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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I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends

I hate asking for help.

But…living away from family and the familiar, I’ve learned that sometimes, it’s a necessity. And while my natural inclination is to come close to killing myself trying to do 600 things by myself, I have gotten much better at asking for help when and where I need it.

Example: Like many Americans, I learned to drive in an automatic car… and that’s all I’ve ever driven. (This is stupid, by the way. Americans should learn to drive, like the rest of the civilized world, with a stick shift). After three and half years in Denmark with nothing but bikes, we finally got a car. Guess what? It’s a stick. There are a hundred reasons why I didn’t learn to drive it, none of worth going into here, but only a few involve my fear of careening into a Danish cyclist while I am busy trying to figure out what gear to be in.

Anyway, my kids go to this amazing brand new school out in the middle of nowhere. Surrounded by water. It’s great. It’s also a complete and utter pain in the ass to get to. If my husband drops them in the morning in the car, our transport options home are limited.

Pro tip: biking home in sideways wind and sleet is environmentally friendly. It is also not fun.

So sometimes (ok, often), I shuffle over to a friend and if they’re headed my way, ask for a ride. Like a teenager looking for a lift home. I suck up my pride (or embarrassment at the notion of being a 47 y/o woman who doesn’t know how to drive a stick shift, a la Driving Miss Dina) and ask for a ride. Sometimes people say yes, sometimes no. And that’s cool. But they always say “just ask”

So I do.

And you know what? It makes my life so much easier to get a ride home. So I ask.

I need a little help, so I ask.

Almost every woman I know will literally run herself ragged because she doesn’t want to ask for help. I don’t know why, but I suspect it’s fear of appearing weak or incapable. It’s the same reason that women get pissed off if their partner suggests getting someone to ‘help’ them clean the house.

Pro-tip: If you say “maybe we should get a cleaner because it looks like you could use some help,” a woman is going to hear “you think the house is a mess and I’m incapable of keeping it clean.”

Pro tip: Just do it. Just hire the damn cleaner, don’t outline the reasons why you think your partner needs ‘help’.

I think it’s a byproduct of having to do everything twice as hard and three times as well to get a foot in the door. I think it’s fear of giving anyone a window into a vulnerability or a weakness that can be used against you. Fear of not living up to expectations, or perhaps a fear of proving someone’s negative expectations right.

Pro tip: Everyone else is lying about what they can do as well as they say they can all by themselves, and if they’re not lying, they’re probably miserable, over-tired, or sex-starved.

This is….not me. Not even in my head.

(Note: I’d be interested to hear if stay at home males–more and more common on the expat circuit–are averse to ‘help’, and/or internalize the suggestion as a failure to keep up….or, if, as I suspect, they are smart enough to take the damn help and free up their day for other things.)

There are only so many hours in the day and you only have so many hands and there are only so many directions you can stretch in at once, even if you’re Elasta-Girl.

Sometimes you need to ask for help.

The most successful people are successful because they don’t try to do everything by themselves. They hire other people to do the stuff they aren’t good at or don’t have the time for or just can’t do. But so many of the smart, successful women I know insist on doing everything, driving themselves into the ground. When I ask them why they don’t reach out, they always say “I hate asking for help.”

The twist? These are usually the very same women who will bend over backward to help someone else in a pinch, who will take on extra kids and extra volunteer hours to help out another woman who can’t, who will stay up until midnight cooking enough spaghetti Bolognese for seventy-two Boy Scouts. (You know who you are…)

Here’s the thing: asking for help, far from being weak, should be a sign of strength. We all know what we’re capable of. Smart people recognize when and what and where their boundaries are and don’t try to do it all. CEOs are not writing checks and answering phones and setting up meetings for the designer who’s going to re-do the conference room. They pay other people to do that stuff. It’s all important stuff that needs to get done…but it doesn’t all have to get done by one person.

What women do, what mothers do, what stay at home partners do is important, but even when presented with the evidence of a hacked up lung, so many won’t ask for help.

Pro-tip: Ask for help when you need it. I’m not talking about asking an acquaintance to loan you fifteen thousand bucks. I’m talking about help here and there as you need it. A ride home, an unscheduled playdate, a sleep-over. And trust that if it’s too much, the other person will say no.

Pro-tip: If someone asks you for help and it’s going to throw not just a wrench, but the whole toolbox into your plans, say no. Help is a two-way street. The person asking must abide by the answer, and the person being asked, must manage their own answer.

I hate asking for help.

Nah, scratch that. I used to hate it, but you know what?  I have accepted I can’t do everything. Nor do I want to do everything. Like bike home in the Danish wind, which blows in every direction at once.

I get by with a little help from my friends.

 

 

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?

****

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.

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.