The 2nd Best Decision I’ve Ever Made

How many decisions do you make in the course of your life? Cereal or toast? (Neither) Coffee or tea? (Coffee) Open the bottle of wine or not? (Is it Friday? Then yes.). Life is chock-a-block with decisions, from the mundane to the momentous.

Every now and then you’re whistling along happily enough, tearing through the mundane decisions like a boss, when you come face to face with a giant one.

Marry me?
Should we start a family?
Should we buy a house?
Should we open the 2nd bottle? (Is it Saturday? Then yes.)

Sometimes they’re expected decisions you’ve been sort of prepping for your whole life, but sometimes they come out of nowhere.

In the back of my brain I knew my husband’s job might offer the opportunity to move overseas. But you know, when you’re talking about it, it’s all sure, great, what an adventure! It’s in the future. It’s the abstract. It’s not real.

Until he comes home one day and says, “Hey! There’s a job opening in Cyprus. What do you think?”

What did I think?

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Have I told you how much I love NYC? Really? I mean have I really told you? Have I told you how the city boogied down deep into my bones until it became part of my DNA? Have I told you…oh, I have?

Forget Leaving Las Vegas, if there was an alcohol sopped memoir movie of this mid-section of my life, we could call it Leaving New York.

Leaving the city of my heart, where I fell in love, got married, had my babies…was tough. Like drag me away tough. Kicking and screaming tough. New York, man. It gets into your blood, it seeps into your pores, it worms its way…but enough about New York because I was leaving it.

On a jet plane, with two kids, a couple of suitcases, and a plan of action so loose it was jiggling like my post-baby muffin top.

And then there I was, in the middle of The Mediterranean. Me, my two kids, and a Yiayia down the street named Poppy. That was it. Me and a Greek Cypriot Granny. My entire life turned upside down because one momentous decision we made sitting in bed on a sunny Sunday morning while our second son slept a few feet away in our too small for two kids apartment.

****

For the first year, I was convinced it was, quite possibly, the worst decision I’d ever been a part of. Worse than the plaid pants with the ribbed yellow turtleneck get-up in 3rd grade. Worse than my hair in high school. Worse than every shitty financial decision we’ve ever made. (Note: Should you buy the one-bedroom apartment? Hell, yes you should).

I cried because I missed the election of Barack Obama. I cried watching the ball drop on New Year’s Eve. My mother and my sister came to visit us and when they left, I ugly sobbed on the sidewalk as the car pulled away. It was…not good. It was in fact, bad. Really bad.

Of course things improved, even within that first year. As nice as Poppy the Yiayia was, I made friends who were slightly closer to my own generation, more Breakfast Club than the Early Bird Special club. But still, it wasn’t until after we left Cyprus and, if I’m honest, well into our Copenhagen cycle, that I started to really think about the decision we made all those Sundays before.

****

It’s not always easy being an expat. There are times it is appallingly hard. Being a family unit without the support of nearby relatives as a buffer can be–well, let’s just say intense. Family time, I am often caught saying, is overrated.

Some things about it actually are great. Being abroad has given us an opportunity to bond in a way I’m not sure we would have had if we’d stayed in NY. I’m not saying we wouldn’t have had a bond, it would just be a different one. This one is born of living a specific experience all together, simultaneously.

Our horizons? Not broadened as much as exploded.

I’ve learned to stop fearing change, and, dare I say, embrace it. Or at least more so than before. I’ve gone so far outside my comfort zone, I’ve gotten jet lag. Bizarrely, I’ve learned how to relax. Let’s just say I’m now type B- rather than type A.

Is it Friday? Drink the wine.

Living as an outsider in a country that isn’t yours, when you don’t speak the language, or understand the nuance of the culture itself, often at the mercy of a job, teaches you nothing if not this: you can’t control everything. Some stuff yes, other stuff, no. I think, for a long time I got them mixed up.

It’s taught me that I really only truly need the people I love around me and a decent wine shop. Should we open the wine? (Is it Sunday? Sure.)

Being an expat has taught me how to offer my friendship..and receive friendship in return. It has redefined my concept of home, on every level imaginable. It has honed my criticism of my own country, but it has also deepened my love of it.

It has given me an understanding of being the odd one out, of being on the back foot, of having to pay attention. It’s deepened my appreciation for difference, from the minor to the major.

It’s taught me how to bake from scratch and how to live with less choice, and how to start using cloth napkins because paper products in Denmark are stupid expensive. Also that I don’t know how I survived as long as I did without an electric kettle.

It’s taught me that when someone is meant to be in your life, you find a way to make sure they stay in your life.

No dinner, no drama.

This decade long adventure has allowed us to get to know each other in a completely unfettered way. It’s just us over here. No insulation. All family, all the time. No Sunday dinners, but no Sunday drama either.

It has, quite honestly, fundamentally changed who I am as a person.

For the better.

So as I meander through the mundane, bus or train? (Bus) Pizza or Thai? (Pizza) Should we open that bottle of wine? (Is it Monday? Then no, you big lush), I can look back at some of the momentous with more clarity.

That decision we made all those Sundays ago, saying yes to taking that chance? It hasn’t always been easy, but it was probably the 2nd best decision I’ve ever made.

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The Magic Quilt of Expat Life

I’ve been an expat for nearly ten years. Blimey, that’s a long time; long enough to start using the word blimey in a non-ironic way, even. Nearly ten years overseas means I have said more than my fair share of goodbyes. I’ve gone to a lot of leaving lunches, farewell festivities, and tally-ho teas. I’ve drunk kegs full of coffee, ingested numerous kilos of cake and watched the resulting kilos materialize on my ass. I’ve given speeches, listened to speeches, presented gifts, bought gifts, assembled slide shows, written songs.

I’ve done it all.

It never gets any easier, not really. I almost always cry.

Not big, gulping sobs, though sometimes it has come close. But that sort of crying when you can feel it coming down the track: the tight throat, the sting behind your eyes, the stuffed up nose. It bears down upon you like a freight train and there’s little you can do to get out of the way in time. A whistle of warning, someone choking on a word, and that’s all she wrote, folks.

A room full of weepy women.

I wrote a post a long time ago about the importance of not crying during these things. Five years later I’ve changed my mind.

Cry, cry, cry.

Cry a river if you need to. It’s good for the soul. More people should cry. And more often.

Newsflash: Women cry. We cry when we’re happy. When we’re sad. When we are frustrated or overwhelmed or raging like a menopausal witch (No? Just me?). We cry over car commercials and Christmas commercials, during movies and reading books. We cry when someone else’s kid’s feelings get hurt. We cry at the very idea of something happening to someone we know. We cry when we meet our family at the airport, when they leave, when we fight with our partners, when our kids say something hurtful. We cry as we watch our kids walk across a graduation stage, when someone else’s baby is born, when things go awry.

We cry.

So, when you get a room full of women in a room, women who’ve spent a few years getting to know one another, giving each other rides and acting as emergency contacts, getting to know each other’s kids and families, seeing each other through difficulties and partners working in other countries, clinging together for dear life on this life boat of friendship in a foreign land–when you get a room full of women like that together and someone gets choked up? You almost always end up with a room full of weepy women.

These ritual goodbyes and all the emotions they evoke is a kind of exquisite torture. It’s incredibly poignant to hear stories and reminiscences, to look at years worth of pictures, to see the evolution of expat friendships play out in celluloid. It’s like watching a time-lapse of a child growing up.

I’ve been tasked with putting together a few of these slide shows. When I do, I always include a montage of people who have already said goodbye, though it’s becoming increasingly difficult for me to remember whose paths have crisscrossed after this many years, whose lives have become entangled with whose. But I do it so that those folks, the ones we’ve already said goodbye to, remain a part of the whole. A panel that when stitched together with all of the others makes a quilt of a certain time and place.

It’s one of those magic quilts that keeps on growing.

Saying goodbye is hard. We should cry. And laugh. And rejoice and give thanks and feel sad. This is the reality of our life. Sometimes it can seem like the life of an expat is glamorous vacations and non-stop parties, but the edges of a life lived outside the borders of your own country can be rough. It’s just that no one takes photos of all those tears, those rooms full of weepy women, and posts them up on Facebook.

But maybe we should.

As a storyteller, it’s an incredible privilege to hear the stories that belong to others. As a human being, and a friend, it’s humbling when I get to be a part of that story. A panel on someone else’s quilt.

So many times those stories start off with feelings of loneliness and isolation, feeling stranded and out-of-place, nervous, unsure footing on choppy seas that are taking you far away from everything you know. And then the magic: one day, one coffee, one conversation, one friend. The tide begins to turn. The seas calm. Coffee doesn’t slosh out of your cup when you’re trying to drink it. You look around, and far from being alone, you’re at a table for forty eating kilos of cake.

 Just look how it ends: a room full of twenty, thirty, forty, sixty people who have put aside a chunk of their day to celebrate a friend, a friendship, to say goodbye and good luck. It ends in a room full of women to whom you mean enough that they hold back a tear, wipe a wizened eye, choke back a sob. A panel on that magic expat quilt that never stops growing.

Just look what you mean. 

Blimey, indeed.

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.