Category: expat

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expat, home

Something in the water

We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave
a place; we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that
we can find again only by going back there.
Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lisbon
As excited as I was about going back to Los Angeles, where I spent three years of my life some time ago, I was also very down-to-earth about what I would find there. After all, it had been twelve years since I left. So much can change in twelve years. So little can change in
twelve years.
The minute we touched down at LAX, I was overcome by a feeling of familiarity and comfort; I had come home.
Over the next few days, the connection I used to have to this amazing place was recovered fully, seamlessly and unexpectedly. I was thrilled to revisit my old haunts and show the children a piece of our past; to spend time with dear old friends, missed for so long; to bike on the boardwalk between Santa Monica and Venice and take in the freshness of the breeze and the vastness of the ocean; to sink my feet in the hot sand at the end of an afternoon on the beach and watch the sea as it turns silver under the most magnificent light of the day. LA had charmed and overwhelmed me once more.
But it was not until the day of our departure, that I realized just how deep that connection was. We were flying out in the evening, so sometime in the late afternoon, I decided to take a walk along the beach, my favorite thing to do when I lived there. As I was mentally saying goodbye to all the things I would miss about this place, knowing that I would not be back for a while, I was overcome by a deep, inconsolable sadness. It made sense to be sad, but I could not quite grasp the extent of it. Why did LA feel so much like home after so many years?
I was watching a movie last night and the quote above brought everything home [pun intended]. I had to come back to this place to realise what I had left behind. LA felt like home because part of me had never left.

What I found in LA was a piece of my soul. I also found a phase in my life when I felt exceptionally happy and fulfilled. Beyond the usual cliché of
being young, carefree and in California, it was the first time that I felt excited to wake up in the morning and do something that I was passionate about. I enjoyed every dimension of a life full of vitality and passion. And of course, I found again my eternal connection to the sea – the glorious endlessness of the ocean, the captivating mix of wildness and calm.

Now I know that every time I come back, all that will be waiting for me.  And every time I leave, I will stay.
 
I take a part of you with me now and you won’t get it back
And a part of me will stay here; you can keep it forever, dear
Sunrise Avenue, Hollywood Hills
 
 
 
 

Counting blessings

Although today’s post is not technically about crossing cultures or the expat life, essentially it is. To start, I am writing it from a place halfway around the world from where I call home; a place that has become home for a loved one, a member of my family. Though this was the main reason for visiting Vancouver, the city is also home to some other very special people in our life, so how could I be surprised when I felt an immediate connection to this city – its landscape, its vibe and most of all, its people. Besides all the personal reasons, I should have guessed this would happen from the pure fact that Vancouver is built on the shores of an ocean. I was bound to feel at home here. What I did not guess was that the main reason I would feel so welcome from day one would be the people. I have been to a few places – my current home included – where people are pleasant, polite and welcoming, but not yet to a place where all that is overlaid by an air of unambiguous authenticity and warmth. This is not your typical North American friendliness – there is a sincerity and kindness to it that makes it unique.

On our second day here, even though we had not slept well the night before and were still being brutally assaulted by jet lag, we decided to walk to the waterfront. Unfortunately, we overestimated our energy levels and after a couple of hours, the kids were tired and needy. No wonder. Their bodies must have felt confused. Schedules, mealtimes and nap times were all still a jumble. I was running out of patience, being exhausted myself. Just as we had finally managed to find a taxi to get back to our hotel (since nobody was up for walking), my youngest insisted on getting in the car by himself and, in his attempt, fell into a puddle of dirty rainwater.

That was probably the last straw for me, because I lost it. As I started fussing about how I’d had enough of all this and all I wanted was to go back home to Switzerland, an elderly lady who was passing by, overheard me and stopped. She took my hand and told me to calm down. She looked in my eyes and said: “As long as the sun is shining [which it was], you cannot be upset.” She pointed to my children and said that I should be thankful for such a beautiful and healthy family. “Besides,” she concluded, “how can you be unhappy when you are in Canada – the best country in the world?”

She said all that in such a gentle, non-judgmental manner that I felt embarrassed for having made a fuss. Her English had a barely detectable accent, which made me think that she might not have grown up in Vancouver, but had felt happy and comfortable enough there to make it her home – the best place in the world. Her kindness and wisdom left their mark on me. I really do feel thankful for everything I’ve got.
Leading a nomadic life is not always easy. It is rewarding, but it is also challenging. Not everything runs smoothly all the time. There is loneliness, exhaustion, frustration, even anger sometimes. When I feel that way, it helps me to remember the words of the wise lady who stopped me on the street that day in Vancouver. Stop and smell the flowers. Take a deep breath. Count your blessings. We tend to forget to do that, but it really works.
expat, home

Fit for the soul

 

Sometimes you have to let a place surprise you.
When you move to a new place, it makes sense to go prepared. If you are a bit on the nerdy side like I am, you don’t leave much to chance. You do your homework diligently: you research, you read, you ask around, you join clubs and forums, you watch movies about the place you are supposed to call your new home. You learn about the environment, the culture, the people, their language and traditions, the way
they think and behave. In your mind, you have a pretty good idea what to expect. You also have a pretty good idea who you are: what suits you and what doesn’t, what fits with your personality, what you are comfortable with and what puts you off. You are not a novice.
But then – not every time, but sometimes – something unexpected happens while you make the transition. Just as you are starting to settle in and get to know the place, you find that not everything fits your well researched, painstakingly formulated expectations. You may have done the math, but reality surprises you.
That happened to me in Switzerland. I did not expect to love it here. I was realistic about how much of a cultural “fit” was possible between my Mediterranean soul and a country
where one can go weeks, sometimes months, without catching a glimpse of sun. The cultural contrasts were too big. How can someone who comes from a place where people are temperamental, chaotic and moody, and where nothing is predictable, feel at home in a country where the culture is characterised by “a passion for rules, deadlines and quality” (not my quote, but among the many similar ones on Swiss culture that can be found on expat websites such as this one: http://www.expatious.com/guides-categories/expats-abroad/)?
One of my “rational” expectations had to do with rules: I was convinced that I would feel constrained by the much stricter way rules are followed here. But in fact, instead of growing annoyed by them, I noticed that rules were growing on me. As I was driving back from a doctor’s appointment the other day, I noticed that it had taken me 45 minutes door-to-door to go through an elaborate examination and the ensuing consultation. Then it occurred to me how much I actually enjoy the neatness, precision and passion for perfection with which almost everything is done in this country. A lot of it has to do with the fact that everyone, without exception, feels compelled to follow some simple rules. So the rules that I was dreading have freed rather than constrained me. By removing several potential sources of friction from my daily life, this passion for order – which may not be part of my native culture – has made that life so much more enjoyable and satisfying.
This is just one example of an assumption being proven wrong. There were several more. Those experiences have taught me that, while you should always do your homework, you should also be prepared to part with your cherished, preconceived assumptions and associations – if needed. You should be open to being taken by surprise by your new experiences. After all, isn’t this kind of flexibility an essential survival skill for those of us choosing to live the nomadic life?
Has a place ever taken you by surprise?

Finding your tribe

 

How do you feel when you are about to do something for the first time? Do you have expectations; imagine what it will be like; wonder if you will like it; anticipate what will come out of it? Do you feel excited, apprehensive, curious or nervous?
I had my own set of expectations a few weeks ago, when I decided on short notice (almost on a whim, actually) to attend the annual conference of an organisation called Families in Global Transition (FIGT). I had come across FIGT when I was doing research on cross-cultural transitions and had heard about their conference before, but had been hesitant to fly across the Atlantic just to attend a two-day event. Whatever it was that tipped the balance this time, I am grateful it did.
Before the conference, I was intrigued, as I was going there for the first time. I was looking forward to learning new things and meeting new people. I was hoping to get some inspiration for my work.
I was not expecting to find my tribe.
As soon as I entered the venue where the welcome drinks were taking place on the eve of the conference, I knew that this would be unlike any other conference I had attended before. I felt a vibe. Immediately, I felt welcome and at ease (how shocking is that for an introvert). I thought it must be the effect of the jet lag, but the feeling did not seem to go away.
How did that happen? Everyone I met was friendly, open and unpretentiously warm – despite some impressive credentials. I was talking to like-minded people who seemed engaged and genuinely interested. But it was more than that. Talking about what I do and why, sharing who I am felt natural and uncomplicated. I did not need to explain much. They understood. They were in the same place. Listening to what everyone had to say was stimulating, energizing and, at times, humbling. I felt creative and inspired. I felt embraced. There were moments when I was deeply moved.

I was not the only one feeling that way. There was an amazing sense of solidarity in the air – even among people who hardly knew each other; a sort of convergence of spirits. When it was time to leave, I caught myself feeling not only exhilarated, but also a bit sad – as if I was leaving behind dear friends or family. I realized then that I had found my community. I don’t know many conferences that can do that to you.
On my first day at FIGT, I was impressed when I heard the keynote speaker, famous writer and “global soul” Pico Iyer, say that the first time he attended this conference, he
felt like he had come home. By the time I left, almost 48 hours later, I knew exactly what he meant.

Leaving the Zone

 

I have a confession to make. I have been indulging myself. I have been allowing myself to hide from the world.
Since we moved here at the end of last summer, I have been busy unpacking and setting up house, figuring how to get to places and how to get things done, and making sure everyone in the family is settled and happy. That hardly leaves any time for a social life, doesn’t it? So I felt that it is normal that I have not been able to go out and meet people, join clubs or be part of the PTA. Instead of feeling frustrated by this, I have been enjoying the solitude, my family, my writing. I have been relishing the quiet evenings and weekends. I have been convincing myself that this time alone is exactly what I need to recharge my batteries and get settled after the move. I don’t need to meet new people right away. I don’t need to reach out.
I may have gone a bit too far. I have used my newcomer identity as an excuse for being asocial.
Everyone I have talked to about relocating, every book and every article I have read gives the same advice: if you want to make a speedy and smooth adjustment, one of the first things you need to do is get out. You need to meet people and you need to do it
early on.
I resolved that this rule does not apply to me and moved on.
The truth is that I have been too reluctant and too scared to venture out of my comfortable new shell. Scoring substantially high on the introversion scale, let’s just say that I am not a
networking natural. Going out with the explicit goal of meeting new people is intimidating, to say the least. So I allowed myself to be lazy. I was content with the few people I happened to know here from the beginning and did not feel that I needed to expand the circle – at least not any time soon. I was happy to stay in my comfort zone. I had the perfect excuse: I was a newcomer, a foreigner.
Except that this excuse is only valid for a limited time. How long is one considered a newcomer? Wouldn’t seven months be pushing it a little? When someone asked me the other day, I was shocked to hear myself reply that we have been here for more than half a year. I still have the same six friends that I had back in September. I still don’t have an emergency contact on my children’s school forms.
Some of us are disciplined enough to do the right thing at the right time. Some of us – that would include me – need action-forcing events. Recently, I got one of those. Clearly, it’s time to leave that delightfully cosy comfort zone of mine. I’m a bit nervous, but I
hear that, if you put in the hours, you eventually become pretty good at it.
Do you find it easy or challenging to create a social circle when you move to a new place?