complaints, money, weather

This heat can go away now! So can scammers!

Yesterday, it got up to about 98 degrees. I spent most of the day in rooms where I have portable air conditioners, which helped a bit. It’s still pretty miserable, though, this time of year in Germany. I was sweating all day, and spent a good portion of the afternoon sleeping and having weird dreams. I even pulled out a cold wrap I bought on a trip to Maine about ten years ago. It can be microwaved or frozen and put over the shoulders. It does help to cool one off, but only for as long as the wrap stays cold… which isn’t that long.

Just before I was about to go to bed, I got an email from USAA. Someone tried to use my credit card to buy $107 worth of chicken wings from Wingstop! I had been watching the card all week, because there was a pending fraudulent charge all week from Stack Magazines. The charge was authorized, but the merchant never took the money. I didn’t call, because in the past, when I’ve called the bank about pending charges, they tell me there’s nothing they can do until it goes through. Obviously, the person who got my credit card number decided to be bold and try to order food. Thankfully, USAA caught it, but now once again, I have to wait for a new card to get to me.

A few months ago, my debit card got scammed, and I had to wait for a new one to get to me. I was pretty angry about it, because they kept denying legit charges, but then when an obviously fraudulent one went through, they approved it. It was obvious, because it was for a food outlet in the USA, and I can’t even access their Web site from my location because it’s geo restricted. They denied charges in Europe, thinking that was “weird”, even though I live in Europe and have for eight years. But then they let some idiot in the USA pay for food and an Uber with my card.

At least this time, they immediately blocked the charge, so good on USAA for that. I see that they’ve also already assigned me a new number, though I still have to wait for the card to get to me. I do think it’s crappy that I’ve had this happen twice now with USAA’s cards, just in 2022 alone. It’s probably not their fault, though. It’s the lowlife scumbags who think they have the right to steal from other people by committing credit card fraud who are at fault. Also, I was happy that the person I spoke to last night was professional and polite. Unfortunately, that’s no longer a given with USAA. They used to have stellar customer service, but things have definitely gone downhill.

I’ve been trying to get rid of USAA’s banking services, but it’s really hard to do that over here. German banks don’t like doing business with Americans, thanks to our tax laws. They are required to report to the US government on any accounts held by US citizens. So, that’s why we use American banks… It’s a pain. Cumbersome banking is a somewhat small price to pay, though, since the lifestyle is good here. Except, of course, when it gets hot, and there’s no air conditioning. Slowly but surely, Europe is starting to embrace the concept of cooling homes… but our house doesn’t have it yet. I bet our landlord will eventually put it in, though. He says he wants to install a heat pump, replacing the oil system we have now.

I’ve been reading more horror stories about the state of the world. I could write about them today, but I think I’d like to take a short break from those headlines and keep things somewhat “light” for my Friday post. Right now, I’m listening to Doris Day and thinking I’d like to try one of her songs. Writing about the usual topics doesn’t exactly contribute to the romantic mood of Doris Day’s songs. So, I think I will close today’s post and do a little music for a change. It’s good for my mood. Better than reading about gun violence, anti-abortion zealots, and child abuse, anyway…

Happy Friday, y’all.

love, memories, obits

One last toast to a man whose bright light will never really extinguish…

I took the featured photo on a moving bus while touring the Isle of Arran in Scotland back in 2012.

Last night, I sat in front of my computer with Bill and a German beer. I tuned into Zoom, an application I had only used once before last night. The first time I used Zoom, it was for a wine tasting. Last night’s Zoom meeting was for a much more sober purpose. We were there to remember our dear friend, Matt Jensen. Most of us in on the Zoom call knew Matt because he served with Peace Corps/Armenia from 1995-97. But Matt was also widely known in other circles worldwide. He was also a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal in the 1980s, and most recently, he was a beloved teacher at P.S. 110, an elementary school in the Greenpoint area of Brooklyn.

It was in Brooklyn where Matt lost his life just after midnight on May 18, 2021. He was just trying to cross the street– a wide boulevard well known for being dangerous to pedestrians. He had just celebrated his birthday with friends and was on his way home. He’d almost reached home when he was struck and killed by a speeding car on McGuinness Boulevard, the driver having apparently not noticed that they’d hit him and left him for dead!

Apparently, there were no witnesses or surveillance cameras to capture a photo of the person who killed this man with such a huge heart and bright spirit. Based on debris found at that the site where Matt was found, police surmise that he was hit by a black Rolls Royce. He was someone who had devoted his life to helping others– especially through teaching. He was a very gifted teacher, and I learned last night that the young children at the school where he taught practically worshiped him, even if they weren’t in his class. He knew everyone, and they all knew him. He was a very tall guy with incredible energy, so he was hard to miss, even without that vibrant personality and charisma that defined him.

Geoff, the organizer of the memorial, had asked me to sing a song. It always cracks me up that no one ever asks me to speak at memorials or weddings. I usually get asked to sing a song written by someone else. Even at my own father’s memorial, I wasn’t asked to speak. I was asked to sing– and my mom even told me which song she wanted me to perform. I was happy to do it, although my college minor in speech has gone to waste.

Just as I had for my mom when my father died, I sent Geoff a couple of recordings I had made, and he really liked my version of “Imagine”, sort of done Eva Cassidy style. I sing it in her key and with her mood, but more in the straightforward fashion that John Lennon sang it. I guess you could say it’s really “my” style, though heavily influenced by others. I was glad to have Bill with me, as he had graciously downloaded Zoom yesterday so we could figure out the technical aspects of the application. I wanted to make sure we did the music sharing part right. I’m glad to say that it went off well, except that I was very emotional and almost started crying in the middle of it.

Last night, I learned that besides Matt, our Peace Corps community has also recently lost two others– Loretta Land, who was an amazing senior Volunteer who had joined the Peace Corps at age 62– and Don Flumerfelt, who was in the group before mine. Loretta died in January of this year and Don passed in 2019. I had recently been in touch with Loretta, but she kind of dropped off of Facebook. I wondered about her. I can’t say I was surprised about the news that she’d passed, but I am so glad we did get to chat a bit last year. I wasn’t as close to Don, but I do remember spending a great afternoon in Yerevan, making business English conversation recordings for him. I also remember that he was very inventive and had built a shower for another Volunteer.

We also lost an Armenian friend, Ashot, the drummer for a local band in Vanadzor called Snack. Vanadzor was where Matt was originally assigned to work). Snack was an Armenian band, but one of the Volunteers also played with them, so they often performed at our parties. In storage, I have a cassette tape of their music, which always reminds me of so many fun times in Armenia. Ashot would have been turning 49 today, but he passed away of a heart attack in his bed on Thursday of last week. Ashot was also, for a time, married to Rose, a Vanadzor based Volunteer from my group. They shared a son. She was also in attendance last night. Some of the guys would have performed last night, but since Ashot was buried yesterday, it wasn’t possible.

At 7:00pm Germany time, I joined about 25 other people on the Zoom call. I felt so honored to be among them, even if I wasn’t close to Matt in recent years. It was great to see so many familiar faces of people I knew in the 1990s, back when I was trying to make my own mark in the world. To be honest, I left the Peace Corps as an angry person. There were many complex reasons for my anger, and some of them had absolutely nothing to do with my service. But, suffice to say, I was ready to go home in August 1997, thinking that maybe things would get better. What ended up happening for me, personally, was a bit of a nervous breakdown. Ultimately, the “breakdown” wasn’t a bad thing, because it forced me to reset my life and make some changes, to include taking voice lessons that helped me sing last night’s song. But I worried about what people in that group remembered about me, as I was a bit of a mess in the 90s. I was determined not to make an ass of myself. 😉

There were several returned Volunteers from my group, as well as the former country director, the former TEFL director, several Armenians, people who had known Matt through the American University of Armenia, and a woman who knew Matt in Brooklyn. We were also joined by Matt’s cousin, John. I had never met John before, but I immediately liked him. I could tell that losing Matt has been devastating for him. I can’t even fathom how much pain he and Matt’s friends and loved ones felt when they got the terrible news that he’d been killed. I was glad to hear that Matt’s brother is taking good care of Matt’s beloved cats, Katie and Olive.

The participants in the Zoom meeting were scattered around the world. I’m in Germany, but we also had a couple of folks from Armenia, someone in Sweden, someone in Russia, someone in Belize, and a number of folks on the East and West coasts of the United States. It’s amazing to think of how far and wide Matt’s light has spread… and there were so many loving sentiments and stories shared.

One of Matt’s former students, Hoveek, really touched my heart as he spoke about how much Matt had impressed him. When we were in Armenia, it was just a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union. It was a time when there weren’t a lot of Americans there. And Hoveek was immediately moved by this man who was not at all like the people he knew. He spoke movingly about how he observed the way Matt dressed, and how when they visited the Peace Corps office in Yerevan, Hoveek saw the magazines about America and met others. Matt helped Hoveek get a job working for the Peace Corps. I could easily see and hear how much love and gratitude this man had for Matt. It was an honor to hear what he had to say… and really, just to be a part of the large group of people who got to know Matt and were touched by his spirit.

I learned that Matt wrote letters to so many people and had connections to folks in very high places. I think, if he had lived longer, he might have even delved into politics. He loved to talk politics and wasn’t afraid to speak out… but even in death, he will make a difference. There was a huge memorial for him in New York, and some very high ranking people vowed to finally do something about McGuinness Boulevard, a dangerous street that has claimed other people’s lives over the years. If they make that boulevard safer for others, then Matt’s death will have done a great service to so many people… again, a way of sharing that light and affecting others for good.

But I think the most profound commentary I heard regarding last night’s memorial came from my own husband, Bill. Bill never had the chance to meet Matt, but he’s heard me talk about him over the years. My memories of Matt are mostly about some of the hilarious things he said, but also his wild dance skills. Matt loved to dance, and had taken lessons. I don’t dance all that well, but I do like to spin around the dance floor with men with rhythm. I learned last night that Matt would dance with anyone! I have told Bill many stories about Matt over the years, but until last night, all Bill knew about Matt came from my limited perspective.

Thanks to our Zoom meeting memorial, Bill had the chance to hear about Matt from others who knew him through different channels. So, this morning, when I asked Bill what he thought about the memorial, his comments came from a totally different perspective. This was the post I wrote for the Peace Corps Armenia Reunion Facebook group:

My husband, Bill, was sitting in the Zoom meeting with me last night. I just asked him what he thought of the memorial, and he said it was interesting to hear all about Matt from someone other than me. Not having met Matt in person, he was struck by how personal Matt was in his dealings with others. He noticed we didn’t just gush about the positive things, but we mentioned his many quirks, too. And he loved that Matt wrote letters, since letter writing is such a lost art. He said he could tell that teaching was truly Matt’s calling.

And then Bill said, “It made me wish that the person who killed Matt could be there to see and hear just how many people have been affected worldwide by his death, and the profound loss and grief caused by that one careless act. Especially among the kids he taught.”

It really drives home how much we all affect each other, even if it doesn’t always seem like it. My husband never even met Matt, and yet he has been affected by him through me, and now by all of the people who spoke so lovingly about him last night. I take some comfort in knowing that there are so many people worldwide that he taught. Every single one of them has the potential to share his vibrant light with everyone they know, too. In that way, he’ll never truly be gone from the world.

When I think about that, it makes me realize that we all have so much potential… and most of us affect people in ways we’ll never know. We’re all connected. Not to be corny, but Matt’s life was a little like the proverbial “candle in the wind”. It glowed bright and cast warmth and light to so many… and then it was suddenly snuffed out by the careless actions of someone driving a Rolls Royce. Such a bizarre way for a man like Matt to die… it was as if Kurt Vonnegut conjured it for a novel! But in the end, his death may end up saving lives, as local activists continue to demand that something is finally done about that unsafe crossing.

Every person has the potential to share something unforgettable and good. Matt Jensen shared his light generously with people far and wide, and because he cared and shared so very much, that generosity is still perpetuating through people who will never, ever forget him.

Bill never met Matt, but Matt still affected Bill. Imagine what those young students in Brooklyn will do as they grow up. Maybe one or two of them will be inspired to teach. Maybe a few will decide to join the Peace Corps. Maybe one or two will learn to dance, or become fans of ABBA, or travel the world. Or maybe they will simply tell their friends and family about this tall, blond, monarchy obsessed ABBA fan who taught them so much , helped them learn English, made them laugh… or made them a memorable meal with beets and cabbage, or a delicious pound cake!

Matt was a thoughtful, kind, and loving person to the very end, and he always thought of others. Upon hearing of Prince Philip’s death in April, Matt wrote letters of condolences to Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Anne. Princess Anne wrote back before Matt died, but I think I heard that Her Majesty the Queen also responded, but her letter arrived after Matt’s death. I like to think that Matt knows how many people loved him and will remember him, sharing his light to infinite numbers of people around the world. And I hope he’s up there in the great beyond, sharing a toast with Loretta, Don, and Ashot… and anyone else beyond the bar who was touched by Armenia and knows how much Armenians love making toasts!

I’m so grateful that I was able to share my memories with other people… and in some small way, honor Matt with one of my own gifts. Maybe I can share my light the way Matt did with whatever time I have left. The most important thing Matt taught me is that no one is promised the next minute. So I hope this post inspires you to share yourself… because I promise, you matter to someone. And you probably matter to many more people than you will ever know.


Repost: Remembering Barbara Bejoian, diasporas, and amethysts…

This post appeared on my original blog on May 8, 2017. I am reposting it today, as/is.

Every once in awhile, I get reminded of people I used to know.  Sometimes I look them up to see what they’re up to.  I didn’t really know Armenian-American playwright Barbara Bejoian, although I did have the chance to meet her back in 1995.  At the time, I was a Peace Corps trainee in Armenia.  Ms. Bejoian was in Armenia on a Fulbright Scholarship.  She had come with her family and was teaching at the American University of Armenia (AUA) and, I believe, Yerevan State University.  She graciously came to see us TEFL trainees (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) one day.

I remember her as a woman in her youthful forties, with long dark hair, a bright and warm smile, and a very engaging personality.  She talked about her work in Armenia and introduced me to the word “diaspora”.  That’s not a joke.  There I was, 23 years old and a graduate of what was then known as Longwood College.  I had been an English major.  I had not come into contact with the concept of a diaspora before I moved to Armenia.

For those who don’t know, a diaspora is a group of people from a certain place who live in another place.  Life in Armenia has been historically difficult.  Many Armenians have voluntarily left their homeland and resettled in places that are more comfortable or hospitable.  Others were forcibly driven out of their country.  In the United States, there are large Armenian communities in the Boston and Fresno areas.  France is also host to many ethnic Armenians, as is Iran. 

Many Armenians lived in Turkey; some still live there, despite the Armenian Genocide that occurred in the early 20th century.  At one time, there were millions of Armenians in Turkey; now, their numbers are in the thousands and they are concentrated in the Istanbul area rather than the historically Armenian eastern part of the country.

Now I know that many people from different places are living in disaporas.  Diaspora is a word that is often used to describe Jewish communities around the world. But, as I found out when I was a Volunteer, Armenians have some things in common with Jews who perished in the Holocaust.  As a matter of fact, Adolf Hitler looked to what happened to the Armenian people as justification for his plan to exterminate Jewish people. 

I remember Barbara Bejoian, gloriously American in her Armenianness, talking to our group about her work as a playwright and what it meant for her to be living in the diaspora.  She led us through a writing exercise and had us describe Armenia in a creative way.  She was so encouraging and intelligent and I remember being inspired by her achievements.  I remember my colleagues coming up with very unique ways to describe their impressions of Armenia. 

One idea that sticks in my mind came from a fellow trainee who described Armenian homes like amethyst crystals.  The buildings many Armenians were living in back in 1995 looked bland, decrepit, and very Soviet.  Walk into one of those homes and you were likely to find it beautifully decorated.  It was like breaking open a bland looking amethyst and finding gorgeous purple crystals on the inside.  In fact, the year after I met Barbara Bejoian, I had an experience that reminded me of that “amethyst” concept. 

An Armenian couple I was friends with invited me to go with them to Lake Sevan for an afternoon.  We went, but missed the last bus.  So we started walking and my Armenian friend, a friendly but large man, thumbed a ride.  A man picked us up and took us back to Yerevan.  Before we parted ways, he invited us into his home for coffee.  Although the building was very shabby looking, the inside of this man’s apartment was decorated with paintings his son had done.  It turned out he was going to display some of them in Paris at an art gallery.  I remember being absolutely blown away by the experience.  Here I was with an Armenian couple.  We had hitchhiked, something I would NEVER do in the United States.  And we’d ended up meeting this man whose son was an amazing artist.  You’d never know it to see the outside of where he was living.  When I think of that experience, I am reminded of how Barbara Bejoian had inspired a colleague to compare Armenian homes to amethysts.

Like many Armenians, Barbara Bejoian had a gift for creativity and a love for the arts.  It’s no small feat to be a successful playwright.  Barbara Bejoian’s works had been performed in venues in several countries.  I could tell she was a very special person who had touched many, even though when I encountered her, she was still fairly young.  Below is a passage from her obituary…

Ms. Bejoian, winner of 10 National Endowment for the Arts awards, was a professor of playwriting, English, and creative writing. Her students ranged from children whose second language was English to undergraduates and graduate students at Brown University, New York University, Rhode Island School of Design, and Rhode Island College. One of her plays will appear in a future anthology of Armenian writers, to be published by Columbia University Press.

I did not know that Barbara Bejoian would perish less than ten years after she led her session during my Peace Corps training.  In 2002, she was stricken with metastatic rectal cancer.  In April 2004 at age 49, she died, leaving behind her husband and two sons. 

I don’t know what made me think of her yesterday.  I guess it’s just my wandering mind, which can alternatively be a blessing or a curse.  I was moved by memories shared about her in her obituary and suddenly felt very fortunate to have had the chance to meet her in person.  I doubt I would have ever heard of her had I not been sitting in Peace Corps training that day.

The older I get, the more I think that sometimes you end up in places for a reason.  I never aspired to be a Peace Corps Volunteer when I was growing up.  I really only wanted what other people had.  I knew I didn’t want to stay in Gloucester, Virginia, but I probably would have been alright with settling in a town somewhat like it.  I was driven to join the Peace Corps out of a need to leave my hometown, get away from my parents, and strike out on my own.  I never thought I’d be accepted into the Peace Corps, and yet I was.  It changed my life, if only because it vastly broadened my perspective of the world and opened my eyes to places like Armenia and people like Barbara Bejoian. 

I write this realizing that my experience is not everyone’s experience.  Some people have encountered disaster in the Peace Corps.  I will admit that I didn’t always enjoy the work or the people I worked with.  Twenty years later, I can see that once I made that leap, I couldn’t go back home.  Barbara Bejoian was part of that life expanding experience, as were many other people.  Actually, now that I think about it, I met a number of very interesting and inspirational people during those two years.  Several professors from the United States came to Armenia to lend their talents.  I was so fortunate to be able to engage with them.  I didn’t realize it then, but I do now.  I didn’t think I made a difference back then, but I do now.  What a gift it is to have had the chance to meet Barbara Bejoian and others like her.  Thinking about her today reminds me that one should always be open to accepting the gifts others offer.