Part II: Life History
(Helene I would like you to take some time and tell me about your life. How has your background influenced who you are and what you believe in’?)
Well, I am Canadian and I’m from Quebec. To say you’re Canadian and to say you’re from Quebec is like two different worlds, you know. I mean you have to grow up in Quebec, to be from there and you see that people in Quebec consider themselves different. I don’t know why, because I was a little bit of an exception. Personally I consider myself Canadian.
I haven’t grown up very much in Quebec but then, when you cross that Quebec border you just experience kind of a culture shock because it’s all French. People are proud of speaking only French. And they want to speak only French. And it’s been like that for three hundred years.
You know Canada was discovered by the French first.‑ you know Jacques Cartier. The French established a trading post and tried to live what the Indians had lived. While the British have a little bit of a different view of things, being more agricultural minded. Well the French like to claim that they have a better relationship with the Indians. I don’t know, but the bottom line is that France lost Canada. Which at that time, was mostly Quebec you know. All the west, like the U.S., was not discovered. And ever since France lost Quebec and Canada, it has been a problem.
I don’t know why the French people want to keep speaking French. There was a lot of friction between the French speaking English with their own people. That is cultural. Another biggie of that is religion. The French were always very Catholic and the English speaking were Protestants. And that was very, very separable. What else‑ there is language and religion. I think it’s just a way of life. I like to think although this is not proven, that the English taught people, English speaking, are more industrious and like to work more. You know, maybe that’s part of religion too. While the French like to party more and have more of a stereotypical view. When you get in Quebec you really feel it. People like to talk more, they like to party more. They go out to eat and they stay longer in the restaurant. The pace of life is not so hurried.
(Helene, tell me about where you grew up.)
I grew up in a small town of about one hundred thousand people, at that time, called Sorrel and it was on the St. Lawrence river. But in Quebec everything is on the St. Lawrence river, you know, because that’s where they came and that is where they settled. They thought that was where the land was fertile because of the valley of the river. Most of the population is settled around the river and therefore people are saved by the river too.
Another thing is when people talk about traveling they always say I’m going up, up to Detroit. Which would be down when you are looking north and south. But the river is flowing towards the ocean, so when they are going south they’re going up, they are going up the river. And when they’re going towards the ocean they are going down because they are going down the river. When I was little I would listen to my uncle talking about that, I’m going down to Quebec, and we’re closer to Montreal. I would say Quebec is north, he would say yeah but it’s down. That is cultural because way back when, three hundred years ago, everything was by boat. They were coming down and they were going up with the boat. People still prefer it that way. Kind of the old fashioned way.
My dad grew up on the river. Everybody had a boat near the water. Everybody would go
fishing or picnicking on the islands. My dad’s generation was the water skier’s generation. There is a difference though, before my dad the boat was more a necessity. They went across river and they bought tools and things like that. My dad was born in 1940, 1 was born in 1965. My dad’s generation used the boat more for activities, sports, and all that stuff.
While I am talking about my history I will tell you about my grandfather. That is, my dad’s father. He had a store. He was a store keeper like his father. And they were wealthy because of that. Wealthier than the average person who was making a daily living. They made most of their fortune during the war. Because when there is a war you sell a lot of supplies. Around the 1940’s and the 1950’s commerce changed. The big supermarkets started coming and the little stores went bankrupt. And so did my grandfather. So my dad was shaped by that. My dad was in his early teens then and theg lived in Montreal. He grew up without.
His mother never had much money. They came from a big family. That’s one thing about Quebec people, more even than English people, they have very, very large families. The Catholic religion is even stricter than the Protestant religion about haying children. My grandfather came from eight people. ln my grandmother’s family there was thirteen sisters and three brothers. So my grandmother feels that my son is going to be something. She just pushed him and pushed him and he became an engineer. He went to college and met my mom.
My mom came from a big family too. Her father was in the hotel business, a hotel in Sorrel. That business was a hand‑me‑down from the family too. He came from kind of a big family too, six or seven. They were very wealthy during the war. But, after the war came the bigger motels. He had a hotel. When the motels came he suffered big losses financially. He and my grandmother had five children together. But my grandfather was married a first time, he was
married twice. His first wife gave him five children and she died in childbirth. He had ten children total.
He met my grandmother who was a nurse in Montreal. At that time it was kind of unusual because most women, the majority of women, didn’t work. She worked in Ontario but she was always French speaking. In Ontario it was very difficult to speak French because you were laughed at for speaking French, you were different. You know when you are different you are always laughed at. You’re misunderstood. You’re something different so people are afraid and they don’t understand. She couldn’t really speak French very long. So she went back to Montreal and her sisters went back to Montreal. Everybody goes back to Quebec because they can’t handle it. They can’t handle speaking English all the time. All they want is to speak French. it’s a big conflict.
While she was a nurse she met my grandfather and they got married. Theg had five children and one of them was my mom. Then my grandfather got real sick and all the children grew up with the nuns in the convent. All the children were in one place. My mom grew up with the nuns until she was eighteen. Then she met my dad. They got married in 1955. When my dad finished his degree, he hadn’t started working yet, so they took off for a honeymoon to Florida and on the way back I was born. After this they settled in a small house which was a summer house that belonged to my dad’s family on the river. They were very happy. They had a brand new little baby and a little cute house on the river. You know they couldn’t ask for more.
(What did your father do for a job?)
Well, my dad started working right away for a company. It was an American company that was making paper machines. He just went to work everyday and my mom stayed home and took care of the baby. After awhile they had another baby ,my brother. He was born with a brain lesion and he died when he was five. He had seizures all the time. He never spoke. It was real hard on my family. This certainly shaped our family.
(How much older were you than your brother?)
I was three years older.
(Do you remember quite a bit?)
I remember him definitely because when he died, he was five and I was eight. But anyway, my dad’s working along and he’s in business and he takes every chance he can. My family goes on and what we did was we always traveled a lot when we were in Quebec. When I was little every summer we took vacations, we went to Nova Scotia. That was the longest trip. We went boating all the time in the summer. And in the winter my parents went snowmobiling and everybody had a snowmobile. They had a snowmobiling gang and on Friday or Saturday nights everybody that went snowmobiling stopped at the bar with a lot of music and a lot of drinking.
(How close in proximity did your grandmothers live? I mean within a couple of miles or so?)
My mother’s mother lived in the same town and my father’s mother lived in Montreal an hour’s difference. But my father’s family had this summer house. This is where my parents went when they were first married. The family was accustomed to always going to the summer place when my mom grew up. And they would show up at any time. Other people that shaped our lives were my father’s father’s family. My paternal grandfather shaped the family because he was the one who had the store in Montreal which was given to him by his father, and all of this family also had cottages at this local town. My great aunt (my father’s aunt) who still lives today, we were always around her. As a matter of fact, right smack next to my parents’ first house was the old house that belonged to my father’s grandparents. So although there were a lot of people dead then, my father’s grandmother and my father’s aunts still lived there. They were the baby‑sitters. They raised me and spoiled me rotten. So the family was everywhere.
My dad was still working trying to got breaks and make a better income for his family and something happened at work. At that time everything in the factory was controlled by English speaking Canadians. My dad was working for some kind of an American company and they had a lot of outlets everywhere around the world. My dad says this guy didn’t deserve the job but he spoke English and he got the job, the job my dad deserved. So he was going to quit because he says I’m going to make a difference. It starts here. So the people at the company said we do not want you to quit. What would you think of going to Italy and working there for two years? So my dad said yes. He liked the company and he was making good money. He felt it was good of them to find this job for him. He asked my mom. It was very difficult back then because I had a brother who was sick and my mom couldn’t handle my brother because my mom was sick too.
She had nervous break down upon nervous break down and she became epileptic too. My brother was epileptic. There was always a big problem with the in‑laws. Always the in‑laws or the mother‑in‑laws. It was the typical scenario of the mother‑in‑law. My parents had problems with my brother and with my mother being unstable. Both these mothers were possessive of their children, especially my father’s mother. They tried to say what to do and all hell broke loose. Because you have the mother‑in‑law, trying to say what to do to the children and these are sixties’ children. That was very hard, so when they had the possibility to go away they did. They said maybe that will restore some health in the family.
You know because my mom was sick and mg grandmother was saying it’s your husband who makes you sick you know, she doesn’t understand. And my father’s mother would say oh your wife doesn’t help you in your work. Because my mom was sick, she didn’t help you know. So it was a big disaster. They were a lot of help but they also tried to rule your life. So my parents decided to migrate. They were all alone for six years in Italy and it was a real culture shock. They spoke Italian and I think my dad neglected to tell that to my mom. I think when they got to the airport he said you know Claire, we’re going to speak Italian there. You don’t realize it until you first get there. You don’t understand anything, and I was a good age. I didn’t understand so then I burst into tears. I didn’t know what was going on. It was like a nightmare
(Because you always spoke French?)
Most French‑Canadian at that time only spoke French except for the few who were bilingual. My parents were both bilingual but I was seven years old so I hadn’t learned English yet.
We thought that the French and the English in Canada had a lot more in common than the countries in Europe. And that was 1972 when we moved to Europe, and in 1972 not many people from Canada went to Europe. It surely was not as fashionable as it is today. Everybody was worried about us. We were at the airport taking off for the first time in the spring of 1972 and we must of had sixty, seventy members of the family there. I’m not kidding, everybody was there and a lot of people were scared for us. A lot of people said don’t drink the water.
I was small and thought I was in a fairy tale. I thought that we were going to go to Kenya or somewhere. I thought Tarzan was going to swing over to me. I got to the Tordino International Airport and I said, Oh, we haven’t left yet? The airports were just the same. But I realized the difference when I stopped out and I started looking at the signs everywhere.
My first grade teacher called me before we left and talked to me personally. She said look at the signs when you get there. That really helped, because when you look at the signs you learn some more. When we went to the store everything in the store was behind a counter so you couldn’t pick things up like in a supermarket. Like back home. So what do you do? Many times my mom and I stood behind the counter and the guy was looking at us and he says in Italian, What do you want? We can’t see it because it is very dark all the time. We started using a dictionary. Now after being married for four years and living in the same country for six years, I don’t bring a dictionary with me everyday. But it’s a very recent thing for me. All my life I have had a dictionary in my hand, every day, because you really need it. Even when you start learning the language and you start being fluent in the language you want to get better. There’s always a word that you don’t know.
I was seven and they didn’t give me a dictionary that early but I went to school right away. It was a really small school. It was in the Alps, a little bit like Heidi. I think it used to be a bar once. It must have been a hundred years old. The school. was elementary through five and it had three classrooms. A lot of grades were together. When I went there the first day, everybody looked at me, stared at me. When you got to a new school I suppose it is that way. But it was even more so because they tried to talk to me and I didn’t respond. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, therefore I developed a bad temper and we started communicating by punching. They would ask me things and I would get angry. They would push me and I would get angry too because they didn’t understand, so we started fighting. Punching each other. That was our way of communicating. Boy I had some good fights. I became some kind of a tomboy. Finally we started communicating more gentle. I was kind of big for my age compared to my peers. In Italy at that age they are very tiny, very small. They couldn’t believe I was seven years old. They thought I was 12. So, I started defending the girls against the boys. At that age, you hate each other.
(And they make fun of each other, too.)
Yeah! I was seven years old and I was wearing shorts and pants. But in Italy the girls wore skirts all the time and the boys wore parts. I wasn’t use to that. I was the only girl with pants. One thing that the boys did to a lot of the girls was to lift their skirts up. The girls would go all red and didn’t know what to do. Until they were taught to reply with a punch. I remember the first time a boy came up to me and he looked at my legs and he found pants. He was all startled so I punched him and everybody laughed. It was a big thing so I continued doing that. I would usually have some girlfriends with me and every time a boy would try to lift my girlfriends’ skirt I’d punch this boy. I made friendships that way, and then we did some nice talking. Talking took me a couple of months.
I missed my family very, very much and so did my mother. She was trapped there. She didn’t speak the language and didn’t know anybody. The food was different. She would go to the market and it was like it must have been like in the 1800’s in Canada. You stood in a line, then you bought what there was. Well, it wasn’t that bad. You would go to the store and you would ask for some ground beef and they didn’t have any ground beef, not today. My mom wasn’t use to that. She would say I need some ground beef because I’m going to make meatballs. And the guy says, well Madam there is no ground beef. The butcher gets insulted because who is this hot shot that needs ground beef. He gets kind of frustrated that way, because he does not know.
(When you talk about cultures trying to mix, that must be very difficult?)
My mom had to walk all over town, she didn’t have a car. Nobody had a car then. My dad had a car. So very few people had a car, everybody walked or rode in bicycle. There are a lot of self‑employed people there. They make houses, they’re tradesmen. A lot of farmers and agriculturalists, and they raised sheep. Very few people went to work and if they went to work they worked for a local ospa. My friend’s father did and he used to bike. When things got tough in the winter, and they did, you know a lot of snow in the Alps, he rode his vespa. You know his motorcycle and in that filthy snow because they couldn’t afford a car.
Everything was kind of old. People had a television set but it was black and white, we were use to color television. All the sweaters and all the clothes my friends wore were made by their mother, and everything that I wore came from K‑Mart. I remember I went to my best friend’s house and her mother, I swear she always had something in her hands for knitting if she wasn’t attending the garden. She use to have a garden, my god it was incredible. She grew everything from nothing and in the morning she would just go there and she plucked a few things. But not with loving care and delight like today’s gardener would do (like, I love gardening. I am a gardener.). She just plucked things because she needed it for food, then she cut it up and she would make the people’s meal. Then the leftovers, there were always a lot of leftovers. Everything was a stew there, always the leftovers were a stew. She added a couple quarts of water and she added about two loaves of dried broad from yesterday. Because the bread always had to be fresh everyday. If the bread wasn’t fresh everyday I can’t imagine what would happen, I think the wife would get beaten. It was something very, very important. But anyway, she makes the leftovers and that’s for the dogs, that’s for the hunting dogs. The dogs always eat the leftovers of the people plus some bread and whatever else they can add on.
Why do they need the dogs? Because they have livestock, to guard the livestock and also for hunting. In the fall they go hunting partridge and always some doer. There is very little hunting any more in Europe because there are too many people and too few wilderness. But everybody has a little bit of hunting to do.
So anyway, her mother she did everything. She did the garden, she ate.‑ she cooked, she cleaned the house, superwoman. She looks at me and she looks at my sweater that came from K‑Mart and was made from a machine. She says, boy your mother is the most wonderful knitting person I have ever seen. She says everything is perfect and this design. She was fascinated. And I said no, no this is from K‑Mart. And she said K‑What? Is this another person, your grandmother, yes, yes? And I said no, no! This is bought and she said no. She never believed me because there in the stores everything was inferior quality. People make their own, not only because of economics but because they can make better quality themselves. She never did believe that we had bought these things.
This family kind of adopted me and it was wonderful for me you know. There are two similarities between Italy and Quebec, the whole family is around. This friend of mine lived with her parents, her brothers and sisters, her grandmother, and her great grandmother. They lived in the same complex. You start with a house and a barn, and then you add another house, you build them like another compartment. And you have your children there when they get married and then, they build it into a little fortress. I think thirty or forty people lived there with the animals and it was huge. For the first year or so that I knew this friend I kept saying is he related to you too, and she’d say yup. This is my great uncle. Everybody sticks together and it’s the clan. And I got into the clan and did I have fun.
This is something that my parents could not get into. They were older and they had their own customs. My dad didn’t know how to drink wine. That was a big disadvantage, because there when you are a man and you don’t know how to drink wine there is something wrong with you. He knows how to drink beer. But beer in Italy, according to what my father says, was impossible to drink, They called it urine, because they concentrated on making wine. My dad would drink wine like he drank beer and since wine has a higher alcoholic percentage, I think he would get drunk a lot quicker. And they laughed at him like you would laugh when somebody is drunk.
My mom always wanted something more. Her friends talked, they thought that my mom had so many needs because you got so much more in Canada. Like the neighbor for example, she was plucking out dandelions. I know that here and now, people pluck dandelions for some kind of a delicate salad, but in 1965 people liked buying iceberg lettuce. In the 60’s people loved fast foods and things from super markets all wrapped up. My mom was from that generation. Well the neighbor was plucking out dandelions and when my parents did that it was to get rid of the damn things and she was doing that to eat them.
My mom looked at that and went ahhhh! Because she’s never eaten dandelions and it’s full of dirt and it comes from the yard where the dogs just passed. She thought it was unhealthy. That’s a lot of the things mg mom used to say, Oh that’s so unhealthy. People have a different idea of hygiene, it is not wrong or bad but it’s just different.
The bathrooms were a big experience. Everybody who goes to Europe experiences the bathroom. For the older people who were living there it was merely a hole in the floor. When you go in this little room there is a hole about six inches in diameter. The first time I swear my mom came back and said to my dad, Andre there’s a hole in the floor, they forgot to put in the toilet. So my dad asks without putting them on the spot, and says weird bathrooms you have. Pretty soon he did find out, it’s one of their customs. Why do you need a toilet just to sit on while you go to the bathroom, that seems like kind of a waste of money.
My mom was miserable. It was very hard for her to live like that. The food was different, the way they eat, and they can’t afford to have a big steak. I think that’s why Italians have a lot of courses because everything is in smaller portions. I’ve been to a lot of Italian meals and they are not as filling as when you go into a restaurant in Montreal where they serve a huge plate of pasta. It was different because I think our mouths had to got use to a lot of different tastes. You have spaghetti and then you have meat and then fried fish, after that dessert and then the coffee. It is very important and it takes a long time, one hour, two hours sometimes. The meal on Sundays always takes two hours.
(Every meal or just the meal at night?)
Every meal. A meal in the morning, at least where I was, consisted of a third of a loaf of broad and some warm milk with coffee in it. They took their time at all meals. Lunch was pasta and some meat, always with bread. Fruit was always available for dessert.
It was hard getting use to the different foods and meal arrangements. Like in Canada I drank a lot of tea, then in Italy I had to become used to drinking a lot of milk. After six years in Italy my family moved to Spain and I had to get use to different eating customs again. Like the day my family moved from Italy to Spain. It was a long day and we arrived in Spain around five o’clock. We were all hungry and everyone told us to wait, dinner would happen soon. Around nine o’clock we finally ate. At first I thought this was just because we had just gotten there, but I soon found out that this is when they always ate. They ate late and then slept late in the morning.
In Spain we lived in a small village outside of town. The people in Spain all lived in the city very close to each other. My parents did not want to live so close so we moved to a village outside the city and lived in a small village house. This was considered very elitist. It was difficult for all of us. If I wanted to fit in I had to learn what the kids in Spain did. You had to learn to adjust so that you could fit in.
It did not take me too long to learn the language. But it was hard for my parents. My family did a lot together so that we could speak French. We would go for the day and when we got home we would discuss our day and what the people said in French.
There were classes in Spain like there were in Italy. The classes in Italy were because of religion where the classes in Spain were because of the rich and the poor. I went from being a Catholic in Protestant Italy, where I was singled out for being Catholic, to the very Catholic Spain. It almost helped in Italy because we did not go to church very much anyway. And in Spain this hurt us because everybody went to church everyday. They could not understand why we did not go to church all of the time. Religion was a big part of the culture.
Another big part of the culture was having fun and going to a party. Kids started smoking at thirteen or fourteen years old, not very good. Everybody, all the kids start smoking because it is a social thing and they are a very social culture. They have their cigarettes and wine and they talk and go to the bar and socialize. You really have to, and if you don’t you are really kind of an outcast, kind of an antisocial person. They told me that many times. I was antisocial because I didn’t do these things. This is when I started to smoke and drink to fit into the culture. I went to high school in Spain.
(You started school in Canada. Did they have kindergarten in Canada?)
Yes they did.
(Did they have kindergarten in Italy?)
Where I went in Italy there was no kindergarten. There were no baby‑sitters either because where I was women that hired baby‑sitters were not good mothers.
When I started making friends early on, I could go to their house, but it took about five years before they came to my house. Their parents were just scared to death to lot them go. I remember when they first started coming to my house for birthday parties. I never had any birthday parties, I was going crazy I wanted to have my friends and have a birthday party like I remembered in Canada and how I read in story books. When they came the first time I said to my friend Paula, what’s wrong with you, you’re all made up, you’re all dressed? My friend said well you know I am coming to your house. Her mother had really put the best of clothes on her because she was going to somebody else’s house.
Education in ltaly was very, yery traditional compared with here. I remember in first grade in Canada I learned with little blocks of different sizes. They didn’t have that in Italy, they wrote the numbers on the board. You have your addition, subtraction, divisions and all that and I remember then that everything was kind of pedagogical. In Canada with the little blocks of different sizes and different colors and when I got to class in Italy I guess I felt truly like a dummy because I couldn’t add and subtract. Another thing that was different was the way they wrote. They started writing, how do you say in English all the letters together…
… cursive. They started writing cursive right away. While we started writing with children letters…
… that’s right. Those were two big problems,, I didn’t know how to add and subtract and I didn’t know how to write. Calligraphy was not taught, everybody developed their own hand style. We always had mathematics every year, we had history every year, we had language (Italian) every year, and we always had some kind of art class every year. In elementary those were the subjects. We didn’t have any physical education at all. We didn’t have any sports, any little league, any clubs, you know, none of that. Kids stayed at home and worked at home with their parents. They didn’t go out and play together, only in the big cities. When we use to go to Tordino I use to see the big kids and gangs running in the street. But not in the small village, everybody had their own chores and stuff. They did not really get out of the farm. They worked at home and then they went to school and then their fun stuff. So that was really elementary school.
In junior high I think they had a little bit of gym. We would get into some type of competition against another school and stuff like that. Most boys skied and very, very few girls skied. But I skied a lot with my dad. The family was always close together, my parents and I always went skiing. I went in the skiing competition. In the summer we took big trips and discovered Europe. My parents wanted to see Greece and Germany and all the places they had read about.
In Spain, the education was even more traditional. I had compulsory Latin in high school. Another thing, in all my schooling until I graduated from high school I never chose one subject, I was always told what subject I would take. The only choice I got was when I became a junior in high school, about whether I wanted to have science classes or letter classes. It was what type of branch you wanted to go into. Latin was kind of strong back then, it was 1981. Then I had three years of philosophy. Three years of studying Aristotle to Marks. I don’t know if you have ever heard of philosophy class. It was a must to memorize other people’s thinking. Like how Aristotle saw the light, and is that better than Socrates or is it better than Kant. Philosophy was a very important subject, it was life. They love to talk, you know. You go to a bar and you sit down and somebody starts talking to you. You start telling each other about your life and telling each other your philosophies. It’s very open and natural. I tried to do that when I came to the United States, oh man you have a little trouble. And some people said don’t talk to them.
(I don’t know if they have the background to do that? I don’t know i f they have the cultural background or the view of the world to be able to talk to you about subjects like that?)
No, I mean you just talk about your life. Well I know I have an unusual life. I’ve talked to a son of a farmer in Spain or a son of a doctor in Spain who has never traveled and always lived Spain. And in no time we start talking. Disco’s are very popular there. You know there are no sports, that is why they are always arguing. Me and my friends are always arguing.
What people do in Michigan, in our conclusion, is that they are into sports and they go to the ball games at least once a week. They get involved in their children’s education and in their children’s sports. Michigan’s sports are football, basketball, baseball. And then in the summer little league. This is the main chunk of entertainment and all these adults get into a softball club. The women get into a softball club and in Spain there is none of that, it is dancing and partying and talking.
That’s what people do, so philosophy class is different. They teach you how to think about how people think, and it teaches you how to speak. I had never seen a multiple choice or a true and false test until I came here to college. The first time I saw the test I didn’t understand. Actually I think I started writing the test. The first question was in history class and was When was the American war? What was the American war about? On one side I wrote an essay
about the American war was this and this and that and this and that because of these reasons, a big essay. Then I see the first choice.‑ A, B, C, D. A says the answer is because of the blacks and I wrote partially but…. I had written an essay. Then the next one said because of economics, and I go yes this is another factor because you know… another essay. So every question I wrote an essay and then I was really tired but this is a long exam. I asked a question of the instructor, because we always did this. It was kind of our understanding because most tests in my school were two questions and it was a two hour exam. That’s a big essay, pages and pages and
pages. You go and ask the teacher do you want this approach, you know you need some clarifications. But I found out here when you ask in a big classroom in college the teacher becomes very nervous because he thinks that I’m asking for some favor. And I’m going, no really I don’t understand and you know it is different. So he looked at my test and he said oh this is all wrong you know you can’t write on the test like that. I said oh well what am I supposed to do. Finally through this I realized that I was supposed to pick one. Then I felt like, I felt like a computer.
Fortunately the first test was not a computer card because if it would have been, I tell you I couldn’t have handled it. But the first time I saw a multiple choice test with everything right or everything wrong. Everybody that I know in school never misspelled and had very good grammar. And here a lot of people have trouble spelling.
I took the scientific branch and I never had an experiment. I had three or four years of chemistry, three years of physics, math every year, three years of biology, two years of technical drafting, and not one lab exam. There’s something wrong you know. So when I came here and I got chemistry class, I nearly flunked because here I am in front of a sink. What is this? I am use to theorizing things out and I was really good at balancing equations and writing down chemical reactions. But I never had two substances in my hand and have to put them together. I had a narrow view. I thought this was like playing around. But this is a big problem in Europe. They have to stop being so theoretical. It is hard when you try to apply it, it is very, very hard.
Boys always did more in Spain because they played soccer. Soccer is a boys’ sport and it was kind of a cult. Girls truly don’t. In the big cities it was different but I’m talking about the average man. I always went to a small, small school. I was always at sports because even in Italy we did a lot of skiing and I was a very sporty person. It was important in my life. And all of a sudden Spain was flat and women did not do any sports. It was very hard, so I started swimming a lot. We had a swimming pool. But it was very, very antisocial to swim laps.
(You must have felt more and more isolated?)’
Yes, I broke down and I started smoking and drinking so I could kind of fit in. But my parents were kind of angry because they didn’t accept that. It was the typical, “all my friends do it” and “not in this house”. But it is not in this country. They couldn’t really tell me what to do because it was just to hard you know. You couldn’t live a different life like that. I still haven’t kicked the habit.
(It is kind of like the saying, when in Rome do as the Romans. That is a real important part of being there. Looking back at education, Did everybody receive an education? Did everybody go to school?)
Compulsory education. I think in Italy when I left it was compulsory until eighth grade. And in Spain it was also until eighth grade. And a lot of people left at eighth grade, especially if they needed them at the farm. Through high school kids, I personally feel, were really discouraged from pursuing their education by the teachers. Teachers a] ways wanted to find a place for their students in life. They can’t have this dream that everything will be all right. The teachers there said you know its going to take a lot of money for you to go to the university and you’re not going to find a job afterwards.
That was true. They had very high unemployment. It was a very sad time for Spain. Spain was coming out of its dictatorship with Franco and having a very bad time economically. Spain was very isolated from the rest of Europe. They are poor people and they just don’t continue studying. They thought what for, if you are not going to use it in everyday life. Here they say no matter what ‑‑ education. Education in Europe is very difficult. High school is like your junior year in college. Here they are always assisting and making sure that everybody gets by. It is different in Europe.
Very elitist? But you don’t have to pay, it’s free. What I am talking about is the poor people. (Attitude?)
Yes. The poor people are saying why, because it is so hard to study. You talk about Japanese high school being unbelievably hard, you know that’s kind of how it was in Spain. And kids say OK what am I doing this for? Am I going to go to the University? You know probably they don’t have the money. They feel I have to help my parents at the store or whatever and what are my grades all about. All this drinking and smoking is considered just natural. There is no
evil to it.
There’s a big problem when these people come as an exchange to the United States. The families really don’t understand and they try to curb that. It is bound to hurt psychologically because of this guilt. This kid from Europe is being misunderstood. The good agencies are the ones that explain the differences that everyone is going to encounter.
(Did you finish high school in Spain?)
I did, but I’d say we started with 250 in our freshmen class and we had about 20 in our graduating class.
You know everybody was just not worried about grades. I remember in eighth grade I had a real good friend and she was really smart. She was as smart as me but she was not going to go any further. And I to] d her, you can make it, you know you can. And she said, oh the teacher said I would never be, I could never make it. She said the teacher said you know high school is different, it is a lot harder. I was really mad. I really felt it was unjust. That’s just the way they do it. The teacher knew my friend probably would never amount to anything and that’s the way it is. Here everybody has rights. The bill of rights and everything. In Europe nobody has rights, it is all rules and regulations.
(How did you end up at the University of Michigan?) Well my parents, my dad found a job in Michigan. (So you went from Spain to Michigan?)
Yes that’s right. I didn’t know English. I had studied English in high school but it was British English. I was talking about lorries and things like that, and they said what. I said truck, truck is the word. It was difficult to learn English at first because I found that Americans, and excuse me for being candid here, but Michigander’s, they are not very social, not as interested in someone who has come from a different country. This was always the icebreaker for me, to be from a different country. In the U.S. it doesn’t mean a thing. There are people from all kinds of countries, they are from Hungary and from Austria, too. So I encountered different problems when I came here. What to talk about with these people. I am still working on it.
Sports! I think I went back into sports. My husband is a football coach. When we met each other he was into sports. Football was fascinating to me because I was always into sports.
(Did you continue to speak French while you were in Italy and Spain?)
Yes, we always spoke French at home. It saved me because I would have completely forgotten the language. Sometimes people in the country did not accept that very well. America, the U.S., was the hardest country to accept that. But the other countries said you should speak, Spanish more at home so you can improve, and my family just refused. When we came to the U.S. people really criticized my family for not speaking English at home. Especially because, after all Canada is an English speaking country.
(This must not have helped very much anyway?)
No! They just said that we always speak French at home. When we get home in Spain from being outside all day long it was such a feeling. We would get home and we would talk and talk and talk for hours and talk about what happened to us. It seemed very funny and it made us all open up. It is great to be able to understand. For this I think somehow we got closer. But we never talked about the problems we had. You know the real kind of intimate problems. My family never talked about these because we were too busy talking about every day life.
My friend from Spain that came to visit me stayed here a month. She had a real tough time. She would be at a party talking to somebody and she’d go person to person trying to find somebody who would speak. She always ended up with the South Americans. And I would say you are here to learn English. The same thing that they told me. I mean you really have to make an effort. She does, but she says you know they really don’t have anything to say. You went to hard. I don’t know how to explain to her. I am still learning myself. But one thing is for sure, I do know that Americans have something to say. I know that because, at first I thought they didn’t, but then I married an American and I have an American family. And boy my father‑in‑law sure can talk. He has a lot of ideas and a great view. I love the American’s way of thinking. I think Americans are judgmental only when they don’t talk but when they start talking about themselves and talking about the way they see other people. I think Americans think very quickly and they know what they are saying. They are good people. They are not so harsh but it is only when they keep to themselves and gossip with other people that it gets mean. Americans should open more. Open up more because often foreigners get a very wrong idea.
(Is that why Americans don’t have a good reputation in Europe or in a lot of foreign countries?)
Well I’ll tell you the only thing that Europeans see about Americans is that the American knows. Just picture having in Winthrop a Yugoslav base. Two thousand Yugoslavian people marching back and forth from Winthrop to Greene and they seem arrogant because they are shy and they are scared. They are young kids in a foreign country so they stick together. They don’t talk to anybody but themselves so they look like a bunch of stuck ups. They have all these weapons flying down. These planes take off in front of your house so you hate them. And you are scared. That’s the way it is. Then they hear all those stories of such wealth and people being so rich and you are so poor and it’s your land. I think you have to find in the culture what they respect and Spanish people respect honesty beyond anything. So you can be honest, you can be as blunt as you want as long as you are not mean and you are honest and have good humor.
I think Americans, especially here in Maine and in New England, need their freedom. They want to do what they want, they want to have their land, their house. Don’t look at me, don’t bother me, this is mine, this is my life. I can kill myself if I want to.
That was very, very important in Europe. There is no freedom. If you were an American who wanted to live in Europe you would have to forget about your privacy. But a lot of people want their own things. Like this weekend, I was at a party and I was smoking. This lady in front of me asks if she may have a cigarette and I said fine, sure take it. She puts a quarter down and I said what is this, and she says I always buy my cigarettes. I said no please its yours, because for me it’s an insult.
(That is where somebody coming in from another country would be very insulted.)
It’s like saying, oh you don’t care enough about me to be indebted toward me. It is like saying they want to take care of their debt right away and that is rude.
(But then they do not owe anybody anything. I think it goes back to the issue of privacy.)
But in Spain they tell you.‑ If you go, I don’t know if you’ve been before, but if you go and you ask the people they will tell you where they have been.