Strangers in a Strange Land

photo-dI used to write about the ups and downs of  life abroad. I used to write pithy posts about parenting. I used to write salty observations of marriage and life and love and all the stuff that falls between the cracks like so much cheese doodle dust.

Now I seem only to write about events taking place 3,000 miles away. In a homeland that’s not my current homeland but whose life, liberty and pursuit of happiness schtick is part and parcel of my makeup.

Right now, it’s excruciating to be an American living outside America.

But it’s also liberating.

Like so many other things in life, it’s both a blessing and a curse.

By definition, I’m an immigrant. A stranger in a strange land. I know first hand what it is like to try to go about your daily business in a country that’s not your own. It’s disorienting and difficult, frustrating. And make no mistake, I’m doing it from a socio-economic standpoint way up near the top of the totem pole. I can fly home to see my family. I can travel. I don’t worry about how I’m going to feed my kids or if they’re going to be harassed, deported or killed because they aren’t indigenous to the culture we are living in. I am so ridiculously privileged it’s hard to grasp sometimes.

But I can tell you this.

As a foreigner living in another country, I feel an immense gratefulness to the nation which has allowed me the privilege of living here. I imagine immigrants to the United States feel exactly the same way. I walk a careful line –exhausting at times–between maintaining the important elements of my own culture and adhering to Danish cultural norms. I am embarrassed–rightly–of the fact that I don’t speak the language of the country I’ve called home for five years. Yet never once has a Dane scoffed at me or chided me for not speaking their language. Never once has a Dane told me to go back where I belong.

Americans sometimes vilify recent immigrants for not speaking English, conveniently forgetting that not that far up on the family tree they had parents, grand-parents, or great-grandparents who traveled to America seeking a better life or fleeing war or poverty. Those strangers in a strange land often settled in enclaves of ‘likeness’, maintaining their language and traditions while they went about the exhausting task of assimilation.

My grandmother grew up speaking Italian. She and her sisters were the liaison between the old world and the new. But by the time my mother was born a generation later, only English was spoken.

Generations of immigrants have been weaving themselves into the fabric of American society, the same way I loosely assimilate into Danish society. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s difficult finding a balance between celebrating facets of the culture you came from while immersing yourself in the one you are in.

image053

But they do it. My great-grandparents did it. So much so that their native tongue was lost in the time it took for a daughter to become a mother. The same way recent immigrants to the US will do it. Many will encourage their children to join the military–because what is more of a commitment to your new homeland than agreeing to risk your very life for it, let alone your liberty and pursuit of happiness?

Now I watch from afar, as the country which opened its doors to my grandmother’s family closes them to others. Out of what? Fear? Security? The boogeyman we’ve been told is out to get us?

The boogeyman in America right now is Muslim or Mexican or Somalian. Speaks a different language, worships the same God in a different way, eats different food. The boogeyman who is coming for us, coming for our children. Coming to eat us or kill us or blow us up or take away our ‘traditions’, our ‘way of life’.

It’s a story, the same story parents have been using for generations to get their kids to fall into line when the realities of life are too difficult or distressing to explain.

Are there folks who would do harm given the chance? Sure. There always have been. But there are more of them born, bred, and living within the borders of the United States than those coming in desperate to sleep at night without worrying if a bomb is going to fall through their roof or if a militia is going to come in and rape their daughter or kidnap their son into war.

America’s got plenty of home-grown boogeymen. But it’s too difficult to face that, so we project our fear onto the ones who sound odd or  pray differently, whose food smells unfamiliar.

So here I sit on my ridiculously privileged fence in my ridiculously privileged life. I am torn between the need to keep my family safe, out of the true carnage–that which has yet to be released–and the need to be there to do something. I sit, thousands of miles away, hobbled and paralyzed.

I have never felt so deeply ashamed of my country, and yet proud of the those who are fighting for it. I have never felt so deeply the desire to stay put, to stay safe and sane, and the desire to go home, to put my own boots on the ground of the soil I call home.

ellis-islandAnd I am even more ridiculously privileged because I have that choice.

It is a bizarre and difficult time to be an American abroad. In less than two weeks, those elected have managed to anger much of the world with their sweeping declarations of keeping Americans safe from the boogeymen.

I don’t recognize the America that I am viewing from afar, yet I have never felt so American in all my life.

 

 

Lessons from Scandinavia

walk-dont-walkA few nights ago I stood on a street corner near my apartment. It was a little before midnight. The air was crisp, the sky was bright, fir garlands twinkled with Christmas lights. I stood alone, nary a car in sight…and waited for the light to change from red to green.

Shit, I thought. I’m practically Danish now.

Five years in Copenhagen has almost completely erased twenty years of proud NYC jaywalking. In a fit of civil disobedience, I crossed against the light. But the fact that it took a conscious thought to do so made me realize how much living in Scandinavia has changed me.

I’m less competitive. As an American abroad, I didn’t have to explain the notion of American exceptionalism because it was evident in everything I did–or did not–do. But five years in Scandinavia has taught me that competing with myself and those around me? All it does is exhaust me. My kids don’t have six activities each. A day. The older one doesn’t play an instrument. Neither one of them is on the chess club. If there is a future checklist of extracurricular activities they need for college acceptance, we’re failing. And after five years here….that’s ok with me. In fact, if they choose not to go to college, that’s ok with me too. They’re kind. They’re happy. They drive me nuts but they are good, inclusive, thoughtful kids. No amount of piano or extracurricular Arabic lessons are going to enhance those qualities. I don’t always succeed and it isn’t always easy, but I’m learning to place those qualities above grades, above awards, above percentile and rankings.

I’ve admire the way Scandinavians look at the world. Scandis are loosely guided by the social principles of Jantelavn, which places the value on the whole rather than the individual. In fact, those who attempt to stand out above the fold are often looked down upon. It’s pretty much in direct opposition to the way I was raised, the way most Americans are raised–in a culture that demands and encourages you to stand up and shout. I hated it at first. I mocked it. They are striving for mediocrity! There’s no innovation! There’s no competition!  There’s no ingenuity! And it’s true. There’s not a whole lot of that. (Or rather there’s plenty, just not by super-sized American standards). What there is though? Contentment.

I’ve seen how social programs can work. Contrary to what many Americans seem to  think, ‘socialized’ health care doesn’t result in people dropping dead on the main drag on a daily basis. Will you get the same level of health care you’d get with a top-tier US insurance plan that’s costing you or your employer $3,000 a month? Nope. Do you need all those bells and whistles? 95% of the time, nope. Will you ever go bankrupt in Scandinavia because you get sick or are in an accident? Nope. But more than the very real benefits of tax money which pays for everyone to have decent health care is the pride the Nordics have in taking care of one another. They all contribute and they all receive. They are proud of the way they’ve structured their economy to look after one other. Nope, it’s not perfect. Yes, there is fraud. But there is a deep-rooted sense of satisfaction which comes from knowing that not only are you taking care of, but you are taken care of. I admire it greatly.

When you get rid of one, two more take its place
When you get rid of one, two more take its place

I’ve learned to worry less. Kid number one goes to Tivoli with a friend on his own. Kid number two walks to the toy store two blocks away by himself to buy Pokemon cards. The 12 y/o rides public transport alone. They go to the park near our house on their own, they stay home by themselves while we do the grocery shopping. And I don’t worry. It’s not that I don’t worry because bad things could happen. It’s that I don’t worry because I’m not immersed in a culture which is so obsessed by worry it that it dictates every action, reaction and counter-action. And by virtue of marinating in a more relaxed atmosphere for five years, I’ve absorbed it. And quite frankly, it’s glorious.

I’ve learned not to look for answers to problems that don’t exist. I realized this the other day sitting in a meeting which was peppered with ‘what ifs?’. It took some scrawny Danish guy from the bus company who shrugged his shoulders and said, “if it becomes an issue, we’ll address it.” And suddenly…it made sense to me. For most of my life I’ve demanded an answer to ‘what if?’. The problem with demanding answers for issues that don’t exist is that once there is one problem, three more follow. It’s like the Hydra. It turns out when you free your mind from could be-maybe-what if? problems, there’s a lot of room for something like…well, happiness.

scandi-nationsScandinavians have it right about a lot of things. Not everything. But a lot of things. They have it right about the work-life balance. They have it right about vacation time. Scandinavians–scratch that–Europeans think Americans are nuts. Oh, and they don’t give a fig if overworked Americans think Europeans are lazy and entitled. You know why? Because they’re sipping drinks on a beach somewhere enjoying their vacation time. Americans take a perverse pride in just how much they are being screwed over. There is a bizarre sense of I must be heartier, stronger, better because I work more and harder for less. It took me eight years of living outside of it to be able to put my finger on that. And I still don’t understand it completely.

I don’t know where life will take us next, what the next chapter will hold. But I hope that the lessons I’ve learned after five years in Scandinavia come with me, wherever we end up.

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

 

Expat Life Version 7.2.8: Survival Mode

1953_1_1Recently a friend confided to me, with a mixture of both surprise and exasperation, how difficult she’s found managing her time. A new job, two young(ish) kids, a house, a husband, a life, the whites, the darks, the ironing and all the rest.

It’s a lot to fit into the confines of the day, I assured her.

“But I didn’t have this much trouble back home,” she confessed, “and I worked more hours!”

Working less, kids getting older, life getting marginally easier. It stands to reason it would be a cake and Chardonnay walk in the park, right?

Wrong.

To quote my kids: “But why?”

Here’s why: As an expat, you expend slightly more energy than normal. Not necessarily on the big stuff, the stuff you’d expect, but on all the little things you go about in your daily life. Each interaction and action and corresponding reaction requires just a pinch more thought, a dash more understanding, a soupçon more interpretation.

Even though the individual amounts may be small, all the extra effort drains your battery faster than you’d expect. Just like the programs open and running on your laptop, the ones you don’t see or hear or use but are essential for running the programs you do use.

Life outside your home zone requires a little bit more. You have to run a lot of extras in the background to make sure the Expat version you’re currently using is the most up to date and compatible with the rest of your life. All those extras are a drain.

When you’re living outside your own end-zone, you exist in a semi-perpetual state of hyper awareness with regard to the small, the every-day. The little differences, the not-quite-the-same norms, and the kind-of different rules that are innate to the culture you’re guesting in. You are more aware of stepping on someone’s foot when they don’t move out of your way on the sidewalk (have I mentioned the Danes seem to be constantly engaged in a country-wide game of chicken?).

bombe

There is the concentration required when you are driving on the wrong side of the road, whether it’s the right or not. There is the focus it takes to make yourself understood in another language, especially when you land in the emergency room or if you have a child with a fever. If you’re American, there’s the added burden of constantly converting temperatures and weight into metric so the rest of the world understands what you’re talking about. There is making sense of the strange-sensical. There’s often a open app for homesickness and an always-running niggle about ‘what next?” All of these things are things you normally don’t spend energy on when you’re inside your own culture, among your own tribe, when you’re ‘home’.

Thinking about all of that, even unconsciously, takes up a lot of valuable space and energy.

I think perhaps it’s why so many expats look forward to going home for big chunks of time. Not only to see family and friends and eat gut-busting amounts of their favorite foods, but just to let those busted guts hang out; to take a few weeks to shut down and reboot.

Being ‘home’ allows you to recharge your battery by only running the basics. There’s nothing major lurking in the background sucking your brain dry. Home is usually, blissfully, nothing more than Shopping V. 3.4, Eating V. 6.0, and Slothing V. 10.

Just like you often don’t realize how much power your computer is actually using until you start getting the black screen of death or the spinning wheel of despair, you probably don’t realize how much energy you’re expending on a daily basis when you’re living somewhere other than home. Is it any wonder then that sometimes the everyday seems a lot more exhausting than you would expect?

See, I got rid of the BakeSale App. That freed up some space.
See, I got rid of the BakeSale App. That freed up some space.

So what do you do? Most of us switch out the battery for a new one every few years. You reboot as needed. Sometimes you need to run Disk Warrior in the form of a vacation. Sometimes it helps if you close out a few dead-weight programs you forgot you had running, things like PTA Bake Sale V. 1.4 and Converting Currency V. 4.2.

Usually then you can free up some space for the latest version of Expat Life V 7.2.8: Survival Mode (tennis, massage and bonbon pack optional). And it’s always a good idea to shut down every now and again. I recommend doing it with a glass of wine. Perhaps a bag of Cheese Doodles. And if you need something to read, there’s a really great blog I know….