Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Moving and that irritating neutral zone

In my last blog post, I wrote about being in transition – how I have often used it as an excuse to avoid making decisions and moving on with my life. Given that there will always be some aspect of our life that is temporary or uncertain, I argued, we should not use transition as a pretext for putting life on hold and staying in a “neutral zone” forever. Even though it feels like I wrote it yesterday, that post was six months ago. That’s how long it took me to emerge from the neutral zone of my latest move.

Moving is as transitional as it gets. The hardest part about moving, for me, is not the work involved in packing and unpacking our whole existence, with all the associated crises and catastrophes, big and small. My biggest challenge is making it through that nerve-wracking phase of constantly searching for stuff. You know, the weeks (or months) after you have moved into a new place, when you cannot find anything – or rather, you can find things, but not the things you need and definitely not when you need them. The time it takes for you to get used to where everything belongs, including yourself, that's the neutral zone between leaving one home and creating another.

Moves sometimes are like black holes that make our lives, as we know them, disappear – thankfully not forever. That irritating searching phase is only one way in which that happens. How do people deal with that? Is there a way to shorten the neutral zone and not feel like the move is taking over our existence, forcing us to put everything on hold? I have been thinking a lot about these questions because for the past six months, I have missed doing things that I love – including writing. Creating a new home, even with existing “material,” is exciting and inspiring; and it is all consuming. Everything else tends to be relegated to second, third, fourth place, joining a long list of things one will do “when settled.” But that takes a very long time. Half a year is a very long time to put everything on hold.

Every move has been a learning experience and this one has taught me that it's important not to fully immerse, thinking that it will speed up the process. It's worth more to allow myself to keep doing what I am passionate about – even if it is in small installments; to find the time and space to engage with what energizes and motivates me; to not have my life on hold, even if only for a few minutes every day. Remaining connected to the part of me that functions and creates outside the move gives me the strength and inspiration to put together the perfect home. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

I'd love to know - does a move take over your life and how do you cope with that?

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

State of transition

I’m in that mode again. You know, the one where you avoid doing any kind of long-term planning; where you don’t book dates, make commitments or take decisions – big or small; where basically you don’t get much (of substance) done. I’m in the mode where you tell people – and yourself – ‘I can’t deal with this now, it will have to wait for after...’

I'm waiting. I’m in transition. I don't have time to live.

This behaviour would be perfectly understandable and even deserve a bit of indulgence – given that we are about to move house again – if transition had not been an almost permanent feature of my life for the last two decades. Whether it was an international move, a degree to finish, a new job, a new home or a new child, some sort of transition was always in the air. And, for a while, that made me hold back – from decisions, commitments, but also, essentially, from life. Being ‘in transition’ served as an excuse for not investing in things – whether these were ‘grownup’ furniture, a family home, a city, a country or a friendship. Transition and temporariness were present at the back of my mind every time I had to make a choice that would imply a longer-term investment in something; settling down. So I didn’t. For a while.
There is a bestselling book on transitions by William Bridges, where the author describes the three stages that, he claims, are part of every transition: an ending, a ‘neutral zone,’ and a new beginning. When I read this, the middle stage felt the most familiar. It's where I had been spending most of my time: in a ‘neutral zone,’ being neither here nor there (but definitely not in the present), not necessarily benefiting from the reflection, reorientation and renewal that was promised to lead me to a new beginning. As soon as a transition was made and I could theoretically move on with my life, I would already see the next one coming.
I have always been intrigued by the different ways people approach transitions. Not so much by those that, like in my case, involve hiding in a neutral no-man’s-land for a while, until you are comfortable enough to come out of your shell and invest (by which point it may be time to move to the next transition); but by the other extreme, where you throw yourself head-on into the new and unfamiliar – place, home, people – and fully embrace it. Where you immerse yourself, not taking time horizons into account. I wonder what it is that makes the difference. Is it a particular personality trait? Is it special childhood experiences and upbringing? Is it the strength of character to deal with the consequences of immersion – because the deeper you set your roots, the more profound the pain of your (predictable) uprooting? Do you have to go ‘all out’ one way or another, or is there a middle way? I’m still looking for the answers.

In the meantime, at some point I recognised that, if past is any guide, I am always going to be in some sort of transition or another, with respect to some aspect of my life. So there is no point in waiting for the ‘after.’ Living in transition – my normal state  shouldn’t be an excuse for avoiding life. That neutral zone, the in-between place where I was (granted, very comfortably) frozen into inaction, is no place to live. Life is short and I still have a lot of items on my bucket list.

How are you when you're in transition?

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Other people's homes

For us nomads, home is a subject that we constantly come across, touch upon, confront. We have to make sense of it in order to make sense of our lives. We ponder, explore and evaluate our sense of home, what we need to feel at home, how we go about creating it. We value and protect it. Our home. The home of our partner. The home of our children. But what about the home of others – not our family or friends, but people we don’t know, haven’t met before, total strangers? What if that home is at stake? How does that make us feel and what do we do about it?
I was sitting, again, in my neighbourhood café in Athens doing some work, when I noticed an elderly lady come in. I only guessed her age from the lines on her face, because she certainly wasn’t dressed or behaving like an old lady. She was rather elegant, though low-key, in her red leather jacket and dark pants, a leather bag hanging from her shoulder. She was holding a cane, limping slightly, but she wasn’t hunched, as often happens with age. She stood upright, though her eyes were cast downwards. She seemed shy.
I was taken aback when I saw her going from table to table, asking people if they could offer her some help. This woman was not your typical beggar. But then again, this has become a relatively common sight in my country in recent years – people who used to be well off, leading what we would call ‘normal’ lives, being rapidly and ruthlessly reduced to poverty, desperation and the need to survive forcing them to ask for help.
Most people gave her coins; very few ignored her. Across from me, a middle-aged mother was just sitting down with her two kids. She was still busy getting them settled with their drinks and food, when the elderly lady approached her. The mother took one look at the lady and I could tell that she knew exactly what to do. Without hesitating, she asked her if she could offer her something to eat instead of giving her money. The elderly lady accepted, and the two of them went to the counter together, where the mother bought her a sandwich and a coffee. If I hadn’t witnessed the beginning of their interaction, I would have thought they are two friends having coffee. I could almost feel the gratitude I saw in the elderly lady’s eyes as she tucked the food in her bag and swiftly got on her way. I saw her thankfulness, but also a sense of relief that she could interrupt what she was doing, at least for now. I saw an urge to get out of the café as fast as she could; to escape from a reality that wasn’t hers.
I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of that gesture; the instant recognition of how hard this must have been; the almost instinctive act to try to salvage what was at stake, even a minuscule part of it. The elderly lady’s home was at stake – emotionally and probably also literally – and the mother’s gesture indicated to me that she understood that; she knew how vital that sense of home was.
Because isn’t home a feeling of security and comfort; an ability to be our true self? And isn’t dignity part of that true self? For the elderly lady, preserving her sense of dignity, being true to herself was vital for sustaining her sense of home. She was holding on to that dignity, through the way she dressed and through her behaviour, even while engaging in an act that effectively stripped her of it, therefore threatening to leave her homeless.
Most people at the café, but especially that mother, got that. With the way they reacted to her approach, they played their part in helping her sustain that dignity – at least for a moment. Their kindness and compassion essentially kept her from being homeless – emotionally, if not literally.

Sometimes we are almost as protective of other people’s homes as we are of our own. Such little acts of saving home are proof of that, even if it takes a crisis to get us there.

Linked to the My Global Life Link-Up at SmallPlanetStudio.com


Friday, April 11, 2014

I Belong

A few weekends ago, on a Sunday evening, my daughter was preparing her schoolbag for the next day, when I noticed a sheet of paper on her desk. It was a drawing of a square with several layers, like concentric…squares. I asked her what this was and she explained that, as an assignment for one of the subjects, she had to draw a diagram showing all the communities to which she belongs.
When I looked at what she came up with, I couldn’t help but smile. This was a very rich diagram, if one can call it that. My girl feels that she belongs to one continent, three countries, four cities and two towns. This, beyond her family, friends and, of course, sports affiliations (should I be worried that she also “belongs” to Lionel Messi?). Even though I would not call our children seasoned expats, at least not yet – having been through a grand total of one international move –, this diagram pointed out (literally) how many layers make up their identity already, at such an early stage in their lives. It doesn’t take much, does it.
I asked her if this means that she feels at home in each one of these places. Without hesitation, she said that she could imagine herself living in any of them, but then quickly added the caveat – in case I got any ideas – that she has a preference for Zurich now (our current home) and that she’d rather not have to go through another move and leave her friends behind once more. Feeling equally at home in Athens, Vienna, Zurich or even the small town in the south of Austria where her father’s family comes from, was something completely natural for her. She didn’t seem to be concerned with the practicalities of living in each place. More important considerations were familiarity with her surroundings and the presence of people with whom she belonged. Oh yes, and knowing the language.

And this is just what a bicultural child with a relatively stable upbringing perceives and experiences. As we all know, it gets much more complicated. Is this complication a disadvantage? Are we doing our kids a disservice by imposing our itinerant lifestyle on them? Are we condemning them to a life of foreignness and confused identity? I suspect that often we, as parents, agonize more over these questions than they do.
Having multiple homes and multiple allegiances does not seem strange to my daughter because it’s what she has always known. She and most of her friends – children who have multicultural backgrounds or come from families that are leading a globally nomadic life – are born with several affiliations already. The multiplicity of belonging is a fact of life for them. It is something that comes naturally and often goes unquestioned. It is part of who they are. The number of layers is not important here. It doesn’t matter how many homes or communities they are part of. What matters is that there is belonging, that our children (and we, their families) feel grounded, comfortable and at home in each of these communities. As many as these may be, there is space in our heart for all of them.

Besides, if we, as adults, can handle having many homes without feeling like split personalities (well, most of the time), then it should be easier for them, who essentially come into this world “programmed” to be this way - right?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Blood is not always thicker

I attended a conference last weekend, organised by Families in Global Transition (FIGT), an organisation whose aim, among others, is to support families going through international moves. I write “among others” because FIGT is so much more than that for those of us who lead a mobile life. It is a forum for discussion, an incubator of new ideas, an educational resource, a support network, a community. FIGT is one big family. I smiled when I saw that the theme of this year’s (16th) FIGT conference was, very appropriately, “The Global Family: Redefined.”


I discovered the FIGT conference last year and it was love at first sight. I was hooked; not only by the topics, which are close to my heart, but also by the people. As I wrote a year ago upon my return from the conference, I felt that I had found my tribe – that community of like-minded people who understood where I’m coming from without me having to explain much.
So going back this year felt like visiting old friends. For three days we discussed several aspects of the modern “nomadic” family. We tried to define it, describe it, highlight the rewards and address the challenges it faces. Of all the different subjects that were brought up, many of which my FIGT colleagues will certainly write about, I want to talk about two phrases that I heard that have stayed with me. They were both by our keynote speakers.
As part of her brilliant solo performance that concluded the conference on Sunday, global nomad actress and writer Lisa Liang, impatient with people constantly asking her where she’s from, answers: “I am not from a place. I am from people.” The day before, another citizen of the world, Dr. Fanta Aw, described family as a mosaic of relationships. Her definition of family as “the people that we claim and the people who claim us” also made an impression.
I found both phrases powerful because they touch upon two fundamental concepts – family and home. These are universal concepts, but especially for those of us who have chosen the nomad’s life, they tend to be dynamic and constantly evolving. My visions of home and family are much different now from what they were when I embarked on my mobile journey. I don’t think I’m the only one. The two phrases I mentioned are indicative of this transformation.
First, home. The more we move around, the less relevant geography becomes to our sense of belonging. Especially if we have had a mobile childhood, but also for those of us who entered this kind of life as adults, it is not place that defines us. We look elsewhere for affiliation and connection, for our sense of home. We find those in people. Our people become our home. We belong to them, instead of belonging to a place.
Who are these people? They are our family, but not in the traditional sense. They are our family, irrespective of whether we are related by blood. Given the kind of lives we lead, it is unlikely that we will find ourselves in the same place as our blood family anyway – at least most of the time. Instead, new people enter our lives constantly and often that network of relationships we build becomes our extended family; the family we choose. These family-members-by-association don’t replace our original family, but they expand it. They enrich our lives, they become our support system, they help us grow. We do the same for them. We become their family.

So our concept of family, like our concept of home, evolves. And that’s a blessing. Don’t you think?

Linked to the My Global Life Link-Up at SmallPlanetStudio.com