Archive | Uncategorized RSS feed for this section

Small town America and the Vote

9 Nov

When we drove home from Denver last summer, we stopped for two days in Cedar City, Utah; we had planned to visit Bryce Canyon and Zion, but we were both sick with colds, so spent the days sightseeing in the town itself.  This is, like nearly every other place one sees in Utah, a tidy, well-scrubbed Mormon town, overwhelmingly white. The town voted 65% for Trump, 14% for Clinton.  The town is the site of Southern Utah University, which hosts a renowned Shakespeare Festival every year, and houses not only a natural history museum and performing arts center, but gives the town a bit of diversity in a student body that includes black athletes and foreign students recruited by Mormon missionaries on their obligatory year of mission work abroad.  Everyone was unbelievably friendly, bent over backwards to be helpful, and engaged in their community, so much so that they stopped to ask if we needed help and would walk us to wherever we needed to be. The place just emanates serenity and security and well-being. I was ready to move there myself!

When you experience such tight-knit communities, almost always in America based on some overarching religious foundation, removed from the social dysfunctions caused by the clashing of cultures and diverse political, religious, and sexual outlooks, you can understand why and how we ended up with this president.  If you are in a happy, homogeneous environment, surrounded by people you know, and secure in your own little world, the implications of actions on a national and global level simply don’t affect you.  Add to that a constant message through the media and the civic leaders you have been told to trust that social situations “out there” are a threat to your cozy, comfortable life, and that change will bring about moral decay and degradation, and it is not surprising that these sweet, warm, intelligent people would not want to rock the boat by questioning what they have been told to believe.

These were thoughts I had when reading the following article, in the New Yorker. It brings up so many of those issues about those who stay and those who go, and why.  Fascinating to me that my reaction to these depictions of conservative, religiously rigid, communities is terror–get away as soon as you can!  But, then, I understand the pull of stability, too: where everyone knows everyone, you know your place in the community, and you know you will be surrounded by people you trust and can rely on.

I am putting up the LONG article here because the magazine won’t allow my Facebook friends to read it; this was the only way I could figure out how to make it available to them! I hope this isn’t breaching some unwritten code!

*************************************************************************************

 

Where the Small-Town American Dream Lives On
As America’s rural communities stagnate, what can we learn
from one that hasn’t?
By Larissa MacFarquhar

Orange City, the county seat of Sioux County, Iowa, is a square mile and a half of town, more or less, population six thousand, surrounded by fields in every direction. Sioux County is in the northwest corner of the state, and Orange City is isolated from the world outside—an hour over slow roads to the interstate, more than two hours to the airport in Omaha, nearly four to Des Moines.  Hawarden, another town, twenty miles away, is on the Big Sioux River, and was founded as a stop on the Northwestern
Railroad in the eighteen-seventies; it had a constant stream of strangers coming through, with hotels to service them and drinking and gambling going on. But Orange City never had a river or a railroad, or, until recently, even a four-lane highway, and so its pure, hermetic culture has been preserved.
Orange City is small and cut off, but, unlike many such towns, it is not dying. Its Central Avenue is not the hollowed-out, boarded-up Main Street of twenty-first-century lore. Along a couple of blocks, there are two law offices, a real-estate office, an insurance brokerage, a coffee shop, a sewing shop, a store that sells Bibles, books, and gifts, a notions-and-antiques store, a hair-and-tanning salon, and a home décor-
and-clothing boutique, as well as the Sioux County farm bureau, the town hall, and the red brick Romanesque courthouse. There are sixteen churches in town. The high-school graduation rate is ninety-eight per cent, the unemployment rate is two per cent. There is little crime. The median home price is around a hundred and sixty thousand dollars, which buys a three- or four-bedroom house with a yard, in a town where the
median income is close to sixty thousand. For the twenty per cent of residents who make more than a hundred thousand dollars a year, it can be difficult to find ways to spend it, at least locally. There are only so many times you can redo your kitchen. Besides, conspicuous extravagance is not the Orange City way. “There are stories about people who are too showy, who ended up ruined,” Dan Vermeer, who grew up in the town, says. “The Dutch are comfortable with prosperity, but not with pleasure.”
The town was founded, in 1870, by immigrants from Holland looking for farmland, and until recently almost everyone who lived there was Dutch. Many of the stores on Central Avenue still bear Dutch names: Bomgaars farm-supply store, Van Maanen’s Radio Shack, Van Rooyen Financial Group, DeJong Chiropractic and Acupuncture, Woudstra Meat Market. The town’s police force consists of Jim Pottebaum, Duane Hulstein, Audley DeJong, Bruce Jacobsma, Chad Van Ravenswaay, Wes Van Voorst,
and Bob Van Zee. When an Orange City teacher wants to divide her class in half, she will say, “A”s through “U”s to one side, “V”s through “Z”s to the other. Once, many years ago, an actual Dutch woman, from Rotterdam, moved to town with her American husband. She found the Dutchness of Orange City peculiar—the way that most people didn’t speak Dutch anymore but sprinkled their English with phrases that nobody had used in the Netherlands for a hundred years.
In the early part of the twentieth century, the question of how much Dutchness to retain caused a religious schism in the town: the American Reformed Church broke off from the First Reformed Church in order to conduct services in English. But, as the last Dutch speakers began to die off, Orange City took measures to embalm its heritage. The shops on the main stretch of Central Avenue are required to embellish their façades with “Dutch fronts”—gables in the shape of bells and step-edged triangles, painted traditional colors such as dark green, light gray, and blue, with white trim. Across the
street from Bomgaars is Windmill Park, with its flower beds and six decorative windmills of varying sizes along a miniature canal. Each year, at the end of May, Orange City holds a tulip festival. Thousands of bulbs are imported from the Netherlands and planted in rows, and for three days much of the town dresses up in nineteenth-century Dutch costumes, sewn by volunteers—white lace caps and long aprons, black caps and knickers—and performs traditional dances in the street. There is a ceremonial street cleaning—kerchiefed boys throwing bucketfuls of water, aproned girls scrubbing
with brooms—followed by a parade, in which the Tulip Queen and her court, high-school seniors, wave from their float, and the school band marches after them in clogs.

Every June, a couple of weeks after Tulip Festival, another ritual is enacted: a hundred of the town’s children graduate from the high school. Each of them must then make a decision that will set the course of their lives—whether to leave Orange City or to stay. This decision will affect not just where they live but how they see the world and how they vote. The town is thriving, so the choice is not driven by necessity: to stay is not to be left behind but to choose a certain kind of life. Each year, some leave, but
usually more decide to settle in—something about Orange City inspires loyalty. It is only because so many stay that the town has prospered. And yet to stay home is to resist an ingrained American belief about movement and ambition.

In most places on earth, staying is the norm. Mobility is regarded with ambivalence: leaving is turnover; it weakens families and social trust. But in America, a country formed by the romance of the frontier and populated mostly by people who had left somewhere else, leaving has always been the celebrated story—the bold, enterprising, properly American response to an unsatisfactory life at home. Americans were for a long time the most mobile people in the world, and this geographic mobility drove America’s economy, and its social mobility as well. Because Americans moved for work, mostly
from poor areas to richer ones, after 1880 incomes around the country steadily converged for a hundred years. But Americans are not moving as much as they once did: the number of people migrating within the country is now about half what it was forty years ago. In the mid-nineteen-fifties, nearly eight per cent of unemployed men moved across state lines; in 2012, two and a half per cent did. Workers used to
follow jobs, but now those who do move often go to places where unemployment is higher and wages lower, because housing is cheap. All of this has set off sounds of alarm. Why aren’t people leaving to find work, or better lives, as they used to? Part of the worry is economic: if people become less willing to move for work, unemployment will persist in some places, and jobs will go unfilled in others. People staying put is one reason that regional inequality has risen. But another part of the alarm is cultural. What does it mean that Americans are now moving less often than people in old European countries
like France? Has America’s restless dynamism run its course?
Since the 2016 election, staying has taken on a political cast as well. Because suspicion of those who move around—immigrants, refugees, globalized élites—is associated with voting for Trump, attachment to home has come to look like a Trumpian value. And, indeed, of white people who still lived in their childhood home town, nearly sixty per cent supported Trump; of those who lived within a two-hour drive of their home town, fifty per cent supported him; of those who had moved more than two hours from where they grew up, forty per cent. A survey, conducted in 2014, found that more
conservatives than liberals valued living near to extended family. The decision to stay home or leave is a powerful political predictor. For this reason, resistance to moving somewhere new can seem to be just resistance to newness as such. Where voting for Trump is attributed to economic despair, staying home is also.
Orange City is one of the most conservative places in the country, and those who leave it tend to become less so. It is not despairing, however, nor is it stagnant. Change happens differently in a place where people tend to stay. But staying is not for everyone.
Dan Vermeer left Orange City, although his roots in the area went back almost to the founding of the town. His great-grandparents on his father’s side emigrated from Holland at the end of the nineteenth century; his mother’s family came a generation later. His father, Wally, grew up on a farm outside town, one of eleven children; his mother, Joanne, was the third of ten; both were poor. In high school, Dan couldn’t wait to get out—he felt stifled by a moral claustrophobia. He hated the constant scrutiny, everybody knowing everybody else’s business. Gossip is the plague of most small
towns, but Orange City was especially judgmental. The Dutch were particular about behavior. They mowed their lawns often, but never on Sundays. Alcohol was considered unseemly; people would usually buy it elsewhere, so nobody would see them. Kids felt eyes watching them all the time. Adults worried constantly about appearances—were their houses clean enough, were their kids behaving nicely and doing well in school, were they volunteering for enough town projects, were they in church as often as they should be? The façades of the buildings on Central Avenue became a metaphor for the
way that people tried to hide any difficulties they had living up to these standards: they kept up their Dutch fronts.
But, even more than escaping the gossip, Dan wanted to leave because he felt wedged in. “You are who you are,” he says. “I am a Vermeer, a child of Wally and Joanne, the younger brother of Greg, Brent, and Barry, and in Orange City that’s who I am for my whole life. It’s not that I felt discriminated against—I felt known and loved. But I also felt that that was nowhere near all of me, and that to know who I was I had to define myself on my own terms.” By the day of his high-school graduation, in 1984, he had packed up his car, and at seven the following morning he left Orange City for good.
He enrolled in Hope College, a Christian college in Holland, Michigan. Away from home, he started to feel more intensely religious than he ever had before, and spent his first summer working for a Christian ministry in the Blue Ridge Parkway. He found himself alone there, responsible for delivering two sermons every Sunday for the campers in the park. On Saturday evenings, he drove around and let people know about the services. One man told him, with a smirk, You’re young, and I have a feeling you’re going to question this eventually. I used to be religious, and then some things happened in my
life and now I don’t believe it anymore. “That was like an arrow through my heart,” Dan says. “I thought, Maybe he’s right, maybe this is all going to collapse around me.”

The next year, it did. He took classes in world religions, studying Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, and the thought occurred to him that he believed what he believed simply because of where he was born. “I started to question not only my religious beliefs but also my political beliefs, and I had this incredible sense of vertigo, where I didn’t know what I believed about anything,” he says. “That was really hard for six months. But after I got through the crisis I had a sense of exhilaration. I felt that anything was
possible—that I could put together a world view that was truly mine.”

When he graduated, he got a mission assignment at a Christian crisis center for foreign travellers in Kathmandu, Nepal. He loved Kathmandu—the mishmash of Western and Eastern, old and new, real and fake. The crisis center was busy. There was a man from Turkey who’d heard that there were jobs in Hong Kong and decided to walk there, got as far as Nepal, and ran out of money. He slept in the bunk under Dan’s, muttering about all the people who had wronged him. There was a young woman who’d had a psychotic break on a hike and had tried to take off all her clothes and jump off the mountain.
There was an alcoholic Sri Lankan political refugee with four children. After six months in Kathmandu, Dan bought a ticket to Delhi and found a bed in a cheap tourist camp.
It was so hot there that he couldn’t sleep, and for ten days he walked around in the crippling heat in a daze of existential confusion. He realized that he had no idea at all what he was going to do with his life, and that the nearest person he knew was seven thousand miles away. He felt intensely anxious, but also hopeful. He realized that he had spent his first eighteen years becoming his Orange City self, and the next five years peeling off that self and letting it die. He had travelled halfway around the world to
slough off the last of it. Now he could start again.
Some of the kids who left Orange City left for a profession. There was work you couldn’t do there, lives you couldn’t live—there weren’t a lot of tech jobs, for instance, or much in finance. Not many left for the money; you might make a higher salary elsewhere, but the cost of living in Orange City was so low that you’d likely end up worse off. Some left for a life style: they wanted mountains to ski and hike in, or they wanted to live somewhere with sports teams and restaurants. But most left for the same reason Dan Vermeer did—for the chance to remake themselves. In bigger places, when you started working you met new people, and your professional self became your identity. But in Orange City you would always be So-and-So’s kid, no matter what you accomplished. People liked to point out that even Jesus had this problem when he tried to preach in his home town:
They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to
him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at Him.
But, while this was for some kids a reason to leave, for others it was why they wanted to stay. In Orange City, you could feel truly known. You lived among people who had not only known you for your whole life but known your parents and grandparents as well. You didn’t have to explain how your father had died, or why your mother couldn’t come to pick you up. Some people didn’t feel that they had to leave to figure out who they were, because their family and its history already described their deepest self.
Besides these sentiments, which were widespread, there was another crucial fact about Orange City that enabled it to keep more of its young than other towns its size: it had a college. Northwestern College, a small Christian school of twelve hundred students, affiliated with the Dutch Reformed Church, was founded not long after the town itself. Northwestern offered a variety of liberal-arts majors, but was oriented toward Christian ministry and practical subjects like nursing and education.
Stephanie Schwebach, née Smit, graduated from the high school in 1997 and went to Northwestern to train as a teacher. She had never felt restless in Orange City. “I really didn’t have an adventurous spirit,” she says. “I’m going to stay with the people I know.” Her professional goal was to get a job teaching in the same school she’d gone to as a child. When she was growing up, she lived next door to her grandparents, and every Sunday after church her family went to their house for lunch, as was the custom then in Orange City. She met her future husband, Eric, in seventh grade, and they started dating in eleventh. Eric came from a huge family—his father was one of sixteen. Most of Eric’s many aunts and uncles still lived in the area, and if anyone needed anything done, like laying cement for a driveway, the family would come and help out. After high school, Eric thought about joining the military—he thought it would be fun to see a bit of
the world—but Stephanie talked him into sticking around, so he stayed in his parents’ house and went to a local technical school to train as an electrician. When Stephanie was a junior in college, they became engaged. He got a job with the manufacturer of Blue Bunny ice cream, and she started teaching. They had two children.

Some years ago, Stephanie and Eric were both working in Le Mars, a town twenty minutes away, and they considered moving there. But then Stephanie thought, It just makes it harder to stop in and say hi to your parents if you don’t live in the same town, and the kids can’t wander over by themselves—we won’t be close in the same way. Instead, they moved into the house that Eric had grown up in, on an acreage at the edge of town, and his parents built a smaller house next to it.

When Stephanie thought about what she wanted for her children in the future, the first thing she thought was, Stay close. “I want them to live right next door, so I can be the grandma that takes care of their kids and gets to see them grow through all the different stages,” she says. “Our kids have told us that once Eric’s folks are dead we have to buy their house so they, our kids, can live in our house, next door. And that would be fine with me!”
In many towns, the most enterprising kids leave for college and stay away rather than starting businesses at home, which means that there are fewer jobs at home, which means that even more people leave; and, over time, the town’s population gets smaller and older, shops and schools begin to close, and the town begins to die. This dynamic has affected Iowa more than almost any other state: during the nineteen-nineties, only North Dakota lost a larger proportion of educated young people. In 2006, Iowa’s then governor, Tom Vilsack, undertook a walking tour of the state, with the theme “Come
Back to Iowa, Please,” aimed at the young and educated. He threw cocktail parties in cities around the country, at which he begged these young emigrants to return, promising that Iowa had more to offer than “hogs, acres of corn, and old people.” But the campaign was a failure. In 2007, the legislature in Des Moines created the Generation Iowa Commission, to study why college graduates were leaving; two years later, a fifth of the members of the commission had themselves left the state.
The sociologists Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas spent several months in a small Iowa town and found that children who appeared likely to succeed were from an early age groomed for departure by their parents and teachers. Other kids, marked as stayers, were often ignored in school. Everyone realized that encouraging the ambitious kids to leave was killing the town, but the ambition of the children was valued more than the life of the community. The kids most likely to make it big weren’t just permitted
to leave—they were pushed.
In Orange City, that kind of pushing was uncommon. People didn’t seem to care about careers as much as they did in other places. “Even now, my friends there, I’m not sure what many of them do, and I don’t think they know what I do,” Dan Vermeer says. “That’s just not what you talk about.” You could be proud of a child doing something impressive in another part of the country, but having grown children and grandkids around you was equally a sign of success. Go to Northwestern, Orange City
parents would say. And, when you get your degree, why not settle down here? There are plenty of jobs, and it’ll take you five minutes to drive to work. When you have children, we’ll help you take care of them. People here share your values, it’s a good Christian place. And they care about you: if anything happens, they’ll have your back. This pitch was often successful. Even some kids who left soon realized what they were missing.

Growing up, Joe Clarey had not liked Orange City; after he graduated from Northwestern, in 2009, he fled to Chicago, where he got a job as an analyst in a global investment firm. At first, he loved the anonymity of the city; he loved his job, too, and started putting in seventy-hour weeks. He worked with a portfolio manager with two billion dollars’ worth of business. At twenty-six, he became a portfolio manager himself. But then, just when he was right where he’d wanted to be, he found that he didn’t want to be there
anymore. He realized he’d ignored everything but work for five years, and everything else had fallen apart. He didn’t have a girlfriend, he had no friends other than colleagues, and he’d barely seen his family or his friends at home. Riding on the El to work, surrounded by strangers, he wondered, What am I doing here? Some relatives had started having serious health problems; then his brother had a baby, and although Clarey wasn’t good with children, he found that he wanted to know his nephew as
he grew up. He wanted to move back, but he was embarrassed. What would people say, after he’d gone on and on for years about how he couldn’t wait to get out of Orange City, and after his fancy Chicago job?
He decided to deal with the embarrassment and go home. He found work in a local financial firm, but it felt paltry now to be buying ten-thousand-dollar mutual funds. He thought, I’ve already made one giant change—why not another? One of his high-school friends managed a local Walmart; Clarey found a job in another Walmart, nearby, running the produce department. He discovered that he liked managing people and inventory as much as investments. Meanwhile, he was getting close to high-school friends again, and spending time with his family. “I just wanted a simpler life,” he says. “I’m a big golfer. I get off work at five o’clock, I’m home in fifteen minutes, I’m at the golf course in twenty-five. I fish all the time. I’m at one friend’s house for dinner two or three times a week.” He bought a house and settled in.
It was in large part because of people like Joe Clarey coming back to town, or sticking around in the first place, that Orange City was flourishing. Small towns usually competed with one another to recruit companies from across the country, but most of the industry in Orange City was founded by locals. Diamond Vogel Paints is the oldest industry in town, founded as Vogel Paint and Wax, in 1926, by a Dutch immigrant; it is still run by the Vogel family. A man from Orange City who started a medical equipment company in Texas moved his business back to town about thirty years ago, and now the
renamed company, CIVCO, manufactures ultrasound probes and patient-positioning devices for radiation and oncology. More recently, CIVCO spun off another business, Quatro, which makes carbon fibre composites for aerospace, medical-imaging equipment, and robotics. Ten years ago, the corporate headquarters of the Pizza Ranch chain moved to Orange City from its original location, in Hull, fifteen
miles away.
Orange City thinks of itself as a progressive town—not in the political sense but in the sense that it embraces change and growth. This growth is guided by a group of town businessmen who have known one another for years. Steve Roesner, the C.E.O. of Quatro, lives close to the C.E.O. of the town’s hospital; they played on the football team together at the high school, and both went to Northwestern. Another neighbor and friend of Roesner’s from Northwestern is the chief administrative officer of
Pizza Ranch. Roesner is also friendly with Drew Vogel, the third-generation C.E.O. of Diamond Vogel Paints. While other Iowa towns were trying to stave off population collapse, these town fathers had ambitions to enlarge Orange City’s population from six to ten thousand, so they were trying to make the town more attractive to outsiders.

There was nothing to be done about the winters, one of the main things people hated about northwest Iowa, and there weren’t any scenic lakes or mountains to promote,
but they could provide more things to do. There was already a swimming pool, a movie theatre, and a golf course, but live-entertainment options were limited, so they went in on a theatre with the Christian school. They bought an old sandpit pond and put in a dock so people could fish.

People were always talking about the Dutch work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit, but Orange City was in many ways a less than ideal place for a business. Because its unemployment rate was so low, it could be hard to find enough workers, and its isolation made transportation inconvenient and slow. This was why so many Orange City companies were founded by locals: you had to have another reason, a non business
reason, to be there. “If your motivation is only to maximize returns, then you go elsewhere, and ultimately that leads to moving to Mexico or Morocco,” Roesner says. “But it’s not always pure ‘maximize profits.’ ”
Roesner was not an Orange City native. When he was a kid, his father’s climb up the corporate ladder involved moving the family every couple of years; they moved to Orange City from Minnesota when Roesner was in eleventh grade, and later his parents left again. But Roesner married a Dutch woman from Orange City, and stayed. When he got an M.B.A. and started out on the executive track himself, he decided that he didn’t want to do what his father would have done—he didn’t want to go to Beaverton to work for Nike, or to Minneapolis for a job at Target, then move on somewhere else. “I
said to myself, ‘What is all this about?’ ” he says. “ ‘Is it just about me and where I can take my career, or is there something bigger?’ Here, you feel like you’re connected—that you belong someplace.”
The Orange City way of life was so stringent and all-encompassing, so precise and insistent in every aspect, from behavior to ideals, that, when you were in it, it was difficult to imagine other ways to be. Not many of the restless kids had much sense, before they left, of what it was they were missing. But their restlessness often led, later on, to different ways of thinking. People who began by questioning who they were ended up questioning other things, like their politics. If you lived in a place like Orange City, for instance, you weren’t used to dealing with people you didn’t know. If your car broke down, you took it to a mechanic who had fixed your parents’ cars for decades, and whose son was on your baseball team in high school. As a result, you were apt to find
strangers more threatening than if you had left. Also, if you moved to a larger place, you tended to become aware of poverty in a new way. People in Orange City received government assistance, but the town was small enough and prosperous enough that it was possible to imagine a world without it. If you belonged to a church and you had a crisis, church members would likely help you out. If you moved to a city, though, you saw a level of need that could not be addressed by church groups alone.

In a small town, you knew what people were up to most of the time; if someone did something strange or annoying, it often got to you, because it said something about the town, and, by extension, about you. The anonymity of a larger place, on the other hand, was more forgiving. To live in a city was to know that you were surrounded by far too many people to ever keep track of: there was so much that was outside your control that ignoring annoyances, human or otherwise, became a habit. Moreover, repeated encounters with people who didn’t think as you did could pry open a certain distance between your beliefs and your emotions.
Lynn Lail, who moved from Orange City to Texas twenty years ago and now works as a medevac nurse near Fort Worth, finds this sort of dissonance difficult, but has learned to live with her confusion. “I’m still extremely conservative,” she says. “Very old-fashioned in my morals. Down here, we have a huge gay and lesbian community, and some of my dearest friends are gay and lesbian, and that has been a struggle for me, because I was raised to believe that that’s not Biblical. But I love them unconditionally for who they are as people, and I don’t judge them.” Lail moved to Texas not because she wanted to
leave Orange City—she loves the town—but because being a medevac nurse in Iowa would have been boring. She wanted to be in a city, where the work was more intense; that choice then led her somewhere politically that she did not expect to go.
People often move for a reason that seems to have nothing to do with politics but then turns out to correlate to politics quite closely. According to a Pew survey, for instance, nearly eighty per cent of liberals like the idea of living in a dense neighborhood where you can walk to shops and schools, while seventy-five per cent of conservatives would rather live in a larger house with more space around it. After people move, the politics of the new place affect them. Those who move to a politically dissimilar place tend to become independents; those who move to a place where people vote the same
way they do tend to become more extreme in their convictions.
But there also seems to be something about the act of moving that disturbs people’s beliefs, regardless of where they end up. One woman left Orange City to attend college in a place that was, if anything, more conservative than her home town, but, even so, the experience changed her. “Both of my parents are vocally conservative, so I thought I was a Republican all these years, but my views have changed,” she says. “Living outside of a small rural town gives you a different perspective. When I think about
taxes now, what comes to my mind is school funding coming from taxes, which perpetuates poverty, because schools in lower-income areas have lower graduation rates. When I think about immigration, I think, We all immigrated at some point—well, most of us—can we not remember that? But abortion is what people vote on in the Midwest, especially in small communities. If someone says they’re going to
try to reverse Roe v. Wade, people will vote for them, regardless of what they say in other areas, regardless of how ridiculous.”
Orange City is just such a small Midwestern community. Opposing abortion is a deeply held religious principle for most people, and its importance is such that, for many, it is the only issue they consider when they vote. Orange City is in Iowa’s Fourth Congressional District, that of Representative Steve King, who is notorious for making incendiary anti-immigrant remarks. Even though voters in the Fourth District supported a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants by a two-to-one margin,
while King vehemently opposed it, they continued to vote for him because he was reliably pro-life. Yet although it was rare for someone from Orange City to change his position on abortion, if he came to consider other issues important as well, his politics shifted significantly. “I would still consider myself pro-life,” John Cleveringa, who left for Michigan to be a pastor, says. “But that has moved down the
list. Pro-life is about defending those who are not able to defend themselves, and there are people in this world who have been born and don’t have the ability to defend themselves, either.”
In the past ten years, a large number of Latino immigrants have moved into Orange City and nearby towns to work on the hog farms and the dairy farms and in the meatpacking plants. Although the change has been large and sudden—in just a few years, some school classes have gone from nearly all white to as much as thirty per cent Hispanic—it has been taken more or less in stride. Very few people in Orange City were worried that immigrants would take jobs away from natives; since most white workers didn’t seem to want to milk cows or butcher hogs anymore, it was clear that without the
immigrants local agriculture would collapse. On the other hand, the idea of breaking the law offended people. They wanted immigrants, but legal ones.

Occasionally, there were displays of overt racism. The next-door town, Sioux Center, had a weekly cruise night, when young people would drive around and around a park, and some of the cruisers had started flying Confederate flags on their trucks. A prayer vigil was organized in response—about a hundred people gathered to pray and sing in the park as the trucks were cruising. But most people in Orange City were too polite to show hostility. The problem wasn’t so much that people rejected the newcomers openly as that they tended not to see them in the first place. Most of the Latinos attended Catholic churches in other towns, so they were invisible. They didn’t exist. Because of this, a group of people at the Trinity Reformed Church decided that Dutch and Latinos
ought to get to know one another. They decided to host a potluck dinner at which guests would sit together at tables for eight—four Dutch and four Latinos. One of the sources of tension between the communities, insofar as they interacted at all, had been what was perceived to be their differing notions of time—the Dutch were reputed to be rigidly punctual, the Latinos to be late. So the hosts told the Latino guests that the dinner began at five-thirty, and told the Dutch to come at six. The evening of the dinner, the Latinos, knowing that lateness irritated the Dutch, turned up at precisely five-thirty; and the
Dutch, thinking to accommodate Latino norms, turned up half an hour late, at six-thirty; and so the Latinos had to wait around for an hour while the embarrassed hosts explained the situation. But, in the end, the dinner was a success: fifty or sixty guests came, and several made plans to get together again.
Last March, Steve King declared in a tweet: “Culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” Steve Mahr, who owned the coffee shop on Central Avenue, decided to do something. He wanted to demonstrate that not everyone in Orange City thought like King, so he organized a protest in front of the courthouse. Although it was raining that day, he was gratified to see nearly two hundred people turn up. Mahr didn’t grow up in Orange City; he came to Northwestern College from a tiny Iowa town sixty miles away. This was another benefit that
the college brought—yearly crops of young people to replace the ones who left. These arrivals came with fresh ideas, but within limits: since Northwestern was a Christian college, it tended to attract those who fit.
One day, someone asked Mahr and another young man who worked in the coffee shop why they had stayed in Orange City after graduating, and both of them said, Kathleen Norris. Norris was a poet who, after living a bohemian life in New York City, had returned in 1974 to live in her late parents’ house in a small town in South Dakota. Seeing how the Dakotas had been eviscerated by the loss of their young, she had come to respect the wisdom of the Benedictine vow of stability—which is, as Thomas Merton
put it, a renunciation of the vain hope of finding the perfect monastery, and an embracing of the ordinariness of what you already have. Norris spoke at Northwestern while Mahr and the other man were students there, and convinced them that moving to a new place was not the way to build a new self, because you brought your problems with you. If you didn’t distract yourself with moving around, but stayed where you were and put down roots, you gave yourself a chance to grow.
Mahr also had another reason for staying. He thought of himself as an agitator, albeit a gentle one, and he wanted to push Orange City to live up to its religious ideals. Although he now considered himself a progressive Democrat, he’d been raised in a conservative Christian family and used to vote Republican, so he felt that the people in Orange City were his people and he knew how to talk to them. He believed that Orange City Christians could be moved by certain kinds of moral arguments—ones that depended
on the sanctity of life, for instance, or the command to love thy neighbor. He had one such argument about refugees. Suppose you have a hundred babies before they’re born, he would say, and one of them might grow up to be a terrorist—should you abort all hundred babies just in case? Of course not, his interlocutor would say. Well, suppose you have a hundred refugees and one might be a terrorist—should you risk a hundred lives by turning them all away?
People in Orange City were apt to avoid discussing politics, because arguments could get personal, but Mahr thought he could keep things friendly over food and drink. He chatted with customers in his coffee shop all day, and in the evenings he held events to discuss things like race and immigration. When marriage equality passed nationally, he hung up a rainbow flag and put a sign outside —“Wahoo!! Congrats LGBTQ Friends!” One customer told him that she was offended by his sign, that marriage equality was a symptom of degrading morals, and that he had lost her business. He said he
understood her position, but he wanted his restaurant to be a place for everyone. Before long, she came back. “What are you going to do?” he says. “The town has one coffee shop!”
Mahr realized that in some ways you could engage people in politics more effectively in a small town precisely because everything was personal and there was nowhere else to go. It was harder to push people in a larger place, who could shrug off the sharp looks of their neighbors, and who didn’t feel personally implicated in the failings of their community. In his 1970 book, “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty,” the economist Albert O. Hirschman described different ways of expressing discontent. You can exit—stop buying a product, leave town. Or you can use voice —complain to the manufacturer, stay and try to change the place you live in. The easier it is to exit, the less likely it is that a problem will be fixed. That’s why the centripetal pull of Orange City was not just
a conservative force; it could be a powerfully dynamic one as well. After all, it wasn’t those who fled the town who would push it onward, politically or economically—it was the ones who loved it enough to stay, or to come back.

Americans, Hirschman wrote, have always preferred “the neatness of exit over the messiness and heartbreak of voice.” Discontented Europeans staged revolutions; Americans moved on. “The curious conformism of Americans, noted by observers ever since Tocqueville, may also be explained in this fashion,” he continued. “Why raise your voice in contradiction and get yourself into trouble as long as you can always remove yourself entirely from any given environment should it become too
unpleasant?” A hundred years ago in southern Italy, many people were miserably poor, and there were a limited number of things they could do about it. They could emigrate, probably to America; they could join a militant labor union and start to fight; or they could accept the world as it was. Some who emigrated sent money home, which helped, but they were gone, so they didn’t have much ability to improve the
place. Many who stayed to fight, on the other hand, became socialists or syndicalists or anarchists, launched strikes, organized coöperatives and illegal soviets, and fomented revolution. People who lived
in areas where there was a lot of organizing—where there seemed to be a chance to change things—tended to stay; in places where the revolution didn’t catch on, people left. In Italy at that time, in other words, to stay could be an optimistic, forward-looking thing to do. Staying didn’t mean staying the same; leaving, on the other hand, left a place as it was.
Quite a few people came back to Orange City eventually. Some came back when their kids were little, because they wanted them to have the same childhood they’d had. Others returned when nieces or nephews were born, or when relatives got sick. Discontented kids leaving kept Orange City conservative; homesick adults returning brought a combination of perspective and allegiance that kept it alive. Vicki Schrock came back. Her family were Dutch farmers who had lived near Orange City for four
generations. She grew up poor on a small farm just outside town, the second of five children; she was born in 1979, at the beginning of the farm crisis that crippled the region for half a decade and forced many small farmers to sell their land. She thought vaguely in high school of wanting to go somewhere else for college, but her younger sister was only eight at the time, and she didn’t want to miss her growing up, so in the end she went to Northwestern and studied social work.

She met her future husband, Justin, there; they married the summer after her junior year. Justin was from central Iowa and was studying to enter the ministry. One day, Vicki saw a notice on a bulletin board about a Dutch Reformed church in California’s Central Valley that needed a youth pastor. She and Justin prayed on it and decided that God wanted them to go. They lived in California for three years. While Justin worked in the church, Vicki took a job at a Christian home for pregnant teen-agers, in Modesto. A few months after she started, one of the teenagers asked her to adopt her baby. The teen-ager wanted the baby to go to a white Christian family that would take the baby far away from Modesto, but she’d found that few such families would consider a
black child. Vicki was twenty-two and had not been planning to start a family for several years, but she felt that God wanted her to adopt. She called Justin, who, answering the phone in his car, was startled, but quickly agreed.
Some time later, while Vicki and Justin were on a vacation back home, people from her childhood church told them that they needed a youth pastor and wanted to recruit Justin. Vicki and Justin wondered what it would be like to bring up a nonwhite child in Sioux County, and Vicki wondered, too, if she wanted to raise any kind of kid in the blinkered and censorious atmosphere of Orange City, which she was now even more conscious of than she had been growing up. On a previous trip home, a
man had remarked to her how nice it was that they didn’t have teen pregnancies in Orange City as they did in Modesto, and she, dumbfounded, said to him, “Do you really think they’re not happening? I think people here take a different path.” After much indecision and praying, however, she and Justin chose to move home.

It turned out better than they’d feared—Sioux County was changing. In their
small church alone, there were nine or ten families that had adopted nonwhite kids, and many Latino families were settling nearby. During the next few years, Vicki and Justin had three biological kids and adopted biracial twin girls from Minnesota. After Justin had served a decade as youth pastor, they moved to Guatemala for a year and a half with the six kids to run a mission center. When they got back, Vicki went to work in a clinic,
and Justin took a job at a mentoring organization in town that counselled people in spiritual or material trouble—particularly the unchurched and those new in town, who had nowhere else to go.
Coming back to Orange City from Guatemala was considerably more jarring than coming back from California. They found the town’s prosperity newly astonishing, and they saw how Latino families in town were invisible to people for whom Orange City would always be Dutch. But it seemed to Justin that it could not be an accident that he and Vicki had returned home only to find dozens of people freshly arrived from parts of Guatemala that they had just spent time in. He figured this must be one of
the reasons God meant them to come back.

All four of Dan Vermeer’s siblings left Orange City, and only one of them came back. It was normal in town for some children to make their lives elsewhere, but to have five kids and be left with not a single one to show for it was embarrassing. “My mom asked all the time, What did we do wrong?” Dan says. The one who came back was the youngest, Dan’s sister, Julie, and no one was more surprised by this than Julie herself. She had always disliked the town’s tendency to consider itself a shining little
Christendom especially beloved by God. Even when she was a child, Julie had resisted Orange City’s equation of Christian and Republican. She
had always been devout; but in third grade she made Jesse Jackson buttons after she saw him on TV, speaking at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. When she was growing up, she assumed she would leave town after high school and never come back. But then, her senior year in high school, she got pregnant. She wanted to keep the baby, and she knew she couldn’t raise a child and attend college without help, so she enrolled at Northwestern and raised her daughter at home with her parents. She
met her future husband, Greg, in college. After they graduated, they moved to North Carolina so she could study Christian ethics at Duke Divinity School; she then got a job at a small Christian college near Philadelphia.
Julie and Greg lived in the Philadelphia suburbs for ten years. They tried to build a sense of community there, but it didn’t work. They had friends, but after a decade their town still didn’t feel like home. Around this time, when Julie was in her late thirties, her mother received a diagnosis of leukemia, and Julie went to Orange City to be with her as she was dying. She was struck by how many people came to see her mother. She noticed that some of these friends had money and others were poor, whereas in Philadelphia her friends were all very much like her and Greg. Julie thought, Here is a woman who has
accomplished basically nothing, professionally, and yet she has had an impact on so many people. And she thought, These are the kinds of deep friendships that we don’t have in Philadelphia. A couple of months later, her father also became seriously ill and she wanted to take care of him, so she called Northwestern to ask about jobs. She interviewed for the position of dean of student life, and Greg interviewed for a job as a marketing manager in a nearby town. They got the jobs—but in the
middle of it all her father died. Now they had to decide whether to go through with the move anyway. They decided to do it, and moved into the house that Julie was raised in. For them, this meant building their lives around relationships rather than professional ambition. Greg’s parents were still living nearby, and all around were people they’d known since they were kids. Julie also felt called by God to serve the town where she’d grown up and the college that had taken her in as a single mother.

She noticed almost immediately that the social world around her felt different. In Philadelphia, she’d had her close friends, and everyone else was more or less a stranger; in Orange City, there was a large middle category as well. She wasn’t close friends with all her neighbors or her acquaintances from church, but she knew that if she got sick they would bring food and run errands and take care of her children. Still, it wasn’t prudence that prompted her to move home, or even the desire for older friends:
structuring her life around relationships was a religious value as well. She believed that because God was a trinity, to be created in the image of God was to be created for relationships; so to make relationships the purpose of your life was to fulfill your human mission. She thought that her faith was a large part of why she’d returned to Orange City, while her brothers had not. Dan had found his way back to the church eventually, but not the one he’d grown up in—he and his family belonged to a progressive church in North Carolina, where he taught environmental business practices at Duke. Julie, though, felt that to grow up in Orange City was to inherit a coherent and beautiful world view, derived largely from the Dutch Reformed Church. At the heart of it was the idea
that there was not one inch of God’s creation that He did not claim as His—that all parts of life were sacred, even the most mundane. Pietistic traditions held that earth was merely a way station to Heaven, and all that really mattered was the state of your soul; Reformed Christians believed that God would return to raise the dead and restore the earth to what it was meant to be. Earth was the final home.

Dan was glad that Julie had moved back into their family house, but he never considered following her, even as he saw the sweetness of that life. “Every day after dinner, my dad used to hold hands with Julie’s daughter and go watch the horses at the neighbor’s house, and chat with him, and then wander back,” he says. “If you love Orange City, those small, idyllic pleasures become what you live for.” Because Julie moved back only after both her parents were dead, home did not feel idyllic to her in quite that way; but she realized that would have been so, sooner or later, in any case. Imagining that moving home could resolve your conflicts and fulfill your longings was as misguided as imagining that
leaving would do the same thing. Home should not be idolized, she believed—only loved. ♦

GO BLUE! The Dodgers and me

21 Oct

P1020375

I remember distinctly: it all began for me in the summer of 1959, when I was 10. We were visiting my family’s friends, the Richards, in Buena Park, CA. They had a big TV set (black and white, of course), and Mr. Richards was watching the Dodgers play a day game in the Coliseum. I was intrigued by the action, and began asking him questions about the rules of baseball. I must have enthused about the experience all the way home to Torrance; somehow my mother became a fan then, too. By the fall, when the Dodgers ended up winning the World Series, I was completely hooked. At the age when other girls became obsessed with horses or fashion, I glommed on to baseball as if it were religion.

I liked all the lists, the history of the game, all the statistics, all the intricacies of plays. I loved that men of all sizes could play the game well, from lightning-fast short short stops to hulking bruiser-sluggers. I memorized all the Rookies of the Year, Cy Young winners, the players who had the record for most stolen bases and the lowest E.R.A. I didn’t share this passion with any friends that I can recall, but I do remember that I liked to impress boys with my baseball knowledge. While I was always a good student, I had trouble fitting in socially at school; perhaps knowing something about a sport was my way of trying to be popular, and I did become “one of the boys” throughout junior high and a lot of high school. I listened to games mostly on the radio, when Vin Scully, OUR announcer, called all of the games (relieved by Jerry Doggett). I thrilled when I could actually watch our team play on TV, which wasn’t very often in those days. But the absolute center of my adoration for LA’s team in my pre-pubescent and adolescent years was for the pitchers–understandably, since this was the era of the great feats of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. I have often said that Sandy Koufax saw me through puberty–I don’t know what I would have had if I hadn’t have had baseball to listen to.  I listened to Koufax throw a perfect game, and for years I kept the newspaper reports of all his no-hitters. He became an even bigger hero for us when he refused to play on Yom Kippur; I learned only then that some of my friends were Jewish.  I tried all kinds of superstitious tricks if Ds weren’t winning: if they were behind in the 7th inning, I would turn off the radio for half an hour, because, of course, it was my fault that they were losing, so if I didn’t pay attention, they wouldn’t feel so pressured and might chock up a victory.  I think I even prayed at times!

It was baseball that became the strongest bond between my mother and me. She would listen on a little transistor while she was sewing in the den, and I would sit with her to hear Vinny call the game, and sometimes help her pin a pattern to the fabric.  My father was never interested in any sports, except the Indy 500, and going deep-sea fishing; I don’t know why baseball held no fascination for him, but I don’t remember him involved in a single baseball event.  My younger sisters never got into baseball, either. This was the one thing that my mother and I shared.

dodgerstadium_openingday_1962

Opening Day, Dodger Stadium, 1962. Look at how dressed up people still got, even in California!

When Dodger Stadium opened in Chavez Ravine on April 10, 1962, my mother got tickets to THE opening day as my birthday present; I turned 13 on April 1. It was such a huge event for Los Angeles. The stadium was beautiful, grand and modern, and even then had one of the best views in baseball, to the San Gabriel Mountains.  Like so many others with a historical bent, I firmly believe that it was the arrival of the Dodgers in LA in 1958 and their subsequent successes that finally caused this sprawling conglomeration of suburbs to gain an identity as a city outside its being the location of Hollywood. Just read Poldair’s book about “Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles” for an in-depth study of this development. Many years later, when we lived in Australia, we saw the same thing happen on a smaller scale to Canberra, when it finally got a winning Rugby League team, The Raiders, with heroes that such a sports-mad country could be proud of.

cityofdreams

For we squeaky-clean suburban white kids, it was also our first introduction to black

tommydavis&maurywills_2013

Maury Wills and Tommy Davis at an Old-Timers Day, 2013.

people as superb athletes who we could admire–my favorite offensive player was (and remains) that base-stealing phenom Maury Wills. Torrance, where I lived, had covenants against blacks into the mid-60s, so we had none in our high school or neighborhoods, even though Watts and Compton were only a few miles to the east of us.

And then there was the arrival of Latino players throughout the league, most prominently the towering figure of Roberto Clemente of the Pirates. The first time I ever saw grown men speechless in grief was when Clemente was killed in a plane crash in Nicaragua. On the other side of that racial dimension, I remember clearly the amount of conversation surrounding the “incident” when Juan Marechal hit OUR Johnny Roseboro with a bat, and Sandy Koufax came off the mound to break it up. I was watching the game while babysitting, and was so shocked and stunned, I had to call my mother. I remember Vinny saying that he hoped no children would watch and think this was what baseball was about. Later on, all kinds of comments surfaced about “hot-blooded” Latin players. It was the first time that I realized that events in the game of baseball had larger cultural implications. (I still agree with Jacques Barzun:  “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game”) When Koufax and Drysdale held out for greater autonomy and salary against the owners, thus beginning free agency, my mother was so shocked by their “disloyalty” and the beginning of the era of frequent trades that she lost interest in the game.  It wasn’t until many years later that I heard, or had any interest in hearing, the tragic and intense story of Chavez Ravine, and the displacement and destruction of an entire village in order to build the Stadium. Those harsh realities were just not part of what I needed from baseball as a teenager.

When I went away to college, I got too busy and too involved in other interests to pay such close attention to my team, but I never stopped being a Dodger fan. When we moved to Australia, one of the only things I missed was Major League Baseball. When we returned to Los Angeles in 2003, after being away from America for 15 years, and I from California for nearly 40, I was overwhelmed with emotion to hear that Vinny was still broadcasting for the Dodgers–I just couldn’t believe it!  The first time we took in a game at Dodger Stadium, we got into the park, took our seats, the organ began to play, and I burst into tears. My mother was gone by then, and I thought that everything I had known as a child had to have disappeared–but there it all was, the scoreboard, the organ, and Vinny in the press box! In continuing the traditions that are so important to baseball, now I could bring my son–already a baseball fan–to the same park where I loved to watch the game.

Max&ee@dodgerstadium_2007

And then there was the crowd–now so diverse, a real microcosm of LA, largely Latino, for whom the Dodgers are such a source of community pride. When the 2017 team FINALLY got into the World Series a few days ago, I thought it was so fitting that the TV stations went to East LA, to Mariachi Plaza and the 76 station where busses take East LA fans to the Stadium, to report on the celebrations. And while I have now become a lot like the inestimable 96-year-old Roger Angell’s wife–he wrote recently that she can’t stand to watch the games anymore unless her team is ahead by 8 or 10 runs–I will watch this World Series with all these talented young men, remembering all the joy and sorrow this game has brought me for nearly 60 years.  GO BLUE!

dodgersinpaper_oct2017

 

 

Backtrack: Bratislava

12 Aug

fermor_woods_coverWhile in Europe in April and May, I began reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s fascinating travel volumes. I had heard so much about these astonishing narratives of the very young Fermor’s journey on foot from Holland to Istanbul (or Constantinople, as he insisted on calling it) in the 1930s.  Because we were going to be in Hungary, I started with volume 2, Between the Woods and the Water, which begins when Fermor crosses the Danube into Hungary and ends at the Iron Gates on the Danube in Romania. Fermor wrote the book some 30 years after the journey, consulting his diaries; his recall of the details of what was by the 1960s a completely lost culture of elegant aristocrats’ estates, encounters with wild gypsies on the Steppes, raucous nightlife in Budapest and elsewhere, and the magnificence of a natural world unchanged since the Middle Ages is unparalleled. Simply fascinating first-hand reminiscences of a life style that exists no more.

Now at home in Pasadena I got my hands on the first volume, A Time of Gifts, which takes the intrepid young man from Holland across Germany, into the Austrian countryside and finally to Vienna and on to Bratislava, with a side trip to Prague. His account of entering Vienna in a pouring rain in the back of a truck on the night that a revolution broke out (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Austrian_Civil_War for details of this famous insurrection) is a brilliant reminder that most people are unaware that momentous history is happening around them while they get on with their everyday lives.

It was Fermor’s writing about Bratislava that most caught my attention.  Formerly Pressburg in German, Poszony in Hungarian, and a historically significant center of the recently dissolved Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bratislava after World War I became the capital of Slovakia within the merged realms known as Czechoslovakia. Evidence of the wildly complex multicultural story of Central Europe, Bratislava is still the only national capital to border two other nations, both of which at one time claimed the city as part of their own territory.  Fermor’s descriptions of places I know (and had only recently visited) as he experienced them in the 1930s made me realize that in these blog entries, I had given short shrift to our visit to Bratislava and the surrounding region along the Danube.  So let me add a few reminiscences about our very pleasant stay in what is now the capital of the independent nation of Slovakia. So many changes in the world since Fermor stayed here with an aristocratic Austrian family who were still coming to grips with the loss of Empire!

 

 

Our first surprise came when we reached the border between Austria and Slovakia–at one time, a strictly controlled crossing point, with stern guards, formidable gates and elaborate passport checks. Now it’s like driving from New York into Connecticut. Slovaks now regularly come into Hainburg–the first Austrian town–to go shopping in the town’s mall. Vienna is only an hour away from Bratislava, so some people even live in one place and work in the other.  Still, we were entering into a land where the language, and therefore many of the signs, would now be indecipherable, so we were relying on our phone’s map and Google Lady to get us to our AirBnB apartment.  We arrived by car in the city just as an absolute downpour erupted and the GPS stopped working because we had entered a new country!  Somehow, after following a tiny map we had and after getting soaked stopping to ask a parking lot attendant how to get to the right street, we made it. Our landlady was absolutely delightful–only spoke German,  no English–and provided us with freshly baked cookies. We were in the hills above the town, a very quiet neighborhood near to the forests which surround the city.

 

 

The town has recently become a thriving headquarters for international corporations, with big high rise buildings going up everywhere on the outskirts to accommodate them. The good thing about this is that Bratislava’s internet is absolutely first-rate, faster than anything I’ve experienced anywhere!  The bad thing, of course, is a destruction of old buildings and a boringly sanitized architectural streetscape. Still, the center of the Old Town includes some interesting old buildings, as well as evidence of hipster art and culture: to wit, a fantastic bookshop, Martinus, comprised of 3 floors of books, cafes, reading nooks, and international periodicals. We could have stayed there all day, and returned often; they had a huge section in English, and almost every young person we met spoke decent English. Graphic displays throughout town were also beautifully edgy and fun, such as this poster for an upcoming book fair.

 

 

Remnants of the past, especially the city’s ancient Jewish culture, offered us glimpses of a time when Pressburg was an important meeting place for Central European societies. The small but poignant Jewish Museum, as well as the full array of Catholic churches and a Renaissance town hall now serving as the history museum gave some idea of Bratislava’s prominence within the Empire.  A sweet little clock museum is housed in an exquisite Baroque building at the edge of what was the Jewish Quarter at the foot of the Castle walk.

But Bratislava’s greatest attraction, at least for us, is an utter anomaly: a flyer at our apartment alerted us to the Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum, some 20 km south of the city. We learned from the slick, glossy brochure that the museum was founded by a Dutch collector Gerard Meulensteen and a Slovak gallerist Vincent Polakovič, and opened in 2000. A Dutch entrepreneur funding a Slovak museum?  What’s more, the brochure said, the museum was located on an island in the middle of the Danube! We had to go and check it out.  By this time, our GPS was working splendidly–hilarious to hear the Google Lady trying to pronounce Slovak street names!–so we headed out across the river and down the south bank as we were directed.

And there it was: driving across the river locks spanning the massive expanse of the free-flowing, unrestrained Danube, we saw on this island in the middle an ultra-modern building surrounded by carefully tended landscapes in which sat impressively monumental modern sculptures. The setting was absolutely brilliant.

As soon as we went inside, one look at the bright white walls filled with large colorful abstractions told me what I needed to know of how this odd cooperative venture came about. Meulensteen had begun his own collecting of strictly abstract art, mostly but not exclusively European, and somehow–probably through his businesses–came into contact with Polakovič, who was looking for a benefactor to help finance a modern museum to highlight contemporary Slovak artists. Meulensteen forked over a substantial sum, with the proviso that his name appear on the building and that his collection be housed there as well, and that the artistic focus would be the kind of abstraction that he favored. The Slovak artists engaged in this kind of aesthetic would then gain a significant and internationally recognized venue in which to highlight their relatively unknown artworks. It’s an impressive institution, with slick exhibition methods.

The real give on how corporate this undertaking is, however, was the wholly inappropriate Muzak-style music piped through the galleries! Here were all these extremely hip 1980s canvasses, splashing color all over the walls, and the music made it feel like you were in the handbag department of Macy’s. That’s my only complaint; I really was struck by how professional the enterprise was, and what high quality works–within a certain CoBrA kind of aesthetic (See http://www.theartstory.org/movement-cobra-group.htm)–have been highlighted. When we were there, a second gallery had a visiting exhibition called “Crossing Borders”, displaying Hungarian abstract artists. Along with all of the very good Slovak artists I learned about, I also saw some impressive examples of how modernism survived and grew in Hungary despite Soviet suppression and intellectual isolation. These kind of discoveries, of accomplished artists working under restrictive circumstances and yet creating innovative art, just make my day. (For more on the Museum, see http://www.danubiana.sk/en)

As wonderful as the museum and grounds of Danubiana are, our most joyous discovery here was the landscape itself: magnificent birdlife among the reeds and swimming in the river, little inlets and islets visible across the open waters, and barges floating by toward Budapest and the Black Sea as we sat having coffee on the terrace.

As we left the Museum’s island, we saw a sign for a restaurant at a marina. Here we found a delightfully makeshift little cafe with good fish and a fantastic view sitting on the river. In one of those wonderfully serendipitous occurrences that happen when you least expect it while travelling, a yacht with a young couple came into the marina. George offered to help with their mooring, for which they thanked him when they got to the cafe.  They both spoke perfect English, and were a couple who had just boated up from the city for an afternoon coffee before picking up the kids from school! He was a corporate jet pilot for one of the international corporations, and she was a translator for one of the businesses in town. They were perfect examples of the 21st-century face of Slovakia: educated, and taking advantage of the opportunities now made available to them by EU membership and the country’s investment in internet industries. They loved living in Bratislava for its safety and its closeness to the rest of Europe. Not a sign of Soviet domination, oppression, or demoralization–a very distant memory. After this thoroughly enjoyable conversation, they got back on their yacht and went home to pick up their children after school.

So our week in Slovakia came to an end, and we went on to Portugal, flying out of the Vienna Airport only half an hour’s drive from Bratislava. If there were any chance we could learn Slovak, I wouldn’t mind living here for a while.

And as is my custom, I will end this backtrack with some Slovak cats: a real one, our landlady’s quite haughty girl, and a stenciled one, on a building near the Jewish Museum.

Ernst and Marchegg

16 Jul

ernst&eeinmarchegg_1970

One of the saddest bits of news I uncovered while in Austria was that my first boyfriend, my Austrian love Ernst Schreiner, had died at the age of 68.  Of my five serious boyfriends, then, three of them are now gone. (Ironically, my “old man” boyfriend–he was 40, I was 25–is the only one other than George who is, at 83,  still alive!) I learned this after we had made a nostalgic trip back to the small border town of Marchegg where his family had lived, and where the photo above was made in 1970. The photo, taken by Ernst’s sister Erna, always reminds me of an art film from Czechoslovakia (as it was known at that time!). We look like spies or something (that’s Ernst’s mother in the photo with us), when in reality I have asked Ernst why my camera isn’t working.

Before I get into that trip to Marchegg, let me reminisce about young love and memories of romantic days that all too soon faded in the light of the realities of life in one’s early 20s.

ee&bokuball_vienna_1970

We met at my first Viennese ball during Fasching season. This was the ball of the Hochschule für Bodenkultur, or the Boku-Ball, as it was endearingly called by the students. Boku is the Agricultural University, where Ernst was then studying brewing and oenology. You can actually see him in the background of this photo, behind the woman–Eva, his girlfriend of the time–in the white gloves seen between me and my partner (a very nice man who is now a high functionary in an African country). He was charmed by my demure way of hiding my cleavage when I bent over in my ball gown to shake his hand at his table of mutual friends. “No Austrian girl would do that, she would show as much as she could,” he told me later. I can’t now remember how things proceeded after that night, but I think our first date was to another ball, after which we were together as much as possible for the months remaining of my Viennese year.

 

Ernst was, at least to this 20-year-old Californian, darkly handsome, cultured (he played Schubert on the piano and spoke French!), and just about everything a young American girl could want for her first real romantic adventure. Almost every one of us in my Vienna group got an Austrian boyfriend that year, which seemed a requisite part of the international experience! A lot of my friends, and especially the Austrian ones, never really liked him for whatever reason, but I really didn’t care. We went out to his family in Marchegg quite often, we spent lovely weekends together there when his family was out of town, and took trips to Graz (where he had studied in boarding school) and to Paris, where he had spent a semester with a French family.

 

I still remember, as one of the most memorable times of my life, an absolutely perfect day spent in Marchegg and back in Vienna when my friends Marbie and Ron came to visit. We picked strawberries with Ernst’s mother and cherries off of Marchegg’s trees, Ernst and I showed them how we could dance the Viennese waltz, and then took the train back to town and played in the Prater. It was just a glorious template day, as you can only have when you’re very young, carefree, and in love.

 

Then the summer had to end, and we had to get on with our lives. I had to come back to the States, and Ernst went off to Germany to do his apprenticeship in a brewery there. We had the most picture-perfect of farewells, out of a European film, with me standing on the train platform while he waved his handkerchief out the window until I couldn’t see it anymore.  We wrote volumes of love letters, most of which I still have and have schlepped around the world. He planned to visit me in California at Christmas time. I couldn’t wait, I was so excited.

 

Then he was there, in Santa Barbara, under the scrutiny of my parents. I wasn’t used to being home myself, and Ernst felt uncomfortable from the very start; it was an awkward visit at a home that wasn’t mine anymore. We met up with friends and began a trek around California and over to Colorado. I still remember with complete clarity–again, as one can only do with those “first times”–when I discovered that he had slept with someone else back home. He had actually made a note of the occasion in his notebook! From then on, nothing quite clicked anymore. I was heartbroken. He went home to Vienna, and I only saw him one more time, in 1974, when I was on my Fulbright year, right before George and I got hitched. We never stayed in touch after that.

Many years later, I learned that Ernst had become the master brewer at Stiegl-Brau, one of Austria’s oldest breweries! I had to laugh: by the time I learned this, I had already quit drinking, so the discovery of an old boyfriend whose life revolved around beer seemed amusing. Good thing that one didn’t work out, eh? I always had the idea that I would try to contact him again some day. Once the internet got going, I was able to find out about his work there, and to discover photos of him:

 

Oh, my!  I could hardly believe this was the same Ernst Schreiner! But the dates matched, and he was obviously the same man. All those years of beer had changed him indeed! He was apparently instrumental in bringing the brewery into the new technological age, but that is all the information I could find about him. He retired in 2009, that’s all I knew, until I found the death announcement online. I have no idea if he had family, if he married, or had any children. This makes me sad.

I didn’t know about his death when we decided to go visit Marchegg again. We were staying in Bratislava at the time, and realized that this tiny Austrian town, which was on the border, was only half an hour away, now that the Iron Curtain countries were as easy to access as a neighboring state. That was not the case when we visited Ernst’s family in 1970. His father actually worked for the railroad customs office, the Austrian border patrol in those days. We used to stand at the river in Marchegg and look across to Slovaks looking at us over the border, which was still rigorously patrolled. It seemed a foreign place, with barriers that were larger than Soviet-enforced political ones.

 

And the river? What had seemed such an insurmountable barrier back then now appears as a rather inconsequential but beautiful stream, along which an historic bike trail, with informative markers lining the path, now winds for many gorgeous miles. We were there on a beautiful spring day, and although I tried hard to find Ernst’s family’s home, Marchegg is now as prosperous and upgraded as all Austrian towns are; I couldn’t find it. But the train station is still there, looking nearly as grim as it did 47 years ago.

 

The Schloss, which then was a rather forbidding remnant of Maria Teresia’s time, is now a WWF-funded refuge for storks! We saw many of them flying above us, and thrilled to see that such good use is being made of this historic place.

storkflying_marchegg_may22

The fields around Marchegg, where Ernst and I used to go collecting poppies and lilies of the valley, were on the day we were there absolutely bursting with blossoms.

 

People pass away, borders change, ambitions and institutions alter. Thankfully, at least in this case, nature remains. I’m so glad we decided to make this little journey. It was a beautiful day, just like that one I remember so fondly so many years ago.

Criteria

29 Jun
langephoto2

Dorothea Lange, “Mr. and Mrs. Wardlaw at entrance to their dugout basement home. Dead Ox Flat, Malheur County, Oregon.”

 

As many of  you who have been following our most recent travels know, we embarked on these latest peregrinations because 1) Trump was elected; and 2) we cannot afford to live in our Pasadena home anymore, so thought we had better start scoping out possibilities elsewhere.  Now we are back home in Pasadena, after being in seven countries in six months. While we did accomplish one goal–to be out of the U.S.A. for DT’s first 100 days–we are far from making a decision about where we might be able to settle. But after a brief respite here at home, we will weigh up all of our options, based on a hierarchy of criteria. Mind you, all of this supposedly quantifiable data may be thrown out the window, subject to totally emotional decisions on our part. But at least we will have some relevant information to guide us.

I’m choosing, therefore, to use this blog as a place to formulate our criteria. Here’s the list, in some kind of hierarchical order, from most important to least:

1) Financial:  can we afford to live there on our retirement income? Price of accommodation is the leading issue–being able to buy something outright would be a major plus (housing preferences: NO HOA, older home preferred)

2) Access to the family:  how quickly can we get to the kiddos, e.g. access to a major            airport in the near vicinity.

3) Weather: no, or very little snow, and lots of sunshine for at least most of the year

4) Culture: we need bookstores, museums, libraries, art, music, or some mixture                thereof–SOME cultural scene!

5) Transportation:  any possibilities of mass transit/public transportation?                        We really don’t want to be having to drive everywhere when we’re 80

6) Healthcare: access to facilities nearby for old folks; decent insurance                      rates/affordable medical care

7) Ambiance:  no barking dogs, decent political environment, pleasant streetscapes, good restaurants, walkability

8) Trader Joe’s: if in the States, how far is a Trader Joe’s (or comparable store with            decent bread, reasonably priced veggies, organic meat)? Farmer’s markets/open air         markets would be another major plus.

9) Ease of moving there:  if foreign country, how complicated to emigrate/gain                      permanent residency?

That about covers it, I think.  In our attempt to be scientific about it, we will weigh all of these factors for each place numerically, plus or minus.  Then we will probably ignore all of it and go with our gut feeling!  If anyone can think of other aspects we need to keep in mind, by all means let us know!

 

 

 

A fledgling

24 Jun

[George likes to make these little anecdotal moral offerings….ee]

As we travel Erika and I have shared and have had individual experiences.  Erika stayed in Denver while I  motored north from Denver to Greeley to see my father.  After a long, slow bit coping with someone’s minor accident, I needed to pee.   Eventually, after a patient wait, I exited to a gas station.  The station’s men’s toilet was occupied, as was the women’s (“That’s the ladies’!”).  Around the side and then the back was a fenced-in area protecting the air conditioning fans.  Just inside the gate was a fledgling robin, perched on a bit of metal wire.  I carefully slipped by.  I relieved myself into the grass  without attracting the attention of nutters, and again slipped by the young robin.

Here’s the problem.  Not until some time on the highway did I wonder how would the fledgling’s minders find it to feed it?  Shouldn’t I have shepherded it out of the enclosure?  Was it only alive because it was protected?

That’s what happens when you vary from the protected forms of the norms.  All up, if you worry about worrying about unexpected situations stop sooner and pee where you are supposed to.

 

Immigration to European countries

7 Jun

europe-flags

 

As we are sitting in London, one day away from flying back to the U.S., I realized that I have not fulfilled my promise of finding out about immigration procedures to European countries as I did do for Australia and Mexico. I will try to do a brief run-through of procedures and possibilities for some of the countries we visited, although individual procedures vary greatly depending on the country. Nonetheless, it’s fair to say that in most countries, stipulations come down to the same things:  1) how much money you can bring with you; 2) whether you want to work in the country or are retired; 3) how and where one can apply; 4) access or not to healthcare; and 5) in some cases, evidence of language proficiency.

First tip, before I consider a sampling of individual countries: if you have any way of acquiring an EU passport–e.g., if your grandparents or parents came from a country in the current EU–GET ONE! It makes life much easier if you want to live, work, or just visit Europe often.

For Britain, according to online sites :

“Americans can visit the U.K. as a tourist and stay for up to six months – no visa required. To stay longer, you’ll need to qualify for a visa – family links, established business connections to the U.K. or dual citizenship with a Commonwealth country like Canada may help. Owning property, however, does not guarantee a longer term visa. The British government used to have a special entrance category for “retired persons of independent means” (defined as those having a minimum yearly disposable income of £25,000), but that was discontinued.”
Read more: How to Retire in the U.K. as an American | InvestopediaHow to Retire in the U.K. as an American | Investopedia http://www.investopedia.com/articles/retirement/021117/how-retire-uk-american.asp#ixzz4jKh3g5qV
Follow us: Investopedia on Facebook

And here’s the next bit from this same site:

“And now there’s Brexit: As the U.K. prepares to exit the European Union, much is up in the air.”  Who knows? The government certainly doesn’t. But if you have money/income, there will be ways to do it–IF you can deal with British weather!

Application: you will need to apply through a British consulate or embassy at home

Healthcare: non-citizens, even those who are granted permanent residence status, will not have access to national health, but will be required to purchase private insurance and to verify that they have full coverage before an application can be approved. Medicare is not recognized as coverage in Britain.

In Austria:

This one we know a little bit about, because we have already applied for a 6-month visa, and had hoped to apply for a permanent resident visa last year, but missed the deadline.

Here are some of the official sources as sent to us by our friends at the Austrian Consular offices in Los Angeles:

“In addition to the general requirements that are listed on our website (http://www.bmeia.gv.at/en/embassy/los-angeles/practical-advice/visa-and-residence-permit/residence-permits.html) this type of residence permit requires proof of Proof of basic language proficiency in German (presented in the form of a publicly recognized language diploma “A1”) and a secured income (rent, savings or other) that is twice the minimum income of the reference rate according to § 293 ASVG (currently 2x € 1.189,56 €,for a couple living in the same household.  

If you hold a University Degree, the Proof of basic language proficiency in German is not required.”

Application: for permanent residence visas, application can be made in Austria, or, after a certain date in November, from an Austrian consular office in the U.S.. There are quotas, and one must apply immediately once the official date of application is announced to be able to be considered before the quota is filled. The application process is elaborate and tedious, and the forms are entirely in German. (One can find services that will help with the application forms.) They also require that one submit birth certificates with an Apostille from the state office where you were born.

Healthcare: a retiree applying for resident status is not eligible for Austrian healthcare services, and must obtain and show proof of private healthcare insurance as part of the application process. Medicare is not recognized in Austria.

There are other kinds of visas for working and for students, and the requirements for these visas change from year to year.

Bottom line: it takes some patience, but if you are bringing along enough money, and are not going to be a burden on the Austrian state, permanent residency is possible.

Portugal:

Countries like Portugal and Spain are actively seeking foreign investment, and in exchange offer generous privileges in terms of residency:

“Non-EU residents looking to retire in Portugal can also take advantage of the Golden Visa scheme, which was introduced to attract investors from non-EU countries. This option is only open to third-country nationals who are able to fulfill at least one of these requirements:

  • purchase real estate with the value of at least EUR 500,000 or above
  • purchase of real estate property with a minimum value of EUR 350,000 for the purpose of refurbishing (properties must either have construction dating back more than 30 years or be located in urban regeneration areas)
  • make a capital transfer equating to EUR 1 million or greater towards the country
  • create at least 10 job positions
  • make a capital investment of EUR 350,000 or more towards research activities conducted by public or private scientific research institutions involved in Portugal’s scientific or tech systems
  • transfer a capital investment of at least EUR 250,000 to support Portugal’s local arts or the country’s national heritage sector
  • make a capital investment of EUR 500,000 or more for purchasing shares in investment funds or in venture capital geared to capitalise small and medium companies in Portugal.

Expats who acquire the Golden Visa are granted rights to the following:

  • a residence visa waiver for entering Portugal
  • permit for living and working in Portugal under the condition that they stay in Portugal for a period of seven or more days in the first year, and 14 or more days in the subsequent years
  • visa exemption for travelling within the Schengen Area
  • family reunification
  • application for permanent residence and Portuguese citizenship by naturalisation provided they fulfill all the requirements.”

Once again, if you have the bucks, everyone is happy to see you!  In Portugal, you will have access to national healthcare if you meet the requirements for residency, BUT you will also be taxed on your overseas retirement income.

Spain, Italy, and France also have comparable programs, requiring investment.

In summary, if you want to retire to Europe, and have sufficient funds to support yourself, you can do it.  If you are broke or have limited means, it’s a little bit harder, but it can still be done.  In every case, you should contact the local consular offices or embassy to get more detailed information on the processes and requirements.

I’ll be happy to do more research on these questions, but right now I have to pack up to return home!