Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Rediscovering family through Skype

A year ago, I viewed Skype as merely a tool of communication. Today, with over 5000 miles standing between me and all things once familiar, this little gem of technology proves to lessen homesickness, one session at a time.

When my husband and I decided to trade Romania, our small European country, for the glamour of Chicago, there was nothing holding us back. No kids, no loans and, thanks to our upbringings, (I grew up without a father, while his was an alcoholic) no strong family ties. We loved our parents, but not in a “7th Heaven” kind of way. Instead, there was a mutual agreement to make weekly phone calls and twice a year visits. For years, it worked out just fine.
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But then we moved and all of the sudden, none of these rules applied anymore. Although I wouldn't call it a typical case of homesickness, we did found ourselves longing for familiar faces. So after two weeks of landing in our new country, we gave Skype a shot.

First, we spoke with my mom and her husband. They huddled together in front of the laptop, with beaming smiles, pressing wrong buttons on the keyboard, in an attempt to turn on the web camera. The conversation went smoothly, no awkward silences. They had a lot of question; we had a lot of things to brag about. Our visit to downtown Chicago, buying a car, the arrival of our Green Cards were all examples of our new life in America. When we ran out of things to talk about, my husband suggested a tour of our house. They enthusiastically nodded their heads.

In the same way we would do in real life, before having people coming over, we tried to tidy the one bedroom apartment we rented in Chicago as fast as possible. Mismatched socks, dirty laundry and old editions of Real Simple magazine were crammed into the nearest closet. I even lit up a scented candle to make the living room more welcoming.

But when my husband swirled the laptop around the kitchen, he almost blew our cover by getting dangerously close to a pile of greasy dishes sitting in the sink. I'm pretty sure I had a mini heart attack.

An hour later, as we said our goodbyes, we realized we have had one of the few, if not, the first normal, heartwarming talk with them.
This therapeutic experience got me thinking about how Skype acts like a psychological cushion for millions of people around the world. That web camera is the closest thing to a face to face encounter with our distant loved ones. In some cases, like ours, it’s even better than that. Somehow, seeing each other through 16-inches laptop displays, made us even more aware of the 5000 miles between Romania and Chicago. We were then more inclined to ditch the drama and keep things light and fun. And that’s just the way (online) family time should be.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Going off the beaten path to adjust in a new country

Last year, just before packing my whole life in two blue suitcases and moving from an ex-communist European country to the cosmopolitan city of Chicago, I did what most people would do. Opened my browser and type in “How to adjust to a new culture”. Thanks to some handy tips from Chicago bloggers, I prided myself on knowing both the good and the ugly about my soon-to-be home country. Yet, I was still clueless about how to immerse into the actual cultural American habits.

According to journalists, academics or just regular immigrants from all around the world, in order to fit in America, I had to make local friends, try new foods and learn all about my surroundings.  Later, I realized, they had left out something paramount for anyone who seeks to grasp the habits of a new country. Embracing the quirks - or what foreigners usually see as hiccups - of this society could possibly be the cornerstone of successful relocation. It made me feel like I belong, which in return paved the way for friendships and job offers.

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The first habit my husband and I swore not adopt from our fellow Americans, happened to provide a bonding experience with them once we caved in: hanging out at fast food restaurants.  Sipping a small coffee at McDonalds, every other day on my way to work, helped me let go of many unfair labels I had attached to my fellow residents. 

One of the perks of growing up in a poor country is eating more of what grows out of the ground. Hamburgers were actually an expensive treat from where I came from, so we turned to veggies and fruits as our main source of food. 

But the situation would be much different if I would have spent my entire life in a place where fast food restaurants are as ubiquitous as grass. I started looking past the overweight bodies waiting at the front counter and I saw a different picture. People who don't know differently or don't have time and money to find better ways of nourishment. I noticed people like me, who stretched their coffee as long as they could, in an attempt to warm up while waiting for the bus. Or immigrant couples giggling with their kids over what could literally be the only happy meal of the week. These fast food places are no doubt, harming their physical health. But avoiding them, might rob newcomers of a great sense of social acceptance.

The same thinking applies to yoga pants. “Lazy” and “sloppy” were popping into my mind when I saw women wearing them basically everywhere. That was before I entered the workforce. Being a part-time server meant I had to be comfortable with throwing my clothes away after my laundry detergent could no longer remove the three cheese soup or ranch dressing stains. Or that I would need to move like Speedy Gonzales for hours on end. The last thing I wanted was to have a waistband digging into my muffin top. Stretchy, dark-colored and cheap, these pants have now become an essential piece of my daily wardrobe. 

Every night, they are replaced with sweatpants, as my husband and I plop down  in front of the computer and proceed to do another thing ranked high in “Top Ten Worst American Habits”: binge-watching Netflix. This one, we don’t do it to blend in. We just like it.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Your Valentine’s Day? None of my business

Last week, while on a break at work, a friend asked me what seems to be the most pressing question of the month: “So, how are you planning to spend Valentine’s Day?”  Her hushed, secretive voice, suggested she expected me to come up with something naughty, illegal even.
In the past, this issue would have been a no-brainer. Nowadays, when my husband and I are close to celebrating four years of marriage and a total of nine being in a romantic relationship, it prompts me to search deeper for answers. All too often, when facing the same query, people end up taking sides.
Usually, older couples think something along the lines of “It’s just another Hallmark holiday”, while new sweethearts can’t seem to get enough of the “roses and chocolate covered strawberries” trend. Why, though, make a debate out of a tradition initially designed to be filled with, well, love.
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I’m the first to admit that my teenage self still gets thrilled to the idea of dinner and flowers kind of Valentine’s Day date. Most women I know feel the same, but that doesn’t make us shallow. It makes us human. It’s particularly hard to resist such temptations when you’re being bombarded, a month in advance, with flashy reminders from your local stores, TV shows and Facebook friends.
Five or seven years ago I would’ve succumbed to this pressure, forcing myself to dress up and lock away my inner homebody. A couple Valentine’s Days ago, I remember feeling extremely uncomfortable on our way to a restaurant nearby. My bum was freezing in an otherwise cute skirt; my feet, normally happy in sneakers, were wobbling on high heels. I ended snapping at my husband when he asked to top off the night with a quick stroll around the neighborhood. 
At the other end of the spectrum, the dearest recollections I have of this holiday from recent years are the ones requiring two ingredients - pjs and beer.
What changed over time is the emotional journey with a man I now call husband.  It nudges me to focus on something other than what people might expect me to do on this day.
Like the way he cared for me last week. A horrible cold kept me bed ridden and I was frantically sneezing into my pillows, sheets and pretty much every piece of fabric I could find around the house. Or how he surprised me on January first of 2015 by waiting outside the building I work in with a bunch of flowers gently tucked in his coat.

That’s not to say Valentine’s Day should be scratch off the American holidays list or any other country for that matter. If you can name at least one person you love (your family members included), then you have endless reasons to celebrate it. It’s none of anyone’s business whether you choose to do that at home, watching Netflix, or in a fancy restaurant, popping champagne. As cheesy as it sounds, love is all that matters. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

The terrible way people shun grief after a breakup

Let’s say you’re about to run your first ultra-marathon - which is usually nothing less than 30 miles. They say it is just as hard and exciting as it sounds.

 A dozen of race medals are already neatly line up on a wooden hanger, in your bedroom, but this one will be special. You want it so badly you spare no effort to assure your success. 

So you prepare your workout gear every night before bedtime, wake up at 5 am to do those grueling tempo-runs before going to office, religiously track macros using fancy apps and chug loads of not-so-tasty protein powder concoctions. Despite sacrifices, pounding the pavement feels right and it gives you a purpose. Running makes you a better friend, a more patient parent, and a supportive co-worker.
People who ran similar distances in the past swear it will be the most difficult, yet rewarding experience of your life. You’ll cry a little, laugh a little and you’ll probably reach some mental breakthroughs along the way. 

Just days before, the race is cancelled without noticed. “Oh, and forget about the refund”, a squeaky voice bluntly announces over the phone. “Why?” “How can it be possible?” “I was so close?” All that enthusiasm bubbling inside you is washed down by an ocean of desolation.

That’s basically how being dumped on the way to the altar must feel. Only multiplied by a thousand. But the traditional way people used to cope with such fiascos (gallons of ice cream and floods of tears) has taken a turn for the better. Or so it seems. 

Between August and December 2014, two men and a woman became famous after going public with their breakups or for calling off their weddings. The more heartbreaking the stories, the more viral they became.
However, it took a lot more than just an e-mail to a producer or editor for an intimate, not to mention pretty common event like a split up between two ordinary people to become a TV sensation. Just like in a romantic comedy plot, they had to convert their own misery into a spectacle that will either make people go “Aww!” or cheerfully shout “Hell, yeah!” 

Take the example of Phil Laboon from Pittsburg.
At the end of August 2014, he appeared on, Daily Mail and even on CBS This Morning, though not because he’s the CEO of an Internet marketing company. Not even close. Mr. Laboon, 32, became widely known as “the guy who broke up with his fiancĂ©e and turned their $15,000 reception into a fundraiser”.  “It was obviously pretty heartbreaking for everybody involved,” he told CBS Pittsburgh, adding that it “ended up becoming a really good scenario". The money he managed to raise went to Surgicorp, an organization providing free surgery in developing countries.

Another guy who became suspiciously generous when suddenly found himself single?  Jordan Axani. This handsome, 28, Canadian guy, came up with an idea that could easily trump many top-notch marketing strategies. His offer? An around-the-world trip, which was initially planned to be taken this past Christmas with his now ex-girlfriend, Elizabeth Gallagher. Changing a name on the ticket was almost impossible, so Axani started looking for a vacation companion with the same name as his previous date and a Canadian passport. “It’s just about a ticket not going to waste”, he explained. The announcement grew famous beyond Canadian borders into America and soon enough he stumble upon a perfect candidate. They are already back, though no signs of love butterflies.

Likewise, Shelby Swink, 23, did interviews for several TV shows including “Today Show” and was featured in several newspapers such as Huffington Post after destroying her wedding dress with paint. This was meant to be a cathartic experience. A counter reaction to being left by her college sweetheart five days before saying “I do” in their hometown, Memphis, Tennessee.

“I felt free of sadness, free of disappointment, free of anger”, she claimed. Pictures of Shelby covered in a rainbow of paint, flexing her biceps like a warrior goddess, are now being used as an example by feminist advocates who call her gesture “empowering”. It’s also philanthropic. The dress was displayed for a few weeks in a local bridal shop in Memphis, which donated a portion of its sales to local nonprofit called Be Free Revolution. 

In the process of healing their love wounds, all three, Laboon, Axani and Swink received hundreds of marriage proposals and gained thousands of Facebook friends; even a movie deal for Axani. That’s not to say they don’t suffer. Quite the opposite actually. After a breakup, any human heart goes through various stages on the road to recovery. One of them being grief. But can they really feel the scientific proven stinging pain in their chests or perhaps get to the roots of their separation while constantly rushing to appear on-air? Can speaking to reporters, no matter how friendly and well-intended, replace the need for a deeper conversation with a specialist? Not really. 

Studies show that grieving, which can take up to several years in case of a death loss, is a normal step when curing heartache, see postdoctoral research at Brown University. More importantly, skipping grief can backfire later. 

“We might like to skip grief, but we cannot. Even when we can temporarily deny our pain, it still exists. It may eventually erupt, maybe at an inappropriate moment or during another upset or illness”, points out Judy Tatelbaum, an expert on overcoming grief and emotional suffering. So, sure, throwing a breakup party with your closest friends and family might be a good idea. Making it a national matter, however, could have the same effect as using pain relieving gels to numb a rooting tooth. It will still hurt like hell after a couple of hours.