Good friends and great adventures

boys and chicago cousins

After three months of living abroad, our first visitors from America have finally arrived, and I’ve been counting down the days for them to get here.

I told Sarge I was looking forward to talking to Americans again. He said I could always talk to him. But it’s really not the same as talking to my girlfriends from back home. Even with messages and video chats, being far from home has made me miss the human connection of longtime friendships, the same way my kids have missed their school friends. I’m grateful to have friends who would travel the world just to see me.

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My friend Tanya A has been my pal since we were newspaper reporters just out of college, and everyone on the city desk called us “Tanya A” and “Tanya B,” since our maiden names start with A and B. We’ve signed Christmas cards to each other that way ever since. We’ve seen each other through career moves, failed relationships, pregnancies and all the milestones that longtime friendships withstand.

She’s traveled across the country to see me get married in Hawaii, be Godmother to my son in Alabama, go boating in Indiana and stay connected in points in between. Our families have spent weekend trips together and have become close, and our kids are like cousins. Right now, all five kids are piled in one room on beds and air mattresses for a week of sleepovers.

Sleepovers are among the things my boys have missed about America. Their friends in Croatia haven’t had the same American sleepover experience. But the boys and their Chicago cousins brought the experience here, complete with popcorn, Nerf guns and Minecraft video game battles.

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My boys have shown off their favorite find in the Adriatic Sea – inflatable water parks. These are like bounce houses on the water, and my boys can spend hours on them wearing themselves out. Spending the afternoon at one yesterday may explain why all five kids are still asleep this morning.

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Travel has been a unifying bond for us. The kids remember a Spring Break trip to meet up at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis one year. We took a trip to Chicago to see them the year after that. Last year, we met to go pontoon boating on a lake. The kids’ memories of each other are like a collection of vacation snapshots. And we are creating some new ones this week.

One of the great things about being here is having the chance to experience things that are new to everyone. I’m just as excited to be reacquainted with my old pal and reflect on all of the places we’ve already been together.

 

 

Europe with kids, ain’t it grand?

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“I don’t know why everybody says Europe is so beautiful,” my youngest complained today as we walked our bikes through a crowded street of Old Town Zadar, Croatia, trying to avoid running into tourists. “Look at all the cracks on the stones!”

“Do you know how old those stones are?” I said. I don’t know how old those stones are. Old. Very old.

I’ve spent half the summer defending Very Old Europe to my kids and explaining why they should appreciate their surroundings as much as going to roller coasters and water parks. Some days, I lose the battle.

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Today, I promised them that after I finished my work, we’d go somewhere. My oldest, “A,” wanted to go to a history museum, which naturally meant his brother, “W,” wanted to stay home.

“Why do we have to go somewhere that seems like school?” he said. “It’s summer!”

Sometimes, I think my kids have a secret pact. If one wants to do something, the other must protest. I run the spectrum of wanting to keep them from being spoiled brats to wanting to keep them content in a country that is not their own.

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Today’s destination was the Archeological Museum. Lots of old, cracked things. “W” was not impressed. I kept having to stop and say nagging, motherly things to him, like, “Don’t sit on the tomb!”

“A” is more of a history buff who likes lingering on past lives. We walked around the museum talking about the people who must have made the objects we saw. “W” sped past us looking for interactive exhibits that haven’t arrived in this country just yet.

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If the best education is not learned in the classroom, I hope all of this “old stuff” is rubbing off on both kids. It’s kind of like taking them to an antique store and wanting them notice more than a dusty collection of stuff. Not everything comes with an app or video or a climbing ropes course like the children’s museum back home.

If one child tours museums looking miserable, disinterested and bored, will he still take it in by osmosis? Or do the teenage years last way beyond the teenage years? (He’s only 10).

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I keep having to remind myself that my kids are not mini adults. They’re just kids. Their travel experience is not supposed to be like mine.

We will not look at cracks in cobblestones in the same way. And I need to be fine with that.

 

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The Junk Collector

There’s a truck that comes through our neighborhood nearly every day blaring an announcement.

The first time I heard it, I was home alone, and I ran to our balcony to see what was happening outside. It was a stormy day, and I thought it could be some kind of weather warning, kind of like an American civil defense siren. Maybe it was a tornado warning and I should batten down the hatches.

Not knowing the language, it just sounded ominous, or reminiscent of the Communist era. At least that’s where my mind went. What in the heck was I supposed to know about what was happening? What instructions was this man giving? I really was kind of alarmed.

The truck was gone before I could do anything about it or ask anyone who could understand me. Sarge had no idea what I was talking about when he came home from work. There was no tornado.

But the truck kept coming back. And so did a white van with the same kind of announcements. Upon closer inspection, they didn’t look like any kind of official vehicles. The next time the blue truck came down the street, I realized it was hauling bikes and washing machines.

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What struck me as a scary voice of authority is actually the neighborhood junk collector.

“He’s saying: ‘Old cars, fridges, ovens,’” my Croatian friend translated. “We are cleaning your yards, taking old things that would go to the trash.”

Oh, is that all? It’s just another funny, quirky thing about living in a different culture.

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Today, we took a family outing to the police station. We are in the middle of getting our temporary residency paperwork, and the bureaucracy level involved is, let’s say, on the high side.

We arrived at the police station’s lunch hour, when it’s closed, and a couple dozen people gathered in a muggy lobby and waited for the doors to be unlocked. Except one office was open, and an older man was yelling at the woman behind the desk.

“He sounds mad,” I told Sarge. No, Sarge and our Croatian friend in line confirmed. In Croatia, that’s normal talking.

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And what I thought was way too much red tape in the file folder our clerk was holding? That’s normal here, too. (For example, in addition to our documents we had to have translated, they wanted an official copy of our marriage license that was no more than 6 months old. What? How about our official marriage license from when we got married?) “Just keep smiling,” Sarge said. “She’s trying to help us.”

Sometimes, as an American here, I have to remind myself that I am the foreigner. People try to speak my language even when I can’t understand theirs. Sometimes, what sounds ominous isn’t ominous at all. Maybe it’s just a junk collector. Or maybe someone who doesn’t seem like it at first is actually trying to help. Or maybe it’s wishful thinking on my part. I’ll have to get back to you after I pass “go,” they collect my kuna and I return to the front of the line.

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Haircuts Abroad

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I’ve been wearing my hair in a ponytail every day for more than a month. That’s because I have the worst haircut I’ve ever had since my Shirley Temple look of the fourth grade.

I used to have long hair that fell below my shoulders, maybe too long for a 46-year-old. That must be what my hair stylist thought. I stopped in a hair salon shortly after we arrived here and handed the Croatian-speaking stylist a photo of the cut and color I was going for. But our communication problems went beyond a language barrier. Neither the cut or the color looked like the picture when she was finished. She just kept cutting and then announced in English: “Now we can see your eyes!”

My hair is chin-length now, shorter than it’s been in 20 years. The color the stylist put in it is already all washed out and lightened from the sun. I’m still trying to get used to it. On the bright side, it cost less than half of what it would have in the United States for a cut and color. Too bad I hate it.

“What happened to your hair?” my oldest asked when I got home. “You look like a butterfly.”

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Today, it was the boys’ turn on the chopping block. I took them to the hippest place I could find, a vintage barbershop in Old Town that’s been there for more than 60 years. It’s where my husband’s pilot friends get their hair cut. This was actually the boys’ second time there. They had decent haircuts there a little more than a month ago.

It’s kind of a throwback place with antique chairs, a barber pole in the window, and photos all around of GQ-looking models. It costs only about $7 for a child’s haircut.

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This time, my 10-year-old rebelled. “W” has cowlicks like crazy and desperately needed a trim. I think he would have preferred looking like a skater all summer. But he got a clean-cut look with a bit of gel swooped up on his bangs.

This is a photo of how he reacted when he saw himself in the mirror after it was finished. You can’t hear his whimpers. It really wasn’t that bad, but he didn’t like it.

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Our next stop was for a new hat from a street vendor. And then ice cream.

What’s the difference between a good haircut and a bad haircut? It’s not two weeks. It’s the transformative powers of a new hat and of ice cream.

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I’ve read that we are experiencing the modern revival of barber shops. They’re as cool as craft beer, cold-pressed coffee, thick-rimmed glasses and a look that says “Movember” year-round. I find it funny that this is a worldwide trend. Even the “man bun” has made it here.

“Men are rediscovering what it means to be manly, the hipster has been resurrected, and facial hair has become the fad de jour,” I read today in an Australian magazine. Thank goodness my kids are too young to fall for this foolishness.

Even they know they just needed their cowlicks tamed.

Photos in the salon touted everything from bowl cuts to “Flock of Seagulls” hair wings. I think the idea is to make getting a haircut an experience and less of a chore.

Getting a haircut overseas is definitely a cultural experience. It’s like traveling itself: a bit of an adventure, and you just have to roll with the punches no matter what happens.

Haircuts abroad don’t always work out the way you’d hoped. But new hats and ice cream cones have healing benefits the world over.

 

4th of July with the Expats

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Move abroad, and chances are, when there’s a holiday party, you’ll be invited.

I love holidays. I come from a family of holiday over-achievers. If there’s a day to be celebrated, there’s going to be a party. Or at least a gathering. And plenty of food and libations.

The 4th of July is my favorite celebration of summer. It doesn’t have the depressing undertones of Memorial Day (fellow military spouses might get what I mean here) or the “summer is over” feeling of Labor Day. It means I’m usually at a pool or a lake or a barbecue enjoying life in the USA.

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This year, we’re in Croatia, and it’s the first time in a long time that Sarge has had to work on the 4th. I don’t get homesick often, but truth be told, today is one of those days that I miss my kids being in the neighborhood bike parade or the family going boating for the weekend or just hanging out with my parents and siblings and all of the cousins at my parents’ pool.

The boys and I wore red, white and blue anyway and met up with our band of brothers – the American expat group we met on Facebook. They invited us to a cookout.

We had the assignment of bringing watermelon, so I searched for one that would fit in my bicycle basket and could make it to our destination without incident. We succeeded.

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Our hosts, a fantastic American nomadic couple traveling the world with their 7-month-old baby, had been preparing for days. They had a cooler full of ice (unheard of in Croatia!), real cheeseburgers (also unheard of in Croatia!) and buns, corn on the cob, vegetable skewers, lemonade and libations and a Frisbee game to take part in.

They also had American music, which I’ve sorely been missing, and chalk for the kids to mark their territory with a flag.

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None of us could find fireworks here, but it didn’t matter. I may not have seen explosions in the sky or heard the “Star-Spangled Banner,” but I haven’t given up my national identity. The red, white and blue balloons we spotted on our bike ride to the expats’ party made us feel like we had arrived. We had found our people.

We are American expats abroad. We are lucky to be here. And we are lucky to be able to return home when we want to our baseball games and barbecues and flag-waving freedom.

Happy Independence Day, America! You are something to celebrate.

 

 

‘Lucky’ Is All in Your Perspective

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Sarge and I just sent the boys to the market by themselves to forage seafood and bread to go along with our salad for dinner.

The boys are 10 and 11, and they have a bit more freedom in Croatia than they had back home. We did break down and buy them cell phones to call us, but that was only after “W” went with a friend to take a dog for a long walk and didn’t tell us where he was going. We worried about his whereabouts. Now they check in, or they just call to tell on each other, the way brothers do.

They’ve grown up a bit in our nearly two months abroad. Not only do they know more Croatian than I do, but they are adjusting to the differences of life in another country.

A few days ago, their international school let out for the summer. On the last day, they got to take a field trip to an island to swim and play and have pizza and ice cream. Yesterday, they got to go to a classmate’s beach birthday party.

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As a Midwestern mom, I can’t help but think they should feel lucky to have all of these beautiful experiences living by the sea. But feeling “lucky” is all in your perspective. Sometimes all they can talk about is people and things they miss back home.

I don’t know what they’ll remember long-term about life in Croatia. I can only hope that exposing them to different people and cultures will give them insight and skills that will help them in life.

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But I don’t want to overthink it. Moving abroad is a choice we made for them, and sometimes it is overwhelmingly different and foreign. We are each finding our own ways to meet people, make connections and work out the hard parts.

Two months ago, I never would have let my kids ride their bikes to the store in a foreign country and rely on them to find squid and scampi in a market where everything is in a different language. But I have faith that they’ll come back with dinner. And maybe a good story about how they foraged it.

We’ll sit down together for dinner and talk about our day in this sometimes amazing and very different country. And we’ll talk about what we want to do tomorrow.

No Liquids and No Gondoliers

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The post office here is not the friendliest place on Earth.

Of the handful of times I’ve been to Hrvatska Pošta, the service operated by the Republic of Croatia, I’ve tried to give it a second and third chance. Maybe it’s just my lack of knowledge of the language or of their process that’s the problem. Or maybe the level of customer service here is just a different standard. A less friendly standard. Sometimes even a harsh standard.

When you walk into the post office, it’s kind of like a deli counter where you have to take a number at an electronic kiosk. The screen is all in Croatian, and you get a different ticket if you’re mailing something than if you’re doing a money transfer or other services the post office provides. I’ve had to hold my phone up on my Google Translate app to figure it out what kind of ticket to select. People behind me have been a little impatient about that.

I’ve noticed that the concept of lines here barely exists. When we were boarding a bus at a Krka National Park last month, for example, it felt like we were in danger of being trampled. Even at some of the groceries, I’ve seen people crowd the cashiers and try to cut ahead if they have fewer items. I would imagine that’s why they have a strict line system at the post office.

But even when I thought it was my turn, the clerk said no. My ticket clearly said I was in the right line. There was no one behind me, and I thought maybe I selected the wrong kind of ticket. I gave the clerk a confused look and she finally let me proceed. I needed a box to package my items, and when she saw one of the things I wanted to mail, she said no. It was a bottle of tightly sealed olive oil, a prized good of this region. No, my parents will not be getting Istrian olive oil delivered. No liquids allowed.

I left a little frustrated, still wondering what I did wrong with the line system and how I could get around the mailing liquids issue, when I decided to do something more relaxing.

While Sarge and I had our coffee on the lanai this morning, I told him I wished I could find another old lady to sing to me, like the Nonna I never had. He told me to go find the guy with the rowboat who takes people from the car side of Zadar to the pedestrian-filled Old Town. So I did.

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I walked around the marina in search of the rower, what they refer to here as a “barkajoli.” I wanted it to be like Venice, where a gondolier might sing to me while we crossed the water. That was not to be today. My barkajoli was on his cell phone the whole time.

Still, it was a lovely jaunt that was more peaceful than the footbridge. The passenger beside me was friendly, spoke a little English, and let me know the charge for the service was only 5 Kuna (less than a dollar).

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As I write this, I’m in a café, where I could really use a glass of water. Cold tap water would be perfect, not all of this water “with gas.” But I’m going to have to stalk the waiter if I want a refill. Service here is different. You can order one cup of coffee and sit in a café all morning an no one will care that you are taking up a table.

Maybe being here will teach me to relax, take my time and not rush the check. Unless I’m in line at the post office. Then I’ll have to learn to push ahead and get my package in the mail.

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Farmers’ Secrets

The secrets of life may be discovered by talking to the farmers who run the fruit stands along the scenic Adriatic Highway along the coast between Split and Dubrovnik.

One of the treasures from our weekend road trip to the southern tip of Croatia is a piece of scrap paper tucked in my purse. On it, a farmer’s wife from the Neretva River valley mapped out a centuries-old olive grove to find the best olive oil, her favorite restaurant to have lamb and her recommendation for a sandy beach where we wouldn’t step on too many stones.

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Between offering us skewers of cantaloupe, sips of freshly squeezed orange juice and spoons of jam from the fruit in their fields, the English-speaking Croatian couple we met at their roadside produce stand offered advice on health and wellness and the benefits of a slower pace of life.

Earlier in the day, “W,” my 10-year-old, picked me a flower near the restaurant where we had lunch at the cable car stop high above the walled city of Dubrovnik. I fashioned his gift into a corsage and tied it around my wrist. I had forgotten about it by the time we got to the fruit stand, but the farmer’s wife saw it and picked a yellow flower to go with it.

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Her husband explained that the fragile yellow Mediterranean plant is known as “the immortal,” and it contains a sought-after essential oil. His wife said people come to isolated islands along the coast just to pick it. The farmer told me to soak the flower heads in olive oil for 40 days and then rub it into my skin. Maybe he knows where to find the Fountain of Youth, too.

In his next breath, the farmer switch topics to beer and gave Sarge the local perspective on the merits of Ožujsko over Karlovačko. Then he gave us more samples: peaches for our boys and fresh candied orange and lemon peels that had been drying in the sun for us.

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At one roadside stand, we got an unexpected culinary lesson and a glimpse into the lives of people who do backbreaking work to really bring the farm to people’s tables. Tourism is their livelihood, and the relationships they make with people who stop in mean the difference between making a sale or being passed up.

We didn’t leave empty-handed. The bottles of fruit syrup were too pretty to pass up. We got an assortment of items and some candied fruit the sellers suggested we have with coffee instead of adding sugar to our coffee.

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Before we could head back to the car, the farmer filled another bag with peaches and figs and handed it to me while he shoved a fig in my mouth. He told us go down to the sandy beach, sit in the water and eat peaches and figs. That, he said, would be the perfect way to experience Croatia.

Keep On Pedaling

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We have wheels.

Sarge bought us used bikes over the weekend from a Croatian Craigslist-type seller who had dozens of bicycles in various states of repair parked on the side of his house. We negotiated the price through broken English, our sad attempts at Croatian and the help of a bilingual child. The seller delivered the bikes to us that evening and says he’ll buy them back from us when we leave the country.

Right now, I’m happy to be staying for a while. We have more places to explore.

With our new wheels, the boys and I have already made trips to the beach, the market and to school – all in less than half the time it would have taken us to walk. I have the “mom” bike with a basket on the front and the back.

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The kids are pleased with their reconditioned models mostly because it will save them from walking everywhere. And we’re all learning the rules of the road, after being yelled at first in Croatian, then in German, then in English by the same driver who wanted us to walk our bikes through a crosswalk instead of ride them.

Today, I rode the kids to school and then headed to the city’s Sea Organ for a little inspiration to start the day. Here’s the haunting tune it plays when the waves roll in over the steps along the boardwalk:

 

Then I set up my office for the morning in a café at the Old Town forum, where I secured a shady table, a Wi-Fi connection and a macchiato, and I could hear the charming sound of a man playing the accordion and singing for tips.

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Aside from a giant knot I have on my shin from an error negotiating a curb, getting around on my new ride has been pretty sweet. Sarge says he may need to get me training wheels, but it’s all coming back to me like riding a bicycle.

I even bought a pair of white Converse to blend in with the locals. (Read about my aversion to painful heels). My bike gave me a good excuse to invest in practical footwear.

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I can’t say I miss my car or sitting in traffic. I do miss my car radio and listening to news and music on my commute. The accordion is a nice change, though.

I’m learning to adapt to twists in the road and curbs that jump up on you. You’ve got to take some time to get your footing, move ahead and keep on pedaling.

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The Difference a Friend Makes

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Three weeks into being the new kid at an international school, “W,” my youngest, received a birthday invitation to go to a paintball party. I can’t tell you how excited that made my whole family.

A couple of Mondays ago, I was lamenting that 10-year-old “W” was having problems adjusting to life in another country. Making a couple of friends has made all the difference — for all of us.

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One friend I’ll call “D” has already shown my boys cool swimming spots and the best places to get ice cream and pizza. After school one day, he was our personal tour guide and translator around town. I first got to know him when a play date at his house turned into a get-together for both our families. That turned into another gathering and an invitation to go to their family’s weekend home for a barbecue.

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That was our most amazing invitation yet. It was an idyllic setting along a quiet bay with clear turquoise water that made us want to jump in, despite the cold water. It was so gorgeous I felt like I was in a dream. After a dip, we warmed up with good food and company at “D’s” great-grandparents’ cottage.

Multiple generations of “D’s” family treated us like one of their own. They served us coffee, homemade bread, soup, smoked meats and cheese, salad, potatoes and meat grilled on the brick barbecue. We ended the meal with baklava “D’s” grandma made and rakia (Croatian moonshine) that was a gift from a neighbor.

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Great-Granny told us lots of stories in Croatian even when no one was translating and I was the only one sitting next to her. The translated parts included tales of giving birth to seven children with no doctor or midwife and how she had to warm one tiny newborn daughter in the oven (yes, she survived). She told of her wartime memories. And I didn’t need to speak her language to know she worried that my kids with bare feet would catch a cold when they ran around with no shoes on after playing in the sea.

Aside from a few troublesome teens (they exist everywhere) who have bothered our kids at the playground by our house, everyone has welcomed us here. This morning, our landlord left a bag of freshly picked cherries at our doorstep. Small gestures like that have made our move easier.

We’ve been grateful for invitations from strangers. Sometimes it feels like being on a blind date. I went to meet some Expats from an online group for drinks one night, and I had to post that I was the one wearing a black-and-white striped dress and jean jacket so they could spot me. One morning this week, some moms from the boys’ school sent me a message inviting me to meet them for breakfast, and I introduced myself first by video so they could recognize me.

I’m realizing that I’m not too old to make new friends myself. But I’m mostly relieved that my kids are learning the art of doing it themselves.