Nine (More) Expats You’ll Meet Abroad

Victoria the Veteran Victoria has seen generations of expats come…and go. She’s been around long enough that she’s practically part of the furniture. She knows her way around, navigating not only the place, but the relationships that make up the place. Vic has ten different toes dipped in ten different circles–because she knows just how fleeting expat friendships can be. Some think she’s ice-cold because the constant goodbyes don’t seem to faze her, but it’s more that years on the scene have hardened her….just a little.

Freak-out Frannie. Frannie finds it hard to breathe deep and…relax, no matter how many hot yoga classes she signs up for. It doesn’t matter how smooth things seem to be going, there’s always cause for a freak-out. If it’s not the math curriculum, it’s the school lunches. Or something on the news. Or the cost of living. Or the way the traffic light doesn’t give you enough time to cross. The local propensity for liberally dropping the f-bomb into conversation sends her into convulsions. Her heart’s in the right place–it’s just always beating too fast, set to semi-permanent outrage mode.

Homesick Harriet  Harry gets monthly parcels sent from home, keeps up all her magazine instructions at exorbitant prices, and subscribes to whatever local cable package that lets her watch her favorite shows. She travels home at every given opportunity and brings food back in her luggage. She shops online–from stores in her own country. First-year Freyas are usually half-Harriet by default, but true Harriets never really embrace living abroad, they always have one foot where they’re living and another one firmly planted at home.

Traveling Tony It’s a stretch to call Tony an expat, as he’s usually not in town long enough to sleep in his own bed more than three nights in a row. Tony usually heads up family of ‘lifeboat expats’–women and children only–who stay behind in one place while he plies his trade all over the globe. Sometimes it’s hard for Tony’s spouse to convince others he actually exists. Perhaps those wedding photos you see when you go to their amazingly furnished house are just props after all?

Never-Going-Back Niamh. Niamh, like many expats, was skeptical at first, but took to expat life like a fish outta the Atlantic and relocated to the Pacific. So much so that Niamh never plans on going back home. Ever. In fact, Niamh will do anything, including moving internationally three times in a year, just to avoid it. Whether it’s the life, the opportunities, or the bonds, Niamh has embraced life as expat to the fullest extent and you’ll have to pry it out of her cold, dead hands.

Repatriating Rena–While Niamh settles in for a life of transient relocation, Rena is getting ready to move home and experiencing the nausea of the repatriation rollercoaster. Whether she’s been gone one year or ten, life outside has made her question what life will like back ‘inside’. Will she re-fit in? Will her kids be ok? Rena’s worries often gets lost in the two-step expat shuffle because people assume going home is easier….but as Rena worries, it may be anything but.

Pam the Polyglot A round in Russian? Да! A stint in Shang-hai? 好! A post in Paraguay? Si! Pam picks up the local language wherever she lands–and not just enough to order a coffee and a cup of the Bolshoi borscht. Pam can carry on conversations with the locals, understand and answer when folks stop her on the street, and get around by taxi no problem. Pam’s linguistic gymnastics often make her English-speaking compatriots feel guilty for not trying harder-the ones who rely solely on their mother tongue to get by without making much of an effort beyond nej, tak…

Superiority Complex Sam Sam never has a good word to say about the place she’s landed. Not one. Oh sure, there’s nothing an expat coffee klatch likes more than a little bitch about little annoyances and cultural quirks, but Sam’s insults take a much broader focus. There’s nothing about her adopted country that suits her, everything is better where she comes from.

Fay the Fantasy Fay is the expat we all aspire to be…and fail miserably at. The one who settles in with ease. Who speaks the language within months. Who has no trouble finding the expensive cheese she likes at the market in Uruguay that doesn’t even sell cheese. She travels extensively, her kids are involved in local sports programs, and she still Skypes her family back home twice a week. She takes every shock that a new culture sends up her spine with a smile and can pack up her family and move at the drop of a hat. With grace. Fay doesn’t really exist outside our collective expat imagination–but it doesn’t stop us from wanting to be her anyway.

Since I penned  Nine Expats You’ll Meet Abroad a few years ago, and watched it circulate the globe itself, I’ve cycled through a few more of these stages myself. And some of these as well…Nine Expats You’ll Meet in a Galaxy Far, Far Away. As for where I am now…well, it depends on any given day, really.

More importantly though, which expat are you?

 

Three Things That Keep Expats Parents Awake at Night

audrey-hepburn-lying-awake-bed-insomnia-800x500Imagine a big Venn Diagram. Really, who doesn’t love a good Venn diagram?? This one is called “Things That Keep You Awake At Night.” On one side you have expats. On the other, non-expats.

Most of the things that keep many of us tossing and twisting in our beds while the rest of the world slumbers will likely intersect in a nice big lemon shape in the middle. Kids, marriage, health scares, money, retirement, the inching forward of the Doomsday clock, that crepe-y skin that is advancing across your neck (No? Just me?). That’s because for the most part, day-to-day life is the same regardless of where you live. Work, food shopping, kids, school runs, laundry, watching The Crown on Netflix. trying to remember that Mother’s Day in the UK is not the same as Mother’s Day everywhere else (No? Just me again? Damn).

But…that’s not to say it’s all the same. There are things I never really considered before we moved abroad. Things that weren’t on my radar, didn’t give me pause, and certainly didn’t keep me awake at night. Or at least not as much. I’m not even talking about the big-ticket worries–culture shock, language issues, whether or not you have to buy all new electrical appliances because the world can’t agree on socket shape or voltage–though those things have been known to cause a sleepless night or twelve.

But there are some issues which are likely unique to the expat experience, or, if not unique, play a bigger role.

I’ll take three things that keep expat parents awake at night for $200, Dina.

School

The big kahuna. The topic of conversation after conversation. Where will they go? When should we or should we not move them? Will they be ahead? Behind? If we move them once should we move them again or stay put? Will we scar them for life if we move right before high school? If we don’t? Will moving from one curriculum to another spell disaster? Can they even spell disaster? I can’t think of one other topic which dominates as much time of an expat parent’s life and conversation as trying to juggle kids, school, work assignments and moving. Even the folks I know in NYC, who have to deal with public school applications which could double as door stops, don’t usually have to add the worry of moving mid year or mid high school or switching curriculums or languages, sometimes every few years. It’s an exhausting and ever-present niggler at your bedtime peace.

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Friendships

Other than the military, I’m not sure there is a situation where the constant revolving door of friends is as noticeable as it is on the expat circuit. There are good sides and bad sides to this, of course. New blood is always good. New faces, new friends to meet, you never know who your next best buddy’s going to be. Then…then there’s the other side. Goodbyes are hard.  There’s the very real chance that, when a good friend picks up and moves back to say, oh, I don’t know….Perth, it’s going to be a long time before you see them again. And there is the heartbreak of watching your child say farewell to good friends year after year. My younger son starts to get anxious around March, and keeps a running list of friends who are leaving in his head. No parent likes to see their kid upset. It’s even worse when you know they are upset because of a decision you’ve made. Maybe it’s good for them, maybe it is, indeed, character building–or maybe, as you flip  your pillow over to find a cool spot, your current decisions are nothing more than money in a future therapist’s bank account.

Roots

If school is always the big X factor in decision making, it’s closely followed by the idea of putting down roots. I have a lot to say about this and it deserves its own post, but suffice it to say that the idea of trying to figure out where your kids are going to feel comfortable, call home, feel grounded, is another large part of expat parent worries. I only know what it is like to grow up with feet firmly planted in one place. My kids? Different story altogether. Theirs will no doubt have a different ending, as it should, but that doesn’t mean trying to make sure it’s a happy ending doesn’t keep me awake at night. It’s an unknown, an unanswerable. They may be just fine. They may thrive. The may part of that equation is what keeps my eyes open staring at the ceiling while my husband gently snores beside me.

 

o-insomnia-570These are the things that are in constant conversational rotation. The things that keep me, and many other expat parents I know awake at night. The kicker? There is no one answer that ticks all the boxes. There is no is magic formula. You can talk to ten different people and they’ll have ten different solutions and not a single one is going to give you the one size fits all answer you seek. You can rub a lamp, wish on a star, take a sleeping pill, and those problems are still going to be there when you wake up.

If you’re like us, you talk about it until you’ve gone around the subject a hundred times and then you stick your head firmly back in the sand where you don’t have to think about it any more.

Until the next time you find yourself laying awake at night, plotting Venn Diagrams and trying to remember when Mother’s Day in the UK is.

Just me?

Damn.

 

Strangers in a Strange Land

photo-dI used to write about the ups and downs of  life abroad. I used to write pithy posts about parenting. I used to write salty observations of marriage and life and love and all the stuff that falls between the cracks like so much cheese doodle dust.

Now I seem only to write about events taking place 3,000 miles away. In a homeland that’s not my current homeland but whose life, liberty and pursuit of happiness schtick is part and parcel of my makeup.

Right now, it’s excruciating to be an American living outside America.

But it’s also liberating.

Like so many other things in life, it’s both a blessing and a curse.

By definition, I’m an immigrant. A stranger in a strange land. I know first hand what it is like to try to go about your daily business in a country that’s not your own. It’s disorienting and difficult, frustrating. And make no mistake, I’m doing it from a socio-economic standpoint way up near the top of the totem pole. I can fly home to see my family. I can travel. I don’t worry about how I’m going to feed my kids or if they’re going to be harassed, deported or killed because they aren’t indigenous to the culture we are living in. I am so ridiculously privileged it’s hard to grasp sometimes.

But I can tell you this.

As a foreigner living in another country, I feel an immense gratefulness to the nation which has allowed me the privilege of living here. I imagine immigrants to the United States feel exactly the same way. I walk a careful line –exhausting at times–between maintaining the important elements of my own culture and adhering to Danish cultural norms. I am embarrassed–rightly–of the fact that I don’t speak the language of the country I’ve called home for five years. Yet never once has a Dane scoffed at me or chided me for not speaking their language. Never once has a Dane told me to go back where I belong.

Americans sometimes vilify recent immigrants for not speaking English, conveniently forgetting that not that far up on the family tree they had parents, grand-parents, or great-grandparents who traveled to America seeking a better life or fleeing war or poverty. Those strangers in a strange land often settled in enclaves of ‘likeness’, maintaining their language and traditions while they went about the exhausting task of assimilation.

My grandmother grew up speaking Italian. She and her sisters were the liaison between the old world and the new. But by the time my mother was born a generation later, only English was spoken.

Generations of immigrants have been weaving themselves into the fabric of American society, the same way I loosely assimilate into Danish society. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s difficult finding a balance between celebrating facets of the culture you came from while immersing yourself in the one you are in.

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But they do it. My great-grandparents did it. So much so that their native tongue was lost in the time it took for a daughter to become a mother. The same way recent immigrants to the US will do it. Many will encourage their children to join the military–because what is more of a commitment to your new homeland than agreeing to risk your very life for it, let alone your liberty and pursuit of happiness?

Now I watch from afar, as the country which opened its doors to my grandmother’s family closes them to others. Out of what? Fear? Security? The boogeyman we’ve been told is out to get us?

The boogeyman in America right now is Muslim or Mexican or Somalian. Speaks a different language, worships the same God in a different way, eats different food. The boogeyman who is coming for us, coming for our children. Coming to eat us or kill us or blow us up or take away our ‘traditions’, our ‘way of life’.

It’s a story, the same story parents have been using for generations to get their kids to fall into line when the realities of life are too difficult or distressing to explain.

Are there folks who would do harm given the chance? Sure. There always have been. But there are more of them born, bred, and living within the borders of the United States than those coming in desperate to sleep at night without worrying if a bomb is going to fall through their roof or if a militia is going to come in and rape their daughter or kidnap their son into war.

America’s got plenty of home-grown boogeymen. But it’s too difficult to face that, so we project our fear onto the ones who sound odd or  pray differently, whose food smells unfamiliar.

So here I sit on my ridiculously privileged fence in my ridiculously privileged life. I am torn between the need to keep my family safe, out of the true carnage–that which has yet to be released–and the need to be there to do something. I sit, thousands of miles away, hobbled and paralyzed.

I have never felt so deeply ashamed of my country, and yet proud of the those who are fighting for it. I have never felt so deeply the desire to stay put, to stay safe and sane, and the desire to go home, to put my own boots on the ground of the soil I call home.

ellis-islandAnd I am even more ridiculously privileged because I have that choice.

It is a bizarre and difficult time to be an American abroad. In less than two weeks, those elected have managed to anger much of the world with their sweeping declarations of keeping Americans safe from the boogeymen.

I don’t recognize the America that I am viewing from afar, yet I have never felt so American in all my life.

 

 

Goodbye Sucks

airport-signEight years of expat (migrant) living has thickened my skin…to an extent. I can generally hold it together at the flag ceremonies and stand un-quivering through a chorus line of hugs. Depending on where on I am on the roller coaster of emotions I find myself riding these days, you’ll find me anywhere from stoic to sniffly, but I’ve gotten adept at saying goodbye.

Despite the increasing alligator hide thickness of my skin however, goodbye always sucks.

Yesterday I said goodbye to my mother and my sister and my in-laws who had all come to celebrate an early holiday with us. My mother and I had the inevitable conversation, the one about our next moves on the chess board of migrant life.

They are questions for which I don’t have an answer. I wish I did, but I don’t.

If I had to hazard a guess, there would be several phone calls between my mother and myself that stand out in her mind:

Hey, Mom, I met a guy!
Hey, Mom! We’re getting married!
Hey, Mom! I’m pregnant!
Hey, Mom! I’m pregnant (again)!

I know the one she is waiting for now, the one which will likely round out her top five:
Hey, Mom! We’re moving back!

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And yet I can’t make that call and I can’t even tell her when I may be dialing it in. There are too may cogs and wheels spinning that are keeping the whole mechanism running to separate out just one and answer it with any certainty. Why am I telling you all of this? Because all of this makes something which sucks on its own suck even harder.

Like I said, goodbye sucks.

They suck on either end, whether you’re staying or going. They suck the life out of you as well. Every time I see my mother (once every six months or so), I am walloped over the head with the fact that she is six months older. Then, as soon as I raise my head from the first blow, I’m blindsided by the fact that my kids are six months older as well. And that everyone will be six months older the next time we are all together.

And if you’ve ever felt the swift passage of time, let me tell you, when you’re only working in six month chunks, it’s like doing the time warp.

Children get older…and less cuddly, less interested in making gingerbread houses with their grandmother or playing a silly game with their auntie. They get older and grow less interested in spending any real time with Granny and Granddad. It hasn’t happened–yet–but doesn’t take too much imagaination to envision a time when it will.

It could be in six months.

Or six months after that.

airportWhenever I say goodbye, after I get over my irrational fears about planes and fireballs and Bermuda Triangle disappearances, the real fears rush in to take their place.

My kids marching toward teenager-hood is an eventuality which supersedes where we live. But…somehow the idea of my headphone adorned teenager ignoring my mother once a month is more palatable than the idea of him ignoring her once every six months. The idea of my little one preferring a computer game over a game of gin rummy with his aunt tugs at my heartstrings a bit more when it’s only twice a year.

Yeah. LIke I said. Goodbyes suck.