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.

Advertisements

Four and a Pizza Pie

ladies pizzaAmong expats ’tis the season, not for tidings and joy, but for leaving parties and gifts, frantic last-minute quests and excuses for daytime drinking. Well, more excuses anyway. June is a tough month for expats. June is packing and wrapping and scrambling and crying and toasting and second-guessing and trying to suck in giant gulps of air to keep you upright.

June is a month full of goodbyes.

Not too long ago my husband and I sat down to confront the eventuality of leaving ourselves. Though we are still firmly on the hosting and attending side of the fence, if I’ve learned anything in the last eight years, it’s that mental preparation is half the battle. At some point the eventualities turn into possibilities and the possibilities morph into certainties, usually the day after you book a long-haul flight or fork over half a year’s tuition. But in the throes of hashing out the pros and cons of staying vs. going, conversing about how hard it will be to set up camp somewhere else and say goodbye to a damn good life, a life which gets harder to leave every additional year we stay, we boiled it down to this:

As long as the four of us are together and there’s decent pizza, we’ll make it work.

Because at the end of the day, what more do you really need?

It’s not easy. Several good friends have been struggling with repatriation or new country postings. Several more are already anxious at how they’ll handle it in a few weeks themselves. But as they make the list of pros and cons, of fears and anxieties, I say the same.

As long as you have your family and a deep-dish, it will be ok.

pizza pieYou’ll be ok. You’ll make it work.

It may take a while. It will probably take a while. In fact, I’d be surprised if it didn’t–it should. Settling into a new place or re-settling into an old place, which can be just as foreign and intimidating as a new one, isn’t easy. There will probably be a lot of tears. Some resentment. An argument or twenty. A lot of second-guessing. That old bugger hindsight will come into sharp focus.

But have faith that as long as you’re together, you’ll figure out how to make it work.

You’ve slogged this road before. You’ve thought it out. You’ve run the numbers, listed the pros, calculated the cons. You’ve looked at it from every different angle and sideways. You’ll be ok.

Maybe you underestimated how different it would be, or how difficult. Maybe it’s not going to be the best country you ever lived in or the nicest house. Maybe you’ll need to hire a tutor for you kids to catch up or maybe your kids will be ahead and lose some of their momentum in the place you’re going. Maybe you won’t have the same friends you had before you left to go away. Maybe you’re going to miss the place and people you left behind.

You’ll be ok.

Because as long as you’re together and you can get a decent slice of pepperoni, it means there’s something normal and right in the world. And sometimes that’s all you need, just a little, tiny bit of normal and right to hang on to.

Maybe this move isn’t going to be the one that pays off the mortgage or sends your career into the stratosphere. Maybe the commute’s going to suck. Maybe the school will suck or the weather or the driving or the lack of decent black beans. But you’ll be ok. Because, pizza.

You’ll make it work. You’ll find a school. Maybe it won’t be a perfect fit. Maybe your kids will be behind or be ahead. But it’s ok, because they’re there with you. You’ll find a house. Maybe the bedrooms will be too small or your landlord will be a dick. But the roof will cover all of you. You’ll make friends. They may not be as good as the ones you made in the last place, but that just means you made some great ones that will always be there. You’ll be able to drive from your house to Ikea and back again without consulting the GPS. And rest assured, Ikea has the same stuff wherever you are.

pizza placeIt might not be pretty and neat, but you’ll figure it out. You’ll figure out what the important things are, like the thickness of the pie crust and the sauce to cheese ratio.

To those of you leaving, those of you who recently left, you’ll be fine, I promise. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow or even next week or next month, but you will: because you’ve already got 95% of what you need to make it work right there with you.

You just need to find the pizza place.

 

 

Ten (Not So Obvious) Ways to Tell an Expat is Moving

Are you sure we can't interest you in créme de cassis?
Are you sure we can’t interest you in créme de cassis?

Here in the global village of ExpatLandia, there is often a prescribed way to say goodbye. There are parties and coffees and more parties and lots of cake. Champagne flows pretty freely, even during the day. Books are signed and monies collected. Gifts bought. I’m sure it varies from place to place, but there’s a pattern which is almost formulaic. I’ve been here long enough to know Jo will bring the mackerel pate, Jill the avocado dip and Marta will buy something five minutes before she needs to be wherever she needs to be. It lends a bit of comfort to what can be an unsettling feeling. After all, it’s never easy to say goodbye, no matter how many times you do it.

All of that, however, only begins once a family has announced their move. For contractual reasons or just personal ones, sometimes people keep a new posting under wraps until the last possible minute. That said, most of us become fairly attuned to the little things which often indicate a move before the cute little paperless post “We’re Moving” announcement hits your inbox.

Here are ten to watch out for:

The donations, hand-me-downs and small items start to appear on bulletin boards, list-serves and flea market pages. Once the appliances start to get listed, you can assume the contract’s been signed.

The car goes in for an overhaul and tune up, the tires changes and all the dings and scratches get fixed.

They start to eat through the freezer meals in order to get rid of all the meat bought on sale, Bolognese sauce frozen for the future and the turkey the company doled out as a bonus two years ago.

We'll never get through this
We’ll never get through this

You go a casual dinner and your host’s entire bar is on display. They eagerly encourage you to drink cocktails made with rum or tequila and try to foist the unopened bottle of créme de menthe on you. (Don’t be fooled by the Brits and gin though, that’s just an everyday staple).

They start going to museums and concerts and walking tours, ‘exploring’ the city, all things which they haven’t gotten around to in the previous three years.

They start to get a bit cagey about planning future dates and won’t commit to anything beyond the end of the school year.

The “I have a friend looking for information about schools in Bangkok” type posts start to pop up on your Facebook feed.

They start to withdraw from their normal social scene.

More local vacations and trips than usual.

Conversations are suddenly full of all things they love about where they are or conversely, all the bad things about it are dragged out and rehashed.

Drink up, we can't take it with us!
Drink up, we can’t take it with us!

Some of these things are necessities, after all, no one wants to waste the booze the movers won’t pack. Others, like withdrawing a bit from friendships, even close ones, is a way to buffer the mixed feelings most of us have about moving on. Anything that is going to make a time of massive upheaval feel just a little bit easier.

Try not to worry too much though–we’re all just waiting for the official announcement on Facebook. We’ve been collecting money for your book and Royal Copenhagen mugs for weeks already ;-).

 

 

 

The Long Goodbye

106b48aFor the better part of the last eight years my life has been a constant stream of goodbyes.

I said good-bye to my beloved New York City. I said goodbye to Cindy, to Carol, to Britt. To Grand Street and McCarren Park, to the L train and to twenty years of the Big Apple. I said goodbye to working, to take-out, to Metrocards and friends who had spanned two decades, more names than I can list here.

I said good-bye to my family. To my mother. To my sister. To my Nana. I said goodbye to driving on the right side of the road. And by right, I really do mean right.

I said goodbye to everything I knew, everything that made my life comfortable, everything that was routine, from food shopping to dialing the phone to simply walking out of my front door.

And in nearly eight years, I haven’t stopped saying goodbye.

Four months after landing in Cyprus I said good-bye to Sally, my first Greta the Guru. The crazy mom whose name I can’t even remember disappeared off the face of the Earth in there somewhere too. Then it was Liesl, whose house we spent so many hours at, who gave me the greatest description of irrational rage ever, who my youngest son called Mama Liesl for a long time. Then Sara, then Donna, Cindy, Kirsten. Goodbye to Clare and Simon.

And then we had to say goodbye ourselves. To Dorien, Angie, Victoria, Tim and Miriam, Janna, Serene, and Sophie. To Katie and Paul. To Judy-Mou and Nikki. To Krisztina. To Eliza and Paul and Birgitt and Fiona. To the school my son learned to read at. To the nursery where my younger son learned how to make friends. To the play groups, to the heat, to the dust and tumbleweeds. To the beaches, the baba ganoush, to the atrocious parking and driving on the left. To that dusty island itself.

Of course there were untold numbers of goodbyes in between. Goodbyes to family who came to visit, to summer vacations when we relaxed and let our breath out only to have to suck it back in again upon our return. To my Aunt Kathy who died not long after we moved abroad, to whom I never got to say goodbye. We said goodbye to lost teeth and baby-hood, to diapers and strollers. I said goodbye to the very idea of having another baby (though my husband said goodbye to that one a long time before).

BYGONE

This crazy life we lead. It seems as soon as we say hello, we’re saying goodbye. There hardly seems a breath between. In Denmark I said hello and goodbye to Dana, our paths crossing only long enough for an invitation to coffee and a ride for my son to his very first school disco. A goodbye to Jill who I felt like I knew, even though I didn’t.

Then to Kara, gone on the fly the day after school started. To Beth and Tim, to Inge, to Nici. To another lovely Clare. Then to Sara–my midwestern foul-mouthed knitting gal. That was a year of thick and fast goodbyes, when it seemed everyone left at once, leaving a heart-shaped hole behind. I said goodbye to honorary-American but thoroughly British Lucy. To Helena and Sally, Jennifer and Kim and Martine. Goodbye to Renee, to Ann, Karin and Lisa too. To Ainsley who tried to sneak out without telling. Claire, Melissa and Barbara. Goodbye to Louise, here only a year. Goodbye to Natalie and Theo. To Pippa who I was only just starting to get to know. I said goodbye to Stefan and goodbye to Carrie, and to the lovely Leontien not long after. There were so many that year we started a new tradition at school just so we could all say goodbye. And we waved our flags and hugged our hugs and we cried our cries.

Because goodbyes, for all you practice them, suck.

And I wonder: Are there other lifestyles so bursting with goodbyes as the one we lead? This expat life, with the looming reality of eventual goodbye tattooed onto your every encounter, woven into the lifestyle, tied up in the very nature of it all.

It makes my heart ache every time I watch a group of teary-eyed children say goodbye to a friend, to a classmate, to a teacher. It doesn’t hurt any less when it is a group of adults. We have our traditions, our rituals, our goodbye dance. Here in Denmark there are flags and circles of appreciation for the children. Signed tee shirts that will sit unworn in drawers. For the grown-ups there are coffees and teas. Parties, presents, and promises. There are hugs. More tears.

I said goodbye to Lindsey, Jo, and Nelly. To Elizabeth and Patti and Zuzanna, Marnie and smiling Susan too. I said goodbye to Dani and Jay, the nicest Canadians you’ll ever meet. I said goodbye to Andrea, to Polly and to Nicole and her boys.

A difficult goodbye to my walking partner, Sunday dinner friend Tazza (and my de-facto god-daughter, Emma).

And now before I can catch my breath, another goodbye to our songbird Jo, to be forever known in our family as JBNS.

A few more flips on the calendar and I will say goodbye to Jill, to Liz, to Andrea and Maridith. To Avril, to Anja and Sandra, Rikki and yet another lovely Claire. To our resident celebrity dad, Claudio. Eventually to Cristina from the block. There are more, but you know that I know that others don’t know, so suffice it to say your names are here in spirit until contract t’s are crossed and package i’s are dotted.

f1143475cece046e5194a10f299ead6aEventually we will say have to say goodbye to Denmark ourselves. When we talk to our kids about the eventuality, there is sadness. One night my older son said, in the type of stilted, choked-up voice that makes you doubt your capacity as a parent, “I don’t want to have to say goodbye to my friends.”

Before I could even say I understood, before I could read him the love letter of people, places and things that I carry around in my heart, he wiped his eyes and said:

“But I guess if we had never come here, I never would have met them at all.”

I’ve spent the better part of eight years saying goodbye. And it really doesn’t get any easier. But my son is absolutely right.

The lump in the throat and the sting in your eye, the quiver of your lip as you wait your turn to say goodbye, yet again. It’s all worth it.

Because just think, if I hadn’t said that very first goodbye, I never would have had all this.

 

**I ran the risk that I would inadvertently leave our some very important people. It’s likely their names will come to me at 2 am. My apologies to anyone I’ve left off. It was for no reason other than faulty aging memory. xx