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.


Women’s History Month: Nancy Wake (1912-2011)

Nancy Wake was a secret agent during WWII, working in France against the Germans.

Born in Wellington, New Zealand in 1912, Wake was married to French industrialist Henri Edmond Fiocca when the war broke out. She worked as a courier for the French Resistance, and by 1943, was the Gestapo’s most wanted person, with a price of 5 million Francs on her head. Wake proved so adept at evading capture, the Germans nicknamed her The White Mouse.

When her network was betrayed, she decided to flee France. Fiocca stayed behind. He was captured, tortured and executed when he would not give up Wake’s whereabouts.

Wake traveled to Britain, where she joined the SOE and was trained by them. In 1944, she parachuted into occupied France near Auvergne:

“Upon discovering her tangled in a tree, Captain Tardivat greeted her remarking, “I hope that all the trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year.”, to which she replied, “Don’t give me that French shit.”

Wake was a liaison between Britain and a local maquis group. She recruited new members and eventually their ranks swelled to over 7,000. From April, 1944 until France’s liberation, her maquisards fought the Germans in many ways.

“She also led attacks on German installations and at one point destroyed the local Gestapo HQ in Montluçon killing 38 Germans. At one point Wake discovered that her men were protecting a girl who was a German spy. They did not have the heart to kill her in cold blood, but when Wake insisted that she would perform the execution, they capitulated.She was a fast shot, a superb organizer, and at one time “killed an SS sentry with her bare hands to prevent him from raising the alarm during a raid.” {Nancy Wake}

She rode a bicycle 300 KM through German checkpoints to find a new wireless operator after hers was forced to destroy codes.

And then back.

All in 72 hours.

Wake was the recipient of numerous awards, including the George Medal, the United States Medal of Freedom, the Médaille de la Résistance, and thrice, the Croix de Guerre.

Wake died in 2011, age 98 in London.

Nancy Wake: The Socialist Who Killed a Nazi with her Bare Hands (the name given to her inclusion in a NYT list of notable obituaries in 2012).

Learn more about Nancy Wake here.

Happy Women’s History Month!

Women’s History Month: Las Mariposas (1961)

Las Mariposas were the Dominican sisters who helped to bring down a dictator.

The four Mirabel sisters were born into a family of farmers in the 1920s and 30s in the Dominican Republic. All four girls were all well-educated, an exception for the time, and three of the four received college degrees.

The sisters grew alarmed at events they were witnessing in their country under the shadow rule of Rafael Trujillo. Minerva, the third sister, was personally targeted by the dictator, allegedly for refusing his sexual advances. On several occasions Trujillo gave orders for Minerva’s arrest and harassment. She was barred from attending her 2nd year law school classes until she publicly praised the dictator and upon graduation she was denied a license to practice law. Their father was arrested and thrown into jail and the family’s finances ruined. Patria, the oldest Mirabel, witnessed a brutal massacre by Trujillo’s men while on a religious retreat, and joined her sister’s active resistance against the regime. Youngest sister Maria Teresa joined her older sisters in their resistance efforts.

Together the sisters led The Movement of the Fourteenth of June. They distributed pamphlets, gathered weapons, and even made makeshift bombs out of firecrackers around Minerva’s kitchen table.

The sisters became known by Minerva’s underground code name: Las Mariposas.

The Butterflies.

After an assassination plot against Trujillo became known, Las Mariposas were thrown into jail. However, due to pressure from the Catholic Church, the trio were spared torture and released after a short time. Their husbands, who joined the women in their political resistance, remained jailed.

On November 25, 1960, Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa, on their way either to or from visiting their husbands in jail, were ambushed by Trujillo’s secret police. The sisters, along with their driver, were dragged out of their jeep, separated, strangled and beaten with clubs. Their bodies were put back into their car which was pushed over a cliff.

Patria was 36, Minerva, 34 and Maria Teresa, 24.

In death, the sisters proved iconic, becoming “symbols of both popular and feminist resistance.” Rather than ending his problems, murdering Las Mariposas contributed to the dictator’s own demise. In 1961 Trujillo was assassinated by military leaders.

The fourth Mirabel sister, Dede, who was not an active part of the Mirabel resistance efforts, raised the six children her sisters left behind. She kept her sisters’contributions to the country’s history alive until her death in 2014.

In 1984, the United Nations named Nov. 25 the “Day of Non-Violence Against Women” in honor of The Butterflies.

In 1994, Dominican author, poet and essayist Julia Alvarez published In the Time of the Butterflies, a fictionalized account of Las Mariposas.

Of the Mirabel sisters Alvarez has said the three are “a reminder that we [Latinas] have our revolutionary heroines, our Che Guevaras, too.”

Las Mariposas: Badass resisters.

Read more about Las Mariposas here.

Happy Women’s History Month!


To All the Women I’ve Never Had a Chance to Know

For all the inventions that might have made my life better, brighter, or easier but were never made because a woman never got the chance, this is my lament.

For all the female comedians I never got to laugh at, all the women authors I’ve never had the chance to read, who were never taught in school, whose voices were deemed too this or not enough that, for all the art I’ve never had the chance to stand in front of in awe, this is a song of mourning.

For Phillis Wheatley, Sybil Ludington, Rosalind Franklin. For Claudette Colvin, Katherine Johnson and all the women whose accomplishments I never learned in history class, in science class, in English class, whose names have been buried in the footnotes, this is my keen.

For all the women never given a chance. For all the women I never got the chance to know or study or emulate, all the women I’ve never been able to look to for inspiration because their names have been written in invisible ink upon someone else’s pages.

Imagine a world full of women of talent and passion, except you don’t need to imagine it. It already exists. What you need to imagine instead is what the world could have been if all those Judiths* had been allowed to write and paint and sculpt, to invent and choreograph and map, to calculate, to design, to innovate.

How much have I missed because women have been silenced, in classrooms and boardrooms, on stages and art galleries, in small stand up comedy backrooms and in publishing slush piles?

The art held up as imperative, the music and philosophy and books and comedy and film and journalism held up to me as important, all of that has been pushed through a filter of masculine approval.

Even the stories we do have of women are not theirs alone, they are the stories which appealed to the men who allowed them through the sieve. The stories men chose to hang on bare, white walls, to publish or produce, to grant life to.51afb6757fefc.image

They are stories which somehow resonated not with other women, but with men.

How many corsets could we have avoided, or slips or girdles, how many extra inches of stiletto if women had been designing the clothes we wear rather than men designing for a figure which almost never exists, and yet we kill ourselves to achieve regardless?

What is it like to walk through life in sensible shoes and comfortable clothing, never doubting that what you dream about can be achieved?

The newsmakers and tastemakers and dressmakers.

How many women have been told they’re just not funny….or they just don’t get the joke?
How many women have been told what they write is not interesting to men, or not up to par, not serious enough, good but not Infinite Jest good?
How many women have been told their art is not what the buyer is looking for, not good enough for museums, too hostile, too angry, too pretty, not important enough? How much of it is never even looked at in the first place?
How many female directors never got the chance to see their vision on celluloid or artists on canvas, or inventors granted a patent?
How many, how many, how many?

And how many times have women believed them?

This is for all the women who have climbed the mountain, backward and in heels, only to pushed off the precipice. This is for all the women who have lain, unknown and unnamed, under the avalanche of deeds and firsts, of accomplishments unnoticed, of boulders of could have but never have beens.

We have been there all along, scratching our way to the surface, clawing our ragged way back up the sides.

It is time to rise out of the footnotes, to take your place on the page, on the stage, in the spotlight where you’ve belonged all along.


*Judith was the fictitious sister of Shakespeare in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Woolf used the character to illustrate that a woman with the talents of Shakespeare would have been denied the same opportunities as her brother, her talent left to wither and die.