Sunday, December 23, 2012

Back in the U.S.A.

After two years living in Brasilia, Brazil, Elise and I and Sam, Peter and Clementine returned for eleven months in the United States. The grueling overnight transcontinental flight was made worse by the fact that I couldn’t tear Peter away from the behind-the-seat entertainment center and he stayed up most of the night watching cartoons which made the morning harder than it had to be or should have been.

Truth be told, we’ve been riding the roller coaster that is Pete’s emotional state since we returned. He is taking his physical extrication from Brazilian culture harder than the rest of us. This is not surprising, given his age, and the fact that he most likely remembers nothing about living in the United States and only knows how to live in Brazil. He says frequently that he wants to go back, but that is what Sam said when he was Pete’s age. Not to discount Pete’s longing; we all long for some of Brazil, despite the bounty laid before us every day.

I think all the hype is just too much for Pete. It’s too much for anyone, but Pete isn’t old enough to have the equipment yet to deal with such monumental changes. Then put Christmas and Santa Claus on top of it all, and forget about it.

There is a scale that measures the amount of stress associated with huge, life-changing events, and just because we do move every two years or so, we can’t discount the fact that moving is very high on this scale. Moving to a completely different country, even if that country is one most of us find more familiar, should be even higher. The United States is less, not more, familiar to Pete than Brazil. Clementine has never even been to her “home” country.

Sam has asked me several times if everyone will speak English in America. Even today, as we walked into the mall, he asked if everyone in all the shops speak English. When Pete was suffering particularly acutely a few days ago, we made him beans and rice, and I spoke to him in Portuguese. It sounds silly, but they are small, familiar things, that hopefully will help him transition to his new home. Pao de queijo will help, too.

Upon landing in the Atlanta airport, Sam, Pete and I immediately made a Starbucks run. The Starbucks was on the complete opposite side of Terminal B, but we made it there and back in thirty minutes, though I had to carry Pete the entire way due to his extreme fatigue. I am almost certain the man in line in front of us was Brazilian and spoke Portuguese, but I was too shy to find out. We made it back to Elise and Clementine just in time to board, only slightly scalding Pete once with hot coffee.

We have not had much time to miss Brazil. We’ve had to buy new cell phones and sign up for a calling plan that we hope we can get out of in eleven months without offering up my firstborn. We had to buy a car and a Christmas tree and new bikes for the boys (shhhh! don’t tell!) and see relatives and friends.

Unfortunately, the two times Uncle Bill and Aunt Jackie and my brother came to visit, I was nearly asleep though it was only seven. The person who invented time zones did not have kids, unlike the person that invented the overnight transcontinental flight, and everyone was up at 3:30 a.m. our first two nights back, 4:40 on the third and 5:15 on the fourth. By the fifth morning, we were blessed with a Christmas miracle when everyone slept in until 6:30. Unfortunately and ironically, it is those mornings I find it most difficult to get out of bed. Even 3:30 was easier than 6:30, and I spent most of the day in a haze induced, again ironically, by too much sleep. I’m just not looking forward to doing it all over again when we go to Spokane, but there we can hole ourselves up downstairs until we hear the jet engine-like whir of Grandad’s coffee maker firing up at 5:00 a.m. Here, we had to hide in the bathroom until a reasonable hour, though I don’t honestly think anyone got any additional sleep over all the cooing, crying, giggling and screaming that came from a tiny bathroom filled with three children, one adult, a juice box, two bowls of Life cereal and a basket of toys.

I think it is too early to give general impressions of being back in the United States. There are certain aspects of being back that I genuinely enjoy: Starbucks, good microbrews, guacamole, and the convenience of parks and recreation. Either Clementine is getting a little bit older or the conveniences of the United States make parenting three children easier. Honestly, I just think I am more patient. There is an incredibly liberating power of being Blackberry-less and I can, for the first time in a long time, dedicate one hundred percent of my attention and energies on my wife and family. I was not looking forward to the end of my time in Brasilia, but the end was inevitable, and when I handed over my Blackberry, I was given Clementine, it seems. I would make that trade any day.

I always compare the attention I was able to give to Sam to the attention I am now able to give to three. Sometimes, I let myself become frustrated, because all I want to do was make a Lego with Sam or make a train track with Pete, but couldn’t because of the needs of a third, the baby, Clementine. I would have to hold her or feed her and didn’t like not being able to give each of my children the dedicated focus I was able to afford Sam when it was just he and I. But as the boys get older and are able to play together in a more sustainable (and sometimes quiet) manner, I get Clementine, and have the feeling that I am having, for the first time, moments for her that I have not yet had the time to have, time like I had with Sam.

Maybe it is sad that I had to come back to the United States and leave my job, to discover her. In my defense, Elise’s success at nursing her has, selfishly, been to my detriment. I haven’t been able to put her down for naps or bed the way I did with Sam and Pete. In a perfect world, Elise would have had time to pump a bottle of milk and I could have performed this nightly ritual as I did with Sam and Pete, but, alas, in truth, every day was survival and chaos, if not carefully-orchestrated chaos, and I usually did the boys bath and bed routine, because it did not require me to spontaneously learn how to lactate. I will have to do a better job in the future of balancing the demands of my job with the demands of my family. I hope this, too, is a skill I can learn.

I compare this vacation to the time we visited Elise’s parents in Washington, four or five years ago, when my career in commercial real estate was going down the tubes and I was having to cash in my 401k and life insurance to merely pay bills, much less pay for a vacation. I could not enjoy myself and though it was a perfectly pleasant time with many fun activities planned, good beer and good food, I could not relax, because I didn’t feel as though I deserved to. I didn’t feel as though I had earned a vacation. I feel the complete opposite this time and can’t wait to get back to Washington to drink it all in (literally and figuratively).

I deserve this vacation. I earned it. We all did. I feel as though our first tour exceeded all of my personal and professional expectations. We didn’t just survive Brazil. We thrived in Brazil. Clementine is physical proof of that. Mine and Elise’s bond is stronger because of Brazil, because of what we accomplished there together. I love Elise deeper because of Brazil, because of what she did there. I am more proud of both Peter and Sam because of Brazil.

I said earlier it was too early to give general impressions of being back in the United States, because I am still comparing everything to Brazil. Brazil is like a phantom limb I can still vaguely feel. I don’t want to lose that feeling. Nothing is as green as Brazil. Not even Florida. And everything is too neat, too orderly, too clean. But I won’t say more than that for now. In all fairness to the United States, I should, at the very least, give it a chance. 

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