On the phone the other day my sister Kath asked me if I had made any friends in Zug. I laughed. Aside from some work people and our relocation consultant next door, and the building’s janitor, who is Czech – no, not really.
It’s a slow process.
It’s not that people aren’t extremely friendly, they genuinely are, it’s just the language difference. So, in the meantime, I’ve decided to use this time productively – as a one-on-one relationship exercise with my husband – Marriage Bootcamp: Overseas. Sort of a review workshop.
Because, let me tell you, Mac and I have already had a lot of practice with this course. We have totally been here before.
Flashback to 1987 when we first moved to North Carolina from Michigan. We both had new jobs at Greer Labs, a small family owned and operated pharmaceutical company in the Western foothills.
We arrived, high on honeymoon bliss, eager to start grown up life and our first real jobs as a married unit. It was Mac’s position that got us there, but I was also hired by the president in a really nice gesture of faith. He did this because the company owners knew that they needed to make Lenoir, NC (Le – NORE) a very attractive place in order to keep Mac there.
At that time, Lenoir had a demographic dynamic of two – the very old and retired and the pretty old and still working. Oh, and the extremely wealthy furniture barons. Not many youth. With few employment options in the mid 80’s, they had left the area in droves. Because the entire community pretty much worked at, or were connected to, the furniture factories – Broyhill, Bernhardt and several others.
We not only didn’t see any youngish people around, we didn’t see any rental properties available for them. Not much movement in and out of the area. But we finally found a nice apartment out in the country, very comfortable that allowed pets. But it was nearly vacant. And it was eerily quiet during the day. Were people making drugs behind their venetian blinds? In Ypsilanti they had been.
And forget about the local politics. We don’t need to go into that. Except to say that the right-wing Republican Broyhill family ran all of Caldwell County. So there certainly wasn’t a Gay Pride march down on Main Street or anything like that – the last march the town had hosted was probably Klan related.
And I am not kidding you. We knew only one African-American, and one Indian, but the latter commuted 3 hours from Chapel Hill. And eventually I came to see why.
Greer Labs was okay, but sometimes the people at work could be really closed-minded, even mean. But we were very young and naive and stupid and needed to learn the way of things in Lenoir, apparently. Right. Two fresh-faced openly identified flaming liberal newcomers – easy pickins.
Some of the women thought it was just so hysterical that I was a runner – huh? And that fact was linked somehow to me being pro-choice, oddly. So there were some snide comments and snickers in the break room. I started feeling a little self-conscious and less than confident.
And never in my life had I been offered so many rides on my daily runs- I mean I must be needing to get somewhere, right? Big, laughing grins and head shakes as they sped by in monster-wheeled pickups. I was obviously crazy. In two years, I entered probably fifty road races all over the western part of the state – just to get out-of-town on the weekends. Of course, the events were very small, made up of only feminists and extremely left-leaning participants, maybe a Marxist or two.
But they were fun. And boy, I was fit. Running to survive.
You had to be tough to be so isolated. And at a time when I really wanted to build a circle of friends, maybe start a family, it wasn’t too promising. Basically it was just me, Mac and Emerson, our cat. A small apartment, with nothing at all to do at night and on the weekends, not even a movie theater or restaurant other than the Golden Corral.
Oh, and did I mention that it was a completely dry county? No alcohol.
And naturally, being North Carolina, almost everyone smoked. Indoors, public spaces, everywhere. Cigarettes dangled from women’s fingers picking over the meat packages in the Food Lion. While holding infants in the park and sorting clean clothes at the laundromat. It just didn’t feel healthy. I hesitated to think about getting pregnant.
But, in the end we eventually made some friends – three very strong friendships (Linda, Maria, Frazier) and I feel really lucky about that.
And while we survived, it was incredibly lonely. And after that second year, I had definitely had my fill of Lenoir – literally. You are applying for jobs in the Triangle area, Mac, or I will eat my way to 300 lbs. You’ll have to squeeze me out through the fire escape.
I didn’t really say that, but you get the idea. And maybe I had been doing a bit of emotional eating. But anyway, Mac, being Mac, quickly landed a great new job in the Triangle. And with no hesitation we packed up Emerson and fled east to Raleigh. Ok, so it wasn’t actually to the city of Raleigh – it was Fuquay-Varina, a little tobacco town south of the capital city. I know. But it was a suburb, by golly.
Anyway, where is this going? Oh, yeah – so essentially, when you’ve been in the lonely trenches like Lenoir you learn a few life lessons:
- One: You will begin to talk to yourself. And you will begin to enjoy it. And this is a really good thing, as it keeps your ears desensitized. If you don’t do it, they will start to act as an echo chamber and your partner will startle you senseless, continually, over and over – upon entering a room, opening a door, clearing his throat, flipping on a light switch, etc. You will develop tics. Not good.
- Two: You will learn to accept those small things in your spouse that drive you over the edge. Because you can’t escape them. They are front and center, staring you down 24/7. This will make your marriage stronger, trust me. Because he will have to do the same for you if you happen to have a tiny thing or two that might be irritating – so it’s a perfect synergy.
- Three: You will become a master of the apology – because if you don’t, then what? There is no moving forward. You’re both in the quicksand going down. However, that doesn’t mean you might not go full weeks without speaking, because you may. But don’t worry, the issues will all resolve or dissolve or evolve, or do something, trust me.
- Four: You will learn the beauty of getting out. Not the marriage, the apartment. A weekend adventure to a new place, or even a swim down at the lake after work, will breathe the life back into things. And conversely –
- Five: You will learn the beauty of staying in, hunkering down at 8 pm in sweatpants and burrowing into huge bowls of popcorn (good luck finding that) while watching lousy videotaped American television or live European soccer. It’s simple survival, people.
- Six: Nothing will remain private or discreet.There will be times you will tell your mate things you’d never dream of telling him back home. Discussions of exactly where and how much men should shave their bodies or whether you should wear foundation to hide age spots on your chicken wattle – these will be perfectly appropriate topics. Or long, detailed talks weighing the relative merits of the Porsche 911 against the latest model Ferrari. Or rambling narratives describing which Italian soccer player is the hottest. Nothing is off-limits here, because there are no girlfriends around – so who else can you talk to?
- Seven: Your world will be broken down into the minutiae – a trip to the grocery store will be an event of such proportion you will spend the evening in ecstasy, even while finishing up the greasy dishes. Because you and he both recognize how taxing and unnerving the simplest local chores can be. And you are meeting the challenge and succeeding together. All for one. Both of you are equally bound in your commitment to survive this thing, by God.
But take heart, it’s not so dire, fellow travelers. The reward is so much greater than the hardship.
You will come home a stronger, wiser, more flexible unit than before. Except I must warn you that some of the survival techniques listed above can be pesky little habits to break. But I can’t say that I’m really trying very hard to quit them, either. But talking to yourself never hurt you or anyone else, remember that.
Mac and I look back on those brief years in Lenoir as a benchmark. We learned we could stick it out. We learned what kinds of communities we thrive in. Not that the town itself is such a bad place (it’s no longer dry), it’s just that at that particular point in history it simply was not the place for us. But in a weird way it was a valuable training exercise for our life here in Switzerland.
And I have come to know that where we live doesn’t really matter. It’s not a tipping point in our relationship. I am completely confident that whatever’s going on (or not) in the city of Zug or Copenhagen or Durham or wherever we are – together in our little apartment it’s all relative. We can flip the soccer on and start the popcorn popping.
And Mac and I can turn to each other on the couch, and smile and just about read each other’s mind.
Because we both remember the details from 25 years ago, enough of them anyway – to be able to now say to each other happily: Hey, just remember, it could always be worse – at least we’re not still living in Lenoir.
And we know, for a fact, that it absolutely could be.