ahead. My brother, who had deep roots in the North Texas Hispanic community, told me stories of abuses by la Migra. He told me of people who were separated from their families for as much as five years, of people hiding in fear as a result of political shenanigans, and often owing to the callous disinterest of officials in those very human beings who make up their “cases”. Have we really forgotten that, with the exception of indigenous Americans, every last one of us is either an immigrant or a descendent of immigrants?

When you look through your history books, you realize that Völkerwanderung, the migration of peoples has always been part of the human condition. Looking back either 20 000, 2 000 or 200 years, people migrate. They may run from threats or they may advance toward betterment, either way, people will be in motion, sometimes voluntarily, more often than not under duress. The UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency found that by the end of 2015, there were 65 million people forcefully displaced from their homes, 51 % of whom are minors. I don’t think any of us can picture that, let alone offer a solution. Nevertheless, it seems quite obvious that building walls is not the answer.

The Present Day

I started this post as a small anecdote about a friendly get-together with French and British neighbours shortly before the election. We listened to American music performed by the British band “Aquitaine Variations” and we proudly solved an American themed quiz, for which we were rewarded with a jar of peanut butter. During intermission members of the village library association who hosted the event served us American “gourmet tidbits”. Little hamburgers and push puppies, lovingly prepared by French volunteers.

ami-evening-6632

After the election, it all unravelled. My sweet little story turned into this lengthy epistle of my personal experience with the American Dream.

I wrote my story of naturalization to place it within the context of this most recent presidential election which plunged so many Americans, myself included, into turmoil and even despair.

I am an immigrant. My brother was an immigrant. My daughter-in-law is an immigrant, as is her brother. All of us productive members of society. Since the election, the scenery changed. I am Jewish. Our granddaughter and her mom are Chinese. Since the morning of November 9, 2016, I am afraid for her and her mother.

The ever so vocal actress Susan Sarandon who considers herself an activist declared early on in the 2016 campaign that she wouldn’t vote with her vagina. I wish she had. Instead, she and hundreds of thousands of like-minded women, who astoundingly were not bothered by Mr. Trump’s disturbing behavior toward women, opened the White House doors to an administration that promises to turn the legal clock back for all women to the cozy fifties. Back then,  when America was still great – for straight, white, Christian men.

The Electorate College chose a candidate whose hallmark consists of building a shaky empire out of a huge inheritance and to sue as many people as possible. A man, who delights in denigrating those he considers inferior, which, in addition to women, includes minorities, disabled people, non-Christians, pretty much anyone who wasn’t born straight or happens to be a white male. A man whose campaign was supported by and who still continues to be supported by white supremacists, not the gang member types with swastika tattoos, but men in neat business suits who celebrated his election with Hitler salutes. The president-elect nominated the proud mouthpiece of the AlternativeRight, Bannon, to become his chief strategist for setting White House policy. The alt-right specifically targets Jewish Americans, because we look so, so incredibly white, as if we actually belonged.

Should, G_D forbid, something happen to the president-elect, the situation might become even more dire. Mr. Pence describes himself  as a Christian first, then a conservative and lastly a republican. The rules and demands of his fundamental believes come first. Apparently he’s not aware of the separation of state and church. Neither the Constitution nor the needs of American citizens were mentioned in the Vice President-elect’s line up of priorities, let alone self-determination, women’s rights, or human rights. Those pesky issues aren’t part of his credo.

But that is not all. By his example, the president-elect unleashed in his supporters such a powerful feeling of entitlement that waves of hatred are washing across the country. The adulation the candidate received during his campaign of unrestrained lies and threats was but a warm-up for his supporters. The election of a hate monger without a conscience was all it took to unshackle the most base fears and the lowest instincts within a segment of the American people who have felt disenfranchised and neglected for too long. We are witnessing behaviour patterns history remembers only too well from the late twenties and early thirties in Germany. This time around, it is Trump who puts a face on the cause of America’s perceived misery: non-white, non-Christian, foreign criminals. Any one of those lazy-assed illegals steeling American livelihoods. The depth and breadth of bigotry, of racial and religion based viciousness bubbling to the surface of American reality since this election is frightening.

In order to safeguard true American values of mutual respect, education and communication, I urge you to stay in close touch with your elected representatives and actively participate in the democratic process. In addition to groups you may already support, I would like to encourage you to consider the following organizations as well:

Center for Reproductive Rights

Southern Poverty Law Center

Center for Biological Diversity

A Birthday

bd-charles-2016-01-6649

Today would have been my brother’s 52nd birthday. It’s his first birthday without him and I want to send my love to his daughters. My heart breaks for them since they already had to somehow weather their mom’s death five years earlier. With the support and love of extended family and now their partners, they have grown into strong and resilient young women. We want them to know that we’re thinking of them always, but especially today, and we’re sending virtual embraces across the ocean to them.

We were in La Rochelle yesterday and the image above, showing an empty basin of the ancient harbor at low tide in all its winter dreariness seemed like a fitting expression of my feelings today.

Walking through town, we came across the bookstore specializing in comics.

The Bandes Dessinées, the french language comic strip telling the adventures of Tintin was Charles’ favorite growing up, while mine was Asterix. He and I shared a lifelong delight in the tradition of social criticism expressed through comic albums in the West and manga in the East. We were horrified by the murder of the Charlie Hebdo staff and I mailed two copies of their first post-attack edition to him as soon as it came out. But for me, it is Tintin who is most strongly associated with my brother’s memory.

We concluded our lunch in La Rochelle with a lovely Mousse au Chocolat, as this was the first dish he ever prepared.

bd-charles-2016-04-6668

As always, Happy Birthday, Charles!

Rue des Jacobins

Rue des Jacobins in the town of Saintes is just a narrow, elderly street, leading north from the central pedestrian zone, terminating in a set of stone steps ascending to Capitole Hill, where once the Roman Forum formed the administrative center of Mediolanum Santonum the first capital of the imperial Roman province of Gallia Aquitania. At least, it is assumed that the forum stood on this easily defensible calcareous cliff overlooking the town and river. Recent excavation unearthed more artifacts in support of this hypothesis, but the many layers of detritus and rubble of human habitation over the last two thousand years, not to mention the current population of Capitole Hill make it a very costly proposition to dig any further. For now anyway.

I had an appointment at our bank located up on the hill. Stepping back outside in the brilliant sunshine of an autumnal afternoon in southwest France after my consultation, I couldn’t help but snap a few photos on my way home to show you how prettily our little town presents itself.

Urban Scenes Saintes

Turning from the Esplanade du Capitole toward the Rue des Jacobins stairs

Urban Scenes Saintes

You can either take the stairs into the Ruelle du Bastion or turn right for the staircase down to Rue des Jacobins. Saintes is full of these secret alleyways connecting actual streets for pedestrians.

Urban Scenes Saintes

And there are the ancient roofs of le quartier Saint-Pierre, our district, dominated by la cathédrale Saint-Pierre, the St. Peter Cathedral.

 Urban Scenes Saintes

Looking back uphill, you can see how impossible an archeological exploration in this part of Capitole Hill would be. The modern city is much too densely build. In our narrow view only are a chapel, a convent, a school, and a senior home!

Urban Scenes Saintes

Stone

Continuing along Rue des Jacobins, named after a 12th century Dominican monastery located where we find the Bibliothèque Martineau now, I made my usual detour into the courtyard of Monsieur Martineau’s former l’Hôtel Particulier.

Urban Scenes Saintes

The tranquil garden changed a little since I first discovered it in March of 2014. The majestic beech tree, formerly in the now newly seeded area, above, had died and the vines covering the library and chapel on the right were also removed. It looks a little naked and barren without their rustic charm.

Urban Scenes Saintes

Urban Scenes Saintes

At least the painted flowers still delight!

Rue des Jacobins is not very long, we can already see its end at the intersection with Rue Alsace-Lorraine, the pedestrian zone’s main drag.

Urban Scenes Saintes

But before we walk on, let’s have a peek through the blue gate of the kindergarten on the left, shall we?

Urban Scenes Saintes

Fall colors and sharp shadows highlight the old belfry of the ancient bishop’s residence, currently the Musée de L’Échevinage for Fine Art.

Urban Scenes Saintes

And here we are, the intersection where the Middle Ages meet modern commerce.

Urban Scenes Saintes

Now let’s hurry home for a fragrant cup of tea!

Swans versus Cormorants

Hell, it’s a dangerous world out there, or so I witnessed this morning while leaning half asleep against a window frame, waiting for the coffee machine to finish drip-drip-dripping. As I glanced cross-eyed across the river, I noticed several birds flying in from the Palu Wetlands just downriver from us.

A flock, clutch, brotherhood, brace … no, a Gulp of Cormorants* settled on the Charente river and commenced fishing for their breakfast.

Swans vs Cormorants

Now you see them – now you don’t.

Swans vs Cormorants

*The term ‘A gulp of cormorants’ was taken from the utterly delightfully nerdy post “A Dissimulation of Birds” by Burly Birds [** My own invention]

While fishing, the cormorants inadvertently got closer and closer to a Swagger of Swans** feeding close to the bank below our house.

Swans vs Cormorants

The cormorants paid no heed to their large cousins, being focused exclusively on spearing small river fish. I saw the shiny silver tidbits disappear in their gullets again and again. The hunt was quite successful this morning!

The swans, however, being so much more slow-grazing and placidly-drifting felt crowded by the hectic divers and moved to defend their realm against the hook-beaked dark-feathered cormorants.

Swans vs Cormorants

Dive, brothers, dive!!Swans vs Cormorants

Just as quickly as tempers flared, they calmed again and peace resumed on the Charente.

Swans vs Cormorants

Time to fly home to La Palu for a post-breakfast snooze.

Swans vs Cormorants

And my coffee was ready as well!