Tag: 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.

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
 
 
 
 

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?