Tag Archives: personal

Where are you from?

Technically, I'm from here. But how true is that?

Technically, I’m from here. But how true is that?

After a lifetime ‘abroad’ and unable to speak any language with a proper native accent, I’m still learning how to be a foreigner gracefully. Maybe I’m simply more immature and rootless than many other people. It still bothers me when I’m in a certain country where English is not the main currency, and people assume I’m no good at speaking their language and insist on talking to me in English no matter how many times I respond in their own.

It also still bugs me when people ask me, “Where are you from?” This is often expressed as, “I hear some kind of an accent, but can’t quite place it… where are you from?” Usually, when I’m at home in Seattle and dealing with clients or professional associates, I respond as politely as I can, but don’t really know what to say.

I’ve noticed similar reactions in other long-term foreigners. It seems natural that everybody is from somewhere. But, really, where are you from? Why is it so hard to just answer the question? To start with, the assumption is that you are not from here, and an unwelcome exclusion may be implied. People put you in a box, take you out of another one, and so forth. It can be confrontational and create distance where no distance is wanted.

Also, the facts are not all that easy. I was born in Germany, never felt at home there, and left as soon as I was able to. I resided in a certain country, then lived and traveled in a couple of other ones, and eventually found my way to Seattle, where I mostly liked it and also realized I was tired of roaming. I’m still here. There really isn’t an easy answer for me to “Where are you from?” Yes, at some point I came from somewhere, Cologne, which I recall as a lovely city that didn’t really belong in that strange and cruel country, but the Cologne I remember doesn’t really exist anymore. I yearn for it sometimes, but that doesn’t bring it back. To respond with “Seattle” doesn’t seem quite truthful, especially when I’m having one of those days where I’d rather be anywhere than here. It gets complicated very quickly. I must have responded hundreds of times to the follow-up question, “But your name doesn’t sound German…?” Even though listeners’ eyes usually glaze over when I do.

Other foreigners tell similar stories. You live and travel a bit, and a few decades later you realize you’re not coming from or going to anyplace in particular, you don’t feel a lot of loyalty to any place or country, you’re from Earth and hope to be a decent person. Try giving that as an answer to “Where are you from?” and prepare for some severe irritation.

But there’s another way to listen and reply to the question “Where are you from?” My advice is to minimize any chat about the facts, because, shockingly, nobody actually cares. The questioner has noticed a difference, or something you nonetheless seem to share with her. What she is likely asking is, “What do you and I really have in common?” Now, that is something you can explore with her in a much more interesting conversation than anything to do with distant, mythical places. You can get the trivial details out of the way and move on to a more meaningful exchange. Once or twice I succeeded with something like, “I’m originally from Germany… and I really love baking bread and making pasta at home.” This approach tends to be more satisfying and truthful—bread and pasta are much closer to me than Germany ever was or will be. Most people like eating one or the other, so the risk of starting a completely inappropriate conversation is low. But you should adjust for context. In a professional environment you might want to direct the talk more towards the skills or issues you want to focus on. “I grew up in France, where people celebrate the twentieth year of SMS communications this month.”

So, fellow foreigners: Please experiment, and be patient with your conversation partners and yourselves.

And you, dear natives: I’m curious—where are you from, really?

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On the Summerland trail, ten years later

It took me ten years and a couple of weeks to come back here. I last walked on the Summerland trail at Mount Rainier National Park in September 2002. This was on a week day, and my Civic was the only car in the parking area when I arrived at about 8am. Roughly three miles in, one crosses a one-log bridge with a sideways-leaning railing. After walking about a quarter of a mile on the other side, I saw a small black bear on the trail, doing who knows what, thirty feet or so away from me. While I waited for him to move away, I took a picture that didn’t turn out because I was not holding the camera still. Then, much closer to me, at about half that distance, the bushes rustled and a much bigger bear emerged, looked at me, and started moving in my direction. I panicked and ran, my heart beating in my ears. My memory insists that I flew down the steep, rocky trail at cheetah-like speed until I got back to the bridge.

Water and ice at Summerland

Since then, I’ve not been back to the Summerland trail. It’s one of the most popular in this National Park, which millions of people visit. The crowd-free periods, after the thaws in late spring until summer takes off, and from fall until it snows again, are quite brief, and there are only so many weekends. From Seattle, it takes about two to two-and-a-half hours to get there, much of it on tedious freeways and suburban roads. But yesterday, I had a Saturday to myself and decided to go.

I got to the White River entrance on the Park’s east side in under two hours without even speeding—there wasn’t much traffic yet. I paid a $15 entrance fee, which allows me to return for seven days. Considering how breathtakingly amazing and lovely the place is, this is a good deal, even if one only visits once. When I used the restroom close to the entrance, I realized how chilly it was. I was delighted—at this point, I find Seattle’s endless warm temperatures and cloudless blue skies depressing.

After crossing Frying Pan Creek, one parks across from the trailhead, about three miles’ distance from the Park entrance. I was glad that some other people were already there and had set out before I did. Maybe the bears would understand that it was better for them and us not to meet. The trail to Summerland is about 4.2 miles one way, ascending with almost every step. Most of the gentle, first three miles take you through forest. Lots of tall evergreens, some fallen trees, small shrubs, and unusually few mushrooms, because it’s been so awfully dry the last few months. I enjoyed feeling cold until I forgot about it as I was climbing. The sun blanched the tops of the trees, but rarely came down to my level.

With less and less sun and light, these blue flowers at Summerland hang in, although many of them are already looking tired

However, as soon as you cross that bridge, the scenery changes. The trail rises more drastically. You face dramatic views of the mountain, glaciers, and outlying formations. Tall trees eventually give way to shrubs and clusters of shorter trees. Before, in the forest, smells were dry, dusty, and clean. Here, it smelled like being in a huge wine cave, sweet and pleasurably rotten. I took my time to appreciate mossy rocks, patches of frost on ground shrubs, icicles dangling off rocks, and small blue flowers.

Up at Summerland

Eventually, after a hike of about two hours, I got to Summerland, a large subalpine meadow. Signs ask you to stay on the trails and not ruin the land any further, but some hikers merrily took off for their picnics right in the middle of it. But there weren’t enough of them to spoil the experience. Here, one feels close to the mountain’s strange, quiet life. Hues of blue and green on the rocks, together with the warm greens, yellows, and oranges of the vegetation, make the place look playful. The moon was still in the sky. Patches of clear ice covered rocks. Small ice formations lingered along creek beds and in other shady spots. After a break, I continued for another mile or so, until the trail got too squirrelly for me and the ice patches were too large to navigate comfortably.

Ice art by a small creek

The way down took me much longer. For one thing, I was sad to leave. Also, the trail was bone dry, with lots of treacherous, rolling rubble, and I had to pay attention, which always slows me down. My walking stick saved me from falling many times. On the return hike, I finally heard a few birds. Other than them, the only wildlife I saw was a few insects and some chipmunks. A woman explained to a group of teenage girls, “Many of the chipmunks carry the plague. You must avoid them at all costs.” But no bears. No little bear, no big bear. I was happy about that.

No bear this time!

I had much time to reflect on then and now. In 2002, I was 49, living off my stock options and drawing unemployment after having been laid off at Veritas Software, which was eventually bought by Symantec. In 2012, I’m doing freelance work after having been laid off at the small marketing company where I spent most of the time in between the two Summerland hikes. In 2002, I used email and regularly visited some of the same news sites I still go to today, but social media was not in the picture. Back then, I weighed a bit more. But now my knees are getting creaky and I can feel twinges of arthritis in my hands and feet. In 2002, our neighborhood was much more troubled than today, and we were going to have a home invasion in early 2003. Today, different people live across the alley; trouble still abounds but crime seems more under control. There were certain things I didn’t know in 2002—for example, that my heritage is part Jewish. Or that the wars that had just gotten started would still go on now, with no realistic end in sight, no matter what official verbiage suggests.

Today, more so than ten years ago, I wonder how much time I still have to go on walking the Earth. Will I get back to Summerland anytime soon?

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Urban Hiking: A Way to Grow with the Power of Attention

In most of our cities, you find areas you don’t know much about, even if you live there. When you travel through them in your car or on public transport, you don’t pay much attention to them. They just don’t look all that interesting or attractive. Maybe they’re not entirely safe. Walking there may be unpleasant and difficult because of intense traffic, missing sidewalks, freeways and rail lines cutting off access, or a lack of intersections where pedestrians can cross safely.

At home and when we travel, we should pay more attention to these places. We surround ourselves with exquisite, complex environments and infrastructures, but we don’t always know what’s there. The people working or living in these overlooked areas don’t always like it there, either. They may be too poor or uninterested to take pride in their neighborhoods, and let properties fall down and streets be strewn with refuse. If their work takes them there, they probably know exactly how to get in and out while paying minimal attention to what they don’t want to see. As a consequence, many cities include neglected and forgotten districts with large populations.

I think the best way to learn about these areas is to walk through them. It gives you a chance to see the faces, breathe the air, see the sights, without escaping the moment. You never know what you might find. In many years of exploring cities in different countries, I have always found the forgotten districts to be worth the time, risk, and effort it takes to get to know them. Sure, by all means, visit the historic centers, parks, waterfronts, and lovely neighborhoods. But take time out to walk through the no-man’s lands.

If you have a good map of the city you’re in, take a look—how much of it do you actually know or come through with any frequency? How much of it is undiscovered country? Does that make you a little curious? Are you wondering how people live in certain parts, where they go shopping, what their houses, markets, and community bulletin boards look like?

Start with a good map of the city you want to explore. Digital and printed maps are both fine.

I find what often works well is taking public transport to the last station and walking back from there toward the center of town or a neighborhood I know. I recommend this especially for cities that have a roughly circular layout, such as Paris or Cologne. Elsewhere, maybe you need to ask somebody to drop you off with a car. Or, if there’s enough unknown territory to get to know, pick a district and traverse it in a number of directions.

What did I find by doing this kind of hiking? Lots of things tourists don’t see. Niche neighborhoods where people never expect to see an outsider and therefore don’t treat you like a tourist, but like a real person. I will never forget the friendly faces and small interactions in a horribly poor and unhealthy neighborhood at the fringe of Mexico City. There are cemeteries that give you insight into histories and mind sets. Green areas where nature reclaims the territory and settles it with a surprising variety of plants and animals. Fantastic views of city landmarks from new angles. In some older, industrial cities, an amazing wealth of lovely bridges. Post-industrial landscapes, some rotten, some lovely. Commercial buildings, factories, port facilities, train yards, and pocket parks with powerful esthetic appeal.

What do you need for this? Good shoes and comfortable clothing. A sense of adventure and curiosity. An open mind that lets you set your expectations and limitations aside for a few hours. A good map, honestly—not one of those hotel-issued travesties that just show you the downtown core. ID. Some cash to pay for a snack or transportation, but not too much. Your camera, but use it respectfully if you take pictures of people or their private property—get permission when you can. Some paper and a pen, or a recording device, to take notes. This kind of adventure doesn’t cost much except time and attention. Of course, it is also very sustainable as long as your body holds up: Your environmental impact will be minimal.

And, what can you get out of it? That depends on who you are. You might make a new friend. You might fall in love with a forgotten waterfront, a building, or an old bridge. You can tell stories. You might want to take action on a social or environmental situation you become aware of.

However, what I think is best about urban hiking is that it gives us a chance to re-soul districts that are part of our world, but we have numbed ourselves to their existence. Expanding consciousness is always preferable to shrinking it or keeping it the same. Attention is a marvelous, powerful force. If enough people give attention to something, it can change and grow. And so can we, the walkers.

In another posting, I might make some suggestions for walks in cities here and there. Please tell me if you have any you would like to share.

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PC: Post-Cleveland, or: Visit Cleveland now, before the crowds catch on

I mentioned a few days ago that Evelyn and I were headed to Cleveland and didn’t quite know what to expect. Ten years ago Cleveland was beautiful and tough to love, with lots of potential.

The news is mostly good. You can’t do a U-turn on Euclid downtown anymore. There’s too much traffic and now a dedicated bus lane with elegantly designed stations goes all the way out to Case Western Reserve, where you find some wonderful museums, a fine university, Severance Hall, marvelous architecture, and a whole district occupied by the ever-expanding Cleveland Clinic, one of the best healthcare facilities in the world. People milled across previously dormant Public Square every time we came through. And those department-store buildings that were boarded up and looking like demolition would come next? They have all been renovated and are full of commercial and residential tenants. One of them, right by the Terminal Tower, houses a casino, which opened a few months ago. I hear the casino plays a key role in bringing people, cash, and investment to downtown. I’m all for it. Maybe in time, there will be some other businesses and venues doing their part, so the downtown area doesn’t become too dependent on the casino.

The old-school Italian deli and grocery store, Gallucci, at Euclid and 66th, boasts a renovated location with picnic tables outside. In the Cleveland area, they’re still one of the best resources for cooks and people who eat. The neighborhood around them used to be a waste land of rusting industrial properties and falling-down warehouses. It’s turning around and becoming interesting again. A Slovenian restaurant not too far away is re-creating itself for different times, with live-music and other events. Cleveland State University is expanding slowly toward the deli; more and more faculty, administrators, and students will find out what value they can get for a small handful of cash.

Looking toward downtown Cleveland from Tremont: Magic even on a rainy Tuesday.

Ohio City, celebrating its centennial this year, sparkles with lovely homes and lots of new businesses. I like that it’s not all about food and drink, although there’s a lot of that, too, especially around the Westside Market, which now rivals the market at San Francisco’s Ferry Building and Seattle’s Pike Place Market for outstanding, local vegetables, fruit, bread, fish, meat, and other edibles, in a spectacular setting. Real-estate prices are still extremely reasonable—do the research with a soft towel around your chin in case your jaw drops. Right next to Ohio City, the Tremont neighborhood is worth your time, too. I found it once again extremely hard to get to—lots of roadwork and misleading detour signs on top of the already difficult access caused by the freeways that effectively make this place an island—but I’m glad I persevered. A while ago, a restaurant called Fat Cats was just about the only nice spot to eat there. Now they have a bunch of others and, just like in Ohio City, many artisans and craftspeople set up shop there. A small farmers’ market offered lots of fresh produce; I hope it gets enough traffic to make it worth the vendors’ while. There are so many catholic, Russian orthodox, Greek orthodox, and other churches there, I find it hard to believe they are all viable as the population changes—will the younger people moving there (very affordably, yes) maintain the traditions? Who will take the place of the older residents from East European communities that are quickly melting away? I hope the lower-income folks who now live in Tremont and Ohio City don’t get gentrified out of their homes and environment—they must be included in whatever creative developments happen over the next few years.

Speaking of, Cleveland could really use some more interesting businesses to add diversity to its commercial portfolio. It should be the perfect location for biomedical entrepreneurs. Or software companies that draw on the talent among local youth who need something worthwhile to do after graduation. How about some Microsoft Dynamics partners who could bring ERP and CRM systems to local businesses and help them be more successful at what they do? Directors and producers, take note—Cleveland is full of fascinating, old-industrial and post-industrial environments and intriguing vistas. The view from Tremont toward downtown, for example—that’s magic.

Sure, a lot of work remains to be done, just like anywhere. There are still huge green fields where properties burned during race riots in the 1960s, but the areas surrounding them are much more livable now than even ten years ago. Huge industrial wastelands on both sides of the Cuyahoga river are fascinating to me because I’m like that, but they aren’t really an asset. One could redevelop some of these areas as parks, with walkways along the river, even, maybe with a few contemporary businesses locating nearby. It’s simply intolerable to have these huge areas that are so hostile to human beings.

Elsewhere, Lake Erie is still mostly cut off from the city by freeways and commercial development. It’s too bad, but will be hard to change. I think it will probably be easier to bring the Cuyahoga back into the city, inch by inch. The Flats aren’t enough, but their areas of influence are growing, especially east of the river. We should remember and appreciate that the businesses and people who took a chance on the Flats were brave and, largely, successful. A food-and-drink place there, Shooters, is 25 years old in 2012. To most people now, it’s nothing all that special, but when they opened back in 1987, they took a huge gamble on a trashed part of town. Nobody could have reasonably predicted that they would pull it off and bring along a handful of follow-on businesses. Still, there are even today large parts of the Flats nobody seems to care for or remember that they own it, which is too bad.

For our few days there, we had a lovely and very inexpensive house, courtesy of Shaker Rentals, in Shaker Heights, and it was interesting to learn about that community and its history. It was nice to see that Shaker Heights, except for a few fat-cat stretches along Shaker Boulevard, is mostly integrated. On one sunny Sunday morning and the rainy Tuesday that followed, we spent a few hours at the Cleveland Museum of Art, which has for years added to its building as well as its already outstanding collections. When the new atrium opens (it’s a bit reminiscent of Foster’s re-built British Museum), there’ll be a huge splash in the media. People will go on about how Cleveland is making a turn for the better and is getting back on the map. But really, it’s been splendid for a long time.

If you’re more traditionally minded, there’s Little Italy, in spite of all the fake-y folklore a real community with strong ties to the old country, and the Cleveland Orchestra, one of the world’s best. Of course, lots of live theatre. And the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. I won’t go on—do a simple search and you’ll find buckets of things to interest you.

Anyway, visit and love Cleveland now, before the tourist crowds catch on and rub their sweaty hands all over the bloom. Autumn and spring are beautiful there. Winter can be harsh, gorgeous in its own way, and summer is hot, but you get spectacular thunder storms to help you cool off and disrupt the languid mood. Enjoy!

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Hello, there. Nice to see you here!

Thanks for stopping by! My name is Chris Lemoine. I live in Seattle, Washington, United States. I’m a writer and traveler who usually earns his living as a marketing writer, content strategist, and account manager. In this blog, I will share ideas and experiences related to writing, content development, communications, languages, and travels. If you want to see pictures from trips, visit Imagerie Lemoine. You can also find my profile on LinkedIn. Feel free to connect or send mail, especially if you’re thinking about sending me work. I’ll be happy to discuss projects anytime.

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