Thursday, 16 August 2012

Consider of the family

I have been overwhelmed by the welcome extended to me and my family during our stay in Texas. It has led me to consider what prompts people to open their doors and their lives to other people and to what extent do we do this in Britain?
I suppose it goes without saying that just to invite us to their home for 3 weeks was a huge gesture by my friends Stephanie and Greg.
Stephanie will, I am sure, agree that it was the kindness of strangers that brought us together in 1988. We were made welcome in Germany where we were both studied (loose definition) at Oldenburg University by not just the local people (one of whom I still consider a very dear friend) and the families with whom we lodged but also by the people who gave us lifts in their cars and the families who gave us beds in their homes as we travelled around. I wonder if these very acts of kindness were some of the most important lessons we learned as students.
From that year on Stephanie and I have taken it in turn to visit each other but I have seen the trips snowball and their influence affect others around us. Initially, it was our own husbands who were touched by the travel bug. My own husband had to be persuaded to go to America but soon appreciated what an incredible experience it can be to not just 'visit' another country but live the life of another native for a brief period of time, actually seeing the country through their eyes.
Then it was our children who quickly learned the huge benefits of travel...from the food to the TV programmes.
This trip, my children have eaten TexMex, tried out American football, trained as a cheerleader and, of course, learned the lingo. ("I'm going to sue you" now being added to their play-talk!)
I feel the link we have developed is having ripple effects through our wider friends and family.
Stephanie has stayed with both of our families (mine and my hubby's) enabling her and her family to see various parts of England from Gloucester to Edinburgh. They have benefited from the generosity of our friends- staying in Portugal at our friend Andy's villa for example. And, conversely, we have been able to travel and stay everywhere from Texas to New Jersey with Colorado in between thanks to the kindness of Stephanie and Greg's family and friends.
I only hope now that those verbal invitations I have left with the people I have met will be taken seriously.
My experience of travel is defined as cultural immersion, broadening horizons and, in short, coming home feeling you have brought back more than a suitcase of souvenirs but a heart full of memories.
Now -maybe it's time for a holiday - all that travelling is quite tiring!

Monday, 13 August 2012

Can't Believe the Tales of Folk

Anyone who knows me knows that above all else I thrive on life stories. Some may call me nosey but I prefer my Dad's term 'I have an enquiring mind.' Well, I wouldn't have made a very good journalist without that skill would I?
People fascinate me and there is no better way to collect amazing life stories than when you are travelling.
I have heard so many during my trip to America.
There are, of course, the many stories that my friend Stephanie and I exchanged about our friends and family on our week long road trip from Pampa to San Antonio but ...what goes on
Tour stays on I will tell of some of the snippets of the lives belonging to some of the complete strangers I met.
There was the woman attorney who I met at a workshop who I asked about her experiences of young carers.
Instead of offering anonymous case studies from her professional experiences she told me her own story of fostering and later adopting a baby boy whose sister had become his carer due to their parents suffering mental ill health. She told very frankly of how her family's relationship with the baby boy had worked out fine but that the girl had been so damaged that an alternative foster family had had to be found.
"She is coping now. She holds down a job and has kids. My son is at college and has already worked out that his birth family are not positive elements in his life."
Just on the journey home with Hubby and kids I got talking to a young man who told me of his dismay at having turned up at Houston airport to find that his Chinese girlfriend had been grounded overnight in Seattle.
Complete in cowboy hat, oversized cattleman's buckle and boots to match, he tells me and my youngest that he is from West Texas but teaches English as a foreign language in China - where of course he met his girlfriend.
"I was with her in China when we completed her Visa and we were successful on the second attempt. But they still got her name wrong on her ticket. She's going to stay with my cousin in Seattle until they put her on another plane."
Sleepless too no doubt!
I was sad not to be around to see their reunion and wondered, for a split second, what the Chinese English students think of their cowboy teacher.
Then there was the 65 year old nurse on her regular journey from East Texas down to Houston where she is working as a corporate nurse awaiting retirement. We discussed the cultural differences in our countries' approaches to retirement. Then she told me the story of her daughter's decision to adopt the child of a distant relative after the birth mother found herself in prison as a consequence of
substance misuse.
"She adopted the boy after 2 years of fostering. The adoption was co-ordinated by the local church which arranges 100 adoptions a year."
Ah the church. What a huge part it plays in the average American's life.
I was staying in the SouthWest where atheists are as rare as vegetarians!
One particular story of how vital faith is in the area was told to me in Pampa and I later posted the blog written by the person in question on my Facebook page.
It was the story of a woman diagnosed with a rare form of cancer whose mother admonished her for her lack of faith. A substantial dose of prayer later she found herself walking out of hospital after doctors diagnosed her cancer benign just minutes before cutting away a considerable part of her internal organs.
The point here isn't faith but that this woman blogged her experiences every step of the way.
This may be a choice made by many people experiencing a traumatic situation but I rather feel it is more symbolic of the openness of Texans to share their life stories.
I found people willing to share their most personal stories - was it just because I was a stranger passing through? Maybe. But I rather felt there was an urge to just share with a sympathetic ear.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Pride, Patriotism and the Power of Faith

There are three unquestionable loyalties evident here in the South West of America. Patriotism: evident in the proliferation of flags here. Utter unequivocal commitment to the armed forces: illustrated by everything from standing ovations to military personnel at public events and concessions for military personnel at all public museums and buildings. Faith: displayed in everything from historic monuments to bibles on sale in chemists.
Today we went to SeaWorld, San Antonio. An amazing experience for adults and children alike. My family
love killer whales and we were so excited about watching the Shamu show. We were certainly not disappointed. Just before the show began, amidst the build up created with music and emotive images on the big screen the presenter called for all the military personnel present in the building to stand up. Across the auditorium random people stood up and the whole audience then cheered and gave them a round of applause. In almost every public venue we have paid to enter- mostly museums- the concessions for entry have included seniors, students and Military personnel. It reminds me of my last visit, probably then around the time of the Gulf war, when Colin and I were asked at the dinner table of a friend to 'bow our heads in prayer for our boys in battle'. With the advent of charities such as Help for Heroes Brits have, I feel, become more aware of the impact of battle on serving men and women but this does not equal the pride of Americans in their serving men and women.
So what place does faith hold here? It
seems that multiculturality is accepted and embraced, particularly by the younger generation but it does seem that while in England we do have incidences of racism, such as during the riots, our cultures across Britain are
more diverse. I live, of course, in a city which has clear evidence of Multi-ethnicity. Here in the South West of America there is still strong evidence that the bible belt is as much a part of the area's personality as Tornados.
To enter a chemist and see bibles
on display as obviously as the magazines pertaining to Southwestern fashion and fayre is unusual to a Brit. Sitting in a restaurant in Dallas with the kids I witnessed a 30-something dad close by bow his head in silent prayer. And the churches are more frequently located than Starbucks.
Finally, patriotism. To illustrate this I need only suggest that readers look closely at my photos on FB to see that it hasn't been hard to include Old Glory in every photo. Pride and patriotism pervade.