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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?

Let it snow

While I lived in Vienna, I was always self conscious about my German. Even though it was relatively fluent and accent-free, I would never be mistaken for a local; as soon as I opened my mouth, everyone knew. I believed that, in order to get things done or to be taken seriously, either I had to ask for help from a “local” or switch to English. So that’s what I did for eleven years. I never felt that I could be myself in that language and that was a major component of my foreignness.
Then we moved to Zurich. Since I do not speak Swiss German (yet), the next best choice for communicating was “High” German – that same language I was self-conscious about. My Swiss interlocutors clearly speak it better than I do; strangely though, I don’t feel as self-conscious as I used to. High German is not the language everyone grows up speaking here, and for me, that evens the playing field. I have yet to feel the need to resort to English. Who would have thought?
There is also the weather. Having been raised in a Mediterranean country and moved to Austria from California, of all places, I have had a hard time adjusting to Central European winters – and that’s an understatement. Vienna had too much snow, too many days (and weeks) with sub-zero temperatures for my taste. When we moved to Zurich, I was expecting more of the same. No one told me that, during my first winter here, snow would be so much part of the daily landscape for weeks in a row, that waking up to a winter wonderland day after day would eventually have no impact on me whatsoever (part of me still hopes this winter is unusual, but probably it isn’t). Compared to Zurich, Vienna looks almost Mediterranean. Do I like that? Not one bit. What did I do about it? I decided to buy a bigger snow shovel for my driveway and a more sophisticated ice scraper for my windshield. Who would have thought?
And then there is the bigger picture. After growing up and spending a big part of my adult life in big cities, I was in for a shock when I moved to Vienna: it felt so small! It took me years to get used to that. And now, I moved to Zurich, which is even smaller than Vienna, without even blinking. Who would have thought?
Is all this proof that one can get used to almost anything? That everything is relative? Or could it be that, with every move, I am becoming more adaptable and more open, more skilled at doing “the foreigner thing;” that I consciously choose to see the big picture and let go of all the little and not-so-little things that have made me miserable in the past; that I’m becoming good at the “if you can’t change it, embrace it” sort of thing?
I have not overcome my snow aversion for sure, but I have learned to live with it. And I do enjoy speaking German without feeling self-conscious – even when I’m back in Vienna.

 

Home for Christmas

 

I have always loved Christmas – the atmosphere, the lights, the smells, the presents, the food (the food, the food…); it’s just that the last few years I got side tracked. I had children and a home of my own and suddenly became responsible not only for my Christmas, but also for that of a few other (mostly little) people – for whom everything had to be perfect. So somehow Christmas progressively transformed from a relaxed and carefree family holiday, to a stressful and hardly enjoyable one. Trying to get everything
right – and on time! – led to a hectic craziness of Christmas shopping, Christmas cards, Christmas decorations and double- (sometimes triple-) booked Christmas events. Every year I promised myself that next year I would do things differently and every year I broke my own promise.
Except this year. This year, we are doing things differently. This year we’re staying home.
We need to. This move gave us the perfect opportunity to stop the madness. The transition to our new life has had its ups and downs. My children are still struggling to find their place here, especially to build a new circle of friends, while they still miss their
friends and their life back in Vienna very much. I can’t do much to help them with that, but what I can do is at least make sure they have a safe place where they can go when things get tough; a refuge. I want to create a little corner where they can be themselves and feel accepted and loved. I want them to feel secure and comfortable there. Creating a home has always been important for me, but the kids have made it essential.
And it’s not just for them. We are far from settled. We all need to find our bearings. But for that, we need to take a deep breath and give ourselves the time to feel at home. The holidays should be the perfect opportunity to do that. Being relatively new to this place helps too. So this Christmas there will be no big plans, no party invitations (obviously, given the current size of our social circle) and no trips. We will stay away from traffic jams, stress and last minute shopping on Christmas Eve. It will be just us, hanging out at home, listening to Christmas songs, decorating the tree, baking cookies and sticking glittery stars on the living room windows. There will be board games and hot chocolate, popcorn and favourite movies, singing and the smell of the beeswax candles on the tree.
Yes, I know it’s cheesy, maybe even a bit boring for some, but it will be just perfect.