Tag: home

Recent Posts

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.

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
 
 
 
 
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?