Because You’re Worth It

Photo: collectorsweekly.com
Photo: collectorsweekly.com

This post was going to be about hair.

Along the way it took a left turn and became, yet again, about aging. Another sharp turn to the left and it morphed into an idea about women and self perception. One more gentle, left leaning bend brought me to face to face with ideas of identity and self-worth and then there I was, back at the place where I started.

Hair.

I recently chopped of most of my hair.  Let me clarify: I recently paid someone else a rather large sum of money to chop off most of my hair. My hair, the vainest of female vanities, was suffering the effects of two years of Danish water, which is rock hard and full of chalk. The color was brassy, the ends were fried, and frankly, I needed a change. But hair-dressage (yes, I made that up),  like everything else in Denmark, is extortionate. With some difficulty, I pushed my frugal tendencies to one side and with a snip, snip ca- ching, went from Cleopatra bob to longish faux hawk. Though I loved the cut, I hated the amount of money it cost me; not only to create, but to maintain. Because of the cost, I put off getting it cut again and again, until I looked like a Chia Pet, until I could stand it no more, until I could summon up the justification to have it cut again. This time I went even shorter, Halle Berry short. If I was going to pay big money, I wanted a big bang for my buck, or in this case, Kroner.

I am neither cheap nor am I extravagant, but if I am truthful, I fall squarely on the frugal side of the fence. Despite the leopard print and the hot pink and the tattoos, I spend conservatively. I like to have a savings plan, I pine for the days of interest bearing accounts, I budget, I shop with an eye on prices etc. We live well, and well within our means. Despite the sticker shock of Copenhagen salon prices, it’s not going to break the bank to have my hair cut on a semi-regular basis. Yet it pains me to do it. Somewhere, deep within my psyche, there is a niggling voice listing all the other things that money could be used for; better things, more important things. More worthy things.

Despite a global ad campaign telling me I’m worth it, apparently my psyche thinks otherwise.

Photo: addio.ecrater.com
Photo: addio.ecrater.com

How many woman do you know who push impeccably dressed toddlers in expensive strollers while they slop around in clothes that saw their heyday not last season, but last century? How many mothers do you know that forego getting haircuts or new clothes or going to the doctor yet have children that are sporting designer clothes or expensive sneakers who take pricey lessons and go to summer camp? Why do women routinely convince themselves it is acceptable, expected and unexceptional to go without so that others can go with? I’m not talking about blowing the bank and going into debt to buy a new pair of Choos. I’m talking about regular maintenance, the kind that keeps the cogs oiled and the mechanisms tuned:  hair cuts, doctor’s appointments, replacing the jeans that have split along the inside seam or the sneakers that smell like a gym class. New eyeglasses, warm enough winter boots, comfortable shoes, bras without holes. We don’t blink an eye at servicing the car, making sure the kids have shoes that fit and violin lessons, booking checkups on schedule. Yet when it comes to ourselves, we put it off, we make excuses, we make do.

Are we not worth it?

When my second son was born, I coveted a pretty, lacy nursing bra. Nursing bras are ugly.  They are functional. Even the ugly, functional ones are expensive.  The one I had my eye on was, for me, far more than I was willing to pay. I mentioned it to my husband, who without blinking an eye, told me to buy it. Aghast, I asked him if he would spend $75 dollars on a pair of boxer shorts. His answer, to this day, remains one of my favorite stories to tell:

“Look, if my nuts swelled to three times their normal size and I had to get them out in public five or six times a day, you can be damn sure that I would spend whatever I needed to spend to make sure I was comfortable. In fact, I’d buy two.”

What he said made sense, of course, but there was also the realization that men do not spend–or not spend–money on themselves on the basis of worth. There is no guilt, no second guessing, no martyrdom. They buy what they need, often what they don’t and move on. It would not occur to any man I know not to get his haircut if he needed a haircut.  Why is it then that so many of our decisions as women are tied up in the way we value, or more accurately, devalue, ourselves?

Photo: vintageadbrowser.com
Photo: vintageadbrowser.com

It is not frivolous to make sure that you are running properly, that you are serviced and maintained, with the right accessories and accoutrements to be the best mother, wife, friend, daughter you can be.  To be the best person you can be, to be the best YOU you can be. In the end, Loreal was sort of right. We are worth it. Cheesy as the message may be, it’s true. Yet it is difficult for many of us to reconcile ourselves to that. It’s not ‘our’ money, the kids need something, the house needs something, we don’t have time. We go without sleep, without food, without peeing in privacy for years to make sure everyone else has what they need. Yet when it comes to ourselves, we fall upon a dull, rusty sword of our own design.

Cutting my hair off was symbolic of many things. Yes, I wanted to get rid of dead weight, literally and figuratively, but it is also, I realized, my way of telling age to come and get me; to look at the future full in the face without being able to hide behind my hair. There is no hiding with hair this short, no hiding the laugh lines or the gray hairs or the crinkles around my eyes. It’s my little way of saying screw you, mid-life, I’m ready for you. I’m not afraid of you. Like a reverse Samson, I feel stronger with short hair. But though I may embody the strength of a shorn Samson, I am my own Delilah. It will cost me a fair amount to keep up this middle finger to middle age hairdo.  I will have to decide if staring down the march of time is worth it.

If I am worth it.

I think I am.

So are you.

 

 

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The First Rule of Ex-Pat Club

covered wagonEx-pat postings are a bit like a revolving door; there’s always someone coming, someone going, entering, exiting, getting stuck with their nose pressed against the glass with a look of horrified Oh-My-God-I’ve-Just-Made-The-Worst-Mistake-of-My-Life on their face.  Spinning around, sometimes missing the chance to jump out, sometimes escaping to the lobby for a few years of respite, it’s all part of the game.  Once you get over the initial dizziness, you quickly learn that there are certain rules to follow, certain things you should and shouldn’t do.

The first rule of ex-pat club is don’t cry when it’s time to say goodbye.

Most of us have, deep within us somewhere, a desire to go home; to be comfortable, to be awash in the familiar, to let go of that last big breath we’ve been holding on to.  Sometimes it may be a small desire, sometimes an overwhelming one.  Sometimes it is confusing, sometimes it’s as clear as day.  When your number is finally called and you pack your house once again, sorting out which electronics will work and which you can ditch, making sure all the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed, it means the finality of saying goodbye has become real.  Saying good-bye is a very real part of this life and it happens a lot.  There are unspoken rules to follow.  Don’t hug too tightly, don’t ask too many questions.  Assume that the person leaving is stressed out and that being overly sentimental is just going to stress them out more.  It’s all part of the game.  If you are the one leaving you adopt a pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag and smile, smile, smile attitude while realizing that even though you are going home, it’s yet another move, yet another settling in, yet another adjustment.  If you are the one staying behind, you have to follow the first rule of ex pat club: Don’t cry too much because you’ll set everyone else off.  Most of us used the band-aid approach.  It’s best to get it over and done with quickly.

When we left Cyprus, sitting on a plane getting ready for take-off, I was surprised to find myself thinking it was quite possible I would never be back.  It was somewhat disorienting to realize I would likely never again step foot on that little rock in the Mediterranean that I called home for almost three and a half years.  However, I also knew, deep in my heart, that there were friends we made in our time there that we would see again.

clowns

The longer I’m a part of this traveling circus, the more firmly I believe that you somehow meet the people you’re meant to meet, and that the ones who are meant to stay in your life, will.  You never know when paths will intersect, when chance meetings will happen, where the job will take you next.  For those close friends we made in Cyprus, some we have seen again, some we have not…yet…but I do not doubt that our lives will intersect on the big ex-pat graph of life.  Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday.

You meet some great folks on this roller coaster.  Granted, you meet some strange nuts as well, but hey, that’s life.  The people who you meet on the way up may not be the same people you end up sitting with on the ride down.  In fact, they probably won’t be.  But occasionally you meet someone who you don’t mind sharing your little car with, someone who sits with you on the way up and gives you advice, who screams with you on the way down, and who you would be happy to pass some time with waiting in line for the Tilt-a-whirl.

My collective Copenhagen Connection had to say goodbye to someone like that today.   I didn’t want to break the first rule of ex-pat club, so I will try to do her stint here justice, in the way I know best; with words, with sentiment, and a few song lyrics tossed in for good measure.

A blonde, Midwestern knitter who does a mean Fargo accent is not the type of person I would have expected to end up friends with.  Sweet as apple pie, not a mean bone in her body, never a bad word to say about anyone.  Full of positive energy, full of ideas and advice and willing to give it, a smile for everyone, an ear for listening.  So imagine my surprise when I heard her use the word cock-sucker once to describe someone who tried to steal her iPhone (while she was knitting, of course).  That clinched it for me.

It’s a special kind of person who can make others feel at home no matter how far away from home they are, who can commiserate without oozing negativity.  It’s not everyone who can recognize the ups and downs of living abroad with a smile, a constructive thought.  It’s hard to stay positive when the sun hasn’t shone for half a year, but that’s the kind of person she is.  She is the kind of person who lights up any room she enters, who makes you feel safe, who makes you feel comfortable, but who can also drink you under the table and swear like a truck driver.

So friend, you will be missed, dearly, by all those you leave behind.

mashFor those of us staying, it’s going to be a tough year.  It’s a big turnover year, and there are many families who will be leaving in the next few months.  Some of them I’ve gotten to know well, some not at all, a few just enough to have an inkling of how they feel about going.  Every time you say goodbye, you get a brief glimpse into your own future.  When someone leaves, you are forced to confront the reality of your own exit.  The longer you remain somewhere, the sturdier your roots get, the firmer your feet are placed on the ground, the harder it is to uproot.

In Cyprus, when someone was leaving, the school would collectively sing Happy Trails.  That old cow poke song is kind of cheesy, kind of dated and goofy, but the sentiment is the right one.

Happy Trails to you, until we meet again.  Happy Trails to you, keep smiling until then.

Happy Trails to you, friend.  You will be missed.

Real Housewives of Copenhagen

Photo: andyhide-blog.blogspot.com
Photo: andyhide-blog.blogspot.com

When we first made the decision to move abroad for my husband’s job, I was regaled with stories of The Help; maids and house cleaners and au pairs and chefs and personal umbrella holders.  No dish pan hands, no fighting with the vacuum, free time up the wazoo.  Laundry sorted and folded and put away with afternoons free to tra-la-la through local museums and fiddle-dee dee through quaint cafes.

Ha.

Snort.

Guffaw.

Oh, without a doubt, the don’t-lift-a-finger scenario is true in places.  Parts of Asia are well-known among the ex-pat circuit for having stupidly inexpensive household help.  The further East you go, the further your dollar goes.  And honestly, how many of us would turn down a little extra help with those stubborn stains and tub rings if it cost pennies instead of pounds?  Sometimes geographical or political instability, language barriers or safety issues make hiring help a necessity rather than a luxury.  A good friend and her family accepted a posting in a Stan, an entity that didn’t feature on quizzes when I was cramming for world geography in Mr. Kowalzcyk’s 8th grade class.  Because of political turmoil and the nature of her husband’s job, they are shadowed by bodyguards and are required to have a driver.  Not so for us.  When we took off from the US, we landed squarely in the Euro Zone.  We left behind not only family and friends but cheap consumer goods, affordable take-out and utility bills that didn’t go beyond three figures.  On one hand we were grateful to accept a posting in a relatively secure country–at least one in which the leadership had not been accused of boiling its political enemies alive–but on the flip side, we also landed in a place that made New York seem cheap.  Hell, it even made London look cheap.

Photo: zazzle.com
Photo: zazzle.com

As an American, I am spoiled.  You cannot get a true idea of how cheap consumer goods, electricity and yes, even gasoline are until you spend time outside of the US.  Cyprus was expensive.  Copenhagen is extortionate.  Not just touristy/airport/5 dollars for a slice of pizza pricey, but well and truly expensive.  There are reasons the Danes are consistently voted the happiest people on Earth; one of those reasons is that the minimum wage comes in at about $20 USD an hour.  If someone paid me $20 an hour I wouldn’t mind the scrubbing and the food shopping so much.  Nevertheless, I clean my own house.  I mind my own kids.  I shop for the best prices with my pocket translator in hand and a conversion rate in my head.  I have dish pan hands and mounds of laundry and am constantly lacking some necessary dinner ingredient.  In short, I do what most housewives do, only I do it in a different country.

So what do the real housewives of Copenhagen, or Tashkent, or Bangkok or Hong Kong or Panama City do?

We run the gamut.  Some work while they are abroad, trying to find balance, juggling family and career.  (Sometimes you get lucky and land in a place like Denmark which places importance on work/life balance).  Some lunch and play tennis.  Some volunteer at school or head the PTA or join a local networking group.   We seek out comfort in what can sometimes be uncomfortable situations, looking for the familiar in the unfamiliar.  We do our best to make a home in a place that’s not home.  We kiss skinned knees and get frustrated when the person in front of us in the express line has more than 10 items.  We fight with our spouses about finances, we count down the days to vacation.  Our lives sometimes seem exotic, but more often than not, that is no more than a by-product of where we end up.  My kids have seen the pyramids because it was an hour flight from Cyprus.  They have never been to Disney World, it’s always been too far away.

Photo: vintag.es
Photo: vintag.es

Those ex-pat wives who spend their days lounging and lunching and being massaged and coming home to cooked meals and folded laundry and children who are already in bed?  Chances are they would be doing that no matter where they were.  That is a certain lifestyle, the kind that usually comes with enough money that whether you are stretching your dollars in Shanghai or shortening them in Stockholm, it’s not going to matter too much.

As an ex-pat housewife, I live in a bubble.  It’s a lovely bubble, don’t get me wrong.  It’s cushiony and large and full of things my bubble back home wouldn’t have room for.  But it’s a false reality.  It’s like being on vacation but doing your job while you’re there.  I’m not out getting massages, I’m trying to figure out which cut of meat translates to one I can cook in 20 minutes.  I have free time during the day, but I lack the village to back me up.  It’s a hop, skip and a jump to a European vacation, but it’s 12 hour journey home.  There are perks, but no Granny’s shepherd’s pie or Nonna’s babysitting service.  There are great friendships, which are too often cut short by moves.  We worry about our kids, fret about our finances, navigate the super market, burn the toast, sort the lights from the darks, fight with our husbands.

And if you are me, spend a great deal of time scrubbing stubborn stains and trying to get the ring off the tub, all whilst dreaming of the sales in New York and cheap take-out options.

what-people-think-accompanying-expat-women-do

For more articles on my life as an ex-pat, try one of these:

Where Everybody Knows My Name

When in Rome

Is this Seat Taken?

Bittersweet is Only Good when it’s Chocolate

The Grass is Always Greener on the Other Side of the Olive Grove

IMG_4836We landed in Cyprus in late October.  Though the blistering heat of summer had mellowed somewhat, there was plenty of evidence of those scorching months in the parched landscape that greeted us; a dead and withered view that stretched from the airport into the capital.  Beige and olive drab and lifeless.

Honestly, it could have been Tatooine.

Things did not improve in the next few weeks. A playground stumbled across looked like something out of a communist era moonscape.  Rusty see-saws rested upon buckled and cracked asphalt, uneven and dangerous.  A neglected aviary housed featherless and sore infested birds who could have been Patient X for avian flu.  Privately, we referred to it as The Park of Death.  The American in me feared the entire country was a giant lawsuit waiting to happen.

Determined, we explored a local monastery and found ourselves meandering through groves of orange and olive trees in tin soldier formation.  My sinuses started to twitch.  My eyes started to water.  My nose began to run and sniffle and snort.  It became apparent to me that my allergies and olive trees were not going to get along.  My husband, fighting to accentuate the positive, stopped and plucked an olive from an overhanging branch.

“Look!” he said, popping an olive into his mouth.

Which he promptly spit upon that dry and cracked ground, because as everyone knows, you don’t eat olives raw.IMG_4839

That little olive spitting vignette became my go-to metaphor for our early years in Cyprus.  An un-brined anecdote that captured the whole experience of picking up and moving to a foreign land.  For giving up the comfort of the familiar for the adventure of the unfamiliar, saying good-bye to family and friends and jobs and homes and affordable consumer goods and essentially going it alone.

Be it Nicosia, Copenhagen, Bangkok, Pretoria, London, Houston, Dubai or indeed Tatooine, no one tells you what to do when you don’t like the place you’ve landed.

Cyprus is a hot, dusty, insane in the way that only prolonged exposure to extreme heat can make you, kind of place.  There is Mediterranean impatience and passion, wild gesticulating and arguing and an ingrained love of confrontation.  There is a lot of steam blowing which incorporates screaming and hair pulling and arm waving and getting out of cars to bang on the hood of the car in front.  This is, inevitably followed by a swift invitation for a frappe and souvla.  If you aren’t used to it, it’s a huge culture shock.  I was coming from New York, where people were crazy, but in an affected, purposeful way.  I was miserable.

Looking back, it is impossible to tease out whether it was Cyprus or life itself that was making me miserable.  I had an infant who didn’t sleep.  I had gone from working in New York City, the kind of “bring-your-kids-into-the-office” part-time, freelance gig that mothers dream of, to being a housewife.  I was a two plane ride minimum from home, stranded on a hot, dusty little island in the ass end of nowhere.  Even now after nearly two years in Denmark it’s difficult to separate my feelings about Cyprus from other changes that were happening–each change in and of itself enough to make you pull your hair out and invite someone over for souvla.

North Nicosia
North Nicosia

Many people tell you they would kill for the opportunity to live abroad.  Most of them are thinking of the travel and the full-time help.  But depending where you land, those stories of full-time cleaners and personal chefs and days spent lounging by the pool never materialize.  When we moved from Brooklyn to Nicosia, I became a housewife.  And here in Copenhagen, I remain, a housewife.  I do all the things everyone else does, only in an unfamilar place with unfamiliar products that cost six times what I think they should (remind me to tell you about the time I put the drain cleaner in the kettle by mistake).  In books and movies and stories, most only see the adventure part of being an ex-pat.  The exotic opportunities.  The perks.  But the reality of ex-pat life is never what it seems on paper.  The problem is, who do you turn to if you are unhappy?   How much of a tool do you sound like if you complain?  Yes, I’m living on an island in the middle of the Mediterranean.  The average winter temperature is just under 60 degrees F.  There are incredible travel opportunities at our fingertips.  Our kids get to go to private school.  We get to live in a house.  And I’m unhappy.  Even I wouldn’t like myself (and I didn’t).   You can go the misery loves company route and hang out with the moaners, there are always those that complain mercilessly about the weather, about the food, about the people, about the driving, about the cost of living, about everything else; but by doing that you risk alienating the people who can point out all the good things.  And, barring moisture farming on Tatooine, there are almost always good things.  You risk getting caught up in a circle of negativity that does nothing to help alleviate the feelings of unease or doubt or unhappiness.

Ex pat life can be lonely. It can be isolating.  It can be incestuous and mind bogglingly petty.  It can be clique-y and if you find yourself on the wrong side of the school sandbox, it can be devastating.  Chances are when you are a serial ex-pat, you are mostly associating with other ex-pats.  Depending on where you are, the international community can range from gated and insular to varied and diverse, (in an educated, middle class homogenous kind of way).  But up and down that circuit, you are likely to come across the same people again and again.

Northern Cyprus
Northern Cyprus

There may be guilt and resentment, especially if you blame your working partner.  It can be difficult not to fall into the “if it weren’t for you and your job we wouldn’t be in this stupid country and I would be enjoying a bagel in New York” cycle.  It took me three years to realize how devastating my initial unhappiness was to my husband.  Not only was I actively unhappy that first year, the things we were hoping to happen career wise for him weren’t happening.  And we were, essentially, stuck.  I don’t do well with stuck. I need an out, a Plan B.  And Plans C and D.  I need to know the emergency exit can be manually opened if and when we needed to sound the alarm. My husband bore this tremendous burden.  He was dealing with his own lunatics on a daily basis, he had a wife who was unhappy, an infant who didn’t like to sleep, pinworms (another story), plastic melting temperatures and he was trying his best to figure out how to fix everything without breaking the only in emergency glass.  Thank God for wine.

You have to soak and marinate for a while in order to absorb some flavor.  Bitterness needs to be mellowed over time. It takes a few months of stewing and soaking to let the richness burst onto your palate.  In the end, time is what worked for me.  I learned to appreciate the mild winters and the cheap babysitting.  I learned to drive on the wrong side of the road.  I stopped blaming my husband for a joint decision that we had taken very seriously.  We made some amazing friends, traveled to some amazing places and had some incredible experiences that we never would have had if we hadn’t landed on that dusty rock in the middle of the Med.  Oh, and my son started sleeping through the night, which never hurts.

At times, to my surprise, I even miss it.

TRNC
TRNC
Salamis, TRNC
Salamis, TRNC
Golden Beach, Karpaz Penninsula
Golden Beach, Karpaz Penninsula
Karpaz Penninsula
Karpaz Penninsula
Kyrenia range, Nicosia
Kyrenia range, Nicosia