The year was somewhere in the mid 1960’s. I was a kid, and we had a green paper bag that held “kitchen string” in a drawer in the kitchen. The bag contained several small hanks of white and red twisted cotton, which came from cake boxes from Dorzbacher’s Bakery on Flushing Avenue. On very special occasions my family would get a cheese danish twist or crumb cake from Dorzbacher’s. And when one of these magical boxes arrived in our house, I would wait with great anticipation as my dad would very, very carefully un-knot that string, wind it up, and add it to the kitchen string in the paper bag in the drawer, to be re-used at some future date.
Fast forward thirty years. It is the mid-1990’s and I am sitting in a cute cottage in De Haan, Belgium, with my young family and dear friends, Lee and Alex. Alex is a retired Colonel from the U.S. military, working at NATO. He is married to his lovely bride of many, many years, Lee, who was born in Czechoslovakia. During World War II, Lee’s family had to flee their home with only the clothes on their backs. The family eventually settled in Austria, where they rebuilt everything from scratch. I have a long history with Lee and Alex – and their generosity is overwhelming. So, that day, sitting in their cottage, I am struck with a sense of first annoyance, then awe, as Lee very, very carefully unwraps the gift we have brought her from the United States. It seems to take painfully long as she carefully cuts the tape on the package so as not to rip the pretty wrapping paper. She then takes the paper and folds it up, carefully matching the corners, walks across the room, and places it in a drawer which holds all sorts of used treasures – to be used again at some future date.
Now, here I am in Perú. It is 2012. My dear husband is visiting for Christmas. What joy! We have a tiny little Christmas tree, and a few small gifts to exchange. He has carefully packed a few beautifully wrapped gifts in his suitcase. As we begin to open our gifts, I find myself taking, oh, so much time to carefully, very carefully, cut the tape on the packages with a knife, so as not to damage the wrapping. Floods of memories of Lee come back to me as I carefully fold the paper and then, I feel the presence of my dad, as I put it in a special drawer for safekeeping. Oh my. I suddenly understand. I mean I really understand a whole other side of these people have been a big part of my life.
Living in a small village in Perú, we do not have much. It is difficult to find things to buy. The two sheets of cheap wrapping paper that Ana and I used to wrap our Christmas gifts came from a 2 hour trek (each way) to the city of Cusco. So, when we were presented with beautiful, heavy, colorful paper, it was such a treasure to me. I later used the paper to wrap gifts for my mom that my husband brought back to the States with him. Later that day, I nearly hit the roof when my husband went to wrap up an open package of yeast to keep it from spilling. He had found my precious little roll of aluminum foil, and ripped off a huge (to me) sheet. “Oh my gosh! Do you know how much that foil costs? And how hard it is to get? Please, put the foil back, and use a little piece of tape instead…” These occurrences are now so common to me. I am so used to scraping, conserving, improvising and going without that I don’t even notice it anymore – until someone from the States visits.
Ana has also been positively affected. Both my husband and friends brought us some maple syrup during their visits. The jars are sooooo precious, as it is impossible to get maple syrup in Perú. We opened the first one yesterday, during a special good-bye breakfast for our beloved volunteer Rachel. Ana carefully monitored everyone’s use of the syrup – “Mom, I thought you were not really a fan of syrup – do you really need to have that much?” In my defense, it was about a tablespoon’s worth, and, yes, even though I almost never use syrup at home, ah….. it is wonderful to get a little taste of ‘normal’ food from the States once in awhile.
My grandparents were immigrants from Poland, all arriving on ships through Ellis Island at the beginning of the 20th Century. My parents lived through the Great Depression, not always knowing where their next meal was coming from. Lee had to leave all of her possessions and live in the woods, hiding from the Nazis during the war. Her family eventually re-built their lives from nothing. Back home, in the States, I really don’t want for anything. I am fortunate in that my husband and I are educated and have had very good jobs. We have a nice home and can take vacations. Yes, we have had tough years when I was at home raising the kids and he was a new teacher – and we had to watch our pennies. But lately, it is usually not a stretch for us to stop at Dunkin’ Donuts for a coffee on a Saturday. Or to go to the movies – or to pretty much throw anything we desire into our shopping cart at Stop and Shop. Decisions in the States range on the order of “Brie or Gorgonzola”? Now, my life has changed. We are down to one income, with two households. Even though the cost of living here in Perú is much lower, we now are maintaining life on two continents with about half the income. So, of course, I do weigh the choices on taking a jam-packed local combi to Cusco for 7.30 Soles ($2.70) each or a direct van for 10 Soles ($3.70) OR share a private car for 15 Soles ($5.60). The private car never wins – except when we have guests from the States who remind me that they just paid that much for a cup of Starbucks last week. The luxury of any cheese other than home-made from the mountains, only comes with a trip to Cusco – and a hefty price tag – and, still is usually a mystery as to the type that it actually is. The snippets of string, the pieces of gift paper, cardboard boxes… are prized possessions that we treat with care and respect.
The values that were of importance to a generation gone by have come back to roost. As I gain a new respect for how precious things are when you don’t have much, I am happy. I listen to my husband tell me through our Skype calls about the huge trashcans of untouched food in his school cafeteria at lunchtime, and am saddened that most children back home don’t appreciate what they have. But how can they, if they have experienced nothing else? I listen in anguish as I hear my son’s response when I relate my agonizing decision on whether or not to buy bus tickets to visit some friends for the weekend – “Mom, I spent more than that on lunch today.” Yes, I saw by example from my grandparents, parents and older friends another way – a simpler life filled with appreciation. But, I never really,really appreciated this lesson until I have had to live it myself. And for the fact that I have experienced it myself, I am grateful. I just hope that I remember it when I get back home.