The Magic Quilt of Expat Life

I’ve been an expat for nearly ten years. Blimey, that’s a long time; long enough to start using the word blimey in a non-ironic way, even. Nearly ten years overseas means I have said more than my fair share of goodbyes. I’ve gone to a lot of leaving lunches, farewell festivities, and tally-ho teas. I’ve drunk kegs full of coffee, ingested numerous kilos of cake and watched the resulting kilos materialize on my ass. I’ve given speeches, listened to speeches, presented gifts, bought gifts, assembled slide shows, written songs.

I’ve done it all.

It never gets any easier, not really. I almost always cry.

Not big, gulping sobs, though sometimes it has come close. But that sort of crying when you can feel it coming down the track: the tight throat, the sting behind your eyes, the stuffed up nose. It bears down upon you like a freight train and there’s little you can do to get out of the way in time. A whistle of warning, someone choking on a word, and that’s all she wrote, folks.

A room full of weepy women.

I wrote a post a long time ago about the importance of not crying during these things. Five years later I’ve changed my mind.

Cry, cry, cry.

Cry a river if you need to. It’s good for the soul. More people should cry. And more often.

Newsflash: Women cry. We cry when we’re happy. When we’re sad. When we are frustrated or overwhelmed or raging like a menopausal witch (No? Just me?). We cry over car commercials and Christmas commercials, during movies and reading books. We cry when someone else’s kid’s feelings get hurt. We cry at the very idea of something happening to someone we know. We cry when we meet our family at the airport, when they leave, when we fight with our partners, when our kids say something hurtful. We cry as we watch our kids walk across a graduation stage, when someone else’s baby is born, when things go awry.

We cry.

So, when you get a room full of women in a room, women who’ve spent a few years getting to know one another, giving each other rides and acting as emergency contacts, getting to know each other’s kids and families, seeing each other through difficulties and partners working in other countries, clinging together for dear life on this life boat of friendship in a foreign land–when you get a room full of women like that together and someone gets choked up? You almost always end up with a room full of weepy women.

These ritual goodbyes and all the emotions they evoke is a kind of exquisite torture. It’s incredibly poignant to hear stories and reminiscences, to look at years worth of pictures, to see the evolution of expat friendships play out in celluloid. It’s like watching a time-lapse of a child growing up.

I’ve been tasked with putting together a few of these slide shows. When I do, I always include a montage of people who have already said goodbye, though it’s becoming increasingly difficult for me to remember whose paths have crisscrossed after this many years, whose lives have become entangled with whose. But I do it so that those folks, the ones we’ve already said goodbye to, remain a part of the whole. A panel that when stitched together with all of the others makes a quilt of a certain time and place.

It’s one of those magic quilts that keeps on growing.

Saying goodbye is hard. We should cry. And laugh. And rejoice and give thanks and feel sad. This is the reality of our life. Sometimes it can seem like the life of an expat is glamorous vacations and non-stop parties, but the edges of a life lived outside the borders of your own country can be rough. It’s just that no one takes photos of all those tears, those rooms full of weepy women, and posts them up on Facebook.

But maybe we should.

As a storyteller, it’s an incredible privilege to hear the stories that belong to others. As a human being, and a friend, it’s humbling when I get to be a part of that story. A panel on someone else’s quilt.

So many times those stories start off with feelings of loneliness and isolation, feeling stranded and out-of-place, nervous, unsure footing on choppy seas that are taking you far away from everything you know. And then the magic: one day, one coffee, one conversation, one friend. The tide begins to turn. The seas calm. Coffee doesn’t slosh out of your cup when you’re trying to drink it. You look around, and far from being alone, you’re at a table for forty eating kilos of cake.

 Just look how it ends: a room full of twenty, thirty, forty, sixty people who have put aside a chunk of their day to celebrate a friend, a friendship, to say goodbye and good luck. It ends in a room full of women to whom you mean enough that they hold back a tear, wipe a wizened eye, choke back a sob. A panel on that magic expat quilt that never stops growing.

Just look what you mean. 

Blimey, indeed.


I’m Grateful to be Living Outside America–And That Breaks My Heart

I’m an American.

I root for Team USA during the Olympics. I get a little misty-eyed when the flag is raised or I hear the first strains of The Star Spangled Banner. I sigh in delight over rockets red glare on the Fourth of July. I wax poetic about the joy of a cheeseburger and a Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee. I marvel at the expanse of sea to shining sea.

I’m an American.

But I don’t live in America any more.

I live in Europe now. Europe is not free of violence or discrimination, it’s not a perfect utopia where everyone is sitting cross-legged in a circle strumming Kumbayah. It’s not without problems or worries. It’s not even free of guns.

But it is a place without everyday gun violence, without mall rampages and movie theatre massacres. And without school shootings. And while we’re here, let’s stop mincing words, without the frighteningly regular slaughter of innocents.

My teenager gets on his bike every morning and cycles to school. I worry that some distracted driver will clip him. I worry he’ll be distracted and do something stupid. Sometimes I worry that he’ll ride without a helmet, despite my insistence.

I don’t worry about identifying his bullet-ridden body in a cold morgue because someone shot up his school.

I worry my fourth-grader will feel lonely on the playground. I worry he’ll get anxious about a test. I worry that he will come home with head lice because head lice is a pain in the ass.

I don’t worry about him hiding in a corner of his classroom while someone with an assault rifle is roaming the hallway looking for unlocked doors.

I go to parent teacher conferences. I worry that my kids will fall through the cracks because, truth be told, they’re easy kids to teach and sometimes teachers spend a disproportionate amount of their time with kids who have more challenging needs. I worry that they’re not drilling them in their times tables enough, because man, I knew those things backward and forward.

I do not worry about looking those teachers in the eye and trying to figure out if they would take a bullet for my kids.

I worry now that my teen has more independence he’ll make the right choices.

I never worry about those choices including walking into a store and buying a gun.

I worry my sons spend too much time on their computers, their iPads, their phones.

I do not worry when they scamper off to see the latest Marvel movie on the big screen that someone is going to come in and shoot up the theatre.

I worry they might give in to peer pressure.

I don’t worry about them going to other people’s homes where there may be unsecured, loaded weapons.

I worry about drugs. I worry about unprotected sex. I worry my soon to be high schooler isn’t working to his full potential and it might hurt his chances when he applies to college.

I never worry he’s going to get hold of an AR-15 and shoot up his school.

We all live in uncertain times. I sometimes worry about planes being blown out of the sky and trucks plowing into pedestrians.

I don’t worry about my kids living in a state of perpetual lock-down preparation. I don’t worry about whether or not their teacher is getting through to them how to be quiet in an active shooter situation. I don’t worry about their teachers carrying guns.

I’m an American who is sitting somewhere else, wondering if she can ever go home, because though I may bleed red, white, and blue, I am not sure I can stomach the idea of worrying about my children bleeding out on a classroom floor for someone else’s interpretation of a two hundred year old sentence.

I know I’m not the only one in this situation. I talk to dozens of other Americans, mostly mothers, some fathers, who find themselves navigating these same complex feelings. I’m both grateful that I can send my children to school free of these worries, and pounded by guilt that so many people I love have to someone manage them everyday.

I know there are others. So, so many others. I know I’m not the only American abroad who feels this way:

I’m an American who is grateful that right now I do not live in America.

And that breaks my heart into a million tiny pieces.


This original version of this article first appeared on Medium, a new platform for me. If you like it, head on over to the original (linked right above ↑) and ‘clap’ for it. Thx.

Speed Equals Distance Over Time

Living far away from family does funny things to what should otherwise be a straight forward equation. Especially when it comes to speed. And aging.

Yes, I’m quite sure speed gets ramped up when you factor in long-distances and divide them by time spent with family.

I see my mother and sister twice a year. Once here, once there. It’s not ideal, but it’s more than a lot of expats get, and so for that, I’m thankful. But when family visits are limited to bi-annual hugs and semi-yearly dinners, you notice the passage of time more acutely–etched out on a loved one’s face, in the gray of their hair or the stoop of shoulders. And that’s just me.

Each and every time I face it I am slammed with the inevitability of time. And distance. And the speed at which they seem to be colliding.

Time? Time is a wall I keep trying to scale, but instead of climbing it, I keep running into it headfirst, knocking myself most of the way to unconscious.

And distance? Well, distance is the one thing in my control.

I don’t get homesick very often, not anymore, but I do miss my family. I look forward to their visits, and to mine. In my head I map out great big plans to relax. We’ll laugh and have long conversations and go for long walks! We’ll spend quality time! The kids will be gracious and happy to see their family and actually converse with them instead of retreating behind a screen anytime I leave the room!

I worry that the reality is….less than great. Or relaxing. I think I may come across as…well, for lack of a better word, grumpy. Instead of being all hunky and dory, sometimes I get snippy and snappy.

Bear with me. It took me nine long years to figure this out.

I realized I must come across as resentful. Or annoyed. Or just garden variety grumpy-pants. The truth is, there’s often an emotional orgy going on in my head, decisions battling reality–decisions which benefit US, but sometimes come at the detriment of extended family.

So when I’m being snippy, it’s sometimes because I’m fending off  the guilt that come with choosing to live far away. Sometimes when it seems like I’m short-tempered it’s because I’m trying to gauge how long can I justify keeping the grandkids away. If it seems like I’m a bit low on patience, it may just be because I’m trying to calculate how much longer I’m going to ask my mother to get on a plane for Christmas. If it seems like I’m sulky, it’s probably because I’m trying to remember the formula to figure out how time speeds up when there’s a greater distance involved.

I think my brain switches into efficiency mode due to overload. And efficiency mode? Well, everything gets done, but sometimes at the expense of emotion. AI’s got nothing on me when I switch over to efficiency mode. Just ask my husband.

Sure, there’s Skype and FaceTime, and it definitely helps, but expats know that E.T. was right: phoning home is really just a substitute for being there.

Then the trips are over. Bags are packed, flights checked-in on, passports stamped. It takes me a few weeks to recalibrate my emotions, to pack them all back into the neat boxes they live in. I get caught up in day-to-day dramas and hourly ados and I’ll sit down to put my feet up and suddenly it’s Sunday, or summer or six months later. And I gear up to do the whole thing all over again.

I’m in the midst of all that now. Long enough removed from the family visit to be able to take a step backward and say “Ah! Of course that’s why I was such a miserable Mabel, because I worry about how our choice to live away affects you. And you’re getting older. And I’m getting older. And the kids are getting older. And oh, my God, for the love of all that’s holy make it stop.”

Eventually I guess the scales will tip one way, or another. But there are few weeks a year when they swing wildly from one side to another, bouncing up and down.

Every time I watch my mother say goodbye to my kids something small inside me dies. Like that flower in ET, the one that wilts and falters. But…. I also know this. You know the final scene of ET? The one when Eliot is crying and Gertie has snot running down her face and ET is about to get on his spaceship? He touches his light-up heart, then points his long, wrinkly finger at Eliot’s head and says…”I’ll be right here.”

It doesn’t matter what the formula is for calculating distance, or speed, or even time. Because that’s where we are.

We’ll be right here.


How Lucky We Are To Be Alive Right Now

Here we are, the ass-end of another year. I sat down yesterday to write about Salome and her veils.

Then I re-read 2016’s year-end post. Apparently I had the same idea last year.

Always ahead of myself, it would seem. And forever forgetting it.

I expected I would endeth the year in much the same way as I beganeth, but….I didn’t.

Oh, I am still angry, that much is true, but I am not blinded by my rage. I can see around my anger now, see through it. I’ve spent the last twelve months honing it and sharpening it. It is an asset I carry around with me, at all times. A talisman, an amulet I wear around my neck. A sharpened stick a la BtVS to slay demons, both within and without.

It seems strange to look backward at this year and think, how lucky we are to be alive right now, but it’s the truth. I feel more alive than I have for a long time. Sure, much of that prickly pins and needles feeling stems from sheer terror and jaw-dropping incredulity, and it is also true that in my oh-so cushioned life as a migrant I do not fear for my day-to-day existence. The shit-storm clouds gathering over the United States affect my sensibilities and my ideals, but they do not affect my day-to-day life. My whiteness, my bank account, my education levels and my opportunities protect me from the worst of it. For that I am both grateful, humbled, and very, very aware.

Geographically, I’m hobbled from putting my body in the line of fire. Congressionally I vote in one of the bluest states in the country. So I’ve spent the last year turning inward rather than outward, listening and reading, essays on race, on gender. I’ve spent the last year sitting in the messy, pants staining muck of my own discomfort, challenging myself to rise above it. Failing…and succeeding.

I am a better person for it.

So how lucky I am to be alive at a time when black American activists, writers and artists, leaders and voices are finally garnering the recognition they’ve always been due. How lucky I am to be alive at a time when all of that is there for the taking. My table runneth over with choice.

For women, 2017 was a year of validation. All the churning, gut-tingling knowledge which was systematically denied and suppressed and second-guessed finally blew the world apart in a hashtag. I won’t lie. The taste of public vindication is sweet. If 2016 was the year Salome’s last veil dropped, 2017 was the year women burned that fucker like so many bras.

As painful as it is to see stories spill out like steam rising from sewer grates, it is glorious as well. I rode out the back nine of 2017 on a wave of sisterhood unlike anything I’ve experienced before. Will this time be different? I hope so. We have almost reached critical mass, the moment when enough women are in leadership roles to affect real, lasting change. We are at the damn barricades. We just need to topple them.

How lucky I feel to be alive in a world which is finally acknowledging women, our experiences, valuing our contributions not just as a substitute for men, but for ourselves. A world where we are being looked to and asked to lead.

In 2017 I  mourned the loss of a Clinton presidency. I may have been sorely disappointed, it’s true. But I will never know. What I do know is that a Trump presidency has issued in a political, social, and economic awareness unprecedented in my recollection. The safeguards many Americans assumed would protect them are failing–in some instances, rather spectacularly. For many Americans (raising hand), 2017 was the year we stopped taking democracy for granted. Stopped assuming it was something which we, as heirs to democracy with a capital “D” were entitled to. The reality of course is that the United States of America, just like any other country, must work to retain the ideals and principles it was based on.

As an American living abroad, I get a good glimpse into how those outside the US view America. If I could sum it up in one phrase it would be this: “fun, but arrogant as hell”.

May 2018 be the year more Americans check their global arrogance at the door.

2017 was the year my family started seriously contemplating a move back to the US. Each day I question whether it is an advisable one. Tuesdays it may be a yes, but by Wednesday morning, I’ve reversed my decision. But that is for another day’s discussion.

There were lowlights: a seemingly evergreen sadness at the never-ending news cycle of violence and death. Mass shootings in the United States, trucks wielded as weapons, suicide bombings that barely register in the headlines because they’re across the world. There were personal lowlights as well. Standing in my kitchen sobbing as I struggled to reconcile the vulnerability I felt with the fear of revealing it, the sheer cliff-face ahead of me raising two young boys, heirs to the very patriarchy I thought I’d be dismantling. Failure to secure a publisher for my novel, All the Spaces In Between. 

Art by Rebecca Fish Ewan

There were highlights, like reading 1001 nights to an audience of writers at my first writing conference. It’s been a long time since I did something with only myself in mind, which benefitted only me. It was powerful, uplifting, and tremendously rewarding. Having strangers ask for a hug because your words affected them is a powerful and humbling experience.

There was Wonder Woman and the Women’s March. There were the moments my sons described me as a feminist writer to their own friends and teachers. There was a trip to Washington DC, in which I literally stood and touched the stone edifice of so many buildings and felt their solidity ground me.

And of course, there was Hamilton, the soundtrack of the second half of my year. How lucky we are to be alive right now, indeed.


So here I am, looking ahead at my pile of new notebooks, of schedulers and calendars. At organizers and color-coded things. I know most of them will still be sitting there come December 2018, filled with the ragged edges of torn out shopping lists and scribbled notes about bills to pay. But the possibility they contain excites me nevertheless. I will persist.

I’m about a third of the way through novel #2, young adult speculative fiction. I hope in 2018 I’m three thirds of the way through it.

I will continue to write about women, to speak out about women, to fight for women. My words are slowly reaching more people. Bust Magazine reached out to me and has published a few of my essays. A fellow writer and editor asked me to pen a craft essay, which I used to highlight how I use my sex to enhance my writing, not hinder it. A parenting site reached out to interview me about raising feminist boys. As I joked to my husband, if I keep going at this rate, in 30 years I’ll be famous.

I am solid, finally grasping on to that quivering mass of rage-woman. I can actually grab a handful now. Actually much more than a handful, but again, I need to save something to write about next year, don’t I?

I know who I am. In fact, I’ve never been more sure of who I am.

How lucky we are to be alive right now, eh?

Bring it on, 2018.