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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.
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?