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.

 

 

Three Things That Keep Expats Parents Awake at Night

audrey-hepburn-lying-awake-bed-insomnia-800x500Imagine a big Venn Diagram. Really, who doesn’t love a good Venn diagram?? This one is called “Things That Keep You Awake At Night.” On one side you have expats. On the other, non-expats.

Most of the things that keep many of us tossing and twisting in our beds while the rest of the world slumbers will likely intersect in a nice big lemon shape in the middle. Kids, marriage, health scares, money, retirement, the inching forward of the Doomsday clock, that crepe-y skin that is advancing across your neck (No? Just me?). That’s because for the most part, day-to-day life is the same regardless of where you live. Work, food shopping, kids, school runs, laundry, watching The Crown on Netflix. trying to remember that Mother’s Day in the UK is not the same as Mother’s Day everywhere else (No? Just me again? Damn).

But…that’s not to say it’s all the same. There are things I never really considered before we moved abroad. Things that weren’t on my radar, didn’t give me pause, and certainly didn’t keep me awake at night. Or at least not as much. I’m not even talking about the big-ticket worries–culture shock, language issues, whether or not you have to buy all new electrical appliances because the world can’t agree on socket shape or voltage–though those things have been known to cause a sleepless night or twelve.

But there are some issues which are likely unique to the expat experience, or, if not unique, play a bigger role.

I’ll take three things that keep expat parents awake at night for $200, Dina.

School

The big kahuna. The topic of conversation after conversation. Where will they go? When should we or should we not move them? Will they be ahead? Behind? If we move them once should we move them again or stay put? Will we scar them for life if we move right before high school? If we don’t? Will moving from one curriculum to another spell disaster? Can they even spell disaster? I can’t think of one other topic which dominates as much time of an expat parent’s life and conversation as trying to juggle kids, school, work assignments and moving. Even the folks I know in NYC, who have to deal with public school applications which could double as door stops, don’t usually have to add the worry of moving mid year or mid high school or switching curriculums or languages, sometimes every few years. It’s an exhausting and ever-present niggler at your bedtime peace.

venn

Friendships

Other than the military, I’m not sure there is a situation where the constant revolving door of friends is as noticeable as it is on the expat circuit. There are good sides and bad sides to this, of course. New blood is always good. New faces, new friends to meet, you never know who your next best buddy’s going to be. Then…then there’s the other side. Goodbyes are hard.  There’s the very real chance that, when a good friend picks up and moves back to say, oh, I don’t know….Perth, it’s going to be a long time before you see them again. And there is the heartbreak of watching your child say farewell to good friends year after year. My younger son starts to get anxious around March, and keeps a running list of friends who are leaving in his head. No parent likes to see their kid upset. It’s even worse when you know they are upset because of a decision you’ve made. Maybe it’s good for them, maybe it is, indeed, character building–or maybe, as you flip  your pillow over to find a cool spot, your current decisions are nothing more than money in a future therapist’s bank account.

Roots

If school is always the big X factor in decision making, it’s closely followed by the idea of putting down roots. I have a lot to say about this and it deserves its own post, but suffice it to say that the idea of trying to figure out where your kids are going to feel comfortable, call home, feel grounded, is another large part of expat parent worries. I only know what it is like to grow up with feet firmly planted in one place. My kids? Different story altogether. Theirs will no doubt have a different ending, as it should, but that doesn’t mean trying to make sure it’s a happy ending doesn’t keep me awake at night. It’s an unknown, an unanswerable. They may be just fine. They may thrive. The may part of that equation is what keeps my eyes open staring at the ceiling while my husband gently snores beside me.

 

o-insomnia-570These are the things that are in constant conversational rotation. The things that keep me, and many other expat parents I know awake at night. The kicker? There is no one answer that ticks all the boxes. There is no is magic formula. You can talk to ten different people and they’ll have ten different solutions and not a single one is going to give you the one size fits all answer you seek. You can rub a lamp, wish on a star, take a sleeping pill, and those problems are still going to be there when you wake up.

If you’re like us, you talk about it until you’ve gone around the subject a hundred times and then you stick your head firmly back in the sand where you don’t have to think about it any more.

Until the next time you find yourself laying awake at night, plotting Venn Diagrams and trying to remember when Mother’s Day in the UK is.

Just me?

Damn.

 

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.

 

 

The Weight of (Moving Around) the World on Your Shoulders

Atlas 2I write a lot about my life as an expat, but usually through the window of my own experience: that of the non-earning partner.

It’s not often I delve into what it must be like for the catalyst expat. The one whose job brings you to another country, whose carefully negotiated package determines everything from where you live to how many times a year you get to go home. The one upon whose shoulders rests the weight of the world, quite literally at times.

We first packed up and moved with the peacekeeping arm of the United Nations. We bypassed all the shit postings you often have to get your feet mucky in on the UN circuit. We skipped the war zones and zipped past the just-finished war zones. We circumvented the countries without stable governments and landed, pretty softly, in what’s generally considered the cherry on top of the whipped cream atop of the UN peacekeeping cake: Cyprus.

I hated it, at least for the first year. I hated it so vehemently and vociferously that it became a running joke at my husband’s office, where they would often great new staff with a variation of the following:

Welcome to Cyprus, the posting everyone’s trying to get into, expect for X’s wife, Dina, who’s trying to leave.

I was so far up my own ass for those first twelve months it took me a long time to realize how my unhappiness was eating away at my spouse, who had assumed responsibility for my misery. It wasn’t a question of letting him as much as it was simply not being aware that it was going on. Yes, my head was that far up my ass.

There’s plenty of expat guilt I carry with me, but not the guilt, worry, and stress shouldered by the one responsible for pin-balling a family around the globe. My go-to joke is that starting work in a new country means a new office, a new cafeteria, and maybe a new stapler, but that essentially going to work is going to work, no matter where you are. That’s oversimplified, of course. Getting used to working in a new environment can be terribly stressful. Add in a spouse who is unhappy, kids who are crying because they miss their friends and eating unknown cuts of meat every night and well, is it any wonder expats seem to drink as much as they do?Atlas

Good friends who moved recently tallied the stress levels involved in picking your family up and repositioning them around the globe. Three months of packing up/leaving/worrying stress on the old end followed by three months of unpacking/settling in/worrying stress on the new one. Six months of feeling unsettled and a lot of the time, unhappy. If you move every two years, that’s a quarter of your life navigating the sea of stress with nothing but a flight home to paddle your way upstream.

That’s a lot of stress. It’s not good for your heart. Or your liver if you self-medicate with wine. Or your marriage.

I’ve joked (and been serious about) the anger some feel toward the working partner, most often as a handy stand-in for companies who like to toss employees around the world like rag dolls. But I’ve never really stopped to think about what it’s like to be the one on the receiving end of that anger or unhappiness and how much it has to affect the quality of their life.

Though we generally (knocking on every piece of wood I can find) don’t have to worry about cutbacks and layoffs as much as some (there’s never any shortage of war or disease), it’s a legitimate and sobering worry for other expats.

Redundancies are uncommon in the international civil service game, but Copenhagen is a hub for the oil industry, which is experiencing major cut-backs and lay-offs and sayonara, we-can’t-afford-you-anymores. We’ve watched families step off the plane get turned back around, a package and a pat on the back, others made redundant just as they were settling in. Some have been here for years, considering it home and suddenly they’re out of a job.

Obviously losing your job sucks whether you’re an expat or not, but the added of stress of losing your job, or potentially losing your job, when you’ve carted your entire family overseas is not something to be sniffed at.

Sometimes it’s the hard-to-shake worry you’ve made the wrong decision. Feeling as if that decision rests squarely on your shoulders, shaken-not-stirred with watching your partner and kids struggle to settle. Those things are HUGE. To absorb responsibility on one set of shoulders is enormous. And usually, unfair.

Atlas 3As much as I like to wax on/wax off about our crappy health insurance or paint the fence with the layers of common sense which are sorely lacking when it comes to expecting families to move around the world in 8 days, the sole responsibility should not be placed at my husband’s feet or on his shoulders, regardless of how broad they may be.

We are partners. In marriage, in parenting, in the topsy-turvy world of living outside our countries. We went into this beautiful mess together and we’ll shoulder the responsibility together. In the nearly eight years we’ve been doing this, I’ve pulled my head out of my ass long enough to see that.

If Atlas shrugs, shaking us from one continent to the next, we’ll shoulder the weight equally.