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.

Linked to #MyGlobalLife linkup at SmallPlanetStudio.com

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Less homesick, more lonely?

It’s Sunday evening and my kids and I have just finished a Skype call with my mom. She is in Athens and we are in Zurich. We try to have these calls at least once a week. My children take turns parading on my mom’s tablet screen, the timing and duration of their appearance depending on the importance of the distraction – suddenly “remembered” homework for tomorrow, texting with friends or finishing up that "last" video game. Besides the weekend Skype sessions, my mother and I talk on the phone every morning. I call her from my car, when I’m on my way back from the last school drop-off. She waits for my call so that she can get on with her day. We chat about the day that passed, about what’s ahead, about how we feel, about the weather. Nothing of extreme significance, just normal everyday stuff, stuff you talk about over morning coffee – only our respective coffee cups are a few thousand kilometers apart. It’s winter, so these days she concludes our call by telling me to makes sure I dress warm – the same way she would if I was in Athens, going out of the house and she was at the door saying goodbye.

I have been away from home for almost 20 years but have always had regular contact. The actual rituals have evolved, of course. Talking daily, as we do now, was not always possible. Phone calls were expensive, especially when my family and I were on different continents. There was no Skype nor smartphones that would allow us to talk for free or see each other even when we are not at home. Still, whether it was through letters, faxes or weekly calls, I remember us being as much part of each other’s lives as we are now.

I often wonder if I was more homesick then; if I felt more disconnected from my family and friends when I did not have the privilege of instant access. Does being able to virtually see and hear my mother every day, sometimes multiple times per day, lighten the pain of separation? Or is the illusion of closeness created by technology just that – an illusion?

I was discussing this with a friend and she told me that, although she loves being so connected to the people in her life, she finds that the effortlessness of communication that has become standard nowadays - at least in the developed world - makes us feel that we are part of each other’s lives, when we are not. And how can we, she added, if we are not there physically?

At the same time, all that virtual connection can distract us from engaging with real life, especially relationships. The time we invest in being up to date virtually often means less time available for being present in the real world. This is true whether we are expats or not; but for expats engaging is crucial, relationships are crucial. No wonder some of us end up isolated and lonely. And, as I read recently in an article, loneliness is not only unpleasant; it is unhealthy, even deadly sometimes.

I have kept some of the letters I exchanged with my parents back in the “old days” – the first few years after I left home. We used to fax them back and forth, since fax was the most immediate means of communication at the time. I was surprised at the depth of some of the conversations I had with my dad – about life, about where we come from and where we want to go; at the advice and love pouring out of those faxes, both always in large doses. I found recipes my mom faxed to me when I needed ideas for a dinner party I was hosting. I found more letters from my parents congratulating me on a success, consoling me when I was heartbroken. So many details about our respective lives that I had almost forgotten; immortalized, just because they are on paper.

So yes, I am slightly less homesick now that we talk every day. It means a lot, knowing that I can always pick up the phone and connect. But there are also times when being a phone call away – and not there – makes me even lonelier than I was in the “old days.”



Friday, November 28, 2014

Technology and finding home...elsewhere?

Imagine yourself moving country twenty years ago. How do you prepare for your encounter with a new place, a new culture, new people? If you have the luxury of time, you do some homework before moving. You go to your local library, take out books on the country or city you are moving to, study them. They give you a rough idea of what to expect. If you are moving to a place where you don’t speak the language, you take lessons or get hold of language tapes and books, perhaps a pocket phrasebook that you will carry with you during the first few months. Since you probably don’t know anyone yet in the new place, you ask around in your circle of friends for friends or acquaintances you can contact –usually through letter or phone call. When you move, you spend the first week or two looking for a place to live – reading the classifieds, talking to real estate agents, visiting. Then, there’s a whole range of logistics to take care of, from setting up bank accounts, credit cards and transferring money, to making sure that your new place has a phone connection and that your bills are paid.
Moving today is a whole different reality. To educate yourself about the place you are moving to, you hardly resort to books any more. There are so many websites, from Wikipedia to information and news sites, resource portals, discussion forums, blogs and magazines dealing with every possible aspect of life in the country you pick. You can get the real picture from real people in real time; you can compare sources and views; you can ask questions. If you want to learn a new language, you can still take a course; but in the meantime, Google Translate is quite effective, at least to get stuff done in the first few weeks. You do a lot of the paperwork and logistics of the move online. You look for housing online. You start building your new social network online: you join the local expat club or tap into the multitude of networking sites, online communities and local Meetup groups to connect with people who live in your new home – before you even get there.
Technology, in particular the Internet, has changed the way we move and find home. Anyone who started their foreigner journey in pre-Internet or early Internet times will agree that the tools and resources available to today’s expats have simplified the logistics of moving, massively reducing the hassle of preparing and executing a move.
So it’s all good at the practical level. But what happens with the emotional aspects of moving? Technology has made moving easier than ever but has it also made it easier to find home wherever we move - or harder?
In the past, we had no choice. When we moved somewhere, we had to live in the here and now. Whether we liked it or not, that was our reality. Now, there are so many realities to choose from. It is so easy to live elsewhere, virtually, on a permanent basis, if we want. We can shop online, communicate and connect online, get our information online. I can sit in a café in the middle of Zurich and Skype with my family in Athens or Berlin, read the New York Times and listen to the news on the BBC. I don’t have to know what’s happening in Switzerland if I don’t want to. A friend of mine, who never looks at the local news where she lives, told me that she often risks embarrassment when something major happens in her country, because she is completely unaware!
As distances are minimized, physically and virtually, does our ability to put down roots, build and sustain relationships, feel like we belong – where we are, physically – diminish as well? Do we become more scattered – and is that a bad thing or does it just mean that our concept of home has changed? What does home look like when we choose to live elsewhere?

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.