We landed in Cyprus in late October. Though the blistering heat of summer had mellowed somewhat, there was plenty of evidence of those scorching months in the parched landscape that greeted us; a dead and withered view that stretched from the airport into the capital. Beige and olive drab and lifeless.
Honestly, it could have been Tatooine.
Things did not improve in the next few weeks. A playground stumbled across looked like something out of a communist era moonscape. Rusty see-saws rested upon buckled and cracked asphalt, uneven and dangerous. A neglected aviary housed featherless and sore infested birds who could have been Patient X for avian flu. Privately, we referred to it as The Park of Death. The American in me feared the entire country was a giant lawsuit waiting to happen.
Determined, we explored a local monastery and found ourselves meandering through groves of orange and olive trees in tin soldier formation. My sinuses started to twitch. My eyes started to water. My nose began to run and sniffle and snort. It became apparent to me that my allergies and olive trees were not going to get along. My husband, fighting to accentuate the positive, stopped and plucked an olive from an overhanging branch.
“Look!” he said, popping an olive into his mouth.
Which he promptly spit upon that dry and cracked ground, because as everyone knows, you don’t eat olives raw.
That little olive spitting vignette became my go-to metaphor for our early years in Cyprus. An un-brined anecdote that captured the whole experience of picking up and moving to a foreign land. For giving up the comfort of the familiar for the adventure of the unfamiliar, saying good-bye to family and friends and jobs and homes and affordable consumer goods and essentially going it alone.
Be it Nicosia, Copenhagen, Bangkok, Pretoria, London, Houston, Dubai or indeed Tatooine, no one tells you what to do when you don’t like the place you’ve landed.
Cyprus is a hot, dusty, insane in the way that only prolonged exposure to extreme heat can make you, kind of place. There is Mediterranean impatience and passion, wild gesticulating and arguing and an ingrained love of confrontation. There is a lot of steam blowing which incorporates screaming and hair pulling and arm waving and getting out of cars to bang on the hood of the car in front. This is, inevitably followed by a swift invitation for a frappe and souvla. If you aren’t used to it, it’s a huge culture shock. I was coming from New York, where people were crazy, but in an affected, purposeful way. I was miserable.
Looking back, it is impossible to tease out whether it was Cyprus or life itself that was making me miserable. I had an infant who didn’t sleep. I had gone from working in New York City, the kind of “bring-your-kids-into-the-office” part-time, freelance gig that mothers dream of, to being a housewife. I was a two plane ride minimum from home, stranded on a hot, dusty little island in the ass end of nowhere. Even now after nearly two years in Denmark it’s difficult to separate my feelings about Cyprus from other changes that were happening–each change in and of itself enough to make you pull your hair out and invite someone over for souvla.
Many people tell you they would kill for the opportunity to live abroad. Most of them are thinking of the travel and the full-time help. But depending where you land, those stories of full-time cleaners and personal chefs and days spent lounging by the pool never materialize. When we moved from Brooklyn to Nicosia, I became a housewife. And here in Copenhagen, I remain, a housewife. I do all the things everyone else does, only in an unfamilar place with unfamiliar products that cost six times what I think they should (remind me to tell you about the time I put the drain cleaner in the kettle by mistake). In books and movies and stories, most only see the adventure part of being an ex-pat. The exotic opportunities. The perks. But the reality of ex-pat life is never what it seems on paper. The problem is, who do you turn to if you are unhappy? How much of a tool do you sound like if you complain? Yes, I’m living on an island in the middle of the Mediterranean. The average winter temperature is just under 60 degrees F. There are incredible travel opportunities at our fingertips. Our kids get to go to private school. We get to live in a house. And I’m unhappy. Even I wouldn’t like myself (and I didn’t). You can go the misery loves company route and hang out with the moaners, there are always those that complain mercilessly about the weather, about the food, about the people, about the driving, about the cost of living, about everything else; but by doing that you risk alienating the people who can point out all the good things. And, barring moisture farming on Tatooine, there are almost always good things. You risk getting caught up in a circle of negativity that does nothing to help alleviate the feelings of unease or doubt or unhappiness.
Ex pat life can be lonely. It can be isolating. It can be incestuous and mind bogglingly petty. It can be clique-y and if you find yourself on the wrong side of the school sandbox, it can be devastating. Chances are when you are a serial ex-pat, you are mostly associating with other ex-pats. Depending on where you are, the international community can range from gated and insular to varied and diverse, (in an educated, middle class homogenous kind of way). But up and down that circuit, you are likely to come across the same people again and again.
There may be guilt and resentment, especially if you blame your working partner. It can be difficult not to fall into the “if it weren’t for you and your job we wouldn’t be in this stupid country and I would be enjoying a bagel in New York” cycle. It took me three years to realize how devastating my initial unhappiness was to my husband. Not only was I actively unhappy that first year, the things we were hoping to happen career wise for him weren’t happening. And we were, essentially, stuck. I don’t do well with stuck. I need an out, a Plan B. And Plans C and D. I need to know the emergency exit can be manually opened if and when we needed to sound the alarm. My husband bore this tremendous burden. He was dealing with his own lunatics on a daily basis, he had a wife who was unhappy, an infant who didn’t like to sleep, pinworms (another story), plastic melting temperatures and he was trying his best to figure out how to fix everything without breaking the only in emergency glass. Thank God for wine.
You have to soak and marinate for a while in order to absorb some flavor. Bitterness needs to be mellowed over time. It takes a few months of stewing and soaking to let the richness burst onto your palate. In the end, time is what worked for me. I learned to appreciate the mild winters and the cheap babysitting. I learned to drive on the wrong side of the road. I stopped blaming my husband for a joint decision that we had taken very seriously. We made some amazing friends, traveled to some amazing places and had some incredible experiences that we never would have had if we hadn’t landed on that dusty rock in the middle of the Med. Oh, and my son started sleeping through the night, which never hurts.
At times, to my surprise, I even miss it.
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I grew up an expat kid and always heard my mum state some of the things you do above, especially in terms of the husband, my father, ‘keeping her prisoner here all these years because of your job.’ She resented that so much, sacrificing of her career that wasn’t supported in the new country. As an adult expat myself now, never having known any other way of life, I don’t see it that way at all. She raised a wonderful family, has had some amazing life experiences, met friends that remain today from every walk of life. Isn’t that what life is about vs. the comfort and security of a life of ‘sameness’ (aka monotony?). And she still did wonders with her career, just in a different way she would have done at ‘home.’ I watch adults become expats for the first time in the new countries I’ve moved to and what is so easy to me when I arrive somewhere new isn’t to them. The main one being: don’t make any rash judgments until after 18 months there, it takes at LEAST that long to settle into a new place, form friendships, become acquainted. And sure enough, after 18-months of tears and ‘at-home-we-do-it-this-way’ they then only find they have to leave and don’t want to, the adopted home has grown on them. And then they go ‘home’ and tell everyone there ‘well-over-there-we-do-it-this-way.’ Just another perspective from living the expat life since birth. The world is a funny place some days, just depends which angle you’re looking at it from 😉 Thank you for sharing your insight, wonderful and heartfelt.
Tori, thank you so much for this thoughtful and insightful comment! I’ve had met several adults who grew up as ex-pats and there is most definitely a fluidity to their lives that the rest of us don’t possess. I am in total agreement with you about the 18 month rule, which I always think has got to be really difficult on the embassy circuit as they are usually on 2 year assignments. I lucked out this time with Denmark, I loved it immediately. We’ve been out of the US for about 5 years now and I do find myself switching sides. When I go home now, I nit pick much more than I used to, see things differently. I will be really interested to see how my children turn out. Thanks again for taking the time to read the post and to leave such a thought-provoking comment. D
You said it all. The olive analogy is so apt; sometimes you see the benefits of an experience after long after it has been picked and pickled. And then there’s the joy of being able to look back on a place and time in your (and your family’s lives) that you’ll never recapture. One thing we know—the best thing about Cyprus was meeting you guys!
Picked and pickled…wish I’d thought of that! I couldn’t get past ‘brine’. We do miss it at times, weekends at Oasis, the Karpaz, the Syrian Arab Friendship Club–and you guys, of course. I don’t miss the parking. Never the parking. I still get angry just thinking about it, nearly 2 years later!
MTM has said the same thing about expat life. It sounds like you made it rich, even in a place you didn’t like. It seems like you like Denmark, though, in spite of how much it costs.
I like meeting people of other nationalities, but I suspect the “you are not one of us” might wear on me after a while. Especially if I couldn’t talk.
Looking back, I’m sure I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I did. It was a great place for the kids to be young. I do like Denmark, quite a bit, despite the cost of living. But there are lots of ex-pats here in CPH that hate it. I think so much of it depends on where you are in your own life, what you are looking for, and what you can tolerate. We always say that either our kids are going to thank us, or sock us for their lifelong therapy bills.
“Honestly, it could have been Tatooine”. Haha, I’m sorry but I couldn’t picture you as not having Princess Leia-style bagel-shaped hair buns, for the rest of the post after reading this. That said, as a writer, I am totally jealous of all your travel- stories, because they are the makings of an incredible novel just waiting to happen!
I’m not sure how long you’ve been reading this blog, but if you dig back, there is an actual picture of me in Princess Leia get up at my son’s birthday party….Star Wars is a recurring theme in my life. I mean blog. I mean life. It’s funny, because I’ve never thought of using the travel stories in fiction, but maybe I should switch course.
I haven’t seen the picture in question. Did you go the weird hair buns look as part of your costume?
I love your expat descriptions and observations. I’m a new expat of three years, and I agree with the 18 month adjustment period. It took me that long to sort myself: how to function with lack of choices, where to shop, find things, make friends, make peace with the heat and bugs, etc. I’ve had to embrace and invent my adventurous side. Glad to have the initial 18 months behind me!
I’m so sorry I missed this comment ages ago. And by now you’ve got even more time under your belt. I’ve just written about coming down off the ‘best’ bit of a posting, when you start to become disillusioned–usually because all your friends are leaving–. Hope you still have a way to go before you get there!
Dina, I can’t believe how perfectly you hit the nail on the head – in so many ways. Our first expat adventure was moving from the US to Khartoum, Sudan … just in time for the implementation of Sharia Law and a military coup. And since wine was illegal we had to make our own – grim, but it got the job done! I went from being an executive to being … a wife. I particularly like what you said about avoiding the moaners. So true. Our beginning was very rocky, but after some “marinating” it turned out to be one of the pivotal moments in our lives. It humbled us and showed us a side of the world we’d never seen. And the true friends we made remain today. Thanks for expressing these sensations so beautifully. All the best, Terri
Terri, I’m going back through all my expat pieces to see how many times I need to go and edit my incorrect hyphen usage (why did no one call me on this earlier??) and just saw this. So, very sorry for the late reply! We had a chance to go to Khartoum for a wedding, but it didn’t work out, which I regret because it sounds intriguing. Not the no wine part, of course. I have said in the past that expat friends get close in dog years because of the shared experience. Some of the best people I’ve met, for sure.