Sunday, December 11, 2011

От къде си?

“От къде си?” or “Where are you from?” is one of the most frequent questions I’m asked. You’d think it would be an easy question to answer, but for me it’s not.

Several years ago, on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to São Paulo, an elderly Mexican-Brazilian man sitting next to me asked me the same question. After I told him an abridged version of my life, he told me a bit about himself and then said they had a word in Brazil for people like me. He said there was no such word in English. The word was “despaisano,” and it was used to refer to someone who is from nowhere but fits in anywhere. He then told me that I could choose to take being called a despaisano as either a compliment or an insult. I haven’t been able to find mention of this word anywhere else, and Brazilian friends I’ve subsequently asked about it have told me they’ve never heard of such a word. Perhaps I dreamt the entire thing.

As much as I like the idea of being from nowhere and fitting in anywhere, it’s not entirely true. I may not be someone who identifies with a particular place, but I am from somewhere. Being back in America for the month of August reminded me exactly where that is.

For most of my childhood my immediate family took a couple week vacation every summer to Wisconsin. My parents were both born and raised in Wisconsin, and our time was divided between their two families. Those couple weeks were always the highlight of my year.

While with my mother’s parents, we whiled away the days and nights going fishing along the banks of the Fox River, playing lawn darts, picking and eating fresh raspberries from the garden, visiting my mom’s aunts and uncles, driving out into the country just because and to buy fresh sweet corn, walking to the Dairy Queen for Dilly bars and the world’s best popcorn, sitting on the front porch and chatting up passing neighbors, watching nighthawks circle overhead dining on insects at dusk, catching fireflies after dark, being annoyed by the constant interruptions of my grandma’s police radio, and falling asleep listening to Bob Uecker calling the Brewers’ games.

The week with my dad’s parents was always spent at his uncle Floyd’s cottage. There, I learned to fish, catch and notch turtles, swim, golf, ride a bike, row a boat, paddle a canoe, play Uno and various other card and board games, play horseshoes, croquet, and croquet golf, chop wood, start a bonfire, and make roasted marshmallows and smores. It’s also where I tried, unsuccessfully, to water-ski and suffered through the chicken pox. At least once during our visit all of my dad’s family – my aunts, uncles, and cousins – would get together, usually at my grandparents’ house but sometimes at the cottage.

I’m not sure how anyone else felt about those visits, but I never wanted them to end.

After my freshman year of high school, instead of taking a vacation to Wisconsin, we moved there. I was sad to leave behind the life I knew and friends I had in Maryland, but I was excited knowing I’d be living in the same state as most of my other relatives, especially my grandparents. Sadly, one of my grandfathers, my mom’s dad, died of an aneurysm just a short time after we moved to Wisconsin. I’m not sure if I changed or the family dynamic changed with his passing, or both, but nothing was ever the same after that.

In the years that have passed since then, we’ve lost my other grandfather, most of my grandparents’ siblings, and one of my aunts. My one grandmother is in a nursing home and has been for some time. The other one is still living on her own, but her mind isn’t as sharp as it once was and she’s really starting to show her age.

Anyway, as a perk for agreeing to extend my service for a third year, the Peace Corps paid to fly me back to America for a month. I spent the entire thirty days with my family and didn’t even call any of my friends.

Spending that time with my family, I couldn’t help but think of those carefree summer days of my youth. At first, they seemed nothing but a bittersweet memory. But then I realized life is just as good now as it was then, the roles have just changed. My parents and aunts and uncles are now grandparents. My brother and my cousins are parents. Their kids all play together just like my cousins and I used to play together. The only thing that has changed is that one generation has been, in large part, supplanted by another, and the surviving generations have changed roles.

Seeing this, I told my grandmother she has a very cool family and should be very proud. And it’s true. My aunts and uncles have all raised amazing kids. Two of my cousins (and their partners) have adopted a total of five at-risk youth. Another is a pediatrician. One is a physician’s assistant. One has an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago. Another is working on his Ph.D. at Cal Tech. Several are teachers. All are honest, responsible, kind, generous, and hardworking folks who make me proud. I’m proud of them and proud to be one of them.

So the next time someone asks me “От къде си?” or “Where are you from?” I think I’ve got an answer. Аз съм от прекрасно семейство. I am from a wonderful family.

Here are my nephews enjoying their summer. I only hope they'll think as highly of me as I think of my uncles.

And here are some of my favorite shots of other things seen during my month at home.

This is Uncle Floyd's Cottage, quite possibly my favorite place on earth.

And these are from Big Lake ... on which Uncle Floyd's Cottage sits.

My parents also live on a lake. On one of my last days home, my dad and I enjoyed this sunrise together. It's a morning I'll never forget.

An almost full Wisconsin moon.


  1. Wonderful story, Brian. I'll second your selection of the cottage as the best place on Earth. This past summer, the family celebrated the 50th anniversary of Floyd buying the property. Too bad your own trip home was just a few weeks too late to join us at that reunion.

  2. Thanks, Mark. We spent a nice weekend up there, but obviously I missed the anniversary celebration.

  3. Hi Brian,
    Your post "Window to Bulgaria" almost made my cry. Not because it was cheesy or sentimental, but because it so truthfully captured the soul of the Bulgarian traditions you have experienced. It was like looking at your own image in the mirror, with the only difference, that the mirror was actually the eyes of an American . Opposite from you, I am a Bulgarian, living in the US, and sadly with the days go by, I tend to stray farther and farther from my Bulgarian roots (I know, that’s terrible). This is why, little wake-up blogs like yours help me to re-open my eyes and to remind me why I should be so proud to be a Bulgarian, no matter where I reside…. to continue cherishing my traditions and pass them to my successors. Много благодаря 

  4. Thanks for the kinds words, Dessi.

  5. I am glad I did go back! You have a way with words. Emily still teases me that I was not able to join the whole family for that get together.

  6. Oh, Brian. We so love you. I feel lucky to have joined such a wonderful family. Such a great post...I got teary reading it.

  7. Last week I participated in a training on the use of restorative practices and circles. During the session, we were each asked to respond to "What is your land and what is your sea?" Without hesitation, I proclaimed Big Lake as MY sea...a place that is truly like no other. It makes my heart smile to hear someone else describe the cottage with the same affection, the same enchantment that I feel.

    My land? That's another story. "I haven't yet found my land." I admitted. But here's a guy who is so well traveled, so cultured. He's seen more beautiful places than I have dreamed and yet his "land" doesn't exist on a map. It's family. So well expressed, Brian. Thanks for the great read.

  8. Thanks y'all. Somewhere Floyd and Grandpa are smiling too.

  9. Lovely story, Brian, with a positive message to those who feel citizens of the world. Fully agree with Dessi's comment about your writing - great capture of Bulgarian soul, but also a good reality check for me as a Bulgarian expat - makes me appreciate some unique features of life in BG while elegantly questioning some syndromes of Bulgarian society (I liked the one about the nationwide unhapiness of Bulgarians). Enjoy the rest of your stay in Bulgaria and Europe. Cheers,