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.

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Expat Speak

Pristine gym shoes and undented lunch boxes aren’t the only sign of a new school year. At an international school like the one my kids attend, there is also a sea of new faces, a phalanx of new germs, and, if you put in the effort, the opportunity to make new friends.

Meet and greets are a commonplace enough at the beginning of the year. I always think those suckers are like expat speed dating, but with caffeine in lieu of wine. But don’t be fooled. You can learn a lot more than a just a name to put to the person mainlining coffee across from you.

With any group of a feather that flocks together the conversation usually follows a loose script. When Brits get together they ask about the weather. With new moms the questions are usually about how much sleep you’re getting. Expats are no different. We play our own version of Twenty Questions. Sometimes however, it’s not the question or even the answer, but the between the lines translation where you strike gold.

Q: Where do you come from?

Translation: How am I going to have to adjust my own personal language/speech/topic patterns in this conversation? Alternatively it can mean “help me out because I can’t place your accent”. I have trouble with South African vs. New Zealand. Unless they say “shame” in which case, it’s South Africa for the win every time. But unless I directly ask someone to replay the Cersei/nun showdown on Game of Thrones, that one can be a bit tricky.

Bonus: If the answer to this question is  “The US” or “The UK” these days it will be followed by a question designed to determine who you voted for or where you voted on Brexit. Whether or not you mentally walk away from that person when you figure out the answer is up to the individual. You all know where I stand.

Q: Where did you move from? (Note: this is an entirely different than asking where you come from)

Translation: Is this your fist overseas stint? The answer dictates which way the conversation will shift. This question is like the fork in the conversational road. Talk will either shift onto the path of ‘how can I help you?’ or onto the road of ‘let’s compare places we’ve lived’.

Q: How are you finding it here ?

So, how do feel about that Referendum???

Translation: Are we going to be friends or are you going to be the person I strategically avoid for the rest of the school year? This is not to be confused with genuine concerns. For instance, if someone says “It’s harder than I thought it would be,” longer term expats generally go all mother expat hen and spill their best tips about navigating the supermarket. But if the answer is “Ugh, the Danes are so rude”?  Pretty much going to keep the social interactions to a nod and not much more. There are whole pockets of naysayer expat. They will find a place amongst their own tribe and be happy in their own unhappy way.

Q: How long have you been here?

Translation: Are we going to like it here or have we made the mother of all screw ups? When someone asks how long you’ve been somewhere and the answer is a.) more than six months and b.) they have a smile on their face, it’s a good sign. When your answer, like mine, is nearly six years, you can almost hear the exhale. Generally people don’t stay around in a posting for more than a year or two if they hate it. Note: If they’re on a fixed schedule, a la Embassy families, you’ll get that answer in this question too: “Two years, we’ve got one more year before our time is up”. Embassy families have expiration dates. Like milk.

Q: Do you like it here?

Translation: There are either things about this place I’m finding really strange and I’m trying to figure out if it’s me…or them. Or, there are lots of things about this place I really like and I’m trying to figure out if I’m crazy for liking them.

Q: How often do you get home?

Translation: How do you deal with the fact that you are so far away from family, aging/sick parents/or my personal albatross, keeping an ocean between a grandmother and her only grandchildren.

Q: Who do you work for?

Translation: Where do you fall in the expat hierarchy? This is one of those questions which would normally be considered rude, but on the international circuit it’s par for the course. It’s also pretty sneaky. Where someone works generally gives you an idea of the size/type of the expat package they are receiving, and sometimes–though not always–insight into the way they live their lives.

Q: How much longer are you here for?

Translation: Am I going to put a lot of time and effort into a relationship that’s going to be over in three months? Six? A year? Also, can I have your house/apartment/babysitter when you leave?

Q: Where will you go next?

Translation: I’m going to pick you brain to see if you’ve figured out all the niggling, nagging questions that keep me awake at night.

 

Come from? Well…how long you got?

Q: Do you see yourself moving back ‘home’?

Translation: I’m kind of grooving on this expat thing and I’m not sure I want to ever go back home. Am I alone? Alternatively, everyone seems to rave about this lifestyle and yet I’m incredibly homesick. Am I alone? Please, for the love of all that’s holy, tell me I’m not alone in my abject confusion regarding this subject.

Ok, maybe that one is my own projection….

Listen, a new language can be hard enough to figure out. The last thing you need to do is start translating expat speak on top of it. Consider yourself forewarned, and thereby forearmed. Now go forth into the new year and be fruitful. Or at the very least, coffee-full.

 

Four and a Pizza Pie

ladies pizzaAmong expats ’tis the season, not for tidings and joy, but for leaving parties and gifts, frantic last-minute quests and excuses for daytime drinking. Well, more excuses anyway. June is a tough month for expats. June is packing and wrapping and scrambling and crying and toasting and second-guessing and trying to suck in giant gulps of air to keep you upright.

June is a month full of goodbyes.

Not too long ago my husband and I sat down to confront the eventuality of leaving ourselves. Though we are still firmly on the hosting and attending side of the fence, if I’ve learned anything in the last eight years, it’s that mental preparation is half the battle. At some point the eventualities turn into possibilities and the possibilities morph into certainties, usually the day after you book a long-haul flight or fork over half a year’s tuition. But in the throes of hashing out the pros and cons of staying vs. going, conversing about how hard it will be to set up camp somewhere else and say goodbye to a damn good life, a life which gets harder to leave every additional year we stay, we boiled it down to this:

As long as the four of us are together and there’s decent pizza, we’ll make it work.

Because at the end of the day, what more do you really need?

It’s not easy. Several good friends have been struggling with repatriation or new country postings. Several more are already anxious at how they’ll handle it in a few weeks themselves. But as they make the list of pros and cons, of fears and anxieties, I say the same.

As long as you have your family and a deep-dish, it will be ok.

pizza pieYou’ll be ok. You’ll make it work.

It may take a while. It will probably take a while. In fact, I’d be surprised if it didn’t–it should. Settling into a new place or re-settling into an old place, which can be just as foreign and intimidating as a new one, isn’t easy. There will probably be a lot of tears. Some resentment. An argument or twenty. A lot of second-guessing. That old bugger hindsight will come into sharp focus.

But have faith that as long as you’re together, you’ll figure out how to make it work.

You’ve slogged this road before. You’ve thought it out. You’ve run the numbers, listed the pros, calculated the cons. You’ve looked at it from every different angle and sideways. You’ll be ok.

Maybe you underestimated how different it would be, or how difficult. Maybe it’s not going to be the best country you ever lived in or the nicest house. Maybe you’ll need to hire a tutor for you kids to catch up or maybe your kids will be ahead and lose some of their momentum in the place you’re going. Maybe you won’t have the same friends you had before you left to go away. Maybe you’re going to miss the place and people you left behind.

You’ll be ok.

Because as long as you’re together and you can get a decent slice of pepperoni, it means there’s something normal and right in the world. And sometimes that’s all you need, just a little, tiny bit of normal and right to hang on to.

Maybe this move isn’t going to be the one that pays off the mortgage or sends your career into the stratosphere. Maybe the commute’s going to suck. Maybe the school will suck or the weather or the driving or the lack of decent black beans. But you’ll be ok. Because, pizza.

You’ll make it work. You’ll find a school. Maybe it won’t be a perfect fit. Maybe your kids will be behind or be ahead. But it’s ok, because they’re there with you. You’ll find a house. Maybe the bedrooms will be too small or your landlord will be a dick. But the roof will cover all of you. You’ll make friends. They may not be as good as the ones you made in the last place, but that just means you made some great ones that will always be there. You’ll be able to drive from your house to Ikea and back again without consulting the GPS. And rest assured, Ikea has the same stuff wherever you are.

pizza placeIt might not be pretty and neat, but you’ll figure it out. You’ll figure out what the important things are, like the thickness of the pie crust and the sauce to cheese ratio.

To those of you leaving, those of you who recently left, you’ll be fine, I promise. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow or even next week or next month, but you will: because you’ve already got 95% of what you need to make it work right there with you.

You just need to find the pizza place.

 

 

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.