Monday, November 10, 2014

My two expat lives

 The first time I moved as an adult was almost 20 years ago - from my home in Athens to Boston, to pursue a graduate degree. The choice to immerse myself in a new, completely foreign universe was entirely mine. It was a journey I always knew was ahead of me. I chose the journey – and the life – of a foreigner fully conscious that I would have to learn to cope with leaving behind family and friends. Still, the big, heavy wave of homesickness hit me hard during my first days and weeks in the US, as the extent to which I was cut off from “my people” began to sink in.


The only way I could be in touch during those first days was either through very expensive phone calls or letters that I would fax from the copy shop near my school – assuming that the recipient had a fax machine. There was no Skype, no VOIP calling, no Viber, no FaceTime. I remember buying prepaid AT&T cards to call home or using my credit card to call a special number that offered cheap international rates. My short-lived long-distance relationship with my boyfriend back home was barely sustained by weekly phone calls  in the best case, if our timing worked. He, as well as my parents would leave me messages on my answering machine at home – but I was never there, at least not at times that they would be awake. Without a mobile phone, there was no other way to reach me. I had no access to Internet, no email, no social media accounts, no smartphone. I got my first (student) email account at the university and was lucky enough to be able to communicate with my friends who were studying abroad and also had received emails. But that was about it. No one in my family had email.

How could I not feel homesick?

I would have had a hard time imagining how much my life would change in the course of the following 20 years. Comparing what it’s like to be a foreigner today with what it was like 20 or even ten years ago is like comparing two different worlds.

There are many aspects of our lives as expats that we take for granted: our ability to reach and be reached; to connect with “our people,” wherever they are, and keep up with their lives; to stay updated on developments in our different “homes,” whether it’s politics, culture or everyday life – all that, almost instantly, at minimal or no cost. Developments in technology, especially those related to the Internet, have had a profound impact on what it means to be a foreigner and how we experience that life. Communication is just one dimension of how technology has transformed the expat experience, but a powerful one. So much has happened so fast and yet, these fairly recent additions have shaped our lives into what they are today.

I still feel homesick today, but it’s a different kind of homesickness. As a result of the technology in my foreigner life, I can never feel isolated or out of touch – at least not because of lack of possibilities. I don’t feel helpless. I can stay connected with my family and make sure that my children develop and maintain relationships with their grandparents, their aunts and uncles, their cousins. I can keep up with major events in the lives my loved ones. I can stay in touch with my friends, most of them scattered around the world.

There are drawbacks, of course. One could argue that the technology that brings me closer to those that I have left behind, also allows me to avoid living in the here and now, if I wish to do so. But the technology can only reinforce an existing tendency, not create it; it doesn’t make me choose to live, virtually, somewhere else, it just empowers me to do that. Also, I may sometimes feel homesick because of too much connection, not too little. Feeling so close but knowing that I’m not, makes the homesickness more concrete. I know exactly what I’m missing by not being there – because nothing can ever replace physical, face-to-face connection.

Still, I am grateful for this life. Even if, for some, the instant gratification of email or FaceTime does not match the excitement of receiving a letter or unpacking a package sent by someone you love, I’ll take that instant gratification any day over the loneliness of being in-between.

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