Lessons from Scandinavia

walk-dont-walkA few nights ago I stood on a street corner near my apartment. It was a little before midnight. The air was crisp, the sky was bright, fir garlands twinkled with Christmas lights. I stood alone, nary a car in sight…and waited for the light to change from red to green.

Shit, I thought. I’m practically Danish now.

Five years in Copenhagen has almost completely erased twenty years of proud NYC jaywalking. In a fit of civil disobedience, I crossed against the light. But the fact that it took a conscious thought to do so made me realize how much living in Scandinavia has changed me.

I’m less competitive. As an American abroad, I didn’t have to explain the notion of American exceptionalism because it was evident in everything I did–or did not–do. But five years in Scandinavia has taught me that competing with myself and those around me? All it does is exhaust me. My kids don’t have six activities each. A day. The older one doesn’t play an instrument. Neither one of them is on the chess club. If there is a future checklist of extracurricular activities they need for college acceptance, we’re failing. And after five years here….that’s ok with me. In fact, if they choose not to go to college, that’s ok with me too. They’re kind. They’re happy. They drive me nuts but they are good, inclusive, thoughtful kids. No amount of piano or extracurricular Arabic lessons are going to enhance those qualities. I don’t always succeed and it isn’t always easy, but I’m learning to place those qualities above grades, above awards, above percentile and rankings.

I’ve admire the way Scandinavians look at the world. Scandis are loosely guided by the social principles of Jantelavn, which places the value on the whole rather than the individual. In fact, those who attempt to stand out above the fold are often looked down upon. It’s pretty much in direct opposition to the way I was raised, the way most Americans are raised–in a culture that demands and encourages you to stand up and shout. I hated it at first. I mocked it. They are striving for mediocrity! There’s no innovation! There’s no competition!  There’s no ingenuity! And it’s true. There’s not a whole lot of that. (Or rather there’s plenty, just not by super-sized American standards). What there is though? Contentment.

I’ve seen how social programs can work. Contrary to what many Americans seem to  think, ‘socialized’ health care doesn’t result in people dropping dead on the main drag on a daily basis. Will you get the same level of health care you’d get with a top-tier US insurance plan that’s costing you or your employer $3,000 a month? Nope. Do you need all those bells and whistles? 95% of the time, nope. Will you ever go bankrupt in Scandinavia because you get sick or are in an accident? Nope. But more than the very real benefits of tax money which pays for everyone to have decent health care is the pride the Nordics have in taking care of one another. They all contribute and they all receive. They are proud of the way they’ve structured their economy to look after one other. Nope, it’s not perfect. Yes, there is fraud. But there is a deep-rooted sense of satisfaction which comes from knowing that not only are you taking care of, but you are taken care of. I admire it greatly.

When you get rid of one, two more take its place
When you get rid of one, two more take its place

I’ve learned to worry less. Kid number one goes to Tivoli with a friend on his own. Kid number two walks to the toy store two blocks away by himself to buy Pokemon cards. The 12 y/o rides public transport alone. They go to the park near our house on their own, they stay home by themselves while we do the grocery shopping. And I don’t worry. It’s not that I don’t worry because bad things could happen. It’s that I don’t worry because I’m not immersed in a culture which is so obsessed by worry it that it dictates every action, reaction and counter-action. And by virtue of marinating in a more relaxed atmosphere for five years, I’ve absorbed it. And quite frankly, it’s glorious.

I’ve learned not to look for answers to problems that don’t exist. I realized this the other day sitting in a meeting which was peppered with ‘what ifs?’. It took some scrawny Danish guy from the bus company who shrugged his shoulders and said, “if it becomes an issue, we’ll address it.” And suddenly…it made sense to me. For most of my life I’ve demanded an answer to ‘what if?’. The problem with demanding answers for issues that don’t exist is that once there is one problem, three more follow. It’s like the Hydra. It turns out when you free your mind from could be-maybe-what if? problems, there’s a lot of room for something like…well, happiness.

scandi-nationsScandinavians have it right about a lot of things. Not everything. But a lot of things. They have it right about the work-life balance. They have it right about vacation time. Scandinavians–scratch that–Europeans think Americans are nuts. Oh, and they don’t give a fig if overworked Americans think Europeans are lazy and entitled. You know why? Because they’re sipping drinks on a beach somewhere enjoying their vacation time. Americans take a perverse pride in just how much they are being screwed over. There is a bizarre sense of I must be heartier, stronger, better because I work more and harder for less. It took me eight years of living outside of it to be able to put my finger on that. And I still don’t understand it completely.

I don’t know where life will take us next, what the next chapter will hold. But I hope that the lessons I’ve learned after five years in Scandinavia come with me, wherever we end up.

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A Migrant By Any Other Name is an Expat

ellis-islandMy family and I are migrants.

More commonly we are referred to as expats. This is despite the fact that upon closer inspection, we actually meet the criteria of migrant workers more closely. Yet expat is how we identify ourselves as well as those we know. I suspect it has a lot to do with the color of our skin, our education levels, and our very bland middle-class-ness.

The fact is, we are foreigners living in a foreign land. Legally we’re allowed to be here until my husband’s contract expires. Prior to June, he and my children would have had EU rights to stay past that time, but well…then Brexit went and happened and overnight my kids lost the right to live, work, and reside in 27 different countries. I’m sure my children’s thank you note for that is in the mail….

For all intents and purposes, we are immigrants. Though it’s likely we’ll return to the United States one day, we have no immediate plans to do so. But because we are white and prosperous we’re generally not considered that kind of immigrant. If we brought up to those in the UK who voted Leave or those in the US who voted Trump that we are the very immigrants they voted against, I suspect many would be horrified.

We are not who they were voting against.

I guess we’re the good kind of immigrant.

I’m not sure why. The jobs my husband gets or any other ‘expat’ gets are jobs that could be given to citizens of whatever country we are in. The job my British husband did in America could have been filled by an American. In fact, from an economic standpoint I would argue that a farm laborer is far more important to the day to day lives of most Americans and Britons.

I would also argue that most won’t see or appreciate that. They only see different. They see other. 

Anti-immigration rhetoric is nothing new. The idea of someone ‘else’ swooping in and taking what, by some imagined right, belongs to you. It’s the same rhetoric that led to the rise of the KKK in the US–spread a few whispers that the big, black man is coming for your pretty white wife. It’s the same rhetoric which led to the rise of Hitler– the Jews are coming for your money. And it’s the same rhetoric that is gaining volume not only in the US, but all over Europe–you would have so much more if it weren’t for the dirty immigrants coming in and taking your jobs.

travel-visa

We are those immigrants coming in to take those jobs. So is the family of every ‘expat’ I know. We can convince ourselves that it is because there isn’t a deep enough pool of local talent, but at the end of the day, that’s all a lot of hooey. Countries could invest in education in order to increase that pool of local talent, but they don’t. It’s easier and more economical in the short-term to hire foreigners.

Farm owners could hire locals to pick and harvest fruit. But they don’t. Because they’d have to pay them higher wages and their profit margins would decrease. Food prices would increase. It’s easier and more economical to hire migrant workers.

No one blames the companies. No one blames the corporations. We blame the folks doing the jobs–but the truth is, some folks shoulder more than their fair share of that blame. Part of it is race, part socio-economic, and a big part is perception.

Why should my white husband be considered an expat and a Romanian care worker in the UK an immigrant? Why is a Mexican laborer called a migrant and an oil executive an expat? I’m guessing that your average British couple who retire to the Algarve to soak up the sun in their golden years don’t refer to themselves as immigrants. Though that’s exactly what they are.

Immigrant is a term reserved for everyone other than us, everyone who may not look like us or act like us or have the same value system or identity.

At the end of the day, if you are working for an Embassy in another country, you are a migrant worker. If you are a CEO of working overseas, you are a migrant worker. If you think your income level, the importance of your job, or color of you skin makes you any different from the Romanian woman caring for your granny, the Polish builder who gives you a better deal on your decorating or the Mexican waitress taking your order, then you are part of the problem.

My family’s migrant journey is approved. We reside here legally by the grace of the Danish government. And the harsh truth is that it is pretty damn easy for us to get that approval. Our multi-layers of privilege makes it easy for us to travel from country to country, job to job. And yet many, many of the folks who are being targeted in the US, in the UK, in Europe are there legally as well.

But because they don’t look like they should be there, they have a bulls-eye on their back.

When my husband first came to the US, he did so on a tourist visa. We followed the rules. He never over stayed his visa, he got a job which offered him a working visa, something that many in the upcoming US administration are against. After we were married in 2001, we were advised by immigration officials not to apply for green card status. Right now he is still entitled to a green-card, but who knows how those regulations will change in the upcoming years? I guess nowadays it’s just your bad luck if you fall in love with someone who doesn’t come from the same country, right?

migrantWho am I kidding? We’re white, and we have money. My husband is the good kind of immigrant. Another layer of privilege.

How we identify ourselves and others plays a major part in our perceptions. Those perceptions inform our decisions, our actions. It’s always harder to look closely at our own reflections than it  is to look at those around us. But when we don’t, we fail, rather spectacularly at times, to recognize that for the most part, there aren’t as many differences as we think.

 

 

 

The Sisterhood of the Split Pants

a048e762b6a43a61d525d645c1ebf785Every day I listen to woman I know put themselves down. Every day I listen to them call themselves fat or downplay their achievements, hide behind something that resembles humility, but is, in reality, much more damaging. These are educated, smart, successful, funny, kind, caring women who regularly pick themselves apart at the seams.

I get it, because I do it too. And man, I study this stuff. This is my field, I write about it….and I still do it.

The other day a friend told me she’d stopped going to an exercise class she enjoyed because she felt like she wasn’t good enough to be there. Then I had an exchange with a friend who lamented  how much weight she’d gained. Another friend pinched at her stomach and called herself fat. These women fret about how big they look in photographs, they downplay compliments, they bury a talent under an avalanche of self-deprecation.

We keep seeing articles about shaming from others, but we need to stop shaming ourselves first.

I truly enjoy the company and talents and strength of the women I know. I appreciate what women bring to the table and to the world. And so it breaks my heart that we spend so much time not only comparing ourselves unfavorably to other women, but beating ourselves up in the process.

My identity as a woman is not shaped by a number on the scale or the firmness of my ass(ets). I promise you, yours is not either. My identity is not tied up with the clothes I wear or how big my thighs are, what I do for work or how much money I have. My identity as a woman is defined by the fact that I am one.

We need to be kind. To each other, for sure, but to ourselves first.

Women are often each other’s salvation, but we need to stop being our own worst enemy as well. We need to believe in our strengths, which are different from men’s: Different, but just as important. We need to stop humiliating ourselves in front of each other, in front of the mirror. We need to start not only leaning in, but lifting up. Our chins, our head, ourselves.

Think about the good we could do if we connected with one another instead of competing with each other and with some lofty ideal of what we should be. Think about how much we could achieve if we got rid of all the ‘if only’s”.  Think about the changes we could be part of if we valued what we have to offer instead of offering it for a discount. If we praised our own time and talents and those of each other. Think about the buoyancy we could give to one another if we stopped giving ourselves the side-eye every time our thighs chafed together or someone younger and thinner and better looking came along.

I’m not talking out of my ass. I do it too. I am harsh on myself. And I KNOW better.

The older I get the more I appreciate the women I know. There is an instant connection that doesn’t need introduction, a membership into the sisterhood. I feel empowered when I am with women, especially women who value themselves. It lifts ME up to be around them. And in turn, I hope that being around me can lift someone else up.

I don’t like every, single woman I come across. I don’t automatically assume that every, single woman is deserving of my time or energy solely because she is in possession of a uterus and fallopian tubes. What I do know is that the women I come into contact with–online and in real life, though this blog, through travel or friendship–those women are  worthy, even when they slap on a price tag worth less.

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Why do women find it so difficult to find the worth in themselves? Why do we find it so easy to overlook that value in ourselves–and usually for the most trivial of reasons: A size label on a dress, a number on the scale, a wiggle and jiggle.

Don’t sell yourself short. Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t shame yourself.

We are a sisterhood, even if it’s a sisterhood of split pants.

inspire

 

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.