Monthly Archives: January 2016

Southside to Switzerland

Standard

 


I had the honor of interviewing Carolyn Davenport Moncel, who is an African American woman living in Lausanne, Switzerland. Carolyn grew up on the Southside of Chicago, and she has great memories of growing up there.   She  works as a Communications Officer and Social Media Manager with the Lutheran World Federation in Geneva, Switzerland and enjoys her work immensely.

Carolyn has written three collections of short stories — “Encounter in Paris,” “Railway Confessions” and “5 Reasons to Leave a Lover.”

When I asked her if she would be willing to share her journey of living abroad with our readers, Carolyn, without hesitancy, agreed! I learned so much from her, and I hope you do, also.

Carolyn, please share with our readers what it was like growing up in Chicago’s Pullman area.  

 I grew up in Maple Park, which is a community that borders the Morgan Park, Roseland, Pullman and West Pullman neighborhoods;  between 115th to 119th streets (north to south) and from Halsted to Ashland streets (east to west).  I know these days, people talk a lot about violence on the South side, but for us, that really wasn’t the case; primarily because most people had no clue that the numbered streets could actually go that high and still be within the city limits.

In a lot of ways, that neighborhood will always be home for me.  It’s where I learned how to ride my bike, and roller skate.  It’s the place where I jumped through backyard sprinklers and built snowmen. It’s where I learned how to cross the “big street” (115th) to get candy and pop. It is where I played sidewalk games, jumped rope and caught lightening bugs during the summertime. Everyone knew everyone else; heck, sometimes your classroom teacher was also your neighbor! Any adult at any time could and would reprimand you for wrong doing. It was a working-class neighborhood, but it was a quiet and safe one. Whenever I am home in Chicago, I have to stop and visit the people who still live on that street because they also are a part of my extended family.

You were very specific in stating that your neighborhood was called “Maple Park.” Why?

I think my need to be specific comes from both my parents and their neighbors. They took such great pride in that neighborhood from a historical point of view, and they never let us kids forget it. Given Chicago’s history of racial segregation, it wasn’t rare that a neighborhood would be comprised of all African American residents.  However, it was a rare thing that a neighborhood would be constructed – from the ground up – specifically for African American homeowners and their families.  My parents were among those original residents from 1962, and most (if not all) of the original male homeowners were also World War II veterans. Regrettably, my father passed away only after ten years of living in our house, but my mother lived in our house for nearly 45 years until her death in 2006.  My brothers and I still own that house, and a good number of our original neighbors still live on that same block.

What schools, churches did you attend?

From kindergarten until eighth grade, my two brothers and I attended Holy Name of Mary Grammar School, a school run by the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the oldest order of African American nuns in the United States.  Later in high school, my brothers attended Mendel Catholic Prep in the Pullman neighborhood, and I attended Elizabeth Seton High School in South Holland, which, sadly, will be closing at the end of the 2016 school year. I guess we’re what some people call “cradle Catholics” so my family also attended Holy Name of Mary Catholic Church.

What do you miss about Chicago?

I totally miss the food, like a good deep dish pizza and really good homemade soul food.  However, I also miss the people of Chicago most.  There is something very special about us.  No matter where I am in the world, I can always spot another Chicagoan and our recognition of one another is instant. I miss genuine politeness, which might sound strange to some, but compared to a lot of places in the world, Chicagoans are surprisingly polite, nice and neighborly.  I think it’s because we are a city of neighborhoods and where one grows up tells a story.  Last summer when I came home, I accidently took the wrong Metra line back south. Trying to figure out how I would reach my destination without having to turn around, at least five people (both black and white; both young and old) stopped and offered directions without ever being asked.

I also miss convenience and the ability to do almost anything at any time of the day or night.  The notion of having a 24/7 grocery store or pharmacy is non-existent in
Switzerland, so whenever I’m home, I take advantage of the little conveniences whenever and wherever I can.

Were there any early life indicators that you would create a life abroad?

Yes and no! I’ve always loved reading stories set in other countries. When I was kid, my piano teacher would tell me all of these awesome stories about traveling throughout Europe as a young African American woman during the 1920s. Later in high school, I had this really young and quirky English teacher who had backpacked all over the place as well.  Both of them made it clear to me that I could and should try to see the world when I was older so I guess the desire to do so just stuck. I always wanted to travel, but I never really thought that I would.  What I had not planned on was meeting and marrying a French guy from Lyon in Chicago of all places.

How did you come to select Lausanne, Switzerland?

I think Lausanne chose us! Already for about five years, we had been living in Courbevoie, a suburb just outside of Paris.  While France was nice, I think my husband had anticipated something different when he returned home after living abroad himself for almost ten years.  So when he received a job offer to transfer to an office in Switzerland in 2007, he took it and I was happy to take on the new challenge of a different country.  For about six months we tried having him commute weekly from Switzerland while the girls and I stayed in France. Then, we realized that it would be more practical for the entire family to move there instead.  We selected Lausanne largely because it was close enough to Geneva but the living expenses were a bit cheaper and there were bigger apartments available. Plus, our side of the lake is prettier.  Also by living inside of Switzerland instead of in a French border town meant that I could work inside Switzerland also, which was an important option for me.

How welcoming did you find Switzerland?

I found Switzerland to be quite welcoming but a lot of work.  A lot of people who move here receive help from corporate relocation companies.  However, because my husband was already a native French speaker, we were on our own again.  Experience gained from moving to France from Chicago helped us to understand what not to do.   Once we got going, it was pretty easy. Calls to utility companies and the school district before arriving proved to be quite helpful. In fact, it was the school administrators who helped me plan the move so the girls would not miss a beat at school. Utilities were already working by the time we arrived.  I already had a job, and I’d had spent some time visiting my husband prior to the move so I basically knew my way around Geneva at least.

My neighbors were super nice and one of them is like our surrogate daughter. I’ve made friends with a lot of people from virtually everywhere on the planet either through work or hobbies. I will admit that sometimes it can seem quite difficult to make friends with the Swiss. However with time it gets easier.  I once asked a Swiss friend why it’s so difficult to befriend them and she said that the Swiss find it rather impractical to invest time in a friendship that could end up becoming a transient one. I think there’s a lot of truth to her statement because people do come and go a lot and it’s easy to lose track of them.  The Swiss seem less likely to befriend someone who is only going to be living in the country a few months or a couple of years.  But once your Swiss friends realize that you might be staying for a long time, they warm up.

Outside of work, what types of activities, hobbies, and cultural interests are you engaged in? When I’m not working, writing or hanging out with my kids, I spend a crazy amount of time binge watching television shows.  Recently, I watched five seasons of Game of Thrones. I know that I’m late to the party, but it takes at least a half-year to get American shows so this is a great way to catch up.  Also, I spend a great deal of time working on genealogy.  About five years ago, I partnered up with one of my cousins stateside to divide up the research.  She handles searching for the living while I work on finding the dead!  In my life, the one constant has always been storytelling, and genealogy is also a form of storytelling.  In the course of eight years, I have met dozens of new relatives – both back in the US as well as in Europe.

Has life in Lausanne manifested anything for you (e.g. career, social life, etc.) that could not happen in the States?

I think so.  The quality of life is much different in Switzerland than in the United States.  Chicago is a very diverse city, but if I had not moved, I don’t think I would have ever met so many different people from so many different places from around the world. I would not have been exposed to communicating with people speaking so many different languages.  I don’t think I would have thought about traveling to so many different places, and there are still a bunch of places requiring passport stamps.  But, it’s the quality of life here that gives me a bit more freedom to do more things.  For instance, we have much more vacation time available and while you may work very hard throughout the year, we are also mandated by law to relax and take vacation time. That extra time affords me a chance to do things like write, travel and use more flex time to hang out with my children.

IMG_1134Photo Caption: World Famous Maison Cailler Chocolate Factory

 What is the expat community like in Switzerland (size)? How about the African American expat community?

Surprisingly there is a sizable expat community in Switzerland in general. I don’t know the exact number but it’s noticeable, particularly in Geneva.  There are many groups available.  My favorite of course, is the Geneva Writers’ Group.  However, the African American expat community here appears to be a lot smaller than say in Paris, but I could be wrong.  The high number of expats overall makes sense when you consider that about 70 percent of the population living in Geneva is not Swiss.  Because huge organizations like the United Nations and the World Health Organizations and tons of other multinational corporations are based in Geneva, most of the workforce comes from someplace else so many people often work and speak in English in Geneva.  Switzerland has four official languages: French, German, Italian and Romansh.  Yet, there are lots of French-speaking Swiss who do not speak German and vice versa so the common language for communication often reverts to English.

What is the best thing about living in Switzerland? Any down sides?

It’s a great place to raise children. It’s a family-friendly place.  It’s green and clean.  Services are quick and efficient; public transportation is outstanding, however there are a lot of rules to follow. For example, in most apartment buildings, you can only do laundry on assigned days and Sundays are often off limits.  There are very specific rules regarding sorting and recycling garbage, which is good in theory, but if you get it wrong, you will be fined.  The education system is terrific no doubt, but the system doesn’t necessarily encourage kids to think outside of boxes.  It takes a really long time to understand legal and tax information.  Even something as simple as your phone bill is mired in hidden economic implications.  No one ever tells you anything so you have to ask a lot of questions and you have to know what to ask.   For example, you may think you’re getting a really good deal on your cell phone package, but native Swiss people would know better, so as an outsider, it can feel like you’re being ripped off at times, and guess what?  You often are!    All in all, there are a lot of opportunities to work in Switzerland if you have the right skills, but it’s not the easiest place to work if you want to start your own business as an American specifically or if you are a woman with small children. Childcare is extremely expensive and just like in France, the school day is organized for children to come home for lunch for long stretches of time, with half or full days off on Wednesdays. Thankfully, there are no Saturday classes like in France except for optional catechism. If you are not native Swiss and do not have family living nearby to help with childcare, it can be extremely difficult. Thankfully, I’ve always managed to work from the home office and on the days when I would have a childcare crunch, I could bring my daughters with me.

There is this idea that Europe is racism free and that Black women are embraced. Is that true or does racism rear its head in different ways?

Some places may be less racist or jingoistic than others, but personally, I don’t think there is anywhere on the planet that is racism free.  In Europe in general, I think racism rears its ugly head in many different ways, and when one does experience it here, it’s mostly manifested in the forms of various micro expressions or weird questions like, ‘So how did YOU come to live here? ‘, as if your being black and living outside of the United States is some sort of anomaly or basic impossibility.  Ironically, when situations like these have happened to me, the questions were usually posed by fellow Americans.  Europeans will ask about your ethnicity or family origins, but the questions are often posed purely out of curiosity.  Usually the questions are not meant to be malicious.

So for me, I find that I’ve experienced less racism in Europe in general than in America.  This is the case not because I am a black or a woman, but because I happen to be American.  No one outside of the United States adds a hyphen to our nationality.  We are American pure and simple.  This notion of being American can backfire, though – like during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but usually being American trumps everything else.  Right or wrong, you find yourself moving in the world differently, but it also means that from to time, we need to check our “exceptionalism” card and take a good look ourselves in the ways in which people of other nationalities view us.

If, unfortunately, one happens to be a person of Arab/Muslim descent or a person of African descent directly from the continent of Africa itself, discrimination is real, blatant and looks very similar to what we may see back in America. However, it does not end there in Switzerland. It’s almost worst to be from the Baltic regions of Europe than to be African or Arab/Muslim.  Truly racist people in Switzerland – and there are some even though they are considered a minority – seem to fear people from places like Albania or Serbia the most.

Oui

Photo Caption:  Billboard at Gare Conavin in Geneva Is An Example of How Racism and Jingoism (Extreme Patriotism in the Form of Aggressive Foreign Policy) Manifests Itself.  Political Notes in this photo basically says, “Finally Guarantee Our Security.  Vote ‘Yes’ To Send Back Foreign Criminals.”

NOTE: The Ultra Conservative Party (UCP) is conveying that all foreigners, especially black ones are criminals (white sheep is kicking out black sheep).

Do Social Services Exist in Switzerland?

Yes, social services exist but on different levels.  For instance, families with children do receive a monthly stipend for each child to offset the cost of living.  It’s terribly expensive to live here – from the cost of rent and food to healthcare and entertainment. To give an idea, healthcare coverage is required and every individual must have coverage or face fines or deportation.  The average cost of healthcare for a family of four is around $1,000 per month. A family meal at McDonalds might cost $20 back in the US, but here in Switzerland, that same meal would be almost $60! Thankfully, families do not have to pay for a really great education.  Primary and middle schools are free.  High school costs about $600 per year and the price could be lowered based on need, and the average price for college at the local university is $1,200.  We could never do that in the US.  However, there are some down sides to social services as well, like unemployment.  If you become unemployed, you would receive 80 percent of salary for up to two years, but after that, there are no extensions.  Finding help thereafter could be tricky and render a person homeless.  There is also minimum wage so there is a minimum amount of money one needs to make in order to get by.

What career paths are prominent in Switzerland?

I think there are many career paths available.  However, the most important skill to possess is the ability to speak an additional language besides English because that opens up a lot of possibilities.  That means if a person is planning on settling near Geneva, it’s a good idea to take classes in French or German lessons if one is planning to settle near Zurich or Basel.  Having really good computer skills – particularly in software programming, testing or digital content management are always good.  A background in finance – particularly within the banking and insurance industries would be a plus as well.

What attractions would you recommend?

 One would think after eight years of living here that I would have seen all there is to see.  To be honest, I am still discovering new things every day.  Here are some basic tips.  Geneva is a great city to live and work but the nightlight and restaurants are in Lausanne.  Checking out great restaurants in itself is a great attraction. Try Café Grancy near where I live in Lausanne. Any of the brunches served at the hotels by Ouchy are always great.  The best part of all of this is that you can eat just as well in a tiny little restaurant as in a swanky one.  Speaking of Ouchy, definitely take stroll along the lake’s boardwalk. It really is the most beautiful side of Lac Leman or Lake Geneva, and plus there is view of Evian.  A 35-minute ferry ride can take you to Evian where you can drink the water for free. Additionally, I love the Guyere area. Go there to learn more about the cheese and if you a fan of the Alien or Predator movies, check out the Musée HR Giger and restaurant.  If you love Swiss chocolate, don’t miss Maison Cailler, where you can tour the chocolate factory and museum and sample the chocolate.

IMG_1013

Photo Caption:  Ouchy Boardwalk in Lausanne During Winter Time (at the edge of the famed Lake Geneva)

 

 

 

Advertisements

Historic Pleasures in Virginia With Guest Blogger Yvonne D Hawkins

Standard

chocolate ice creamI’ve always wondered what it was like during colonial days for a young America when Paul Revere rode through the Massachusetts countryside, yelling, “The British are coming! The British are coming!”

Or when white men, wearing white wigs and long, button-down coats visited their colleagues’ homes, first greeting the lady of the house by removing their wide, brimmed hats.

At Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria, Virginia’s Old Town neighborhood, I almost could hear the clatter of horses’ shoes on cobblestone streets. Sitting at my table, after being escorted by a server dressed in colonial-era clothes, I looked around the rooms. My eyes landed on the pretty, thick drapes. I bet the drapes of that day struggled to hold back drafts on winter nights. The replicas that I saw hung stately from top to bottom of windowed walls. Still, I bet the actual drapes of colonial days, which didn’t have help from modern heating, often lost winter’s fight.

I sat at my table, and closed my eyes to let the images soak in. I tried to pull from my memory banks images from TV miniseries, books and movies that, until now, offered me visuals of colonial America. Here, though, I feel like I have a better feel for those days—somewhat.

I thought of the juxtaposition that freedom fighters who owned this house probably owned people, too. Of how those who lived here probably used slaves to run this very space. Reviewing the menu of typical tavern food, I wondered what day-to-day life was like for my ancestors in this place. Days that maybe filled some with hope, but others with disappointment since hope might as well have been a child’s toy only for those who could afford it.

My server, a kind young man, sat my lunch plate on a tin, charger plate. I ate until I was full. Partially because Gadsby’s serves a lot of food! And it’s quite good. I had beer-battered cod—two huge pieces—with fries. A pair of onion rings that garnished the fries. Coleslaw and iced tea. A couple who sat nearby sampled some of the tavern’s beers. They seemed satisfied.

Yes, Gadsby’s was the right pick for January’s trip. I ate well and got some of the spiritual grounding I had hoped for. I’ll definitely come back. Lunch prices are just right. And the Gadsby’s Tavern Museum that sits next door intrigues me. So I’m eager to see it the next time.

For this visit, though, I could hardly wait to get to Alexandria’s Black History Museum, next. Once there, the museum re-confirmed what I already knew. That colonial America is no nostalgic affair that I ever want to return.

The museum, just a few minutes’ drive from Gadsby’s, is small. But its curators know what they’re doing! I’d rank it as good as other hideaway treats in the DMV such as the Fredrick Douglas home in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C. It traces black life through Alexandria’s eyes as the city grew in the shadow of the nation’s new capital.

And, yes, I saw, the display about my historic, 212-year-old church, Alfred Street Baptist Church. The visuals of my church’s beginnings deepened my appreciation for black struggle in America. I worship every week on the exact piece of land as my ancestors did so long ago, and that connection is much stronger for me now. But I also feel a deeper appreciation for black overcoming, too. Through it all, we are still here. Literally. On the same land. We remain.

That was worth the trip.

 

Yvonne D. Hawkins is an ordained minister, recovering newspaper journalist, and church leadership consultant who specializes in pastoral care. She currently lives in Northern Virginia. She went to college and seminary in Evanston, Illinois, so she deeply misses Lake Michigan. And the Taste of Chicago. She definitely misses The Taste. Her newest blog is www.artistssaw.com.

2016 Goal #2 — DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT!

Standard
2016 Goal #2 — DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT!

 

There are two things that I have been putting off for quite some time.

  1.    A Visit to The National Museum of Mexican Art in the Pilsen Area of Chicago
  2.    An Architectural Tour Cruise Sponored by The Chicago Architectural Society

For the past ten years, I have vowed to spend time enjoying these cultural activities.  2016 is going to be the year that I actually do it! No more putting off these cultural venues.

THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF MEXICAN ART

Several years ago, The National Museum of Mexican Art (NMMA) hosted a critically acclaimed exhibit that explored the relationship between  of Mexico, Africa and Blacks in the Americas.   This exhibit was at NMMA for a lengthy period of time, but I never made it to the museum because I lost track of time, and before I knew it, the exhibit was over.  How I regret that.

This museum, which is the first Mexican cultural center in the Midwest and the largest in the country, has been host to some amazing exhibits. Unfortunately, I keep missing out on partaking in these opportunities because although I make a vow to go, before I know it, another year has elapsed, and I have still not made my visit.

The beauty of this museum is that admission is free EVERYDAY!  I realize at this point that I have to go — no more excuses.

I have heard from friends who have visited the NMMA that the gift shop, Tienda Tzintzuntzan,which means “Place of the Hummingbird”is an artistic haven in itself.  Well, this bird (Robin) can’t wait to explore it.  Gift shops can be fascinating, and it sounds like its merchandise like textiles, jewelry, good old fashioned coffee table books and even toys will allow me to bring some of this beautiful culture into my home.  I can envision it now — a corner in my home dedicated to works of art from Oaxaca, Taxco, Jalisco and Mexico City.

I’m also looking forward to viewing NMMA’s permanent collection.  This cultural jewel boasts 9,000 objects in its collection and spans folk art, prints and drawings, sculptures, textiles and photography.  NMMA, here I come!

CHICAGO ARCHITECTURAL CRUISE TOUR

Who wouldn’t want to tour his/her own city, especially if you reside in a place like Chicago?  Imagine 26 miles of gorgeous lakefront.  The Architectural Foundation of Chicago offers a tour that allows you to travel down the longest lake in the world — Lake Michigan in order to see old sites in a new way.

From what I understand, the tour escorts you along the lakefront to view Navy Pier, The Coast Guard Station, famous bridges, The Wrigley Building, and of course, The Willis Tower (fondly remembered as the famed Sears Tower).  All of this comes with a highly knowledgeable guide who offers historical background that you would normally not be privy.

Imagine seeing iconic sites that you’ve walked passed numerous times only this time see them via the waterway.  I’m really getting excited!! No more putting this off, either.

I will report back later.  #thisidoforme

 

 

 

 

Starving for Fun in DC: Guest Blogger Yvonne Hawkins Shares Her Journey

Standard

This…I…Do…For…Me is excited to welcome Yvonne D. Hawkins as a contributing and guest blogger!  Monthly, Yvonne will share her adventures and explorations in the Washington, D.C/Maryland/Virginia area with us.

 

It’s working even before I’ve started.

See, my spirit is starving for fun. I’ve been so busy, and I didn’t see fun anywhere on my recent to-do lists. Not since January’s first weekend when I ate at, Jaleo, an area tapas restaurant, for the first time to celebrate 2016’s arrival.

A girlfriend suggested the spot. It has a few locations in the D.C. area. I ordered a burger and another dish. It was the tiniest burger we both ever had seen. But it was good. And I had fun trying something new and spending the first days of the year with a friend.p

Fun missed the cut, though, since then. So fun didn’t get done. Yeah, that happens.

So I’ve created Artist’s Saw as a space where busy people can feed their spirits–day by day. Local adventure helps feed my spirit in between big trips. And my adventures of exploring the Washington, D.C. area also will run in This I Do For ME every month.

First, I’m off to Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria, Virginia, for lunch, then to the Alexandria Black History Museum, and Heritage Park . With the excitement of New Year’s Day gone, I’m focusing on truly getting centered for the year.

Alexandria has tons of African-American history because of the area’s role in the nation’s growth. So I’m going to the museum and park to connect with my ancestors while the new year is still young.

The restaurant, nestled in an area of Alexandria called Old Town, is a frequent flyer on must-do tourists lists. I’ve lived in Northern Virginia for four years now, but I’ve never eaten there. I want to know if it’s really a must-do place like people say.

Adventure awaits! And I think it’s working already.Tapas burger

Yvonne D. Hawkins is an ordained minister, recovering newspaper journalist, Christian life coach, and church leadership consultant. She currently lives in Northern Virginia. She went to college and seminary in Evanston, Illinois, so she deeply misses Lake Michigan. And the Taste of Chicago. She definitely misses The Taste. Her newest blog is artistssaw.com.

2016 Goal #1 — BOOKS,BOOKS,BOOKS!

Standard

I am excited about 2016!  Even though 2015 was a great year, I am always excited about starting a new one. It’s a time to start afresh with new projects, ideas, and it’s even a time to make room for new people and experiences to enter your life!  It’s called a new year for a reason.  May you enjoy unlimited health, joy, peace and prosperity!

Over the course of the next few blog posts, I will share with you some of the things that  I hope to experience in 2016.

2016 GOAL #1 — READ CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Reading is one of the great pleasures in my life!  This year I have decided to read mainly children’s books — some that have been around a while and some that are newer.   Many are books that others have told me they enjoyed, but more importantly, seven of the selected books were recommended to me by children ages 13 and under!

image

Why children’s books?  Well, I find after being an “adult” all day and everyday, these books require us to reconnect to our imaginations and the joy we each deserve.

As Dr. Seuss says, “You’re Never Too Old, Too Wacky, Too Wild, To Pick Up A Book And Read To A Child.”

Here are my reading selections for 2016:

CLASSIC CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

  1.  “Charlotte’s Web” — Written by E.B. White
  2.  “Corduroy” — Written by Don Freeman
  3.   “From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” –Written by E.L. Koingsburg
  4.  “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” — Written by Brian Selznick
  5.  “The Lion and the Mouse” — Written by Jerry Pinkney

image

Photo:  Bookstore Cite du Livre in Aix-En-Provence

CONTEMPORARY CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

  1.  “A Friendship for Today” — Written by Patricia McKissack
  2.  “Roll of Thunder, Hear Me Cry” — Written by Mildred D. Taylor
  3.  “One Crazy Summer” — Written by Rita Garcia-Williams
  4. “In The Land of Milk and Honey” — Written by Joyce C. Thomas
  5.  “I Love My Hair” — Written by Natasha Anatasia Terpley

———————————————————–

BONUS READING

  1.  “Where the Sidewalk Ends” — Written by Shel Silverstein
  2.  “Le Petit Prince” (“The Little Prince”) — Written by A. Exupery     (Reread)

 

———————————————————–

I hope you can join me on this reading excursion!