Recent Posts by Carol Lavin

Alice has landed in Tunis: Part Two of the Wonderland Adventure

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On the plane to our Wonderland adventure

In August 1986, myself and 20 other students landed in Tunis.  We were a motley crew; there were 10 0f us from the United States, 1 Canadian,  9 Scandinavians and 1 French student-all between the ages of 16-18.  The group of students from the United States came together in New York and spent a few days at a pre-arrival orientation.  It was nice getting to know each other, before heading into what felt like no man’s land.  Looking back with my older eyes, we were quite an interesting, eclectic group of young people.

After one night together in Tunis, we were sent off to our prospective host families.  My host brother had just returned from the USA on a yearlong exchange so he knew the ropes.  He was waiting for me at the AFS office with a big, welcoming smile on his face.  Obviously, this was long before the advent of the internet, so we had made limited connections with each other pre-arrival.  I was given my host families information about a month before setting off for Tunisia.  I had pictures, occupation, and a bit of biographical information about each member of my new family.

So began my year….my brother, Issam, took me to his, I mean, my family’s home.  The rest of my family was waiting for me at the apartment.  My family lived in a two room apartment, in a suburb of Tunis-Hammam Lif.  My first impression was concerning the size of the apartment; it was very small.  But I quickly learned that the apartment was giant, in terms of the love found between the few walls.

A short description of my host family is needed here.  My host mom, Faouzia, was a beautiful, energetic, loving mother.  She was always ready to have fun.  Every day, my mom was busy cleaning, cooking, and taking care of her family.  Throughout her busy day, I would often find her with the radio blaring and her singing loudly along to the music and dancing her way through the apartment.  My host father, Othman, was a very quiet man.  He went to work at the local branch of the post office every morning.  As a typical Tunisian man, after work, he would spend his time at his favorite local cafe with his friends.  He was quietly aware of everything going on his family unit, but was more of an observer unless a decision had to be made concerning his clan.  The oldest child was Issam – 2 years older than me.  When I joined this family, Issam had just returned from an exchange year in Montana, so he understood me.  He was always ready with explanations, love, and guidance for me.  My sister Sara was the same age as me.  We had a good, sisterly relationship; she reminded me a lot of my sister here in the United States.  While I was living there, Sara was a dedicated student, studying all the time for the big end of the year exam.   And then, there was my little sister Sonia – 2 years younger than me.  Looking back, it feels as if Sonia and I were always together.  We did everything together; from going to the hammam, to having the same friends at school.  We shared our teenage secrets, life worries and lots of laughter…..In addition to the nuclear family, my host family consisted of a large, extended family; my grandmother (Oumi), many aunts and uncles, and numerous cousins.


Sitting out on our balcony

Honestly, the first month was really rough for me.  My host family was so loving towards me, but I was overwhelmed by the changes.  And it was so hot.  A few memories of those first days are so clear to me still.  All the food was really hot, spicy hot-even the spaghetti.  It felt as if my lips were on fire at the end of every lunch and dinner; my host mom knew that everything was hot and tried to be accommodating to my virgin taste buds, but it was no use.  The mosques felt like they were constantly calling out for prayer time; for many weeks, I would wake up sometime between 4 and 5 a.m to the sound of the mosque, calling to the faithful.   There was no washer or dryer in our apartment; this was quite a new situation for my spoiled hands – I helped my mom and sisters wash everything by hand.  Catcalls, from young Tunisian men, were waiting for me from street corners, every time I left the sanctuary of my apartment.  This was particularly difficult for me because I didn’t know what to do with this attention or how to handle it; my Sony Walkman became my “go to” when going anywhere.  And there were the the public showers, or hammam, where we went to bathe.  We Americans are quite modest when it comes to our bodies; we aren’t used to the public shower tradition.  But like everything else on this small list (I could go on and on), I got used to and started to enjoy going to the hammam, usually with my little sister Sonia.  And the heat, did I mention the heat?

In addition to the radical changes in my daily life in Tunisia, my paternal grandmother passed away 3 weeks after I arrived in Tunis.  As one could imagine, I was devastated and felt so alone.  However, this experience was the turning point in the beginning of my year, as far as the beginning of my bonding with my host family.  My host mother and I couldn’t communicate very well with each other.  She and my father spoke Tunisian and French; my French was limited and my Tunisian was nonexistent.  (My brother spoke perfect English and my sisters’ English skills were very good.)  My host mother, along with the rest of the family, was right there for me when I needed to feel loved and safe.  I remember her holding me while I cried and cried over the loss of my grandmother.

alice-in-wonderland-movie-poster-1951-1020198120And my year?  What did it look like?  How did it feel?  I can say that every day I felt as Alice did in Wonderland…..“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

And with that, I will let my hands and your eyes rest.  Look for a post sometime in the future, for the rest of the story.


An Aging Parent

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I have been thinking about our aging population a lot recently.  As life moves on, our parents are getting older.  In the United States, we are so driven by independence and success (whatever that means to you) that we don’t stop to think about this segment of the population, until we are forced to.  We often live far from our extended family.  As a result, we aren’t able to easily take care of our family members as they need it.elderly-people-crossing

The choices we are given are not ideal, to say the least.  In my family’s case, my father is single and at a place where he needs more and more help every day.  Luckily for him and the rest of the family, my sister lives near by.  However, this has been a struggle.  My father doesn’t see that he is getting more dependent on others and has resisted any outside help.  And, understandably, my sister wants to be his daughter, not his 24 hour caregiver.  Our family is not set up to have my father live with one of us, and, frankly, he doesn’t want to.  So what are our choices?  He can stay home and hire a caregiver, or move into an assisted living complex.  All of his options involve spending a lot of money.  Many Americans struggle with these options, as they are not financially able to cover the costs.

And the medical care costs?  I haven’t mentioned those costs.  Thankfully, my father is financially sound and can afford the medical care he needs.  Many are not.  Many of our elderly have to make difficult decisions concerning their pharmaceuticals and medical care because they don’t have the means to cover all the costs.

In many countries, families live with or near each other, as an extended family unit.  When the older generation begins to need more help, the expectations are such that the younger generation is there, waiting to give the help that is needed.

As a child, there is nothing really to prepare you for taking care of a parent. In the United States, people tend to distance themselves from this topic, and don’t have many examples or cultural norms to guide them through this phase of life.

Follow the links for further readings on the topic:

Housing problems and options for the elderly

Aging America

The Elderly across the Globe.



Alice in Wonderland goes to Tunisia: Part 1

I had a teacher in junior high and high school who groomed a few of us from a young age to go abroad at some point in our high school career. There were some who chose to go during high school, and others (me included) who chose to do a fifth year of high school in another country.   The program was called AFS (American Field Service); it has since morphed into AFS Intercultural Programs. In 1986, the AFS policy was such that students couldn’t choose the country to which they were sent. A student could list their top 3 choices, but there was no guarantee they were going anywhere near the countries of choice.  I remember my number one choice was Greece; my classmate and friend was sent to Greece.  The other choices-I have no recollection.  And Greece?  I have no idea why I chose Greece, other than the romantic notion of going to a country with such a storied history.  I guess I ended up somewhere similar; Tunisia is home to the ancient city of Carthage, no less, and the center of the Punic Wars.


In April, 1986, I found out I was going to spend the next academic year in a country called ‘Tunisia’. As you can imagine, at the time, I was asking myself what I was getting in to?   And, more importantly, how did I find myself going to a country in North Africa?  I  happened to have had 4 years of high school French; French is the second language in Tunisia-that is how I found myself there.  At this time in my life, I honestly don’t think that I had ever heard of the country, let alone know anything about it!  In fact, when people asked me where I was going, I would tell them “Tunisia” and their response was “Indonesia, how exciting!”  (Another classmate went there.)  My friends had no idea either; they gave me a surprise going away party… African safari-themed party. I learned rather quickly that I was not going to ‘that’ Africa.

A little historical background is needed here to fully understand the utter surprise of Tunisia. I was notified in April 1986 that Tunisia was going to be the country of my placement. In the same month of the same year, the United States bombed Libya. For those of you not aware of the geography of North Africa-Tunisia and Libya share a border. Additionally, the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s headquarters was located in Tunisia at this time. In fact, the year before I arrived, the PLO headquarters was attacked by Israel; unbeknownst to me, the headquarters was located a few miles away from my Tunisian family’s house. So, the first words out of my American family’s mouth when hearing that I was going to Tunisia was “Sorry, but you aren’t going anywhere.”  After consulting with some people who were knowledgeable about the region, I was permitted to go.   We were told that Tunisia was considered to be the Switzerland of the Middle East, North Africa (MENA) area.  Off to Tunisia I went……like Alice going down the rabbit hole.alice-in-front-of-rabbit-hole

Upon arrival in this new land, I could immediately hear myself saying the words Alice said when she was in Wonderland – “It was much pleasanter at home,” thought poor Alice, “when one wasn’t always growing larger and smaller, and being ordered about by mice and rabbits. I almost wish I hadn’t gone down the rabbit-hole–and yet–and yet–…”.  I went.

What followed was a year full of difficulties, tears, laughter, surprises, lessons learned, and attachments made.


The Twists and Turns of Parenting 101

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Photo  I have had something on my mind a lot recently.  That something is my children.  (There are many changes occurring in my house concerning my children; I will get to that later.)  I actually have had them on mind more than just recently; it is an every moment of the day occurrence;  those of you reading this, who have children, will completely understand.  I have learned many things throughout this 20 year parenting experience.  I have learned that nothing is constant; you and your children will change.  I have learned to be more patient.  I have learned that my children are not me; they are independent people who are making and will make their own choices in life.  On the tail of that last sentence, I have learned to let go of some things. (There are many many more things I have learned, but I can’t list them all here.)  Lastly, from my experiences living overseas and teaching students from all over the world, I have learned that parenting varies from person to person and culture to culture.

1462616_10205349718293234_9112924025198003899_oOne of the qualities that people from the United States value is independence.  (I will include myself in this description, as I am from the United States.) Beyond the regular schedule and demand of school, many parents in this country are very busy planning play dates for their children, scheduling extra curricular activities (sports, music, dance, etc), and quite simply keeping their children’s days full.  In a nutshell, the idea being that the more experiences you have,  the more well-rounded you are, the more successful you will be in your future.  We hope this all leads to independence and more.

In the United States, a person is considered an adult at age 18.  What does that mean?  An adult can vote in the elections.  An adult can choose to enter the military.  An adult can go to jail/prison for any crimes committed.  An adult has the right to complete privacy concerning their medical, financial, and other personal records.   An adult doesn’t have to listen to their parents anymore……well, not completely true.

Where am I going with this?  An adult can move out of the house.  Let me elaborate here.  In the United States, we keep our children close until they graduate from high school.  Then, somehow the expectations change.  We expect them to leave the nest soon after graduation.  One family’s definition of soon and another family’s definition may be quite different.  There are some that expect their children to move out of the family home immediately, following high school graduation, or pay rent.  And there are others that expect their children to move out when they finish university or get a full-time job.

Now, what makes this even more interesting to me, is that it is not unusual for our children to move far away.  For example, it is not uncommon for a young person to move across the country to attend a university or for a job opportunity.  Personally, as a parent, it feels that if my child has the strength and independence to fly and fly far (if they so choose), I have done my job.  I have helped create a person who is strong, self-assured, and independent.  Now, how is this viewed in other countries?  This is incomprehensible to many people around the world.  Why would we want our children to move from our home?  We must love our children less.  We don’t love our children any less; we just have different expectations for their future.

Now, onto my children, in particular.  In the beginning of this post, I stated that we are in the midst of some big changes occurring in our house.

30126_1429040736818_3363793_nI am the mother of two children.  My son (Daniel) is 20 and my daughter (Sophia) is a few months shy of 12.  Like most parents, when my children were born, I felt that no one could possibly understand the love that I felt (and still feel) for my children.  I remember describing it to my friends who didn’t have children yet.  It is a like a love affair; you love them from the moment of birth (and before), and it just intensifies once their personalities develop.

I have struggled with the adjustment of every phase my children go through, especially my son’s.  I remember when my son was about 2 years old.  I wasn’t sure if I was going to have any more children and I mourned the thought that he may be my only.  On numerous occasions, I would get his little sleeping body out of his bed and just sit and hold him on the couch, and watch him sleep.  I was also mourning the thought that he would never be my little baby again.  Of course, I knew then and know now that he will always be my son, but I mourned the loss of the old stage and wasn’t able to quickly embrace the new stage.

So now, here I am getting ready for my son to launch into another new phase.  Until this point, he has been living at home and attending the local junior college.  He has applied to many universities, all in the same state, and we are waiting; waiting to see where he goes next in his life.  I am so excited for him and proud of him, and I can’t wait to see where life takes him.  At the same time, I am sad.  My little boy has become a man who is making his own life choices.

Being the second child, my experience with my daughter has been completely different.  For one, she is my second.  So, all the scary new things as a first time parent aren’t so scary this time around.  She was also born incredibly independent.  And lastly, my experience as a parent has changed the way I view her stages of life.  I am looking forward to the new.  Through the experiences I have had with my son, I am excited for her.  It has been so fun watching him and I have learned to embrace the new and let go of the old.  I still have the memories, but I am looking forward.

My daughter is in 6th grade.  Recently her class visited the junior high school that she will attend next year.  There is no sadness in me about this.  I am so incredibly excited for her new adventure.  She is a very strong, intelligent young girl and I know that she will have fun and do well on her new path.

So there you have it, the twists and turns of parenting.  The letting go of the old and embracing the new; one child going off to college and one child starting junior high school.  The cultural expectations; my son is ready to fly.  The personal experiences; a daughter and a son who are 8 years apart and completely different people.  The realization that my way isn’t the only way; there is a whole world out there parenting every day, in different ways.

For those of you interested in reading more on the topic of parenting and varying cultural perspectives and practices:

Motherhood around the World

Global Parenting Habits From Around the World






The Easter Egg Hunt and the Hooded Ones

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10549931_10206474183724167_6205221601453928257_o It is that time of year again; blooming flowers, nice weather, and…..Easter.  Similar to Christmas, Easter is both a cultural and religious occasion.  Some people in the United States celebrate Easter for religious purposes; celebrating the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  For others, Easter is a family tradition; families and friends come together and celebrate the traditions of Easter Baskets and bunnies, dyed eggs, and good food.

Before the advent of Christianity, Easter was a festival to celebrate the coming of Spring and the vernal equinox.  “Easter” comes from the word “Eastre”, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of Spring. The Easter rabbit is a symbol of fertility, long associated with Spring.  And the eggs? They are the giver of life.  Additionally, during the Middle Ages, eggs were forbidden to eat during Lent.  So people boiled or preserved them, to eat at the end of Lent.

10257663_10206474185684216_4958273409636560308_o Two years ago, my husband, children, and I went to Spain in March for 2 weeks.  Our trip started in Madrid with my Spanish cousins.  Then we took a road trip to the South.  We spent some time in Granada; it is an incredible city to experience.  The mixture of North African and Spanish culture gives the visitor the feeling of having a foot in two different cultures. And the Alhambra….amazing!  We also took a day trip to Malaga.

Lucky for us, our trip landed us in southern Spain during “Semana Santa”, or Holy Week.  This is the final week of Lent, which starts on Palm Sunday and ends on Easter Sunday.  Semana Santa is one of the most important religious holidays in Spain, especially in Southern Spain.


Throughout the week, there are large processions of people (pasos), both participating and observing in the procession, in the streets.  The processions begin at a church and can last hours, moving their way through the city, and end at the same church.  Men (Costaleros) carry large floats, containing huge images (imagenes) of Jesus Christ and/or Mary, and  they are followed by people (Penitentes or Nazarenos) dressed in very traditional costumes.  For the American visitor, at first glance, these costumes can be quite disturbing, as they look very similar to the costumes worn by the Klu Klux Klan.  However, the costumes of these two groups have no connection.  The Nazarenos hide their faces because they mourn the pain and suffering of Jesus, ask for forgiveness for their sins and seek to be closer to the heavens, through the cone-shaped hood (capirote).  On Easter Sunday, the Nazarenos remove their capirote in happiness for the resurrection of Jesus from the dead..

11027518_10206474183684166_4864302381779794106_oWhile in Spain, we were fortunate enough to see the pasos in Malaga, Granada, and Madrid.  It was quite an incredible experience.

Today may be a special holiday for you or a nice Sunday afternoon.  Whether it is one or both of these, enjoy.

If this post peaks your curiosity, follow this link for more in depth information about Semana Santa celebrations in Spain.

A Fork in the Road: The Food Truck Culture

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I have been lucky enough to eat from food trucks 3 times in the past month, in 3 different cities-San Francisco CA, Washington DC, and Chico CA. The food truck movement, or culture, has become quite popular across the United States.

The first time I experienced a food truck, beyond the typical taco wagon, was in Portland, Oregon. The food truck scene in Portland has become quite well known. My husband and I spent a long weekend in Portland a few years ago, to celebrate our anniversary. I was excited to see many things there. In particular, I wanted to check out all the food trucks I had heard about. It was so fun to have so many choices; of course, I wanted to try them all!

About a month ago, I went to San Francisco for a conference of sorts-The Women’s Travel Fest. The initial gathering was at the SOMA StrEat Food Park. The set up kind of feels like a county fair. There is a permanent building with places to sit, surrounded by food trucks. It has a fun atmosphere, with lights hanging and a bar for drinks.  The Burmese food I chose was great.  As of yet, there are no Burmese restaurants in Chico, so it was fun to try something I can’t get very often.

11046648_10206444341858139_4861064293442228947_nMy husband, daughter, and I went to Washington DC a few weeks ago.  In Washington DC, the food trucks line the busier streets for the lunch time crowd. I noticed that they were also situated in the high tourist traffic areas. Of course, the food was good and there was quite a variety of food to choose from.  I chose lunch from a food truck serving Moroccan food.  I couldn’t help myself, and had to start a conversation about Morocco, the Arabic language, and food.  I got a chance to practice my (not so good) Arabic, which is always fun for me.

11087487_10206452659706080_324449519073828615_oTonight, we are heading out to have dinner at a gathering of food trucks.  The food truck culture is fairly new in Chico. A few years ago, an event called “Fork in the Road” started. The local food trucks meet at the Elks Lodge, from Spring through early Fall. It is a great location, as there are picnic tables, a children’s park adjacent to the food trucks, and a stage where local musicians play.

If you are interested in reading more about the burgeoning food truck culture, here is an interesting article, click here.

My Dogs

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As I said in my first post, I teach English as a Second Language. Specifically, I teach students from all over the world. Most of my students have the goal to study at a university somewhere in the United States.

One of my favorite things about my job is the big and little cultural exchanges that happen everyday in the classroom. These exchanges happen between me and the students, and between students from different countries. It feels like a micro United Nations at times.

With that being said, my job is also to impart my culture to my students-to help them succeed in both the academic and social world of the United States.

So how does the topic of my dogs come into the story here, you ask? In my grammar class.

In the beginning of every grammar class, we review the simple present tense, including pronouns (I, you, he/she/it, we, and they). We go through each pronoun and practice the usage.  We get to “it” and I usually use an example like table or chair.  See where this is going?

We, Americans, have a special love affair with our pets; there are other cultures in the world that view pet ownership in the same way.  Our pets are not “it”, but “he” or “she”.  I think that any pet owner reading this would agree; if someone refers to your beloved pet as “it”, you may be mildly insulted.  This is where my cultural awareness teaching comes in.  I always use my dogs as an example here.  By the end of the class, my students are very familiar with my “he” and “she” dog.

Cozmo is the lighter of the two dogs.  He is the dog that views every person or dog as a potential best friend.  His favorite place to be is in the park, pretending to roam the savannah like a lion.  Layla, on the other hand, is a little shy.  She doesn’t really like to meet new people or dogs.  She is quite content with her pack of humans and Cozmo.

Hello, Bonjour, Salaam Alaikum, Hola

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I’m a teacher of English as a Second Language by trade… and Culturally Curious by nature. What does culturally curious mean? I want to know the story of the person I met on the airplane or driving the taxi. I want to know the story behind the beautiful ceramic plate in my hands. I want to know the story of the building I walked by. There are so many stories I want to know.

My passion for travel, fueled by an interest in different cultures, started at a very young age. I lived the first 5 years of my life in Asia. Upon graduating from high school, I was an AFS high school exchange student. I spent a life changing year in Tunisia, North Africa, living with an amazing host family and attending a local high school. After I graduated from university, with a degree in International Relations (of course!), I moved to Japan and taught English for 18 months. In addition to living overseas, I have had many opportunities for travel, both in the USA and abroad.  Through all of these experiences, I have been very lucky to make connections with people all over the world.  These connections have lasted a lifetime and this is my place to share these stories and to hear others’ stories as well.

Along with me on my travel adventures are my husband-Dan, my son-Daniel, my daughter-Sophia, and our two dogs-Cozmo and Layla.


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