The kids were delirious by the time we reached the rental car place in Denver. They kept flipping from giggling to crying, while I tried to make sense of the rental contract. I blinked my way through the agreement, trying to revive my dry contact lenses after our long journey. I rapidly initialed my way through all the insurance waivers as the kids began a new wrestling match on the floor. “Sorry sir, it’s 3am their body clock time” I informed the clerk. Maybe it helped our cause? Without me having to barter for an upgrade, the agent assured me that he “had us covered” and showed us to our sweeeet ride: a jet-black dinosaur sized SUV that kept going on forever and ever and a day. “Erhmmm, what’s the next size down?” my husband asked, fearing his wife wouldn’t know how to turn a corner without taking out a fire hydrant and a few lamp posts. The man was in disbelief we wouldn’t enjoy such a wonderfully spacious vehicle but relented and gave us keys to a massive van instead. After a quick check for dings and scratches, I pulled out of the lot. “Where are the gears?!” Ayo yelled from the backseat. “It’s an automatic transmission, buddy!” hollered Tall Mountain. I was doing my best to focus on the road. I hugged the shoulder thinking it was a two lane road before I remembered how wide American roads are. Pulling into my brother’s driveway, I put the car in “Park” and the back seat yelled in surprise: “woaaaaaahhhooo!” as it rocked back and forwards. To them, it felt like a penny horse ride you might find at a store. They’d forgotten what an automatic car felt like. Welcome back to America, kids!
Ayo, now 5.5 years old, who thrives on knowing the rules was a bit thrown off during the first days. Thankfully we started our trip staying with family because I struggled to recognize my own child. “I want to go home to France” he cried one night. Something was troubling him. It took us by surprise as we’d always assumed the kids were highly flexible and had an innate thirst for adventure. They are all brilliant travelers. They sure thrive on anticipating an adventure. However, all the new cultural signs and rules were a bit destabilizing. And I’d again made the mistake of seeing the US like another home country, when it had already become, for him, a foreign country. Was it possible to become a Third Culture Kid that fast? Within a year and a half of leaving the States? Our middle child didn’t react as strongly to the new environment. In fact, she wondered when we were flying to America a few days after landing in Colorado. She had zero recollection of our former brightly colored house. To be fair, we’d left it almost half her life ago. She went with the flow, enjoying anyone who was up for playing with her. As for happy baby Amani, he did great eating his way through the smashed food on the airplane floors. He feels grounded as long as he is eating, that one. Anything, anywhere. He did generally well during the day, but kindly ensured we were all up together partying at night.
Just like for our recent trip to the Middle East, we set our two older kids up with a blank notebook to journal and process their trip. The travel journal was a good place for them to learn what their passport flag and currency looked like. And, for us as parents to note some of the most priceless observations you can imagine. Observations that are only possible when you arrive with fresh eyes. Ayo kept doodling on the page of observations: “There are flags on houses and cars! Pumpkins everywhere! So many police cars! People say hi in English! The streets are huge! The water in restaurants is cold, brrr!” And later, as they fell back in love with seedless grapes, they were duly added to the notebook: “grapes, with no seeds!”
Délice focused on drawing things she loved about her stay: Singing one of her French maternelle songs in front of an American preschool! Jumping on a friend’s bed! A date with mama to get some contact lenses. Waving American flags at the thrift store. We printed out loads of photos for cheap (hallelujah for Target) of our friends to show back home. More and more, I feel like the travel journal is a simple way to show our kids how to be mindful of traveling and to remember how privileged they are to travel the world this way.
My American husband Tall Mountain and I even had our own set of unsettling moments. This too took us by surprise as we had lived in this city for six years. By the end of that time, we’d found a path to thrive in most every area of our lives in the States. Still, straight off the plane, I got so ticked off at the border police who wouldn’t stamp the kids’ innocent travel journal like every customs agent in every other country where we’ve asked. “No ma’am, we don’t do that”, she said with an icy gaze and a condescending voice. Later, at the airport curb, we stared at the cars as if we had arrived from another planet. They appeared imposing, bloated, bland all over again to our now European eyes. And yet, by the time we loaded our cases into our own rental van, we were already loving the comfort of the wide spaces. The kids already wanted to purchase the same van in France, please please pleaaaase —> Sorry kids, not if it’s to be refilled at 7.5 U.S. bucks a gallon!
I am thankful TM immediately reminded us not to fall into the poisonous trap of judgement and to remain open to different ways of doing life. It’s such a common trap for cross-cultural families like ours to fall into. Rather we carved out regular times to recenter as a family despite being on the road, which was grounding for all of us, AND we sought out the goodness we love of this land: Our cousins! Our dear friends in this place! American libraries! Customer service! Family! Creative healthy or gluten free treats! Incredible state parks! Activities for the kids, cheap, all day every day! Late night frozen custard run with a sister! Coffee shop culture! Did I mention family? Vitamin cottage! Roaring fast internet!
We quickly settled into this life of “relational highs”: amazing home cooked meals in the evening, margaritas at night, hikes with friends during the day. Fajita parties, sushi double-dates, pumpkin carving and painting parties… By the time we left, we were a little sad. Happy to return to our own beds for sure, but pained for these relationships to be a world away.
Can you even be a fulfilled global citizen if you are judgmental or defensive about your home or passport country? Aren’t both the judgement AND our defense mechanisms symptoms of some unprocessed junk in our lives? And how much of the experience do you miss out on when you get caught in one of those modes? I’m asking myself, and maybe I’m asking you too.
I think it’s still okay to feel unsettled and acknowledge it. The fact that we had to ease back into our old life drew our attention to how deep we must have laid down roots in our new home in France. How much French culture, and the culture “in-between” we live by has impacted our family. But this two week stay wasn’t about denying our family’s new identity and what it’s becoming. Our trip wasn’t a threat. It was no less than a gift to be on the other side of the world. And, it was about honoring the many people who chose to invest into our family during our years in this city. And, eating as much Tex Mex as our bellies could possibly handle of course. 😉