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.

 

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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.

 

The Book of Life

Ah June, the season for hay fever, end of school madness, and if you’re an expat, goodbyes.  Emotions are running high, low and often, amok. June is always jam-packed with all sorts of feels.

Watching friends and acquaintances prepare for their next move, helping them navigate the spectrum of emotions that are part and parcel of saying goodbye to a certain time and place, it reminds me of the blind terror I feel each time I sit down to a blank page.

For me, there’s always–always— a niggling fear my words have dried up along side my ovaries. Or that they’ll be shit. A small voice in the back of my head chants What if nothing happens? What if it sucks? What if, what if, what if? But…woven in and out of that fear is a little excitement, a thread of hope that maybe, just maybe, I can conjure up a bit of magic. An idea, a gem of a sentence, on a really good day, a thousand words that tether a few lofty ideas to reality.

Getting ready to move, even for those who are semi-pros, is like sitting down in front of a giant blank page. It doesn’t matter if it’s a flashback repatriation or if you’re setting the scene for an exciting new plot twist, moving on is the equivalent of trying to write the opening sentence of the next chapter in your book of life.

The good news? Chapters are infinitely easier to pen than a whole new book. Getting ready to move, much like getting ready to write, involves a lot of thinking, contemplating, and turning over of ideas. Some of those ideas are going to work brilliantly. Some will fall flat and explode upon impact. The even better news? You’re not starting from scratch. You’ve got plenty of chapters already done and dusted and they all come with you. The back story and the settings. The seeds that will later sprout into full-blown story arcs. All the characters you’ve met. And take it from me, characters have a way of popping back up in ways you don’t expect.

When you’re moving, your life is chock full of blank pages–and anything can happen. A surprising plot twist. An epic journey. A hero, a challenge, a rite of passage. A new character from out of nowhere, one that ends up changing the whole dang story. The possibilities that come along with a blank page, a new chapter, or even a move–they’re endless.

At times it’s scary and confusing. Will it all work? How are you going to tie it all together? It’s exhausting. A blank page takes a lot of work to fill. But all that possibility! All that space and room to make great things happen, interesting things, beautiful things. There’s so much room for all of those things–and more.

And, for all those you’re leaving behind as you close out one chapter to begin another? We are all still part of your book, the one that will be carefully packed in tissue paper and transported  in sea containers and trucks and planes all over the world. We’ll pop up, in conversations or a  FaceBook On This Day post (love those), maybe even a guest appearance somewhere down the road. But even if we don’t, we’re not deleted wholesale. Despite physical distance, we’re forever part of your back story now, part of the fabric of your book.

My advice? Sharpen your pencil and dive in. The first sentence is always the hardest. (And it’s almost never the one that you end up using.) Don’t worry about mistakes, there’s plenty of time for editing down the road. But most of all? Always remember all that work you’ve already done is just a chapter behind you when you need it.

Life only hands you one book, my friends–it’s up to you what you fill it with.

 

 

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?