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.
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.