Ode to My Hometown

The village now known as Sleepy Hollow, New York, is an interesting place.  It was settled in the 1600s, but it was Washington Irving who put it on the map in 1820 when he made it the setting for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” his tale of a pumpkin-throwing headless horseman and a skittish schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane. 

Metal sculpture of the headless horseman and Ichabod C.

When I grew up there, it was called North Tarrytown.  In 1996, residents voted to change its name to Sleepy Hollow in an effort to drum up tourism and offset the loss of tax revenue brought on by the closure of the General Motors plant in town.

The rebranding effort seems to have worked – it has become a popular day trip destination for New Yorkers, with an estimated 100,000 visitors between September and November each year.  When you Google “Sleepy Hollow,” there are a number of websites and YouTube videos assuring you that the town is an actual place and encouraging you to visit. 

For $24.99, you can take a two-hour walking tour of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery on a Friday night and hear about the famous people buried there, including Washington Irving (of course), two of Alexander Hamilton’s kids (interesting!), Andrew Carnegie, and in the funnest of the fun facts, IMO, hotel tycoon Leona Helmsley, one of Time magazine’s Top 10 Tax Dodgers, who fittingly used some of the little people’s money to erect a mausoleum complete with Roman columns and stained glass windows.  Talk about a home in the country.

Who knew this place could become a tourist trap?

When I hear the cemetery is now a tourist attraction, it makes me feel nostalgic.  “Aww!  That’s where I smoked cigarettes for the first time!”

All this newfound tourism does not exactly jibe with my memories of the place I still consider home, even though I haven’t lived there in more than 30 years.

There have been times when I’ve told people I’m from New York and they have assumed I’m talking about New York City, with its mass of people, noise, and excitement. The truth is that I’m from a small town measuring only five square miles. The tight-knit community that I was a part of when I was young was anything but bustling and impersonal; it was a place where I felt safe, included, and cared for, and it provided a foundation that has stayed with me all these years.

As a kid in the 1970s, I felt free to explore my neighborhood and have adventures without adult supervision.  One of my earliest memories is being allowed to walk more than a half mile with the “big kids” to the penny candy store just off of Route 9, a very busy road. 

Shirts were optional

We rode bikes all over our neighborhood and played down by the train tracks.  We would put coins on the tracks and let trains run over them, keeping the flattened versions as treasures after the trains had passed by.  Mercifully, no one I was with ever got stuck on the tracks or stepped on the wrong rail. 

There were endless games of kickball, stickball, and tackle and touch football.  We played Ding Dong Ditch (ring the doorbell and run like hell) and Hide and Seek, where people could be tucked into spots anywhere along the street.

Much of this unsupervised time with peers was not unique to a particular town.  It was part of the era to let kids out in the morning on summer and weekend days and call them back in only for lunch and dinner.  Still, there was something magical about spending so much unstructured play time outside with friends.  It is part of what I remember most fondly about my childhood.

Living in a small town also meant being able to participate in a variety of activities.  Before high school, there were town sports leagues like the North Tarrytown Girls Softball League (Honeybees rule!), and during high school, the sports teams and clubs were open to everyone for the most part. We were encouraged to try activities we thought we might like. I started playing field hockey in the fall.  In the spring, I played softball for two seasons, then switched to soccer as a junior.  I ran winter track during senior year.

The idea of picking up a sport in high school or changing sports during junior year would be very unusual now, especially at one of the bigger schools.  We didn’t have to choose one sport when we were 10 or 11 and excel at it in order to participate through the end of high school, and we didn’t have to play that one sport year round.      

Being able to try different activities was important for me. I discovered some interests that I wouldn’t have known about and learned that taking chances sometimes had a big payoff.

Perhaps the most important part about growing up in Sleepy Hollow was the sense of continuity and connection. When I look at my kindergarten picture, I realize that I ended up graduating from high school with the majority of those kids.  Many of the teachers stayed in the district for years as well.

This sign was a generous gift from the Class o’ 1986

The schools were small even though North Tarrytown (aka Sleepy Hollow) and Tarrytown were a combined school district, and many students from Pocantico and local parochial schools also came to the high school. Enrollment at Sleepy Hollow High School was somewhere around 800 students when I was there, and my class had about 160 students.

There has been a great deal of research about the academic and social benefits of small schools, and much of it has concluded that kids feel safer and happier when they feel seen and known, both by their peers and by the faculty. I know this was true for me.

Even though the schools and the town are small, the population is very diverse. The town website refers to the “vibrant mix of cultures that characterize Sleepy Hollow,” and this was one of the best things about growing up in this community.

There are also many shared memories with people when you go through school K-12 together. There were seasonal rituals in town, like skating at the Tarrytown Lakes when it was cold enough to freeze over, trips to Ice Cream Villa after sports games, Memorial Day parades through the center of town, and Saturday afternoon football games at the high school.

There were many local businesses that were around for years whose proprietors were well-known and well-liked throughout the community, like Fleetwood Pizza, Shanghai Inn, Mory’s Army & Navy store (where I got some of my first lesbian outfits without realizing it), and Uncle Jerry’s Deli.

One other aspect of Sleepy Hollow that I have always loved is the location on the Hudson River. I find myself drawn to water. Even now, when I go home to visit, I am struck by the beauty of the views and the sunsets.

There is a saying attributed to everyone from Jonas Salk to an anonymous “wise woman” about how the best things parents can provide are “roots and wings.”  My mom and dad certainly did; my hometown did too, and this is part of why I have such a deep appreciation and affection for the little village where I grew up. 

A very old church with an updated message
Drive by shot of Fleetwood on one of my trips home years ago
Pat! (Now closed, this picture was posted on Yelp by the most recent owner)
A look down Beekman Avenue — the main drag in town that leads to the river
This eagle was originally in Grand Central Station and moved north in 1910
Great place to catch a ride to NYC and also to flatten pennies
My old man and my young man talking things over in 2012
Unfiltered shot of the Hudson River
Leaving town on the new Cuomo bridge
A closing shot of the Tappan Zee Bridge back in the day

An American in Japan

Eight years after I went to Spain, another opportunity to live abroad came up – this time in Japan.  The thought of going that far away, both geographically and culturally, was definitely nerve-wracking, but instead of having to talk myself into it, I wanted to go.

I was in a much different place at 28 than I was at 19, and the circumstances of this trip were exponentially easier than those involved with my study abroad semester. I was married, and my (then) husband had an opportunity to work for a year in Hamamatsu, a coastal city of about 800,000 midway between Tokyo and Osaka. He had lived in Japan previously and was reasonably competent with the language, and his employer would essentially handle the details; all I had to do was agree to go. I had been teaching high school English for three years at that point, and the plan was for me to try to find a job at a language school.

So we did it — put all of our possessions in storage, sold our cars, and rented out our house. As I would have expected, the journey to Japan and the first couple of weeks were a little rocky, but as I noted in the journal that I kept that year, I understood that this early rough stage would not last forever.

(I had completely forgotten that I even kept a journal, and was ecstatic after unearthing it while doing research for this blog entry.  I had captured everyday moments like this: “Yesterday we set up the apartment and fought with the washing machine. It’s pretty hard to know what’s wrong when you can only read a small part of the manual.”)

Shortly after we arrived, I found work at the Four Seasons Language School teaching English in a variety of locations.  Some classes took place at the Four Seasons building, about 15 minutes from our apartment, while others required driving to a wide range of settings: a kindergarten housed at a Shinto temple 45 minutes outside the city, a junior high school about 30 minutes away, and several more local places, including an all-girls Catholic high school, a junior college, and two businesses. 

I got off to quite a start.  My first day I was asked to give a brief introductory speech to the students at the all-girls high school.  When I got there, I was given slippers to change into in the lobby (as is customary in homes, schools, and businesses), and then escorted to the gym, which was stifling hot and packed. 

The nun running the school spoke to the girls for a minute or two, several times mentioning “Susan-sensei.”  Then she motioned for me to come to the stage and said, “Berry clothes.” 

Hmm, I thought.  Berry clothes? 

Oh!  Very close!  As in, speak very close to the microphone. 

Then she said, “In the middle.” 

Huh?

Oh!  She wants me to move. 

I shuffled to the middle of the stage in my slippers.  Thankfully I didn’t kick them off, as I had already done twice in the previous ten minutes.

I mumbled “Good morning,” then paused and looked at the microphone because I wasn’t sure I was speaking loud enough. 

The gym teacher in the front row must have thought I was waiting for a response because he shouted something harsh, and the next thing I knew, hundreds of girls were bowing to me in unison, saying, “Good morning, Susan-sensei!” I instinctively bowed back, which I’m sure was the wrong thing to do, and launched into my little prepared speech. 

There was no telling how many girls understood what I was saying because I was using words like “colleagues” and “unfortunately” (I’m not sure what I was talking about that was unfortunate, but this is what I wrote in my journal); in any case, I counted the event as a win because I finished without fainting or unknowingly throwing out insults, both of which seemed like real possibilities.

Driving was another intimidating task I faced at the beginning. 

Japanese road sign

My husband and I purchased a used car shortly after we got to Japan, as well as a scooter that I would use to get back and forth to Four Seasons.  I had been practicing driving on the left side of the road, but was far from confident.  I would be doing the driving for work in a car provided by the school, and I was worried about the street signs, most of which were written in a combination of English and three Japanese alphabets: I had mastered two of the three. Attempting to read street signs I had a two-thirds chance of understanding while overriding muscle memory to drive on the right side of the road was, well, exciting!

A few weeks into my teaching job, I got severely lost on my way to a class at a local company. Over the course of two hours, I stopped for directions three times (it was 1997, pre-Smartphones), landed on an expressway, where I accidentally barreled through the entry toll without taking a ticket, headed in the opposite direction from where I needed to go, was chastised by a toll collector, and called Four Seasons twice to get help, once from a payphone on the side of the road and once from the control room of the toll station — chaperoned by the disgusted toll collector. Needless to say, my class had to be cancelled.

Coworkers Rieko (striped shirt) and
Kanami (tan sweater) saved me from
disaster on the highway

Even in trying situations like this, it all just felt so much easier than when I was in Spain. I wasn’t living alone, and I had much more support from the amazing ladies at my school and from the circle of friends I developed there.  Being a little bit older also gave me perspective that any rough patches were temporary and occasionally even amusing. 

As a result, I was able to enjoy what I was seeing and learning, and the rewards of the trip were even greater than they had been in Spain.

I was able to get a window into Japan through my work.  My students ranged in age from five to eighty, and I was teaching mostly conversation classes, so we spent a lot of time just talking about life. We had many discussions about cultural differences between Japan and America that I found fascinating.  There was also a custom for students to throw welcome parties and goodbye parties for teachers, so I had an opportunity to go out to restaurants and even karaoke with my adult students on a number of occasions. 

Overall, the year worked out better than I ever could have hoped. I eventually learned how to speak Japanese well enough to communicate and to get around on my own. We were able to travel some within Japan and saw so many pretty things — rock gardens, temples, bridges, and gates, often times unexpected pockets of beauty in an otherwise dreary, cement landscape. I also found that I loved the simplicity of Japanese design, furnishings, and artwork. But what touched me most, and what stays with me as I look back, were the people. I developed some great friendships, several of which extended long beyond our time in Japan.

Many of the people I worked with, and especially a coworker who I recently learned passed away last fall, represented the best of Japan — they were patient, gracious, hard-working, kind, and soft spoken yet strong-willed. They were curious. They loved to laugh. More than 20 years later, these are the things that I remember and value most about this incredible experience. I can see that more than “kinda clearly.”

Teaching a kids class at Four Seasons with my coworker and friend Keiko
Dinner and karaoke with my evening class
The wonderful ladies in my Tuesday morning class
Kindergarten class at the Shinto temple
Welcome party with Yamaha businessmen
They called me Speed Racer
Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) in Kyoto
Floating torii gate in Miyajima, built in 1168, a mere 800 years before my birth
Visiting cherished Hamamatsu friends Kevin and Ingrid in Canada several years after we all returned from Japan
Keiko visiting us in Boston in fall of 2000
My favorite rock garden

An American in Spain

We were one hour from Seville when the program director walked up and down the aisles of the train, handing out index cards to each of us.  

“You will be living with a married couple with a student daughter,” he said to me.  I took the index card and wondered what my Spanish “family” would be like.  These were the people I would be living with during my study abroad program in southern Spain in the spring of my junior year of college.

I had arrived in Spain three days earlier and was trying to keep my anxiety at bay.  I was tired from the journey from New York to Madrid, trying to adjust to the time difference, and overwhelmed by the prospect of living on my own for four months with a family I had never met.  I also didn’t speak Spanish very well, and all of my classes would be taught in Spanish.

On the train ride from Madrid to Seville, I chatted nervously with the group of American students whom I had spent the previous days with sightseeing and acclimating. We were all embarking on the same “immersion” adventure. When we pulled into the station, I lugged my heavy suitcase off the train and waited for a cab.  This was the moment we would each have to make our own way. 

A little backstory: the truth is, I didn’t really want to go to Spain or Europe. I knew my school offered a study abroad program and was considering it, but concluded it would be too overwhelming.  Then I spoke with a friend of my sister’s who had just returned from Spain. He told me all about his experience and said, “Don’t think about it.  Just do it.” Even though I was young, immature, and hyper-resistant to change (and knew all of this about myself), I understood that this was a one-time chance that I would regret not taking if I let my anxiety do the deciding.  

Hence I found myself in a cab bringing me to the apartment building where I would be living.  After getting my bag out of the trunk, the driver started to leave; I somehow indicated that I needed his help getting in.  He obliged and buzzed up to the apartment number on the index card.

My Spanish home

“Quien?” (who is it?) a gruff woman asked into the box.

The cab driver looked at me.  All of the Spanish words I knew disappeared.  I shrugged my shoulders and gave him a blank look.  

“Quien?” the woman asked again, sounding more annoyed this time.

I finally remembered one helpful word — “estudiante” — and said it to the cab driver.

He said something to her.  She said something to him.  He said something else to her, and then he smiled at me and left.

An interminable ten minutes later, a short, sturdy-looking woman came down to the lobby where I was perseverating.  Angelita, my Spanish “mother,” briskly introduced herself, grabbed my bag, and brought me upstairs in the elevator.  

Angelita

The apartment was a small two-bedroom place, with a galley kitchen, a formal living room that looked unused, and a little TV room.  

I met Esperanza, my 15-year-old “sister,” and was shown to my room.  Espe, as she was called, announced, in a manner that could never be confused with subtle, that I was taking over her room.  I wondered where her father was, and where she would be staying.

After getting my bags settled, we sat down for a meal.  Angelita served hot dogs, which completely surprised me. We eat hot dogs for a living in New York, I thought, but I had no idea they even had hot dogs in Spain! (Oh, Grasshopper, so much to discover …) I later found out that she had not been expecting me for another week and did not have much food in the refrigerator when I arrived.  That explained her tone when she answered the buzzer.

As the evening went on, I kept expecting my host father to come home from work.  Eventually I asked Angelita about him, and learned that he had been killed in a car accident the year before.  The family had lived in Pamplona, in northern Spain, and after the accident she and Espe had moved to Seville, Angelita’s hometown.

I slowly pieced together that she had portrayed her family as husband, wife, and daughter to my study abroad program, perhaps in order to ensure that they would place a student with her.  It was clear that she needed the stipend the program paid to host families.  In a conversation we had about a month later, she told me that she wanted to host a student to be able to put food on the table for her daughter, even though it meant that she and Espe would share a bedroom.

The hot dogs and the difficult family circumstances were just two of the eye-opening experiences I had that semester.  At 19, I had always lived in an enveloping cocoon of family and friends where there was always someone to turn to if a problem came up. Now, for the first time in my life, I was truly alone. My host family was cordial, but they were in a lot of pain themselves (I see now, looking back as an adult) and so they understandably tolerated more than embraced having me in their home.

La Giralda, the bell tower of the Seville Cathedral

Over the course of the next four months, I got better at being on my own. Because it was often uncomfortable to be in the apartment, and because I was determined not to cling to American friends from my program, I started to learn how to fill my own days, especially on the weekends. It was a struggle at first.

One Sunday in particular stands out, where I had no plans and felt terribly homesick and lonely. I walked to one of my favorite spots, the Seville Cathedral, sat in the back, and cried. After a while, I felt better, took a deep breath, left the cathedral, and went to see other things in the city. I remember that being a pivotal moment. I acknowledged that I was hurting, realized it wasn’t the end of the world, and kept moving.

In addition to being in a number of situations that forced me to grow up a little, there were many other benefits to my time in Spain. I learned much more about Spanish culture than I would have if I were just a tourist. I went home from school for dinner and a rest every day from 2 – 5 p.m., then returned to school for an evening class and socializing with friends from my program.  Many people joked that the pace of the siesta schedule was an indication of laziness, but I felt that the days and evenings unfolded in a way that allowed for a sweet balance between work and play. 

Hanging out at a cafe with friends

I obviously learned a lot about the Spanish language as well, at times by mixing up words. There was the time I told Angelita and Espe that I was pregnant when I was trying to say I was embarrassed.  Turns out you can’t just put a vowel on the end of an English word and Spanish-ize it.  Embarazada is not embarrassed. Another day I told them that my American friend was preparing a dinner of “polla” for her host family. When they keeled over laughing, I discovered an important distinction: “pollo” is chicken. “Polla” is slang for a part of the male anatomy that begins with d.  Vowels are so important.

A highlight of the trip was a visit from my parents and sister.  My dad and I still laugh about some of things that happened, like the time he and I were standing at a bar waiting for drinks and he helped himself to another man’s olives, thinking they were out for the taking like peanuts at an American bar.  That gave me a chance to practice my most deferential vocabulary words. (“My sincerest apologies! My American father did not understand that those were yours!”)

Another day we traveled to the city of Granada and discovered when we arrived that the hotel my father had booked was closed for renovations. My dad kept insisting that someone named Pepe had taken his reservation over the phone, and the cab driver kept telling me “esta cerrado” (it’s closed).  When we pulled up to the hotel, it was a pile of rubble.  On to Plan B.  My mom, whose only Spanish word was “hola,” wandered off while the rest of us were pulling our hair out and somehow got a recommendation for a hotel right down the street.

My mom and sister

I was talking with a friend the other day about my semester in Spain and she asked if it was fun. I told her that there were many fun times and I have lots of fond memories, but when I think back, it was more a time of growth than fun. I left Spain a little more mature, a little more aware of the world around me, and a little more humble, and that was a good thing.

When I got home, I put together a scrapbook. This was the final page.