Monday, December 14, 2015

Our Gilded Expat Cages

It starts as an adventure. We are young, ambitious, qualified, full of dreams. We feel powerful. We know exactly what our life will look like. We have big plans. We want to explore the world. We find a partner who shares our dreams. We fall in love and, together, we’re off to great places.
The first couple of moves go relatively well. We are childless, unattached, free to grab every opportunity that comes our way. Our career is our priority. Our independence is sacred. Our partner respects that. That both careers are equally valued is not even an issue. We’re on top of the world.

As the years pass, we start wanting to have a family. We decide to go for it and take a step – or two – back, career wise. Temporarily, of course. There is no regret; on the contrary, we feel fortunate, even grateful to be able to do that. We appreciate that our partner enables us to focus on taking care of our young family by taking over the burden of being the main breadwinner. We forget about our sacred independence for a while. We trust. Nothing can go wrong. We are blissfully unaware that that is not true.
Especially the first few years, we are busy with the children, the household, organizing the moves, making sure everyone is well adjusted and settled. We are still on track. We are still exploring the world. But with every move, it becomes harder for us to pick up where we left off, professionally. In every new place, local laws need to be navigated and work permits negotiated, careers that don’t “travel” well need to be reinvented and short-term moves don’t allow us the time to do any of that because, by the time the boxes are unpacked and the kids settled, it’s time to plan the next move – something which we are rapidly becoming masters at organizing, on our own. Soon, we have been away from the job market long enough to lose confidence in our ability to ever go back. If and when we do manage to go back to work, what we end up doing usually does not have much to do with the ambitious plans we had when we started our journey.
Thankfully, we are still equal partners in our relationship. We have access. The money our partner makes – which they always refer to as “our money” – buys us a beautiful home, expensive cars, designer clothes, exotic vacations and perfect manicures. But there is no equality in dependence, which just keeps growing in the background, imperceptibly, discreetly. Until someday it is right there in front of our eyes, in black and white, when we realize that we can’t even get a credit card in our name.
While these kinds of dependence relationships are not an exclusively expat phenomenon, expat life makes them much more likely. Expatriation can be disempowering, especially for women. The ideal of a dual-career family can only be maintained for so long when that family moves every few years, before children even enter the picture. Usually, the ideal becomes logistically and practically impossible. Usually, one of the two careers stays behind. I’ll let you guess which one. The power balance is transformed, but it’s a subtle process.
When does this start to bother us – if at all? Many partners, to their credit, behave in a way that it never does. But there are also wake up calls. For expats, this happens often when the relationship or marriage breaks down and the massive power imbalance is revealed. We realize how powerless we’ve become. The extent of our dependence is so terrifying that many choose to stay in failed, suffocating relationships, too scared to face the consequences.
There are many of us out there – with advanced Ivy League degrees, impressive work experiences, respectable salaries and all. We enter our gilded cages voluntarily. We put away our dreams and hang our prestigious credentials on the walls of our “home offices,” so that we can glance at them – not without a tinge of regret – when we pay household bills or schedule doctors’ appointments for our children.
So here’s my question. How do we get ourselves into this? Why do we disguise as “our choice” something that goes against all our principles? Is it love? Trust? Comfort? The urge of motherhood? More important, how can we stop making choices that render us powerless and dependent? How can we help others like us avoid making such choices? This is not a discussion about whether women can “have it all” in a modern society; this is about what goes on in our head. What are we thinking when, fully aware of the possible consequences, we willingly enter those gilded cages and give someone else the key?

A version of this post was published on the Huffington Post Blog.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

What the Migrant Crisis Says About Us

I write about foreigners, like myself, who choose to move between places and cultures; who face the challenges and reap the rewards of “nomadic” life. But I have always, intentionally, – steered clear of writing about a particular kind of foreigner: the one who moves by necessity or force, rather than choice; the one who is uprooted by war, poverty, persecution or all of the above. Refugees are not my area of expertise. But lately I have been feeling that humanity should be everyone’s expertise.
The stream of people fleeing broken countries like Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan to seek safety elsewhere is hardly a new situation, but it is one whose urgency and visibility have risen dramatically in the past few days. European citizens and their governments are confronted with a swelling flood of migrants; a humanitarian crisis of overwhelming proportions. And, for the moment, they do not seem to have a coherent plan for how to deal with that crisis.
I don’t have a solution for the tragedy that unfolds every day before our eyes. I am not issuing condemnations or calls for action. I don’t know how we will make it right. But I believe that trying to make it right will make us better people.
As we go about our daily lives, most of us are not confronted with the extent of poverty, need, suffering, and desperation that that have come our way now. As we go about our daily lives, we don’t have to rise to the occasion. Before scores of refugees were washed out on their beaches, the people of the Greek islands of Kos and Lesbos – two of the first stops for Syrian and Afghan migrants on their way to Europe – did not have to show unbelievable generosity and kindness on a daily basis. They did not have to offer whatever they could spare – which is often so very little – to help those who have even less. They did not have to work full shifts in addition to their day jobs to collect donations, distribute water, medicine and clothes or take care of hungry children. They did not have to open their homes so that their foreign “guests” could clean themselves or sleep. Now, that’s what they are doing – on a daily basis.

And this is no isolated response. When trainloads of refugees arrived in Munich central train station last week, the locals’ donations of food, water, clothes, blankets and toys, were so overwhelming that the city’s police asked them politely to stop bringing supplies because there were more than enough. In Iceland, within 24 hours, over 10,000 people responded to a Facebook pledge and signed up to open their homes to Syrian refugees – when their government had previously agreed to offer asylum to only 50. In Germany, crowds at football stadiums raised banners welcoming refugees. In Austria, this weekend, hundreds of rail workers pledged to work overtime for free, to drive special trains that will get refugees to their desired destinations as soon as possible. People all across Europe are taking matters into their own hands, not waiting for their governments to act, feeling the moral responsibility to ease the suffering of the hundreds who have been thrown at their doorstep.

What is happening right now, in our own back yard, is making us push against the boundaries of our own empathy, our sympathy, our desire to do the right thing. This massive influx of fellow human beings, driven out of their homelands has revealed unprecedented solidarity and compassion that lay dormant in us. It has allowed us to explore the depths of our humanity – or lack thereof. Because this latest crisis has also brought out the worst in some. It has stirred up xenophobia and racism; exposed some very short memories; allowed those who choose, to to give in to hate, cruelty and the building of fences, emotional and literal. I will write about the kindness and humanity; not the harshness and fear.
I was struck by a recent study that found that the most powerful predictor of identity change is the disruption of a person’s moral faculty. Not memory, but morality. If our moral character changes (the study focuses on the impact on the brain of neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s), we become unrecognizable to others. If our moral compass is messed up, we are not ourselves any more. Empathy and compassion are part of that moral compass that is the essence of our identity and makes us who we are.
This human tragedy shapes our moral identity – as individuals and as nations. It brings out our true selves; or it changes our true selves. It exposes our collective inner sense of right and wrong. It transforms the moral fabric of our societies and ultimately changes our national identity.

Who will we choose to be?

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Punch the knife

As I relish one of my last scorched, wind-blown afternoons on my little stone-paved veranda on a Cycladic island, I think of my past few weeks here and the Greece I have encountered.

Greece is a country in perpetual crisis. It has been in a constant crunch, a state of emergency, a permanent state of transition, for a while now. Scenarios of doom and reckoning have been floating in the air for at least half a decade. It’s hard to miss how all that has affected its people.

In between reconnecting with my sensory home – the smell of thyme bushes and fig trees, the crisp taste of watermelon, the buzzing of the cicadas in a hot afternoon – all I seem to be doing this summer vacation is talk; probe; ask questions. I seek out mostly the younger Greeks. They are the ones hit the hardest; the “lost” generation of Greece, as they are now called by sociologists and the media. More than half of them are unable to find jobs. Most of them can hardly envision, let alone plan, their future. They are also the ones that overwhelmingly voted “No” to the recent Greek bailout referendum, which I have had a hard time making sense of.

I talk to the young woman serving me at the village coffee shop. When I ask her how she and her peers are coping with the crisis, she tells me with a half smile: “I am serving my degree,” implying that her university degree is utterly useless in getting her a job. There is no anger or bitterness in her voice. She seems rather stoic. “I’m grateful that I can wait tables; at least I have a job, unlike most of my friends,” she rushes to add.

Across the street, the small crafts shop is empty most of the time I pass by. As the shop owner carefully wraps the piece of hand-made pottery I just bought, she shares with me her worries about her three children, aged between 17 and 22. “They are constantly angry and I don’t know what to tell them,” she says. “They have no future and it’s not their fault. But I have raised them to endure.”

The more I talk, the more it seems to me that the whole country is immobilized. Nobody really knows what’s coming or when, what the next development will be, which rumors are true and which are baseless. Everybody is in a state of suspended animation. At the same time, I witness an unprecedented level of stoicism and a very particular kind of resilience in the face of so much uncertainty. When I came here, I was expecting to be confronted with anger, frustration and bitterness. There is a lot of that going around, for sure; a lot of disillusionment. But there is also an extraordinary level of kindness. The crisis has brought families together. People support each other whenever possible, even with limited means. Everyone seems to realize that a selfish way of living belongs firmly in the past if the nation is to survive these times.

Resilience is in our Greek genes for sure. As a country, as a people, we have been through many crises over the centuries, most of them worse than this one, and we have always bounced back. But the kind of resilience I am observing here is not just the one that is bound to a strong survival instinct. This resilience comes packaged in humanity and compassion. It is a kind-hearted resilience; a caring resistance; a gentle, but undeniable, strength. Quite a contrast from the polarization and intolerance of only a few weeks ago.

As I am leaving the little crafts shop on the Cycladic island village, the owner tells me something that makes an impression on me. She says that, although her kids seem to have no future in a country that is battered and bruised from both the outside and the inside, they haven’t given up. “They are the ones inspiring me for moving forward,” she admits, “rather than the other way around. They tell me ‘Mom, you need to punch the knife!’” She looks at me with a half-conspiratory, proud smile. “We all need to punch the knife. Keep going even though it hurts.”

A whole country is doing that right now. Again. In our own, gentle way.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Losing home

 I have written a lot about finding home – the two words that, in my mind, sum up the essence of nomadic life. But until today, I had not felt the need to write about losing home. For the past few weeks, I have been watching my vision of home slip away, little by little. I have been watching the people I love lose their home. I have been witnessing a whole nation becoming homeless, slowly but steadily, for a long time.

Even though I chose to leave my home and become a permanent foreigner 20 years ago, that home has always been in the back of my mind. I could always return if I wanted to, even though I probably would not. If I did return, though, I knew that I would be welcome; free to be myself; surrounded by people who share the same values as me – my people – because that’s what home feels like.

I have been a silent observer of developments in my home country, Greece, for the past few years. I have watched the country struggle and tear under the weight of the economic crisis and its people battle hardship and poverty – without losing their beautiful spirit. I have felt heartbroken but proud to be Greek, not least because in times like these, more than ever, Greeks stick together. We help each other. We share. We stay true to our values. We endure.

I have watched the most recent developments in Greece, feeling tormented and powerless. I am not a person who talks politics, yet I have found myself actively engaged in discussions about my country’s future, its politicians, the merits of different views. I have read and debated scenario after catastrophic scenario. I have watched in disbelief as my people, led to the edge of a cliff, willingly, passionately, fanatically embrace self-destruction. I have heard the terror in the voices of friends and family who feel trapped in a country without a future, about to be forced off that cliff in the name of democracy.

As the crisis deepens and living conditions in my unraveling country resemble less those of a developed country and more those of a country at war, the spirit of unity that I was so proud of has all but vanished. In the place of solidarity with those less fortunate, I see polarization, aggression and intolerance. I see difference of opinion being regarded as treason. I see people viciously attacking and insulting each other on every occasion and through every available medium: in front of overcrowded ATMs, while waiting in line for their daily ration of cash; while queuing at the gas station; on social media. I see threats, bullying, intimidation. Friends tell me that, for the first time, they are afraid to express their views openly or post on social media, for fear of being labeled as taking one side or the other – by people whose help they might need in the near future. There is an atmosphere of fear and despair.

I fail to understand how all this is happening. Like many others who live away from our home country, I feel like I have lost touch. I no longer “get” my own people  how they think and why they act the way they do; what their values are; what they believe in. It feels like the home that was there is there no more. This is not the country I grew up in. These are not the values I was taught. These are not the people I was proud to be part of.

We are all losing our home.

There was an eerie silence yesterday on social media. There’s an eerie awkwardness today at the other end of the line when I call to check on my loved ones. A sort of numbness. As a good friend wrote recently, these are uncharted waters. Very dark uncharted waters. I hope that we can cross them and still find our lost home on the other side.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Home is what you make it

“I see you.” As Doug Ota said in his moving keynote speech that concluded this year’s Families in Global Transition conference (FIGT15), we exist in the eyes of others. I see you. I see into you. I understand who you are.
We exist in the eyes of our tribe. We are at home, with our tribe. We are “seen.”
Just like every year, coming to FIGT15 was like coming home – to my tribe. I was not the only one who felt that way. For the majority of the 150 or so participants from all over the world who braved the weather conditions and made it to Washington, D.C. that first weekend of March, this was home. First-time attendees and veterans alike, we had found our tribe. We were seen, understood, “gotten.”
This year I had the privilege of being able to combine this annual ritual of finding home and being with my tribe, with my passion, which is to explore exactly that – how we, perpetual foreigners, find home. The theme of this year’s conference – “Finding ‘Home’ Amidst Global Change” – has occupied me for years. I have been researching, talking and writing about it and wanted to share some of that. Presenting one of the Concurrent Sessions at FIGT15 was thrilling, stimulating and rewarding. The audience was probably the most welcoming and responsive audience one could wish for. I shared their energy; I learned from them; I came away with a richer perspective and a sense of gratitude.
I’ve been asked several times for a copy of my presentation, so here’s a summary:

“Home is What You Make It: How Our Concept of Home Shapes The Way We Move”
Why do we feel at home in some places but not in others? Why are there times when connection is almost immediate, while other times we struggle to find a sense of belonging? I believe that this has to do with our concept of home and how it affects the way we handle transitions; how it influences the strategies we use to adjust and create home every time we move.
In my research, I saw emerge three broad themes that home evokes; three dimensions that pervade most concepts of home: Home as Place, Home as Feeling and Home as People.
Home as Place is the traditional definition of home, where geography is the defining aspect. We can be rooted in place and that place can be as narrow as a specific room filled with familiar stuff that gives us comfort; as broad as a landscape that speaks to our soul and makes us feel grounded; and everything in-between.
Home as Feeling refers to the emotional dimension of home: feeling a sense of belonging, safety, comfort, authenticity, love. Home can be a single moment, a taste, a smell, an image, a sound or anything that evokes those feelings.
Finally, Home is People. We feel at home when we are with the people we love – whether these are our family, our close friends or our “tribe” – the people who “get” us and with whom we connect at a deeper level.
The need for home is a universal human need. But for us foreigners –who take the leap outside the normal paradigm of home – it is even more central: it shapes the way we experience expat life, how we reap its rewards and cope with its challenges. Our quest for home (and the kind of home we look for) affects how we cope with transitions and how we fare through them; how we constantly pack, unpack and repack our life; how we rebuild, recover and reconnect.
Different concepts of home often lead to different strategies for finding home. These include gravitating towards particular landscapes that evoke in us a sense of home; choosing to live in a bubble that offers us comfort and homeliness; creating a physical home that makes us feel grounded; establishing (and transferring) rituals and routines that create continuity and familiarity; and nurturing relationships, whether that involves connecting with our close family or finding our tribe.

No one strategy is better than the others. There is only what works best for each one of us; the strategy that helps us find the comfort of belonging and home. Reflecting on our experience and becoming conscious of our core concept(s) of home helps us make better transitions. If we can use that fundamental sense of home as a guide, if we know what we need and what to look for when we cross cultures and create new lives, then we can find home wherever we are.

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