As I prepare for yet another move, living among boxes and bubble wrap, it occurred to me that I’ve become very adept at packing. And unpacking. Not only are there the BIG moves, the ones involving shipping containers and lost-at-sea insurance premiums, but there are the little moves in between and lots and lots and too much suitcase packing. I’m sure the following train of thought will be familiar to anyone who has ever moved overseas:
“We’re moving? Great! (Motherf*ck**!). Yup. I’ll arrange for them to come and pack up the house. Yes, I know. I need to make sure I have 6-8 weeks of clothing, toys, toiletries and anything else I can’t get/is too expensive to buy/is illegal to purchase put aside while we are living out of suitcases in temporary housing. No problem! I can put X in the air freight, Y in the container. Plenty of room for Legos in my carry-on. Hmm, but it’s going to be a different season where we are going so I need to make sure I pack the summer stuff for the trip we were stupid enough to book in the middle of this all while keeping the winter clothes marked so we can get to them after we move and the container comes and–oh we’ll need the converter for the coffee pot and what’s the voltage where we’re going?…”
Like most things in life, the more you do it, the better you become at it. But packing up your life into cardboard boxes isn’t the only thing you become good at when you sign up for the traveling circus that is ex-pat life. And as I procrastinate packing up my own moving boxes, I’ve come up with a few more.
Virgo neurosis aside, when you are moving from place to place every few years, you become very picky about what stays and what goes. In our marriage, my husband is the more sentimental of the two of us. While I long for the day when I can decorate like a grown up with breakable objects without having to step over boxes of trucks and bins of color-coded Lego, he gets slightly misty when it comes time to cull the boys’ things. I have saved a few favorite books, tee shirts that tell a story, but everything else gets donated, given away, or sold. Harsh maybe, but a necessity when you are charged by the cubic foot and you don’t have a basement.
This life is not for the wall-flower. Unless you are the personality type that likes to change your name, hair color, and identity in order to hide from Interpol by moving every few years, you have to put yourself out there. I’ve never been a particularly shy person, so making friends was never a hardship for me, but I’ve become even better at it after living abroad. Coffee mornings, school functions, playground chit-chat. Ex-pat socials, linked up lunches, supermarket tours. It’s the only way to get by. The tails to the friendship coin toss, however, is
When you live your life on a timeline, as a lot of ex-pats do, you have two choices. One is to not invest in friendships. But you will lead a very isolated and lonely life. Not to mention missing out on a lot of information like where the cheapest place to get your eyebrows waxed is and which babysitter is likely to invite her motorcycle driving boyfriend over to “help” with the kids. The other is to harden yourself to saying good-bye. Depending on where you are in the ‘circuit’, there are years where the turn-over is pretty low, and there are other years when it seems like everyone you know is putting those packing skills to good use. In Cyprus we had one friend whose house was the one everyone congregated at. Impromptu barbeques and playdates and dinners. Gossip and wine for the ladies, cigars and meat grilling for the men. When they left, it was a sad day. But you can’t wallow in the holes that are left behind. Instead you have to become a little Buddhist about the whole thing–those people who are meant to stay in our lives will cross our paths again. And even those that don’t, well, they were present for a time and touched us in some little way and we will have them in our memories and photo albums. And there is always Facebook.
Making it work…Ikea style
No one tells you when you sign up for this that the furniture that worked in your small Brooklyn apartment will get lost in your giant, modern Cypriot house which in turn looks wrong in your traditional Danish flat. Or that the electronics you buy in one country won’t work in most others. Honestly, why no one is lobbying for a universal voltage initiative is beyond me. Hence most ex-pats are thrilled to find a local Ikea. You may find yourself in a giant house with no furniture (Cyprus) or in a lovely apartment with zero closets (Denmark). And you will thank God for Ikea. Most of us clutch the catalog like a Bible. Most of us can tell you which pieces require those god-awful allen keys and which you can put together on your own when your partner is attending a conference in sunny Dubai and you’re stuck with 18 boxes of books that need to be unpacked and you have nowhere to put them.
I’ve written before about some of the downsides of the ex-pat life. The difficulties, the complaints, the cons of living far from home. But what an opportunity! And despite the fact that you can’t find Kraft Macaroni and Cheese or Fruit Loops (and really folks, we shouldn’t be eating them anyway….) or that a Cypriot might get out of his car and bang on yours while yelling that you didn’t move fast enough…at a red light…(true story), or that a Dane may look at you in horror when you casually ask “How are you?” (true story), life is pretty good. Better than pretty good. Pretty great really. And this is written by the forever pessimist. The one who keeps a Worst Case Scenario Handbook close by. But when you embrace the concept of living each day, it helps ease the homesickness pangs and the cravings for Utz Cheese Doodles.
So while I sort through my belongings yet again, decide which glasses to take and which to chuck, fret over which box to put the coffee pot in, I am grateful. This circus isn’t always easy. At times it feels like you are a walking a tightrope between cultures, balancing more than a few spinning plates on the end of a stick. But it’s certainly a colorful life–one filled with juggling acts sure, but magic and wonder as well. And I, for one, find that a few sparkly trapeze outfits hanging in my Ikea closet brighten up my life immensely.
Bring on the Dancing Horses.