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The security agent at the Delta gate for the flight to Boston turned out to be American.  Not knowing this I replied to his questions in French. I think this may have annoyed him.

He asked where I was living (Boston) and where I came from (Abidjan). What had I done in Abidjan (I switch to English, understanding he is not a native French speaker. I work in public health). What does that mean? (me: I train doctors and nurses in management and leadership). What does that mean? I explain. He interrupts me, Madam you don’t have to answer my question but you wouldn’t be allowed on the plane (me: excuse me sir but I think I am answering your questions). So what does that mean, training in management? (I cite the 6 pillars of health systems work of the WHO). So then what happens? (me: we hope that the services improve). What services? (me, increasingly flummoxed, of health care). But they are doctors! Me: yes and many can’t manage themselves out of a paper bag, they never learned this in med school. He: and so then what happens?  I am even more flummoxed, feeling like I am speaking to a five year old. Me: Like when people who are sick need medicines, they are more likely to get the services and medicines they need.

He repeats, more agitated now, Madam, you don’t have to answer my questions and I will have to go over there (points to a bunch of uniformed people). I wonder, is his supervisor among them? That would be just fine as I am about to lodge a complaint. And then suddenly he closes my passport and waves me along.

I am immediately rewarded for my patience with the security man when the nice Delta employee who scans my boarding pass exchanges it for one with the seat number 1D. The universe is watching. Once comfortably seated in my seat 1D the pilot, through the PA system, apologizes to everyone on the plane for the security procedure. I was obviously not the only one. Whatever else happened to other people with other security personnel delayed our boarding. I ask for champagne and toast to the security man, wishing him to get better at securing our safety.

Psych roots

I believe I have closed a circle. I am reading (being read to) David Sapolsky’s   book ‘Behave’ which tracks behavior from the neurochemical processes that precede behaviors by milliseconds to what happens before that in minutes, months, years all the way back to childhood and what happens  in the womb. The chapter on early childhood development dragged out of my hippocampus (as I know now) all the theories and names that I learned 45 years ago. Some of the theories have been debunked but most have stood the test of time. The names of the researchers and their universities didn’t mean much to me at the time. Now they do.

I am dazzled by the complexities, multitude of agents, responsiveness to variation (environmental and endocrine), the improvisation, and learning and looping of brain processes. I am more surprised than ever that most of us, most of the people I know and work with, and those I meet around the world, behave more or less within the norms of the societies we were born into.

And although I know a lot more than a year ago about the brain, it is still one tiny bit of what there is to know. There are entire sections of the book that leave me perplexed and wondering, what did he just talk about? I go back 30 seconds or more and listen ago, still none the wiser. I am glad I took the Coursera course on the brain so I am a few steps ahead of Axel who is also reading the book and is even more perplexed. But in between the perplexities we are learning more about why we/others behave the way we/they do. And this is bringing me back to my initial professional discipline of psychology.


It will be 10 years since we fell out of the sky. I remember times when I thought things would never get to normal again. In some ways this has become true and in others it has not. We have become grandparents (normal), I continue to work and travel around the world (in economy class, normal), I ride my bike, the real Dutch one and the stationary one in my office at home (normal), I swim in the cove (normal in the summer only), we go out, watch Poirot or other cozy mysteries on our small TV screen on weekend evenings; we enjoy cooking and dining together, have friends over, and enjoy each other’s company (normal).

The things that didn’t go back to normal are mostly related to the shoulder and ankle injuries I sustained. I can no longer walk on uneven terrain and wake up with joint pain, especially in my damaged ankle. I have more or less intense prickles in my left foot (the aviator foot) and taking Gaba medicine to reduce the excitation of the nerves in that foot. Axel’s head injuries still show their effect albeit in subtle ways that only insiders can see.

When putting everything on scales of normal and not normal, the scales tip to the normal side. I believe we came out good if not better. Especially in that first year, 2007, we learned what ‘community ‘means in ways that most people take for granted. We learned the true meaning of gratefulness and altruism. And this is something we are now more tuned into, observing once again with Tessa’s illness that friends promote healing.

Summer has started at Lobster Cove. I swam across and around the cove twice this week. With my goggles on I am inspecting what’s below. At Tessa’s birthday party,  earlier this month when we were in Washington, many of the large oysters got picked and eaten, to my regret. I swam over the areas where we found a lot last year, including small ones that we left alone. I am looking for other areas like that. After the party, in addition to the large (empty) oyster shells we found at the beach, there were also large mussel shells, leaving us wondering whether the mussels are back or those came from a store. They were very large.  Maybe, like anything natural (bodies after a crash or entire ecosystems) restoration is possible and the cove will fill again with its normal inhabitants.

Have to’s and don’t have to’s

I have been in `have to` mode for so long that it is hard not to have to do anything for days on end. For that reason I had resisted Axel’s wish to plan for things to do during our Holland vacation, even though I know it is usually a good idea to plan. 

This morning I woke up at my brother’shouse and the first thought that came into my mind was “oh, when is my next flight leaving? Did I oversleep?”

We landed at Schiphol a little after 5 AM yesterday morning.It was strange to not have to (yes, have to) connect to another flight and actually be at my destination. We wandered around the airport for a bit wondering where to have breakfast – a real breakfast as opposed to the collection of unhealthy food offered to us as breakfast by Delta.

After breakfast we picked up our rental car and headed for the dunes for a long walk to shed off the stiffness and stale air from the flight. We arrived at a beautiful park near where I grew up, a park full of childhood memories. Axel was amazed at the size of the park given that we are in one of the most densely populated parts of Holland which is already among the most densely populated countries in the world. We were early at the park and except for occasional runners and the deer population, the only ones around. We walked for one and a half hours and then sat down at an old farmhouse that is famous for its pancakes. We ordered coffee and apple pie with whipped cream, the first of many things on my vacation ‘wish to eat’ list. 

The Texel’s spring beer did me in and I took a nap in the park’s parking lot curled up on the back seat of our tiny little rental Fiat. Axel napped on the front seat. From there we drove to my brother’s house in Amersfoort. We had lunch there (kroketten on brown bread), ticking off another item from the list.

Axel discovered that Amersfoort was all geared up for a year long celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Dutch Art/Architectural collective ‘De Stijl’ with Mondriaan and Rietveld as its standard bearers. Mondriaan was born in Amersfoort but all of Holland claims him now. 


Upon my home coming I found a gift box from Amazon. It has ‘Congratulations Manchester’ written on the top. It contained two gift cards, one for a 3 pack of ‘Wickedly Prime Sweet ‘n’ Cheesy Popcorn’ and the other a year member ship in Amazon’s Prime program that includes free shipping and other benefits (about 100 dollar in value). All this simply because we live in Manchester by the Sea., the title of an Amazon movie.

I love coming home on a beautiful day. It was beautiful in Holland but I was ‘de passage.’ And then it was sunny and beautiful in Boston as well. All the trees are dressed in what I call ‘beginners green,’ the lilacs are out, and it is full spring. People are in a good mood.

Axel gave me a tour of the garden: the peas are about 8 inches high, the shallots and leeks are looking good and the potatoes are high enough that we have to put more soil around them. We picked the last of the asparagus for dinner. It was a glorious homecoming.

As if he was the traveler, Axel took a nap and I completed some admin stuff for the last trip and the one coming up late June.

And then we started preparing for our vacation in Holland. The seats are reserved, the car is rented and the lodging with relatives confirmed. The last two days of our stay we reserved an AirBNB in a quaint small town in Holland (Enkhuizen). It is the same place where 7 years ago I had reserved a B&B for Axel and me to relax before returning to Afghanistan. But Axel had to stay behind in Boston for a doctor’s appointment and I ended up spending these two days by myself in the B&B.  We are finally making up for this.

On Sunday we tended the graves of Axel’s ancestors – a tradition the day before Memorial Day.  We planted geraniums and dribbled vodka over the grave where his parents lie – thanking them for another good year. We also dribbled some over his aunt’s grave, careful to avoid wetting the names of his grandfather and grandmother who were teetotalers. His uncle Paul and his cousin Anne also got a few dribbles since we know they liked their drink.

And then we headed for New Hamsphire to see Tessa and Steve. We had missed Mother’s Day. Tessa gave me a set of note cards. She is following in her dad’s footsteps. The pack of cards was accompanied by the most beautiful note a mother could wish for.

Tessa made a wonderful lunch, we drank Prosecco , had our nails done and bought things for our gardens at a small organic garden place near her house. The black flies are out and so we filled up our trays as fast as we could and then headed back.

Car, boat, bus, plane

I had used one of my ‘thank you’ rewards from Delta for my loyalty and countless trips. It is good for a one way upgrade to business class. It is supposed to get you all the way to your destination but the award program of KLM is not aligned with that of Delta, so when I connect in Amsterdam for the KLM flight the business class deal was over.

I was glad that I got the B-class seat as I was feeling increasingly lousy as I boarded the plane. As soon as we were airborne I put my seat into sleeping position and didn’t wake up until we arrived in Amsterdam. I kind of sleepwalked to the lounge in Amsterdam and slept there as well until it was time to board for Sierra Leone and then I slept some more.

I arrived around 10PM at the hotel in Freetown. The trip from the airport to the city is quite an adventure. I had heard about it (it involves a bus and a boat) but never experienced it. My Sierra Leone colleagues had given me detailed instructions and everything was exactly as described: someone with my name on a sign handed me a boat ticket and took me to the bus stop. I boarded the bus and gave my suitcase to an attendant. The bus drove for a while and then dropped us off at the beach where a simple concrete structure with plastic chairs served as our way station. We hang around until the boat returned from the other side of the lagoon and we filed on board, all 40 or 50 of us.

We squeezed into seats around tables as you expect on a yacht and the 45 minute trip started. It was all very congenial – for a brief moment we were a community with a shared goal: getting to the other shore and either to home or to our place of assignment. Total strangers started sharing why they were on the boat. It was really quite nice, and not the pain in the neck I had expected. It is true that the bus and boat trip added another good hour and a half to arrival time (and thus also to departure time), but if you are not in a hurry (and I had slept a lot) then it is OK.

The Radisson Blue in Freetown is, as it claims, an iconic hotel; I have been in other so-called ‘iconic’ hotels that didn’t seem very iconic to me (maybe they used the same advertising agency). The hotel has carpeted floors which I think is insane in a climate with 80% humidity. Everything was musty, a smell I stopped noticing after a couple of days. My clothes were also always damp.

Touchdown week

During my brief touchdown in the US I was kept quite busy on the preparation of the material for the next assignment, a just-in-time affair that would not have been possible if one of my young colleagues had not stepped in. I am very lucky to have all this young talent around me.

There is a proposal that needed attention and there was the tying up of loose ends from the Madagascar trip. But through all of this I was nevertheless able to enjoy the changed landscape around me: the trees are green again (they were bare when I left), the asparagus are out (eating asparagus for dinner several times a week), the peas are visible, the berry bushes are looking healthy and the apple and beach plum are gorgeous with their delicate blossoms.

I wrote my annual remembrance letter to B whose daughter, Sita’s best friend, died 16 years ago of an overdose. We planted the beach plum in her memory and called it Jennee’s tree.  The tree has shown staying power. It was uprooted when the new septic system went in; it was invaded several times by a destructive colony of tiny creatures, eating its leaves, and some of its limbs died. But it is thriving again and so we think about resilient Jennee in her second life as a tree.

We attended a lecture about ‘The House at Lobster Cove.’ A wonderful book that I could not put away. Although the title suggests the story of a house, it is actually the story of a very interesting man, George Nixon Black, who lived through some of America’s big upheavals at the turn of the 19/20th century. If anyone thinks we live in a time of great upheaval now, read some history books, especially of the 19th century. Americans burned Catholic churches, feathered and tarred people of the ‘wrong’ religion (priests) and agitated against the influx of Italians and Irish. This current preoccupation with foreigners and their religion is nothing new in America.

George Nixon Black commissioned his friend, the later famous architect Peabody, to design and build the house on Lobster Cove, named Kragsyde. Olmsted designed the landscape around the house. Axel’s grandfather, after whom he is named, was the gardener and is mentioned in the book. This is where Axel sr met Axel’s grandmother, who worked at the estate as a maid.

The house was an architectural masterpiece. Unfortunately it was taken down after Black died. There is no trace of it here at Lobster Cove anymore. But the speaker and her husband, as a young couple at the time, built an exact replica using the original plans on an island off the coast of Maine. It took them 20 years. We hope to visit it one day.kragsyde

And now the day of departure has arrived again. I am switching between playing with grandchildren and packing my suitcase, favoring the former. Sita had to work in Boston and brought the family to stay with us, a wonderful advance treat for Mother’s Day.

July 2017
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