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.

The Long Goodbye

106b48aFor the better part of the last eight years my life has been a constant stream of goodbyes.

I said good-bye to my beloved New York City. I said goodbye to Cindy, to Carol, to Britt. To Grand Street and McCarren Park, to the L train and to twenty years of the Big Apple. I said goodbye to working, to take-out, to Metrocards and friends who had spanned two decades, more names than I can list here.

I said good-bye to my family. To my mother. To my sister. To my Nana. I said goodbye to driving on the right side of the road. And by right, I really do mean right.

I said goodbye to everything I knew, everything that made my life comfortable, everything that was routine, from food shopping to dialing the phone to simply walking out of my front door.

And in nearly eight years, I haven’t stopped saying goodbye.

Four months after landing in Cyprus I said good-bye to Sally, my first Greta the Guru. The crazy mom whose name I can’t even remember disappeared off the face of the Earth in there somewhere too. Then it was Liesl, whose house we spent so many hours at, who gave me the greatest description of irrational rage ever, who my youngest son called Mama Liesl for a long time. Then Sara, then Donna, Cindy, Kirsten. Goodbye to Clare and Simon.

And then we had to say goodbye ourselves. To Dorien, Angie, Victoria, Tim and Miriam, Janna, Serene, and Sophie. To Katie and Paul. To Judy-Mou and Nikki. To Krisztina. To Eliza and Paul and Birgitt and Fiona. To the school my son learned to read at. To the nursery where my younger son learned how to make friends. To the play groups, to the heat, to the dust and tumbleweeds. To the beaches, the baba ganoush, to the atrocious parking and driving on the left. To that dusty island itself.

Of course there were untold numbers of goodbyes in between. Goodbyes to family who came to visit, to summer vacations when we relaxed and let our breath out only to have to suck it back in again upon our return. To my Aunt Kathy who died not long after we moved abroad, to whom I never got to say goodbye. We said goodbye to lost teeth and baby-hood, to diapers and strollers. I said goodbye to the very idea of having another baby (though my husband said goodbye to that one a long time before).

BYGONE

This crazy life we lead. It seems as soon as we say hello, we’re saying goodbye. There hardly seems a breath between. In Denmark I said hello and goodbye to Dana, our paths crossing only long enough for an invitation to coffee and a ride for my son to his very first school disco. A goodbye to Jill who I felt like I knew, even though I didn’t.

Then to Kara, gone on the fly the day after school started. To Beth and Tim, to Inge, to Nici. To another lovely Clare. Then to Sara–my midwestern foul-mouthed knitting gal. That was a year of thick and fast goodbyes, when it seemed everyone left at once, leaving a heart-shaped hole behind. I said goodbye to honorary-American but thoroughly British Lucy. To Helena and Sally, Jennifer and Kim and Martine. Goodbye to Renee, to Ann, Karin and Lisa too. To Ainsley who tried to sneak out without telling. Claire, Melissa and Barbara. Goodbye to Louise, here only a year. Goodbye to Natalie and Theo. To Pippa who I was only just starting to get to know. I said goodbye to Stefan and goodbye to Carrie, and to the lovely Leontien not long after. There were so many that year we started a new tradition at school just so we could all say goodbye. And we waved our flags and hugged our hugs and we cried our cries.

Because goodbyes, for all you practice them, suck.

And I wonder: Are there other lifestyles so bursting with goodbyes as the one we lead? This expat life, with the looming reality of eventual goodbye tattooed onto your every encounter, woven into the lifestyle, tied up in the very nature of it all.

It makes my heart ache every time I watch a group of teary-eyed children say goodbye to a friend, to a classmate, to a teacher. It doesn’t hurt any less when it is a group of adults. We have our traditions, our rituals, our goodbye dance. Here in Denmark there are flags and circles of appreciation for the children. Signed tee shirts that will sit unworn in drawers. For the grown-ups there are coffees and teas. Parties, presents, and promises. There are hugs. More tears.

I said goodbye to Lindsey, Jo, and Nelly. To Elizabeth and Patti and Zuzanna, Marnie and smiling Susan too. I said goodbye to Dani and Jay, the nicest Canadians you’ll ever meet. I said goodbye to Andrea, to Polly and to Nicole and her boys.

A difficult goodbye to my walking partner, Sunday dinner friend Tazza (and my de-facto god-daughter, Emma).

And now before I can catch my breath, another goodbye to our songbird Jo, to be forever known in our family as JBNS.

A few more flips on the calendar and I will say goodbye to Jill, to Liz, to Andrea and Maridith. To Avril, to Anja and Sandra, Rikki and yet another lovely Claire. To our resident celebrity dad, Claudio. Eventually to Cristina from the block. There are more, but you know that I know that others don’t know, so suffice it to say your names are here in spirit until contract t’s are crossed and package i’s are dotted.

f1143475cece046e5194a10f299ead6aEventually we will say have to say goodbye to Denmark ourselves. When we talk to our kids about the eventuality, there is sadness. One night my older son said, in the type of stilted, choked-up voice that makes you doubt your capacity as a parent, “I don’t want to have to say goodbye to my friends.”

Before I could even say I understood, before I could read him the love letter of people, places and things that I carry around in my heart, he wiped his eyes and said:

“But I guess if we had never come here, I never would have met them at all.”

I’ve spent the better part of eight years saying goodbye. And it really doesn’t get any easier. But my son is absolutely right.

The lump in the throat and the sting in your eye, the quiver of your lip as you wait your turn to say goodbye, yet again. It’s all worth it.

Because just think, if I hadn’t said that very first goodbye, I never would have had all this.

 

**I ran the risk that I would inadvertently leave our some very important people. It’s likely their names will come to me at 2 am. My apologies to anyone I’ve left off. It was for no reason other than faulty aging memory. xx

 

If One Night In Bangkok and the World’s Your Oyster, What Does Four Years in Denmark Get You?

img_5764_carlsbergFour years ago we stole a last glance at the Tattooine landscape of Larnaca Airport and after a brief touch down at Schipol made our way home…another home, a new home, a Copenhagen home. My kids now have officially called Denmark home longer than any other place. They’ve lived in the land of Lego and Viking horns longer than the country they were both born in, the country either parent carries a passport for, or the one where the older started school and the younger learned to walk.

Four years is a long time. Four years as an expat in one place is a really long time; about a year past the normal sell-by date. Sure, one night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster, but four years in Denmark? I’ve haven’t learned the language, but I’ve picked up a few other things.

For one, I no longer take the sun for granted. Also, you get lazy with your cleaning and dusting routines when the sun doesn’t come out often. How do I know? Because when the sun eventually does peek out from behind the clouds, it highlights the sixty-two filthy windows and a house full of dusty surfaces like a solar spotlight.

Four years in Denmark has taught me happiness is relative. Denmark is consistently voted the happiest nation on Earth and for good reason; but they might not be the reasons you think. The reasons the Danes are happy are deep-down reasons, not surface reasons. Turns out not fretting about medical bills, college, and retirement frees up a whole lotta time and money to find your own version of happiness.

And that happiness is self-defined. Happiness for me? Four years in Denmark has afforded me a room of my own and I’ve used most of the square footage to learn to write again.

Forget the tax rates…it's the parking fines that kill you...
Forget the tax rates…wait until they see the parking fines!

So you see, I’ve learned happiness is not dependent upon just one thing.

After four years I’m still surprised by the cost of things….like, say…a parking ticket.

Four years here has taught me the wind in your hair as you zip past people on your bike is a pretty good feeling.

I’ve learned that wooly inserts in your shoes in the winter are the best thing since sliced rugbrød.

I’ve accepted there is no single right way to do things. There’s a lot that is right with Denmark, but it’s not perfect. The Danish system wouldn’t work in the US for a variety of reasons, but that doesn’t mean you can’t look more closely at the pieces of it that would….

Four years here has taught me there are things you can adapt to (bike rage instead of road rage) and there are others which are going to make you scratch your head, seethe, or stand with your jaw on the floor (adults shushing other adults, herring in curry sauce) no matter how long you’ve stuck around.

I’ve learned that Danes swear a fuck of a lot more than I do.

Sun? Who needs sun? Weak people, that's who. Weak people need sun.
Sun? Who needs sun? Fucking weak people, that’s who. Weak people need sun.

I’ve concluded that hygge, while a sweet concept in general, doesn’t really make a difference when it’s gray and dark and wet for long chunks of time. Nice idea, but a mantle full of scented candles doesn’t…well, hold a candle to a vacation in The Maldives during February break.

Speaking of the sun….four years here has taught me that the sun will come out…maybe not tomorrow. Or the next. But someday! And when it does your house is going to look filthy even if you just dusted.

I’ve learned Americans should stop complaining about gasoline prices.

I’ve learned they should start complaining about plenty of other things.

I’ve learned a danish is not a danish in Danish.

Every time I go food shopping I’m reminded you need to adjust in order to survive. You need to find new favorites or at least learn you can have more than one. No one ever tells you that as a kid, that you can have more than one favorite. Except for Goya black beans. I go black market for the black beans now, judge me if you must.

I’ve learned to cook more, bake more, and seek out the sales.

Yes, yes, it is fine to let your child cycle alone with tobacco products and a sword, yes yes. Soo-pah, soo-pah.
Yes, yes, it is fine to let your child cycle alone with tobacco products and a sword, yes yes. Soo-pah, soo-pah.

I’ve learned when you’re in a winter coat five to six months of the year, you can get away with doing a lot less laundry.

…and that hats cover a lot of bad hair days.

I’ve learned to let go and watch my kids experience the same kind of freedom I grew up with without the questions, the second-guessing or the fear of someone calling the cops on me for letting them walk to the park on their own.

And I’ve learned, time and time again, that home is a concept rather than a place.

There’s no place like Bangkok. I mean Cyprus. Or Denmark.

I mean home, wherever you are.

 

What The Hell Were We Thinking?? (And Other Questions You Ask Yourself as an Expat)

Oh. Shit.
Oh. Shit.

We are barely two weeks into the school year and I’ve already met a new crop of expat families. Some have done this crazy tango before, others are new to the dance floor. Regardless, I’ve been absolutely floored by the speed at which some have managed to settle themselves. Three weeks in a new country and they’ve got the kids in swimming lessons, the internet running and a 1:00 slot at the tennis club blocked off. It’s impressive. After three weeks in Cyprus my husband was still coming home from work to find me banging my head against the countertops. In fact, I’m pretty sure he used to come home at lunch just to make sure I hadn’t stuck my head in the oven. He’s never said so, but I think he was relieved our oven was electric, not gas.

Now, as we near completion of our seventh year overseas, it’s hard to remember all the details of those hellish early days. But I remember all the questions I asked myself that first year in Cyprus. Many of them carried over into our first year in Denmark. Hell, some of them I still ask myself from time to time. Because no matter if this is your first gig overseas or your eighth, moving abroad raises questions. Many of them ricochet loudly around in your head.

You’re not alone. I promise.

What the hell have we done?

The big Kahuna question may haunt you for a while. The inquiry which fuels your nightmares… and your anxieties. While visions of burgers and Target dance in your head, you fret you’ve made the biggest mistake of your life. What were you thinking? What made you think you could pack up a house and the kids and a dog and move across the ocean? Were you smoking crack when your spouse brought it up? Under the influence of a cult leader? Drunk on the Kool-aid? What on Earth were you thinking??

Have we well and truly screwed the kids?

The running joke in our house is this: either our kids are going to thank us for the amazing experience we’ve been able to give them….or they are going to bill us for the therapy hours they endure to make up for their rootlessness. Exposure to multiculturalism vs. lifelong friends. Language acquisition vs. high school sports teams. Travel opportunities vs. worrying your girlfriend’s posting is up in six months. It’s a coin toss I don’t know the answer to. None of us do.

No. There are NO BLACK BEANS. And it's your fault!
No. There are NO BLACK BEANS. And it’s your fault!

This is all your fault. Do you think we’d even be here if it weren’t for your stupid job?

Find me a trailing spouse who hasn’t had this thought at least once in their life abroad and I’ll gladly turn over my stash of Goya black beans. When the going gets rough, the rest of us blame our spouse. It’s their job, their career, their opportunities, we are mere pawns in their international chess game. If it weren’t for them and their stupid job you’d be pushing your giant, red trolley down the aisles of Target, shopping at M&S Food, enjoying 70 degree winter days. Most of the time the blame game is unfounded. That doesn’t stop you from thinking it now and then.

Are the people in your office effing crazy?

The office (in my head it’s always like Wolfram and Hart from the television show Angel) wants the working partner to move or travel at the most inopportune times, like say…the middle of the school year, right before your son’s senior year in high school, during exams, the day after you and the kids touch down in a new posting…

Why is so hard to find a decent burger in this place?

You can be as optimistic and cheerful as Pollyanna. You can be as unsinkable as Molly Brown. You can always look on the bright side of the life, yet I can pretty much guarantee there will still  be something that you miss, something that you long for, something that seems so simple and yet is so difficult to obtain. How hard is it to…

Why are the locals so loco?

Why are the Danes so hung up on rules? Why are the Americans so loud? Why are the Cypriots so confrontational? Why are the Brits so obsessed with Brussels Sprouts? Wherever you’ve landed, there are going to be things that befuddle and confuse you. Things you just can’t understand. And like a toddler asking Why? Why? WHY??? you will ask yourself over and over in an attempt to understand. Let me know if you figure it out.

Oh, my God! Would it kill them to say thank you?

Sometimes it’s hard to understand why someone wouldn’t think to hold the door for you. Or smile at you. Or thank you or move out of the way when you’re walking down the sidewalk or my personal  bugbear, let someone with one or two items go ahead of you in the checkout line. We are all guilty from time to time of wanting our host culture to act with the social norms we are used to, even if they’re not the norms where we’ve landed.

See? It's not hard!
See? It’s not hard!

Why is the pizza so much better at home?

Sometimes we put such a positive spin on things we make ourselves dizzy. But it’s ok to admit you miss home. It’s ok to miss certain things or people or simply the comfort of knowing where you stand. It’s ok to miss the food or the weather or the way the supermarkets are set up. It’s ok to miss the choice or the price tags or family and friends. As much as I joke about Goya products, my beloved black beans are merely a metaphor for the things I miss, big and small. It’s ok to miss home, but if you let the missing define you, you’re in for a tough ride.

So if you’re new to the dance floor and find yourself with a headful of questions, don’t fret. I’ve done a few turns around the floor under the expat strobe lights and I still ask them from time to time. Especially when I’m in the mood for black beans.