October 18, 2011

Getting It

By all accounts, I've traveled a lot in my lifetime.  There aren't many people who have been so blessed as to begin stories with lines such as, "Once upon a time, on the southern coast of Portugal ..." Yet I am one of them, and I am one of an eclectic group of people to whom this means something extraordinarily special.

It was the early 1980s and we were ex-pats - American teenagers - transplanted from Any Given City, USA (or any other place on earth, for that matter) to London, England.   We carried the world in the palms of our hands; we had freedom beyond reason, we had money and opportunity that most of us have never seen since.  We were living in a surreal wonderworld, light years away from the reality to which we were accustomed.  

Tonight, some thirty years later, we're in Chicago, Illinois.  They call it our high school reunion, but it's not what you think.  Our American school was in London, but very few of us live there now, or can afford to get there for any reason.    Tonight, in an English-themed pub in the center of a city that is foreign to many of us, we met up with a few others to share our past over a few pints of Guinness and more than a couple orders of chips.

There are no limits, there are no boundaries, and all memories are worth repeating. We share stories from the glory days, interspersed with bragging about our kids and trading business cards.  You could say it's like any other high school reunion in that way.  There is something about revisiting the past - particularly those formative, untouchable years - that awakens every human spirit.  

But there is something else for us.  There is something about having lived in that place, in that suspension of time and reality, that transcends our need to prove anything to anyone these days.  We don't judge each other.  We are all equally proud to have become the diverse group that we are - the parents, the nurses, the salesmen, the artists, the lawyers - we live pretty ordinary lives now, most of us.  We aren't rich and we aren't starving; most of us aren't doing anything with our time that will make its way into a history book.  But the interesting thing is that, if you had seen us then, you would have pegged us for much more noteworthy ventures.  

Throwing back a happy hour PBR, none of us thinks it's odd as we wax nostalgic about drinking champagne at the top of the Eiffel Tower back in the day. No one considers it pretentious to relive every turn of the ski as we killed the slopes in Crans Montana, after three bottles of gluvine.  There is no rolling of eyes at the mention of riding on the backs of camels in the sands of Egypt and no one ever tries to wrench us back into the real world once we get going on our memory train.  

When we do return, there is not one of us at these worn oak tables who does not miss London with an aching in our hearts we cannot explain.  

We tell our children stories of those days that have become our own hand-made fairy tales in their little heads, and our significant others listen patiently when we reminisce idly.  Only a precious few of us were fated to marry one of our own, one who doesn't just listen but who melts into the past with us whenever we so choose.  Our experience became such an integral part of each of us that, even as we move farther from it every day, we do not know how to let go.

Perhaps I speak only for myself, but I’m willing to guess that the reason we all show up at these things every few years is because we miss that connection to something no one else in our present lives fully understands.  I know we are happily married, or happily single. We have true and genuine friends who may have never left this country.  It’s just that, once upon a time, we experienced something tremendously unique…with each other. 

Riding back to Liz’s in the back seat of Roger’s BMW, with the sound system blasting Freebird, the five of us are singing at the tops of our lungs. We don’t care that we are middle-aged or that our own teenagers would be mortified to see that all the windows are down and people are staring and glaring as we fly by. We have traveled back, if only for a moment, and we are belting out the lyrics to a soundtrack only we have ever heard.

We get us.


  1. I love this post. I think, although your experiences were unique, those feelings are somewhat universal. Our memories of where we grew up and the things we did as teens are imbedded in a way that no other time in life is.

    I'm so glad you've found a way to connect with these friends despite the time and distance.

  2. It is nice to reminisce with those who shared those experiences. Even though it was never my good fortune to travel like you, a group of my high school classmates and I now get together every summer....Next August will mark are 49th reunion!

  3. Ha! Love it. People are so confused by my faithful pilgrimages to high school reunions. Thanks for putting it so well. You are incredibly hilarious and so comfortably down to earth. It is always wonderful to see you. I am looking forward to the next one.

    Lee Anne

  4. Emily Carter KelterOctober 19, 2011 at 7:07 PM

    Awesome Tammy. Thank you! xoxo

  5. Fantastic blog, "the lyrics to a soundtrack only we have ever heard", so true. Our soundtrack was scored from the notes formed by the ASL experience, London and the fact most of us were Third Culture Kids, the resulting symphony, much like Freebird, we never tire of hearing.

  6. "If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?" Tammy, who could forget you! And to your point, who could forget us... those wild "third culture kids" (thanks, Matt) running free through the streets of the world with time on our side and coins in our pocket. The biggest lesson I learned from my days at ASL was to value friends and find adventure in every one of my days... I feel blessed to be in this adventure with you, and so many of our beautiful friends. Long may we sing off key to Lynard Skynard... Or Don McLean, for that matter... "A long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me cry..." Lee Anne, Matt & I have sung that loud and off key in more pubs than I can remember. Bye bye, miss American pie! And hello old friends. Thanks for sharing, Tammy. You rock.

  7. Part of my 1985 yearbook quote, "You are who you were when." I stole this from someone, but it was from a book about how the culture of our youth, the culture of that specific time defines us for the rest of our lives. It is the glasses we see the world through. I am happy that the glasses provided by that time in London were kaleidoscope glasses.

    Tammy, it was a delight to get to know you. This was a perfect example of what you have stated. We never actually knew each other in London, but instantly had a connection due to our shared experiences. We were singing the same song the first time we met. I also wanted to thank you for welcoming my lovely wife Laura into the fold as she ' "listened patiently when we reminisce idly."

  8. Hi Tammy,

    You don't know me, but my parents shared your blog post via the Chapmans and I love it! I went to ISB from 1979 to 1988 and you captured the time and, more importantly, the bond of expatdom so perfectly. It was such a magical time and I feel so blessed not only for the experiences, but for the deep connections that I made during that time and that still remain today. Thanks so much for posting this!!

    Pamela Westoby

  9. Hi Tammy -

    I know exactly of what you speak! In 2002 at the 50th ASL Anniversary reunion in London I was in a hotel on Grosvernor Square looking out the window with 3 mates. As we stared out the window and talked about the privileges we experienced, it was clear to each one of us that we were prince's in a kingdom shared by few. We talked about never taking a minute for granted, because we all knew the fairy tale wouldn't last forever. We all knew there was magic in living in a place that held an adventure around every street corner. We lived in a Disney imagineer's dream and what it even more special was the people who entered our lives.

    We may be separated by miles and years, but the bond created by our shared experience provides an intensity that is as unique as it is long lasting.

  10. Lisa Smith HoughtonNovember 19, 2011 at 7:27 AM

    Coming back to the U.S. I have always felt the "stranger in the strange land". London always calls.

    We get us....comforting.