One Foot In, One Foot Out

foot The last few months have been mild with a chance of uncertainty. There have been lows of sorrow and confusion, with projected highs in the upper range of understanding.

I’m exhausted. Yet after a lot of wine and some self-examination, I’ve think I’ve finally managed to diagnose myself.

I’m having a mid-expat life crisis.

We left the U.S. in October of 2008 for what was supposed to be two to three years. I’ve written extensively about that first year abroad in Cyprus, about our time in Copenhagen. About the ups and the downs and the lack of decent black beans. I’ve written about friendships and hardships, guilt, burnout–every time I think I’ve nothing left to write about, something else comes up.

This though, this is a new one for me. I may be far from home, but I suspect I’m far from alone in what I’m experiencing.

After eight years away, I feel like I’m straddling two different worlds. One foot is planted solidly at home while the other is well outside of its borders.

I’m still an American, but after eight years away from America I no longer feel 100% USDA approved.

It’s not surprising. If traveling is enough to broaden your horizons, living outside your culture implodes them. It changes you; for better, for worse, for both. Whether you’re gone for six months or sixteen years, you’re a different person than the one who packed up and left.

It’s a strange feeling when the things that always seemed familiar start to seem unfamiliar, when the once recognizable become unrecognizable.

Broadband and streaming have allowed us to keep up to date with trends. Social media lets us keep up with family and friends. Those things make slipping in and out a whole lot easier. But while I’ve been gone I’ve changed. The folks I left behind have changed. The country I left behind has changed as well.

foot 2

The fact of the matter is, I’m not there, boots on the ground. I can only read and talk and do my best to understand those changes from afar. In one sense, I feel fully engaged because I pay more attention than when I actually lived there. In another, it’s like reading an echo.

I’m not experiencing it. It’s all second-hand smoke signals.

The issues that affect the day-to-day lives of my family and friends don’t affect me. I’m not driving on roads that need fixing or trying to scrape together enough money for a prescription that isn’t covered by my insurance. I dip in and enjoy the good bits and then fly out again, trying to figure out how to fix the bad bits from somewhere else. Not looking down upon, but looking in, at.

I am from America, but living outside of the U.S.  for nearly a decade has changed the way  I identify with being an American.

In a global game of spot the American, I’m probably a fairly easy to target. It’s not just the color of my passport or the whiteness of my very straight teeth. It’s not even the way I will forever pronounce tomato (just like it’s written). It’s the volume of my voice and my ideas, the phrases I use, the small customs I cling to because they’re important to me. It’s a bit of gung-ho, a little chutzpah, some bootstrap pulling but…

…the longer I’m away, the less identifying these things become. My speech has always been supplemented by a few British turns of phrase, but recently I’ve found myself using words that my American friends have trouble recognizing…and not being able to remember the American term at all. I have seen policies that so many Americans swear will never work not only work, but work well. I have found my own balance between what Americans constantly refer to as ‘exceptionalism’ and the less stressed principle of ‘good enough’.

So much of our self-identity is tied up in where we come from. Yet after all this time I feel a strange disconnect from that where. Each year we are away I’m spooling out further from the zone in which I firmly identify as American. At the same time, I’m probably more patriotic and pro-American than I ever was living there.

At what point do you become introduce yourself as being “from America” (or from Britain, Australia, France) as opposed to straight-up “American” (or British, Australian, French)?

I am straddling two worlds with not only with my feet, but with my ideology and my heart.

There are still so many things I miss about the US. I miss big-toothed smiles. I miss small talk with strangers in my own language. I miss people wishing me a good day. Watching the reboot of Ghostbusters with my kids recently I was blindsided by a visceral longing for New York City. For a few minutes in the dark of a Danish movie theatre, I longed to be back in my spirit home. (If others have a spirit animal, then damn it, I’m going to have a spirit home)

foot-xray-CompressI miss corn on the cob and really good ground beef. I miss Target and Labor Day sales and New England beaches. I miss New England. I miss the scale of my country, the grandeur, the seasons, the possibility.

There’s a lot I miss.

There’s a lot I don’t.

One foot in the door, one foot out. It’s a bizarre place to reside, but ultimately not nearly as scary as taking one foot out altogether: From either place.

 

 

 

 

If One Night In Bangkok and the World’s Your Oyster, What Does Four Years in Denmark Get You?

img_5764_carlsbergFour years ago we stole a last glance at the Tattooine landscape of Larnaca Airport and after a brief touch down at Schipol made our way home…another home, a new home, a Copenhagen home. My kids now have officially called Denmark home longer than any other place. They’ve lived in the land of Lego and Viking horns longer than the country they were both born in, the country either parent carries a passport for, or the one where the older started school and the younger learned to walk.

Four years is a long time. Four years as an expat in one place is a really long time; about a year past the normal sell-by date. Sure, one night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster, but four years in Denmark? I’ve haven’t learned the language, but I’ve picked up a few other things.

For one, I no longer take the sun for granted. Also, you get lazy with your cleaning and dusting routines when the sun doesn’t come out often. How do I know? Because when the sun eventually does peek out from behind the clouds, it highlights the sixty-two filthy windows and a house full of dusty surfaces like a solar spotlight.

Four years in Denmark has taught me happiness is relative. Denmark is consistently voted the happiest nation on Earth and for good reason; but they might not be the reasons you think. The reasons the Danes are happy are deep-down reasons, not surface reasons. Turns out not fretting about medical bills, college, and retirement frees up a whole lotta time and money to find your own version of happiness.

And that happiness is self-defined. Happiness for me? Four years in Denmark has afforded me a room of my own and I’ve used most of the square footage to learn to write again.

Forget the tax rates…it's the parking fines that kill you...
Forget the tax rates…wait until they see the parking fines!

So you see, I’ve learned happiness is not dependent upon just one thing.

After four years I’m still surprised by the cost of things….like, say…a parking ticket.

Four years here has taught me the wind in your hair as you zip past people on your bike is a pretty good feeling.

I’ve learned that wooly inserts in your shoes in the winter are the best thing since sliced rugbrød.

I’ve accepted there is no single right way to do things. There’s a lot that is right with Denmark, but it’s not perfect. The Danish system wouldn’t work in the US for a variety of reasons, but that doesn’t mean you can’t look more closely at the pieces of it that would….

Four years here has taught me there are things you can adapt to (bike rage instead of road rage) and there are others which are going to make you scratch your head, seethe, or stand with your jaw on the floor (adults shushing other adults, herring in curry sauce) no matter how long you’ve stuck around.

I’ve learned that Danes swear a fuck of a lot more than I do.

Sun? Who needs sun? Weak people, that's who. Weak people need sun.
Sun? Who needs sun? Fucking weak people, that’s who. Weak people need sun.

I’ve concluded that hygge, while a sweet concept in general, doesn’t really make a difference when it’s gray and dark and wet for long chunks of time. Nice idea, but a mantle full of scented candles doesn’t…well, hold a candle to a vacation in The Maldives during February break.

Speaking of the sun….four years here has taught me that the sun will come out…maybe not tomorrow. Or the next. But someday! And when it does your house is going to look filthy even if you just dusted.

I’ve learned Americans should stop complaining about gasoline prices.

I’ve learned they should start complaining about plenty of other things.

I’ve learned a danish is not a danish in Danish.

Every time I go food shopping I’m reminded you need to adjust in order to survive. You need to find new favorites or at least learn you can have more than one. No one ever tells you that as a kid, that you can have more than one favorite. Except for Goya black beans. I go black market for the black beans now, judge me if you must.

I’ve learned to cook more, bake more, and seek out the sales.

Yes, yes, it is fine to let your child cycle alone with tobacco products and a sword, yes yes. Soo-pah, soo-pah.
Yes, yes, it is fine to let your child cycle alone with tobacco products and a sword, yes yes. Soo-pah, soo-pah.

I’ve learned when you’re in a winter coat five to six months of the year, you can get away with doing a lot less laundry.

…and that hats cover a lot of bad hair days.

I’ve learned to let go and watch my kids experience the same kind of freedom I grew up with without the questions, the second-guessing or the fear of someone calling the cops on me for letting them walk to the park on their own.

And I’ve learned, time and time again, that home is a concept rather than a place.

There’s no place like Bangkok. I mean Cyprus. Or Denmark.

I mean home, wherever you are.

 

These Are A Few of My Danish(y) Things….

41y72aEvPcLBelow are the lyrics to a parody song we performed last month to say so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, and goodbye to the families leaving our school community. I promised I would share the lyrics and am only just now getting around to it so here they are…complete with the YouTube video of our performance :-). Anyone who has spent any time in Denmark should recognize most of those special Danish(y) things that make Denmark….Denmark.

Special thanks to: Jo, JoJo, Jill, Marta, Fiona, Amanda, Kate, Taryn, Debra, Cristina, Caroline and our “sound technician”, Claudio.

Sung to the Tune of My Favorite Things

Kids in Niholas and bronze mermaid icons
Lanes by the sidewalk for locals to bike on
Beaches and parkens and Charlottenlund fort
Oh what I’d give for another klippkort!

Kongens and Gammels and not ‘veg’ but ‘vie’
Candles and hygge and endless blue sky
Bakken and Tivoli, Deeparken too
Just don’t depend on an orderly queue…392421c0daa42080af6f3b6ebb5d7815

Scarf wearing, leggy and top knotted lasses
Shoppers in Netto get right up your….
Endless gray winters sometimes turn to spring
These are a few of my Danish(y) things

When the time comes, when the job rings
When I’m feeling sad
I’ll simply remember my Danish(y) things
And then I won’t feel so bad

……

Open faced sandwiches served up on rugbrød*
Pølser and Tuborg and beer on the S Tog**
Frokkest and morgen and aften and more
Smørrebrød and pastries and Smushies galore

Breasts on the busses and balls by the sea!s-l1000
Dips in the Øresund in full nudity
Lakes and canals and late Nyhavn nights
Summer and picnics and endless day light

Flag waving, vikings, and Hamlet’s old castle
Do you think Legoland’s worth all the hassle?
Palace guards meant for a Queen not a king
These are a few of my Danish(y) things

When the time comes, when the job rings
When I’m feeling sad
I’ll simply remember my Danish(y) things
And then I won’t feel so bad!

*rugbrød is pronounced along the lines of roo-bro
**tog (the Danish word for train) is pronounced like toe, the S tog is the Danish red, overland train line

 

 

The Edamame Problem

England, RudermannschaftA few months back I was chatting with a friend, a fellow expat who is moving home come June. She and her family are relocating from a fairly swank zip code here in Denmark (Copenhagen 90210) to a rural village in the north of Scotland. Narrow, windy roads and fertile fields. Small Beatrix Potter-esque woodland animals popping out from behind the hedgerows sort of stuff. She is excited, but a little worried about how her son will deal with settling back into what repatriating expats might call ‘real life’. While their new village lifestyle might be more along the lines of how she grew up, her son has grown up very differently.

The only real school her son knows is the private, international school my own boys attend. She’s worried that he’ll be lagging behind in a few subjects, sure. She’s concerned he’ll have to adjust to a more traditional, test based system. But the real core of her worries is that he’ll have trouble fitting in with kids who’ve gone to the local school with each other for the whole of their lives. That he’ll stand out as different. That he will, to paraphrase her concerns, get the shit kicked out of him for being soft.

“The other day he asked if he could have edamame for a snack!” She told me, slightly aghast.

In that one sentence, in that flummoxed, perplexed, ‘how on earth did a child that I raised grow up asking for edamame as a snack?’ look on her face, she summed up everything that many of us worry about when we enter into this cushy bubble of expat life. Because let’s face it: many of us wouldn’t be living the lives we live now if we were back home. Many of us won’t be living the lives we live now if and when we repatriate. And unless you had some sort of Asian connection growing up, most of us probably didn’t even know what edamame was until we were grown-ups.

I’ve been thinking about ‘the edamame problem’ since my friend and I spoke. I’ve teased her that I was going to write about it. Then it came up again, in relation to an article from earlier this year about ‘elite volunteerism’ at schools, which prompted a lively conversation on another friend’s FB page and the ‘edamame issue’ came up again.

I grew up in a blue-collar, working class house in Massachusetts. The most exotic we got in the way of food was the Ah-So sauce my mother used to smother the pork chops in every now and again. My first experiences with ‘ethnic’ food were not until long after I moved away from home. My friend’s son wants edamame for snack. My own son has, on more than one occasion, asked for sushi for lunch. These are kids who go out for sushi the same way we had take-out pizza when I was growing up. Sure, it’s healthier and yes, it’s great that they’re exposed to a variety of foods from across cultures, and admittedly it’s kind of cute to brag (just a little) about how much your toddler likes a good tuna roll…

So what’s the problem?wealth

As the article hints at, there’s something just a little elitist about sushi. And if I’m being  honest, expat life for my family is a little like sushi. Or edamame. Sure, it’s healthy to expose ourselves and yes, it’s great that we are living in another culture and admittedly it’s kind of cute to brag (just a little) about the fantastic opportunities my children have….

The edamame problem.

My own family is living a life that, while not exactly false, is not exactly real either. Had we been back in NYC, our boys would likely be going to a zoned NYC public school. There would certainly be some kids eating sushi and edamame, but there would likely be many more who qualify for free hot lunch. Regardless of the income bracket fluctuations, there probably aren’t middle school ski trips to Germany or “away” sports matches in The Netherlands at P.S. 321.

Like my friend, I feel I often walk the fine line between gratefulness that my children get to experience this privilege (let’s call it what it is) and horror that their upbringing is so far removed from my own and that of my husband. There are times we have been left scratching our heads wondering how the hell we ended up here, immersed in this (admittedly lovely) lifestyle that is not very…us. My children are able to have this amazing experience of living abroad, but it’s not exactly like they’re immersed in the society we live in. Sure, the required language lessons give them just enough Danish to order a Danish and they ride their bikes everywhere, but they’re not exactly marinating in the special seasoning of Danish culture that churns out more Danes. Essentially, they’re privileged kids who are leading a privileged life due to the fact that their father was offered a position overseas.

And metaphorically, nothing screams privilege more than edamame and sushi.

So when my friend was fretting about how her son’s new classmates would react if he bandied about words like edamame, I understood exactly where she was coming from. Maybe your kids like sushi. Maybe they like to sit down and listen to This American Life with a bowl of steamed edamame. But while it might be de rigueur in the expat world, outside of it, there’s a fairly narrow demographic band that is going to say “Oh, my kid too!” If you know you’re going back to a place where it’s more Ah-So than sashimi, these niggling thoughts can keep you up at night.

1937-002-pho-haves-and-have-nots-600xIt’s a champagne problem, of course, this act of fitting into a lifestyle you weren’t expecting. This life, beyond anything I could have imagined, is as foreign to me as the land I’m living in. There are some who approach this life of privilege from a more familiar place. Perhaps they grew up with edamame too. Others, like me, find this alternate reality of Friday night sushi slightly jarring.

When I was growing up, if someone had a heated pool, it was a good sign they were rich. There was one family in my neighborhood who not only had a heated pool, but above the mantelpiece in their living room, there was an oil portrait of the family matriarch. At ten, I thought it was the classiest thing ever. A sign of true wealth. Who else but the very rich would have an oil portrait hanging over their fireplace? Sometimes now, walking through this life that feels as if it doesn’t really belong to me, I feel the same way I did when I was ten. Looking at the things around me and thinking: who else but the truly privileged would have these things? Things like sushi for lunch.

Things like edamame.