The Weight of (Moving Around) the World on Your Shoulders

Atlas 2I write a lot about my life as an expat, but usually through the window of my own experience: that of the non-earning partner.

It’s not often I delve into what it must be like for the catalyst expat. The one whose job brings you to another country, whose carefully negotiated package determines everything from where you live to how many times a year you get to go home. The one upon whose shoulders rests the weight of the world, quite literally at times.

We first packed up and moved with the peacekeeping arm of the United Nations. We bypassed all the shit postings you often have to get your feet mucky in on the UN circuit. We skipped the war zones and zipped past the just-finished war zones. We circumvented the countries without stable governments and landed, pretty softly, in what’s generally considered the cherry on top of the whipped cream atop of the UN peacekeeping cake: Cyprus.

I hated it, at least for the first year. I hated it so vehemently and vociferously that it became a running joke at my husband’s office, where they would often great new staff with a variation of the following:

Welcome to Cyprus, the posting everyone’s trying to get into, expect for X’s wife, Dina, who’s trying to leave.

I was so far up my own ass for those first twelve months it took me a long time to realize how my unhappiness was eating away at my spouse, who had assumed responsibility for my misery. It wasn’t a question of letting him as much as it was simply not being aware that it was going on. Yes, my head was that far up my ass.

There’s plenty of expat guilt I carry with me, but not the guilt, worry, and stress shouldered by the one responsible for pin-balling a family around the globe. My go-to joke is that starting work in a new country means a new office, a new cafeteria, and maybe a new stapler, but that essentially going to work is going to work, no matter where you are. That’s oversimplified, of course. Getting used to working in a new environment can be terribly stressful. Add in a spouse who is unhappy, kids who are crying because they miss their friends and eating unknown cuts of meat every night and well, is it any wonder expats seem to drink as much as they do?Atlas

Good friends who moved recently tallied the stress levels involved in picking your family up and repositioning them around the globe. Three months of packing up/leaving/worrying stress on the old end followed by three months of unpacking/settling in/worrying stress on the new one. Six months of feeling unsettled and a lot of the time, unhappy. If you move every two years, that’s a quarter of your life navigating the sea of stress with nothing but a flight home to paddle your way upstream.

That’s a lot of stress. It’s not good for your heart. Or your liver if you self-medicate with wine. Or your marriage.

I’ve joked (and been serious about) the anger some feel toward the working partner, most often as a handy stand-in for companies who like to toss employees around the world like rag dolls. But I’ve never really stopped to think about what it’s like to be the one on the receiving end of that anger or unhappiness and how much it has to affect the quality of their life.

Though we generally (knocking on every piece of wood I can find) don’t have to worry about cutbacks and layoffs as much as some (there’s never any shortage of war or disease), it’s a legitimate and sobering worry for other expats.

Redundancies are uncommon in the international civil service game, but Copenhagen is a hub for the oil industry, which is experiencing major cut-backs and lay-offs and sayonara, we-can’t-afford-you-anymores. We’ve watched families step off the plane get turned back around, a package and a pat on the back, others made redundant just as they were settling in. Some have been here for years, considering it home and suddenly they’re out of a job.

Obviously losing your job sucks whether you’re an expat or not, but the added of stress of losing your job, or potentially losing your job, when you’ve carted your entire family overseas is not something to be sniffed at.

Sometimes it’s the hard-to-shake worry you’ve made the wrong decision. Feeling as if that decision rests squarely on your shoulders, shaken-not-stirred with watching your partner and kids struggle to settle. Those things are HUGE. To absorb responsibility on one set of shoulders is enormous. And usually, unfair.

Atlas 3As much as I like to wax on/wax off about our crappy health insurance or paint the fence with the layers of common sense which are sorely lacking when it comes to expecting families to move around the world in 8 days, the sole responsibility should not be placed at my husband’s feet or on his shoulders, regardless of how broad they may be.

We are partners. In marriage, in parenting, in the topsy-turvy world of living outside our countries. We went into this beautiful mess together and we’ll shoulder the responsibility together. In the nearly eight years we’ve been doing this, I’ve pulled my head out of my ass long enough to see that.

If Atlas shrugs, shaking us from one continent to the next, we’ll shoulder the weight equally.

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Why Donald Trump May Be Just What America Needs Right Now

distressed-american-flag-graphic-swatch_grandeThe time has come, as my father would have said, to shit or get off the pot.

Let’s be clear. Whenever Donald Trump opens his mouth, I cringe. I recoil at each campaign promise. If there is a spectrum of ideals, I am as far away from Donald Trump as one can be. But at the end of the day I understand his appeal.

I get it.

He doesn’t pander to the left. He doesn’t pander to the right. He’s doesn’t seem beholden to campaign contributors who advise and look on in horror every time he opens his mouth thinking, “You can’t say that!” To the contrary, the more outrageous his rhetoric, the more support he garners.

I get it.

Americans are tired of hearing campaign speak. They’re tired of hearing life-long politicians campaign about issues that don’t affect them directly. They don’t want to hear about foreign policy and over there, they want someone to tell them how they’re going to make their mortgage payment and afford a tank of gas over here. They want answers to their problems. And they want someone to blame for those problems; anyone but themselves.

So let’s blame immigrants, homosexuals or Caitlyn Jenner. Let’s blame Muslims, big business, small business, Planned parenthood or the Democrats. Let’s blame Ted Cruz. Let’s blame Hillary Clinton. Let’s blame ugly women, welfare cheats, or President Obama. Let’s hold everyone else accountable for what is wrong.

Donald Trump has succeeded in finding the perfect scapegoat: Everyone else.

Americans are, understandably and rightfully, frightened. It’s a scary world right now. When planes are getting bombed out of the sky people don’t want to hear We will stand strong. People don’t want to hear, we need to rethink our foreign policy. People want someone to say “I’ll fix it. I’ll make the world a safer place.” Donald Trump found someone–or in this case 1.6 billion someones– to blame, and he’s offered a solution. Ban the whole fucking lot of ’em.

In a country where there are so many who work full-time and still can’t afford health insurance premiums or prescription drugs or a car payment let alone college, people don’t want to hear the only way we’re going to raise money is by raising taxes. They want to hear, “There is a reason you are out of work. There is a reason you can’t afford a nicer car.” That reason, according to Trump, is the worthless, immigrant who is scamming welfare. Trump has offered a solution: Build a wall. That’ll show ’em.

I get it. He’s offering tangible in a world that usually offers waffling abstract.

obamastatueofliberty

So maybe, just maybe Donald Trump is the best thing that could happen to America right now. Because maybe, just maybe his popularity will force a dialogue not only between political parties, but Americans themselves. Because right now that rift between those who believe that a wall or a banning an entire religion is going to solve the problems of the United States and those who don’t? It’s getting bigger and bigger with every poll, with every primary, with every day.

The folks out there who want that wall, who are campaigning and donating to get that ban? The ones who are screaming ‘burn the motherfucker” at rallies? Those people aren’t going anywhere. And they are just going to get angrier and more desperate. And that is way more frightening than a Trump presidency.

The American people are far more adaptable to change than the politicians they elect. The  majority of Americans identify as pro-choice. The majority believe in marriage equality. More Americans identify as secular than ever before. Yet somehow the country keeps electing politicians who tell us otherwise. Politicians who keep wasting money and time on making sure that transgender teens in South Dakota have to use a specific bathroom or that bakers in Georgia can refuse to bake a cake for a gay marriage or that a woman who requires or wants an abortion, a legal medical procedure, has to jump through fiery hoops to get one. Politicians who keep trying to get ‘back’ to a certain way of life that never was, or if it was, may have been good for some, but certainly not for most.

So maybe, just maybe, Donald Trump is the wake up call the US needs. Maybe his candidacy is the reveille needed to get political asses out of bed, and more importantly, to wake up the rank and file Americans who elect them. Maybe Donald Trump will stir the pot enough that folks will stand up and say, enough of this, we don’t need anymore of this. We are dying. We are killing ourselves with drugs and guns. We are struggling to make ends meet. We are going under while the rich use our bloated corpses as stepping-stones to get even richer. We are looking for a world in which to raise our children in safety. We need real change. What are you going to do for us?

Shit, or get off the pot.

tumblr_mnjq2fs9eY1rsa7f4o1_500Donald Trump’s gold-plated, blinged out version of change is not the one I would choose. It’s not the one I will vote for. His version of a Great America is not the same as mine. But there is no denying the United Stages is balanced on a tipping point.

As the divide between YOU and ME, THEM and OTHER gets bigger, as the rift gets deeper, the only way to begin to fix things is to offer up a series of solutions that are going to work toward healing a country that is slowly strangling itself. And it’s going to have to be a solution that includes all those who support Donald Trump as well as those who don’t. Otherwise we haven’t learned a thing. We can’t keep blaming everyone else without turning to the mirror and taking a good hard look at what is staring back.

 

 

Turning to Face the Strange

b031b9c52b45607e8e3d0979812803caSitting with a good friend who is soon to be repatriating, we zipped our way up and down the standardized questions:

Are you going back to the house you lived in before?

Have you sorted out school for the kids?

How do you feel?

As we delicately wove our way through the challenges churned up by any move, we talked a little about her family’s willingness to test the repatriation waters to see if the temperature was right before committing to anything permanent.

You know those Homer Simpson “Doh!” moments when the light bulb clicks on above your head? I had one. Because in her statement, bold as brass, was the truth about the greatest gift I’ve been given on this topsy turvy expat journey: the willingness to turn and face the strange.

Seven and a half years ago when my husband brought up the prospect of leaving my beloved NYC, I was more than slightly terrified. The fear stemmed from a multitude of reasons, but the biggest was questioning my ability to successfully move myself, my little nuclear family and our belongings 7,000 miles away from family, friends and incredible take-out options. The plan was to stay out in the field for two to three years. Two turned to four, then six, now here we are going into our eighth.

Yes, it's just temporary, don't worry
Yes, it’s just temporary, don’t worry

Even though moving again is a near certainty, even though I know it will be one giant pain in the ass, I now no longer doubt I can do it. The time we’ve spent abroad has taught me that nothing is permanent, and I mean that in the best way possible.

I’ve loosened up. Sure, I still like a good spread sheet. I still like plans A through F lined up like ducks in a row. But our time as expats has taught me that if one way doesn’t work, there’s sure to be another one that does. I’ve learned to accept the change, to face the strange.

As my own life get ever so closer to words like pension and retirement and further from ones like boozy brunch, we will be faced with certain decisions. Seven years ago, those decisions may well have paralyzed me into indecision. Even three years ago. But the longer we’re out, the more clear it becomes that everything doesn’t need to be clear, not immediately anyway.

I wouldn’t call our life nomadic, we are rooted to a large degree, but living outside our comfort zone has, strangely, only widened the zone in which I feel comfortable. I think most expats feel the same.

This is the gift that moving has taught me: nothing has to be forever. Change is not to be feared. If it isn’t working, we’ll pick up and find a way to make it work. I’m not saying it won’t be uncomfortable or scary. It will almost certainly be a huge pain in the ass. I mean I don’t feel like we have to lock ourselves into a decision that is forever and ever until death do us part.

0e7400575ac0be32424adcf87bc39962On the surface it doesn’t sound like a big thing, but stop for a minute and think about all the things fear of change may have stopped you from doing–quitting a dead-end job, leaving a deader-ender relationship, moving, even trying a new dish at your favorite restaurant. Our time as expats has taught me the importance of flexibility as well as the courage to face change.

When our second son was born, we named him Reed. One of the very first comments someone made to me was how wonderful it was to be named after a part of nature which has the ability to bend and sway with whichever way the wind changes, but never lose its strength. It’s a characteristic I think many expats discover on their journeys, and one in which I am only now truly learning to appreciate.

Here’s hoping it’s one I can remember for a long time to come. Maybe even over a boozy brunch in a place I never thought I’d find myself.

Needed: New Emergency Contact

cocron1Most folks who have spent any time living away from home would agree that saying goodbye to friends is one of more unpleasant side effects of expat life. I am no exception.

In December we’ll celebrate our four-year anniversary here in Denmark. With that milestone, Denmark will officially become the place my children have lived the longest, pipping NYC at the post by two months. After four years here, it also means I’m now considered part of the Old Guard. There are expat families who have been here longer, but not too many.

In everyday terms staying put in a posting for this long simply means I’ve figured out most of the ins and outs, the quibbles and quirks. I know what to do with the crud that gets stuck in the cracks and the limescale that builds up in my kettle, when to shop the sales and how to piss off a Dane. In the larger sense, it means I’ve seen a lot of people come and go.

For the last few years I’ve had a fluid, yet core circle of friends. I’ve had a Mom tribe, the ones you can confess your parenting sins to without fear of judgement, the ones you can let your gut out in front of. More than that, however, we’ve had a solid group of couple friends. When you make a Mom friend and she has a husband who gets along with your husband, well, that’s pretty great. When you have a few of those combinations and you trade weekend dinners and have impromptu barbecues and celebrate birthdays together, it’s pretty darn nice.

Two Junes ago a good-sized chunk of our everyday social circle left for pastures greener, drier, colder or more distant. The dynamics shifted, but the ‘here’ was still bigger than the there or anywhere. That will change this year.

This is the year that a good number of families who have been here as long or longer than us are clipping their last Klipperkort here in CPH.

1950s-barbeque

Some are friends; not just friends but good friends. Sunday dinner friends and godparent candidate kinds of friends. Friends that trust me with their children overnight and friends I wouldn’t hesitate to call in the wee hours of the morning if I needed help. Emergency contact kind of friends. Those kinds of friends.

When you’re the one leaving, it’s hard to say goodbye. It’s hard to wrap your head around the idea of starting over again. But let me tell you, over here on the other side of the fence, it’s no picnic being the last man standing either. Despite all the rain we’ve had here in Denmark, the grass doesn’t seem any greener.

A few weeks ago my husband asked me why I was going out more than normal, why my acceptance vs. decline rate was higher than usual.

“I’m investing in our future,” I said.

It’s easy to become lazy and complacent in terms of friendships, relying on the easy relationships that come after spending a few years in the same place with the same people. Soon that will change and the very idea of it makes me tired. I am exhausted simply writing about it. It means I will have to be on my best behavior. I will have to hold in all my verbal farts for a while. I don’t do particularly well with best behavior for very long. If I go too long without swearing I get bloated.

But really, what choice do I have? I’ve got to fill the empty Sunday dinner spots. I’ve got to find a new emergency contact.

7221461_f520Of course we can never replace the friends who are leaving, even if new bodies fill their spots at the table. Even if the new bodies become friends. Even if the acquaintances we have now become more than that. It won’t be the same. It doesn’t mean it can’t be as good or even better, but it won’t be the same.

We expats talk a lot about the ones leaving, the difficulties of re-settling, of finding new friends in a new place. What we very rarely talk about is being left behind and making new friends in the old place.

It’s like the age-old question of the chicken and the egg. Is it better to be the one to go, or the last man standing?