Speed Equals Distance Over Time

Living far away from family does funny things to what should otherwise be a straight forward equation. Especially when it comes to speed. And aging.

Yes, I’m quite sure speed gets ramped up when you factor in long-distances and divide them by time spent with family.

I see my mother and sister twice a year. Once here, once there. It’s not ideal, but it’s more than a lot of expats get, and so for that, I’m thankful. But when family visits are limited to bi-annual hugs and semi-yearly dinners, you notice the passage of time more acutely–etched out on a loved one’s face, in the gray of their hair or the stoop of shoulders. And that’s just me.

Each and every time I face it I am slammed with the inevitability of time. And distance. And the speed at which they seem to be colliding.

Time? Time is a wall I keep trying to scale, but instead of climbing it, I keep running into it headfirst, knocking myself most of the way to unconscious.

And distance? Well, distance is the one thing in my control.

I don’t get homesick very often, not anymore, but I do miss my family. I look forward to their visits, and to mine. In my head I map out great big plans to relax. We’ll laugh and have long conversations and go for long walks! We’ll spend quality time! The kids will be gracious and happy to see their family and actually converse with them instead of retreating behind a screen anytime I leave the room!

I worry that the reality is….less than great. Or relaxing. I think I may come across as…well, for lack of a better word, grumpy. Instead of being all hunky and dory, sometimes I get snippy and snappy.

Bear with me. It took me nine long years to figure this out.

I realized I must come across as resentful. Or annoyed. Or just garden variety grumpy-pants. The truth is, there’s often an emotional orgy going on in my head, decisions battling reality–decisions which benefit US, but sometimes come at the detriment of extended family.

So when I’m being snippy, it’s sometimes because I’m fending off  the guilt that come with choosing to live far away. Sometimes when it seems like I’m short-tempered it’s because I’m trying to gauge how long can I justify keeping the grandkids away. If it seems like I’m a bit low on patience, it may just be because I’m trying to calculate how much longer I’m going to ask my mother to get on a plane for Christmas. If it seems like I’m sulky, it’s probably because I’m trying to remember the formula to figure out how time speeds up when there’s a greater distance involved.

I think my brain switches into efficiency mode due to overload. And efficiency mode? Well, everything gets done, but sometimes at the expense of emotion. AI’s got nothing on me when I switch over to efficiency mode. Just ask my husband.

Sure, there’s Skype and FaceTime, and it definitely helps, but expats know that E.T. was right: phoning home is really just a substitute for being there.

Then the trips are over. Bags are packed, flights checked-in on, passports stamped. It takes me a few weeks to recalibrate my emotions, to pack them all back into the neat boxes they live in. I get caught up in day-to-day dramas and hourly ados and I’ll sit down to put my feet up and suddenly it’s Sunday, or summer or six months later. And I gear up to do the whole thing all over again.

I’m in the midst of all that now. Long enough removed from the family visit to be able to take a step backward and say “Ah! Of course that’s why I was such a miserable Mabel, because I worry about how our choice to live away affects you. And you’re getting older. And I’m getting older. And the kids are getting older. And oh, my God, for the love of all that’s holy make it stop.”

Eventually I guess the scales will tip one way, or another. But there are few weeks a year when they swing wildly from one side to another, bouncing up and down.

Every time I watch my mother say goodbye to my kids something small inside me dies. Like that flower in ET, the one that wilts and falters. But…. I also know this. You know the final scene of ET? The one when Eliot is crying and Gertie has snot running down her face and ET is about to get on his spaceship? He touches his light-up heart, then points his long, wrinkly finger at Eliot’s head and says…”I’ll be right here.”

It doesn’t matter what the formula is for calculating distance, or speed, or even time. Because that’s where we are.

We’ll be right here.



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.


A Letter From Poland

czarny-protest-800x445I don’t normally run guest posts, but it may be the perfect time to start. The below is a letter from Poland. The author wishes to remain anonymous but her words should be read by every woman, because together we ARE everywoman. 

Think this couldn’t happen in the U.S.? Think again. We’re just one or two Supreme Court Justices aways. 

A Letter from Poland

Poland is a modern country. OK, it’s a bit ragged around the edges. It was trampled flat in World War Two and then stifled for 40+ years by Communism, after all. Still, it has big buildings, fast trains, and one of the faster-growing economies in the world. Women are a big part of both the economy and government, as in any other modern country.

But, like the present-day U.S., Poland has people who want to make it “great again.” Enough of those people–barely enough–showed up to the polls last year to put a right-wing party into power with about 37 percent of the vote. This party is called “Law and Justice,” and the Polish acronym for it is (amusingly) PiS.

The acronym is about all that is funny about PiS. The party is anti-immigrant, Euro-skeptic, and extremely socially conservative/reactionary. This is a part of Polish culture: the country is about 90 percent Catholic, and not the most socially progressive place to begin with. But many on the Polish political right actually consider the Vatican to be too liberal. Let that sink in for a minute.

As you might expect, Poland already had one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. Abortion is only permitted in the cases of rape or incest, or in which the life of the mother is at risk. Practically speaking, most women who require abortions go to the nearby Czech Republic or Germany for the procedure. However, the current law is supported by about 70 percent of the population. They are Catholic, after all.

But this already harsh law is not enough for some. Recently, a new law was proposed by petition from two Catholic anti-choice groups. It is supported by PiS, which, after all, owes a debt to conservative Catholics from the election. This new legislation would criminalize ALL abortions, performed for ANY reason. Doctors, and anyone who assists them, could face five years in prison for performing abortions. Women who have abortions could face the same sentence.

Furthermore, under this law, abortions can be criminally investigated. So, even natural miscarriages could lead to a trial for both the mother and the doctor who may have helped her during her ordeal. Doctors have expressed concern that they might not be able to perform even routine prenatal procedures for fear of being accused of performing an abortion should the patient miscarry.

Women could and will die under this new law, because their health is not considered sufficient reason to end a pregnancy at any stage.

At its most sinister, this law could essentially enable men to force women to have their babies. Because even rape would not be sufficient reason to terminate a pregnancy.

If you are thinking this is a barbaric and medieval law, you would be right. If you are thinking this is the tail wagging the dog: an extremely conservative church effectively governing a democratic country, you’d be right about that, too. Many Polish women (and men) would agree with you.

Yesterday, Polish women made it clear that they are having none of it. They organized a nationwide “Black Protest.” Women in cities all over the country held a general strike, staying home from work. Many businesses and even local government offices supported them by shutting down or closing early so that women could attend protests in the afternoon.

Those who couldn’t strike or attend protests wore black to show their support, and blanketed social media with photos of themselves in black and the #czarnyprotest hashtag. All over the world, from New Zealand to Kenya, women did the same, and even held protests of their own in support of Polish women.

Millions of women in Poland participated in one way or another, many, many thousands of them in Warsaw. It was a beautiful, beautiful thing.

Plac Zamkowy in Warsaw yesterday. Photo from Newsweek.

I live most of my life in Poland in an English-language bubble. I’ve tried to learn the language, but it’s just impenetrable. I have very few Polish friends. Though I have huge respect for this country and what it has been through and achieved, as a politically liberal, religiously agnostic, American, I don’t feel like I have much in common with Polish culture. I am a fish out of water.

But I am a woman. I feel this barbaric law in my bones. Though it will never affect me personally, it pisses me off to no end. And yesterday, Polish women made me proud to be one of the sisterhood. They organized the shit out this thing. Daughters, mothers, and grandmothers showed up in the cold October rain to say “not on our watch!” They were awesome. I hope and pray that they succeed in pushing back this patriarchal dumpster fire of a law.

When the right-wing nut jobs get into power, owing their souls to religious extremists, they come for the women first. Doesn’t matter what country, doesn’t matter which religion. You think Bible-thumping Ted Cruz wouldn’t love to pass a law like this one? You think Donald Trump would care enough to stop it? Because of his notable respect for women? Because the Republican party has such a great track record of standing up to its religious right-wing? Good luck with that.

It’s worth mentioning that Trump currently has more popular support in the U.S. than PiS did in the last Polish election. That support bizarrely includes the vast majority of religiously conservative Republicans. Or maybe not so strange: they know who really wags the tail in the Republican party.

I am sure Polish women didn’t think that there were enough fanatics in their country to pass such a ridiculous law, either. But now they are fighting for control over their own bodies, and in some cases, for their lives.

American women, pay attention. Don’t take anything for granted. Hold the line. Vote. And say a prayer for our Polish sisters!

America Through the Looking-Glass

cheshireOne of the side effects of living outside your own country is being forced to view everything  from a different perspective.

My time living outside the United States has made me appreciate many things about the place I still think of as home. I’ve written about most of them before, and really, how many times can I wax poetic about iced coffee and Goya black beans? Oh, and friendliness and good dentistry, ingenuity and plain old chutzpah too. And cheeseburgers. Mmm. Cheeseburgers.

Through that looking-glass I also get a different view of the other stuff too. The stuff that’s not so mmmm cheeseburgers. Some of it was on the periphery of my vision before we moved, but some of it I needed to see from a different angle, through a different filter. Living in Europe allows me that angle. It also gives me the chance to hear what non-Americans really think about America.

What they think is that we are getting dangerously close to fucking up a pretty good thing.

Most people I’ve met genuinely like the United States. They like its grandeur, its cities, its food, and its shopping. They like the diversity it offers, the geography, the size and breadth. They like what it represents in terms of freedom, (ok, not the gun freedom). They like the opportunities it offers.

They also think that, as a country, we can be incredibly stupid.

Europeans don’t think the U.S. is stupid in a two plus two equals a triangle kind of way. More of an inexperienced teenager who thinks they know everything there is to know kind of way.

From their perch of history most of Europe looks at the United States as an aunt or uncle would look upon a favorite nephew or niece. Young, fun to have around most of the time, full of enthusiasm for the future, but prone to making some seriously questionable decisions.

Before anyone gets their gets their star-spangled panties in a twist, take into consideration this: Being young isn’t a bad thing. After all, youth represents the key to the future. Being young means being able to take an age-old problem and look at it from a new angle, to find solutions to things that the old guard has been struggling with for years. Being young is having the time and the energy to make changes, having the fire in your belly to see them through.

The problem is, that’s not exactly what the United States is doing right now.

Over here in Europe, there’s a lot of head scratching going on.john-tenniel-tweedledum-and-tweedledee-illustration-from-through-the-looking-glass-by-lewis-carroll-1872

Over here, what it looks like most is the U.S. acting like a hormonal teenager rebelling against its parents by doing stupid, stupid things they haven’t thought through fully. Things that could have a disastrous knock-on effects.

The Europeans I speak with talk of the far-right challenges to the status-quo in their own countries and of how they were stopped: Not with might and bombs and blowing shit up, but with hard choices, a lot of soul-searching, and slow change. Europeans ask me why the United States doesn’t invest in infrastructure, in a healthy, educated population, in social programs, because from their view on the other side of the been-there-done-that river, it’s the only lasting way to ensure that a country doesn’t implode and collapse in on itself. After all, you can only drop so many bombs before someone comes after you. Or you run out.

True, lasting strength is taking care of your own, not just your white and your wealthy. Strength is progress–scientific, technological, social. Strength is evolution and adaptation. It is survival.

It may sound surprising, but Europe wants nothing more than for the United States to succeed, to keep moving on, moving forward.

Why? They are invested in our future. For all Americans want the rest of the world to butt out of their business when it comes to the matter of electing a leader, it doesn’t quite work that way. For better or worse, the United States is a global player. Americans who want to isolate themselves from the rest of the world will be the first ones crying foul when gasoline prices go up, when jobs go missing, when even more factories close and banks shutter because they’ve become irrelevant in the global marketplace. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t clamor for cheap market goods and then complain about no jobs in the economy because US companies have moved their factories to produce those cheap goods. You can’t say we’re going to deport immigrants because they’re taking your jobs and then complain that those jobs don’t pay enough, while at the same time defending the small (or big) business owners who wouldn’t make a profit if they had to pay higher wages. It’s the teenager who wants all the privileges of adulthood while still basking in the relative irresponsibility of childhood.

You can’t say we’re going to bomb the shit out of anyone who threatens us and then act innocent and confused when you try to figure out why people hate you. That’s like the sixteen year-old who didn’t go to class and then is shocked and outraged when the teacher flunks him.

3918d1c9416ce36cabb6dda041764e39Right now Europe is watching their favorite nephew balance on the tipping point of a potentially disastrous decision. They’re watching because they can’t look away, because they care, because it affects them. Because they don’t want to see us fuck it up. They know all too well from their own histories that sometimes that young upstart, the one with grand ideas but too much anger ends up going out to the woodshed and blowing his brains out. They know sometimes the brightest and bravest does something incredibly reckless and ends up taking out a whole bunch of innocents in the process.

They don’t want us to fail. They don’t hate us. They don’t think we’re weak.

They just want us to make the right choice.