The Breakfast Club

It’s not often I drop my kids at school. The thirteen year-old is in charge of his own schedule and the ten year-old, who almost is, cycles in with his father. On the rare occasions I am in the a.m., I usually spot The Breakfast Club.

On any given school day the mothers of the Breakfast Club are there with boxes of cereal and loaves of bread and pots of yogurt and cut up fruit. Someone is inevitably keeping an eye on someone else’s kids, doling out napkins and juice and spoons. The entire thing is messy and full of spilled milk and crumbs and yogurt streaked faces.

Yet, somehow these mothers have managed to grab hold of an often stressful situation (and oh my God, why is eating and getting ready for school so damn stressful anyway??) and make it into something special and communal.

And really, when you think about it, what’s more communal and tribal than literally breaking fast together?

Many of The Breakfast Club members are sharpening their pencils to write new chapters this summer, and this week we did our ritual goodbyes. I listened as they wept at the idea leaving behind this extraordinary community they’ve been a part of. And then one said something which hit me directly in the heart: she mentioned that by watching the women around her she learned how to be a better mother–that among this tribe of expat women, and yes, it is a tribe, she felt uplifted rather than torn down, supported rather than burdened. That no matter how stressed out or angry or irate she was coming into that school building, whenever she left she always felt better. Someone was always there to shoulder a part of her burden, whether it was feeding her kids breakfast or lending a listening ear.

In the expat world, there are a lot of women and children left behind due to logistics. They have spouses who travel extensively, who commute not just an hour on a train but a few hours on a plane to be home on weekends, or every other weekend, or two weeks every two months. I used to call them lifeboat expats, women and children somewhere safe but slightly adrift. But that’s not accurate, because they’re not adrift, they are moored to the larger community.

When you’re in a foreign country alone with your children, finding a village to anchor yourself to isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.

You need to have someone who is going to pick up your kids from school if you’re felled with the flu, or someone who you can call in case of emergency. You need sustenance and daily nurturing. You need a tribe. You need a village. You need a community, a group who can shoulder some of the burden of doing it on your own in a place where you likely don’t even speak the language or get confused by the currency.

You need a Breakfast Club.

Expats, especially women, fill these roles, mostly without even thinking about it. We form and reform, knitting and re-knitting groups and clubs and clans and tribes. Looking after one another’s kids, feeding them, comforting them, shepherding them around. Supporting and lifting up. Learning and teaching. Listening, nurturing. You lean on the collective village.

The Breakfast Club is just one example of village magic.

The ones who are leaving are, understandably, sad about losing all of that–the connectivity, the tribe, the village mentality.

To those leaving I have this to say:

You’re forgetting the role you played in shaping that community. Yes, you were welcomed into a village which already existed, but you molded it, changed it, and made it into exactly what you needed. And if you’ve done that once, you can do it again.

When we welcomed you in we taught you the words to the spell, and now that spell? It’s bound up in you. It’s a part of who you are.

The beauty is, the magic is portable. It goes with you, wherever you go. When you leave, wrap it up in bubble wrap and put it with the expensive stuff you don’t trust the shippers to handle, the magic is this too precious for international freight. Then, wherever it is you land in this crazy game of map darts, take it out. Unfold the tissue paper it’s wrapped in, pop the bubble wrap, and plant the magic.

You are the seed. Share that wisdom. Lift up instead of tearing down. Ask and offer help. Support rather than dismantle. Remember, you came in and helped to shape a community. You’ve seen how it works. There is no reason you can’t do it again.

Somewhere out there, there’s a lonely woman spooning yogurt into a pot for her kid’s breakfast. Find her. Join her. And then teach her the spell so that she has it written in her as well.

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Nine (More) Expats You’ll Meet Abroad

Victoria the Veteran Victoria has seen generations of expats come…and go. She’s been around long enough that she’s practically part of the furniture. She knows her way around, navigating not only the place, but the relationships that make up the place. Vic has ten different toes dipped in ten different circles–because she knows just how fleeting expat friendships can be. Some think she’s ice-cold because the constant goodbyes don’t seem to faze her, but it’s more that years on the scene have hardened her….just a little.

Freak-out Frannie. Frannie finds it hard to breathe deep and…relax, no matter how many hot yoga classes she signs up for. It doesn’t matter how smooth things seem to be going, there’s always cause for a freak-out. If it’s not the math curriculum, it’s the school lunches. Or something on the news. Or the cost of living. Or the way the traffic light doesn’t give you enough time to cross. The local propensity for liberally dropping the f-bomb into conversation sends her into convulsions. Her heart’s in the right place–it’s just always beating too fast, set to semi-permanent outrage mode.

Homesick Harriet  Harry gets monthly parcels sent from home, keeps up all her magazine instructions at exorbitant prices, and subscribes to whatever local cable package that lets her watch her favorite shows. She travels home at every given opportunity and brings food back in her luggage. She shops online–from stores in her own country. First-year Freyas are usually half-Harriet by default, but true Harriets never really embrace living abroad, they always have one foot where they’re living and another one firmly planted at home.

Traveling Tony It’s a stretch to call Tony an expat, as he’s usually not in town long enough to sleep in his own bed more than three nights in a row. Tony usually heads up family of ‘lifeboat expats’–women and children only–who stay behind in one place while he plies his trade all over the globe. Sometimes it’s hard for Tony’s spouse to convince others he actually exists. Perhaps those wedding photos you see when you go to their amazingly furnished house are just props after all?

Never-Going-Back Niamh. Niamh, like many expats, was skeptical at first, but took to expat life like a fish outta the Atlantic and relocated to the Pacific. So much so that Niamh never plans on going back home. Ever. In fact, Niamh will do anything, including moving internationally three times in a year, just to avoid it. Whether it’s the life, the opportunities, or the bonds, Niamh has embraced life as expat to the fullest extent and you’ll have to pry it out of her cold, dead hands.

Repatriating Rena–While Niamh settles in for a life of transient relocation, Rena is getting ready to move home and experiencing the nausea of the repatriation rollercoaster. Whether she’s been gone one year or ten, life outside has made her question what life will like back ‘inside’. Will she re-fit in? Will her kids be ok? Rena’s worries often gets lost in the two-step expat shuffle because people assume going home is easier….but as Rena worries, it may be anything but.

Pam the Polyglot A round in Russian? Да! A stint in Shang-hai? 好! A post in Paraguay? Si! Pam picks up the local language wherever she lands–and not just enough to order a coffee and a cup of the Bolshoi borscht. Pam can carry on conversations with the locals, understand and answer when folks stop her on the street, and get around by taxi no problem. Pam’s linguistic gymnastics often make her English-speaking compatriots feel guilty for not trying harder-the ones who rely solely on their mother tongue to get by without making much of an effort beyond nej, tak…

Superiority Complex Sam Sam never has a good word to say about the place she’s landed. Not one. Oh sure, there’s nothing an expat coffee klatch likes more than a little bitch about little annoyances and cultural quirks, but Sam’s insults take a much broader focus. There’s nothing about her adopted country that suits her, everything is better where she comes from.

Fay the Fantasy Fay is the expat we all aspire to be…and fail miserably at. The one who settles in with ease. Who speaks the language within months. Who has no trouble finding the expensive cheese she likes at the market in Uruguay that doesn’t even sell cheese. She travels extensively, her kids are involved in local sports programs, and she still Skypes her family back home twice a week. She takes every shock that a new culture sends up her spine with a smile and can pack up her family and move at the drop of a hat. With grace. Fay doesn’t really exist outside our collective expat imagination–but it doesn’t stop us from wanting to be her anyway.

Since I penned  Nine Expats You’ll Meet Abroad a few years ago, and watched it circulate the globe itself, I’ve cycled through a few more of these stages myself. And some of these as well…Nine Expats You’ll Meet in a Galaxy Far, Far Away. As for where I am now…well, it depends on any given day, really.

More importantly though, which expat are you?

 

The Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very-Bad Days

fear womanLast week I put together a slide show for a good friend who is leaving Copenhagen. I watched it with my husband, smiling and getting a little teary. As the music faded and the presentation ended with a slick little slide reading “The End”, he looked at me and said:

“Wow, anyone would think we had loads of friends and an amazing life.”

Putting aside for the moment that compared to 99% of the global population we do live an amazing life, he’s right.

Most of us don’t document the shittier aspects of our day-to-day life. I don’t whip out my handy little point and click to take pictures when I’m playing Old Mother Hubbard and my cupboards are bare and so the poor husband got none. I don’t fill my twitter feed tweeting pictures of myself in sweatpants and leg warmers. (Yes, I wear leg warmers and you will never convince me they are not awesome. Take your leg-warmer hatred elsewhere, haters.)

The pictures we post may not be photoshopped but they are the glossy, edited versions of our life. At certain times my Facebook feed looks like I go to parties night after night. Glitter and sequins and dress up. Champagne and toasts and friends and ha ha ha, la di da. It’s probably even more evident if you’re an expat. Albums of parties and vacations, it must seem that day after day is nothing but fun and frolic and friends.

There is a subtext to those pictures of course. Those parties? Lots of them are to say goodbye to dear friends. Those holiday meals? They’re in lieu of the ones we can’t spend with family. Exotic vacations? They’re often cheaper than a flight to Florida from the east coast of the US or the cost of a week at Center Parks. Most of us don’t add that stuff in.

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Just as I don’t generally post pictures of myself in the supermarket going up and down the aisles looking for peanut butter because it’s not where I would expect it to be. Or me trying to figure out exactly what cut of pork that is on sale (fyi, pork neck is gross, even when it’s on sale). I don’t post pictures of what I look like after dropping the kids off at school in the Danish rain. Don’t be fooled. The rain does not fall mainly on the plains of Spain. It falls incessantly in Denmark.

We all want to present a glossed up, soup-ed up version of ourselves. Filtered and angled and cropped so we look our best.

But the truth is life is not like Instagram. You can post inspirational quotes until the organic, grass-fed cows come home. You can pledge your allegiance to the flag, to yoga, to cross-fit or to antidepressants. Life it still not going to be like an Instagram feed. Even a sardonic, satirical, sarcastic version of it.

We all have days like Alexander. Terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad days.

I’m having one today.

In two weeks a very dear friend is leaving Copenhagen. Christmas is coming and the goose isn’t getting fat, but…let’s just say my jeans are tight. The bank account is getting the opposite of fat. Danish winter, despite the cheerleading exportation of hygge, sucks ass. It’s gray and wet and miserable and really DARK. The entire floor of one room is covered in Lego. I’ve been neglecting my kids, my husband and my friends in order to finish the final draft of the novel, which I did. Only to realize that I’m not really done. Not even close. Last night, staring at yet another round of edits, I gave up. Maybe I’m just not cut out to write a book.

Yup. I’m having a horrible, terrible, no-good, very-bad feeling mighty sorry for myself kind of day.

yell womanNo one wants to hear about the day-to-day crap. Doing the school run on bikes in the rain, or doubting yourself or realizing you’re shouting at the people you love because you’re frustrated. No one wants to see or hear how long it takes you to get through to the electrician because you can’t understand the language telling you which button to press or the frustration of feeling like you’re doing something wrong whenever you step out of the door because you don’t know the rules. No one wants to see pictures of the ratty sweats and the leg warmers or the puddles or the unplucked eyebrows and unbrushed teeth. So we show them the dolled up versions. Not only of ourselves, but our lives.

So, just in case you think I lead a life of glamor, I assure you I don’t.

I am blessed. I am lucky. I work hard at the things that are important to me. Sometimes. Sometimes, despite all that, I feel sorry for myself.

I just don’t generally post about it. But maybe I should, because we all have no good, terrible, very bad days.

Even abroad.

 

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90% of the time

 

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This is the ‘sun’ in Denmark from October to May

 

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This puddle has been here since early November. No lie.

 

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Lego, lego everywhere and I’m still missing that one piece.

yell woman

Needed: New Emergency Contact

cocron1Most folks who have spent any time living away from home would agree that saying goodbye to friends is one of more unpleasant side effects of expat life. I am no exception.

In December we’ll celebrate our four-year anniversary here in Denmark. With that milestone, Denmark will officially become the place my children have lived the longest, pipping NYC at the post by two months. After four years here, it also means I’m now considered part of the Old Guard. There are expat families who have been here longer, but not too many.

In everyday terms staying put in a posting for this long simply means I’ve figured out most of the ins and outs, the quibbles and quirks. I know what to do with the crud that gets stuck in the cracks and the limescale that builds up in my kettle, when to shop the sales and how to piss off a Dane. In the larger sense, it means I’ve seen a lot of people come and go.

For the last few years I’ve had a fluid, yet core circle of friends. I’ve had a Mom tribe, the ones you can confess your parenting sins to without fear of judgement, the ones you can let your gut out in front of. More than that, however, we’ve had a solid group of couple friends. When you make a Mom friend and she has a husband who gets along with your husband, well, that’s pretty great. When you have a few of those combinations and you trade weekend dinners and have impromptu barbecues and celebrate birthdays together, it’s pretty darn nice.

Two Junes ago a good-sized chunk of our everyday social circle left for pastures greener, drier, colder or more distant. The dynamics shifted, but the ‘here’ was still bigger than the there or anywhere. That will change this year.

This is the year that a good number of families who have been here as long or longer than us are clipping their last Klipperkort here in CPH.

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Some are friends; not just friends but good friends. Sunday dinner friends and godparent candidate kinds of friends. Friends that trust me with their children overnight and friends I wouldn’t hesitate to call in the wee hours of the morning if I needed help. Emergency contact kind of friends. Those kinds of friends.

When you’re the one leaving, it’s hard to say goodbye. It’s hard to wrap your head around the idea of starting over again. But let me tell you, over here on the other side of the fence, it’s no picnic being the last man standing either. Despite all the rain we’ve had here in Denmark, the grass doesn’t seem any greener.

A few weeks ago my husband asked me why I was going out more than normal, why my acceptance vs. decline rate was higher than usual.

“I’m investing in our future,” I said.

It’s easy to become lazy and complacent in terms of friendships, relying on the easy relationships that come after spending a few years in the same place with the same people. Soon that will change and the very idea of it makes me tired. I am exhausted simply writing about it. It means I will have to be on my best behavior. I will have to hold in all my verbal farts for a while. I don’t do particularly well with best behavior for very long. If I go too long without swearing I get bloated.

But really, what choice do I have? I’ve got to fill the empty Sunday dinner spots. I’ve got to find a new emergency contact.

7221461_f520Of course we can never replace the friends who are leaving, even if new bodies fill their spots at the table. Even if the new bodies become friends. Even if the acquaintances we have now become more than that. It won’t be the same. It doesn’t mean it can’t be as good or even better, but it won’t be the same.

We expats talk a lot about the ones leaving, the difficulties of re-settling, of finding new friends in a new place. What we very rarely talk about is being left behind and making new friends in the old place.

It’s like the age-old question of the chicken and the egg. Is it better to be the one to go, or the last man standing?