Category: expat

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What if

 

My seasonal foreignness was not so bad this year.
Maybe because I was too busy vacationing to deal with existential issues. Maybe because when you are expecting something, it is almost never as bad as you expect it to be. It wasn’t. The irony is that when things go well on the foreignness front, another set of existential issues comes to the surface – the “what ifs.”
I felt cosy and comfortable being around family, seeing familiar faces that I had not seen in a while and meeting some new ones. It was – momentarily and in the un-real-life context of a vacation – as if I had never left. One thing led to another and at some point, I could not help thinking, wondering how it would feel if I actually lived there. What would happen if I returned? What would real life there look like? Would my children be happy? Would I still feel like a foreigner at home and if I did, would that be such a
big deal?
I indulged myself, building scenarios in my head,
imagining scenes from our daily life in Athens. I visualised the late summer days, still warm and sunny, with the evenings a little bit cooler and the sun setting earlier, announcing the onset of autumn. The city filling up again. The first autumn rain after several months of dryness (there is actually a word for that in Greek). What would it be like to spend winter there again and not just a couple of sun-drenched weeks on the beach? Would I create my own daily routines? Would the constant presence of my extended family be bliss or torture? Would I get used – again – to calling 15 degrees Celsius (the temperature this August morning in my current home town) “winter temperatures?” Would I be able to reconnect with all those – inevitably – long lost friends? Would I make new ones?
For a moment there, I did not think of all the reasons why this is an impossible scenario. I did not rationalise and it felt good. I felt free. But eventually, I did feel sad. Because the “what if…?” is always followed by the “why not.” Without a question mark at the end.

Seasonal foreignness

 

Every year , around the start of summer vacation, I hear the same familiar complaint from my children: “Why do we always have to go to Greece for vacation? Why can’t we go somewhere else for a change?” Every year, my answer is the same (including the part where I tell them how spoiled they are and that other kids – not to mention adults – would be thrilled to go to Greece for
vacation, while they are being so difficult about it): “Because your mother is from Greece, which makes you half-Greek, and this is our home.” But is it really?
Lately, I have been reading a lot about what happens to people when they move back to their home country after having lived abroad; how the experience is predictably rewarding but can also be unpredictably challenging. The fact that the challenges catch most people completely by surprise is the main reason why repatriation is so hard to cope with. Not having been through it myself, I have been trying to find ways to relate to that experience, so that I can write about it.
In fact, a lot of what I have been reading about re-entry reminds me of what happens when I return home for longer periods of time, which is the case every summer. Many expatriates who go back to their passport countries find that home does not feel like home any more; that they have become foreigners where they least expected that to happen; that their loyalty is divided between two (or more) “homes.” That’s something to which I can relate. It does not make such a big impression on me now – maybe because I have been used to it over the years – but being home always reveals that split in my life and in my identity. On the one hand, I have a strong bond with Greece. It overwhelms me with euphoria the moment the airplane touches down on Greek soil and crushes me with nostalgia when that other airplane takes me away. I love everything about “my” country – its natural beauty and its (disorganised) chaos; the warmth of the weather and that of the people; the fact that I can understand both the text and the subtext when I interact with them; the feeling of belonging.
On the other hand, when I am in Greece, I am always the visitor; the tourist; the foreigner. Nothing much is expected of me. I am not supposed to completely fit in, but that feels strange rather than liberating. There are moments when I miss the comfort of being a foreigner somewhere where I am actually justified in being one, rather than somewhere where I really shouldn’t. And, of course, after a while
I start missing my “other” home; my house; my routines. To quote Kundera, (my) life is elsewhere.
Many of us perpetual foreigners experience this duality – the “split personality,” the unexpected emotional connections to different places at the same time. The contrast is always there, but it is only when we come “home” that it becomes blindingly obvious.
Do you feel foreign, at home?

Closing doors

 

When one door closes, another opens…right? I hadn’t known that the famous quote from Alexander Graham Bell goes on to add: “…but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.”
Being able to close some doors and open others, to look ahead and not back should be key skills to have when one leads the nomadic life. Isn’t that a large part of what we do when we move constantly from one place to the next – dismantle our existence and
rebuild it, in a slightly different way, somewhere else; close one door and open another?
Does this mean that all of us who choose the mobile life have what it takes – namely the ability to let go and move on in absolute smoothness? Is there hope for those of us who are not naturals and find it extremely difficult to close doors – despite being excited about the ones that open? Even though we do get better at it with every move, it is always hard. And painful. Sometimes heart-breaking.
It helps not to see it in absolute terms. Yes, we should be getting better at closing doors, but we don’t need to close them all the way. We should be developing our proficiency to
bravely and skilfully move on to a new life, but there are elements of our previous life that have become part of our identity and make us who we are. We don’t close the door to those the same way that we don’t close the door to the people from our various past lives. That makes it easier – at least when you are an adult and can reason that way.
It’s different for kids. They see things in much more absolute terms. They don’t think in terms of the big picture.
When we left Vienna last summer, we were not sure how long we would be away, so we asked the schools to “reserve” spots for our children for
another year, in case we came back. That year has passed and yesterday we had to officially give up those places. As happy as I am with our new life here and all the new doors that it has opened, it still felt strange to close the last “old” door that was still open.
I’m not sure how the children will react when we tell them. They could see this as a sign of stability in their new life; less uncertainty. But it could also be that, in the back of their mind, those reserved spots were a silent promise that they could always go back; a secret outlet for when they were not too happy with their life here. Do we take away that outlet? Or do we wait until the excitement about the new doors becomes more powerful than the regret about the ones that are now closed? Even if, in the grand scheme of things, they are not really closed.

The phone call

 

The last time I saw my father was a couple of weeks before he passed away, only four days before my scheduled monthly trip to go visit him. Four days. The day before, I could not get him on the phone for our daily chat. He was too weak. It didn’t occur to me then. I refused to even consider the possibility until the phone rang at 7am the next morning, as we were getting the kids ready for school. Before I even picked up, before I even saw that it was coming from my parents’ home, before I heard my brother’s voice on the other side – who would not, normally, have been there so early in the day –, I knew.
I had been dreading that call. I had been dreading being away when my father’s time came. Shouldn’t I have sensed something? Why didn’t I change my ticket and fly back to see him earlier? Why couldn’t I have been there by his side? Why did I choose to live in another country?
I’m not the only one haunted by the “dreaded phone call.” Most of us who have chosen the nomadic lifestyle and live far away from ageing parents or other close relatives, are bound to feel that at some point. It is part of all the things we miss while we are away. But, more than birthdays, graduations or weddings, missing death – or rather, missing life – may be what haunts us the most. I have many friends and family who, at some point or another, have had to drop everything and get on a plane to go help out when a parent got sick; who have had to change their lives to accommodate taking care of an ageing relative; or who worry if they can’t get them on the phone at a time when they should be reachable. It’s not easy, yet we accept it as an integral part of our fragmented mobile life. We are fully aware of the consequences but we still choose that life.
Sometimes we even change our life plans, willingly. I dream of living in California and would move there in an instant; but at this point, I know that not even the East Coast would be a realistic option. I don’t think my mother would ever forgive me for taking us – especially her grandchildren – so far away from her, where even the transatlantic journey to visit us would increasingly become a challenge for her. Others would still choose to go – and have. Indeed, life is too short. But I use the same argument for my choice not to go. I want to be around, as much as possible. I want to be able to be a couple of hours away, not a whole day’s journey. I also want my children to be around
their family. I want them to hear the stories and create the memories that will become part of their identity. A while ago, my husband, having just come back, enchanted, from a trip to Australia, asked me when we are moving to Sydney. My reply was: “When all our relatives are dead.”
Do you live far away from (ageing) family? How do you cope with that?

It’s raining outside but I don’t care

 

There must be something wrong with me.
The only word that can capture perfectly what goes on outside my window right now is: yuck. This feels like the chilliest, wettest, stormiest, most miserable November I have ever experienced – in May. After over a month of consistently rainy and cold weather, everyone around me is at the end of their wits – not just the foreigners, but also the Swiss, who, I thought, should be familiar with this kind of weather (turns out that many of them are not, since this is the worst May in thirty years). The weather has been part of every single conversation around me for weeks now.
So there must be something wrong with me, because it hasn’t gotten to me yet. The fact
that the probability of rain is 90% throughout the day today and the temperature in the single digits leaves me untouched. Though I do feel bad for the kids not being able to take advantage of our garden or the so many wonderful outdoor activities this city has to offer, personally, I don’t mind. To say that this is highly unusual for me would be an understatement.
I may have mentioned, a while ago, a (mild) addiction I have to Japanese matcha green tea. When we left Vienna, one of the things I knew I would miss the most was my daily ritual of walking over to my little neighborhood Japanese café and ordering my matcha
latte – or rather, not even ordering any more, since they would know what to start preparing as soon as I walked in the door. I knew there was no such thing in Zurich. For months, I have been trying, unsuccessfully, to find something similar, until a couple of days ago, when I walked into another favourite café and had something that tasted exactly like my favourite drink. My eyes lit up. Could this be a sign that I’m almost there? It’s funny how something so little and so trivial can mean so much. Yet, aren’t sensory experiences, like tastes and smells, closely linked to our emotions? If a matcha that tastes “just right” makes me feel at home, that’s not trivial, at least not to me.
So at the nine-month mark, I am starting to feel at home here. And with home, like with friends, you have to take the whole package: the good and the less good. You learn (and like) to live with both. That’s why I don’t mind the weather.
I also don’t mind it because – if one excludes its depressing quality, which I have already moved beyond – it is perfect weather for writing. I love being able to concentrate on my work without being tempted, constantly, to go for a walk or a bike ride or an ice cream along the lake by a glorious sun shining on my beautiful surroundings (I know, I’m strange). As long as I can hear the birds – and it seems that most of them didn’t get the memo and are, stunningly, still tweeting away every morning, even under the pouring rain – like them, I will keep pretending that spring has come.
Does the weather get to you?
If you are in the same
corner of the world as I am – or even if you’re not – here’s a little something to make your day.