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A piece of “there”

When we move around a
lot, we carry with us – in us – a piece of each place we leave behind. Each one of
these pieces is bigger at the beginning of a move and then, with time, it gradually
shrinks, becoming denser and more selective, until we end up keeping the best
parts, the ones that we look for in every new place. Reconciling these pieces
of “here” and “there,” finding the right balance – something like a mover’s
“Zone” – is one of the challenges of every transition, particularly in the
beginning, when the piece of “there” that we have in us is almost as big, if
not bigger, than the piece of “here.”
I read an article a few
months ago by a writer who moved from New York to New Orleans and now divides his life between the two cities. He talks about transitions and their impact:

“It’s so exhausting to execute this transition – the logistics, the money,
the time. When you enter a new space, even a hotel room, you fill it with your
spirit. When you go back and forth, you have to do a lot of spiritual putting

We are going back to
Vienna to visit in a few weeks – something we have promised the kids since the
day we left, last summer. Everyone is excited about this trip and yet, in the
back of my mind (of course!), I am wondering what impact it will have on their
adjustment process. Is it too soon for such a visit? Will it be a step back? Seeing
their friends, spending a day at their old school, “crashing” soccer training,
revisiting all their favourite places – will all that fill them with nostalgia and make
them want to move back? Or will they feel distant and removed, immersed as they
are in their new life? When they meet their friends, will it be like old times immediately
or will they feel disconnected?
Here’s another excerpt
from the same article:

“It may be that the last myth of childhood to which I still cling is the
myth of friendship, and it is in the realm of friendship that I find these
transitions between cities most complicated. The New Yorkers miss us at first
when we leave, and greet us warmly when we return. In between, they have lives
of which we are not part…We have come to look on our New York friendships like
hothouse flowers, lovely indulgences in need of sun and water.”

When the author is in
his new home in New Orleans:

“…And yet there is suspicion. Our friends here are happy to see us but
never entirely trust us. They don’t believe us to be a permanent fixture of
their lives.”

The experience of friendships growing
apart, whether due to distance or other reasons, is part of every child’s life.
It is almost a natural process. As adults, we are much better equipped to deal
with the disappointment, but we are also relatively powerless to
help our children understand why this happens or teach them how to deal with it.
It would take a massive transfer of life experience to do that. We can teach them, however, that it is
not an unavoidable process. We can show them, by our own example, how one
applies those “gardening” skills the author mentions; how one maintains friendships
and helps them grow.
I’m curious how it will
turn out for them, but know that, whatever happens, it will be an invaluable
learning experience.
[This is the article: “In-Between
Days,” By Thomas Beller, Talk/The New
York Times
, May 2, 2012].

Location, location, location

Do we feel more foreign
in some places than in others?
Writing last week’s post
about how I feel that, at this stage in my life, Zurich is a good “fit” for me, made me
think about all the other times that I changed cities and how easy or
difficult it was for me to feel at home there. I have often wondered what it is
about certain cities (or towns or countries or communities…) that makes them
more welcoming; that makes it easier for a newcomer to adjust and feel comfortable. Why did I have a hard time adapting in some locations, while in
others, I felt at home relatively fast?
Putting aside for a moment subjective elements, such as personality, stage in life or family structure, I believe that there are
some key elements that are important, even if each of us may “weigh” them differently.
For instance, it matters if a city is international and familiar with foreigners. It is harder to feel foreign in places like New York or London, which
are full or foreigners, than in a small village in Greece, where (at least
until a few years ago) there are hardly any foreigners to be seen. A community that is used to having foreigners be part of it (and not just tourists)
is more likely to be receptive to new foreigners. Let us also not forget that an established international community is a valuable resource for newcomers. Zurich is
one-third foreigners. Even in our little community, I walk around and hear
English spoken. The bilingual pre-school is just around the
Language – or rather the
flexibility and tolerance of the hosts towards others speaking their language – is another
key factor. I feel less of a foreigner because I am able to communicate. I do
not speak Swiss German (and am very apologetic about it), but I have yet to
find someone who will not speak to me either in German or in English – and
that, not begrudgingly.
Size also matters. A
smaller place may be more accessible and easier to learn to navigate, at least
in the beginning. That was certainly my experience with Zurich. Even more, being part of a compact, relatively
self-contained community (the town where we live), helped me adjust much faster.
Infrastructure – particularly one that is open and accessible to foreigners – also plays a
role. Being able to take advantage of a well-functioning public transport system
increases your flexibility to get to different places – and getting places keeps you from feeling isolated. But it’s not just mobility. A reliable health care system makes
you feel more secure. If you have children, the public education system and the
opportunities available within it matter a lot. All that (and more) makes life less
stressful. So does safety,
particularly if you have children. It is a big deal for me to be able to trust
that my school-age children can walk around safe and to not worry constantly (the Greek mom that I am) when they go to school (or music lessons or soccer practice…) by themselves. Not to mention, it is a big deal for them, too J.
Last, but not least, I find
it easier to feel at home in a place where the culture is compatible with my culture, even if it is not similar to it. I consider myself less of a foreigner if I “get”
the people around me and feel that they also “get” me. I don’t have to be
best friends with them, but not feeling like a total alien helps.
I’m not there
yet in my new “home,” but I’m working on it.

My honeymoon is here to stay

Culture shock is the personal disorientation a person may feel when
experiencing an unfamiliar way of life due to immigration or a visit to a new
country, or to a move between social environments also a simple travel to
another type of life.
Honeymoon phase: During this period, the differences between the old and
new culture are seen in a romantic light. For example, in moving to a new
country, an individual might love the new food, the pace of life, and the
locals’ habits. During the first few weeks, most people are fascinated by the
new culture. They associate with nationals who speak their language, and who
are polite to the foreigners. This period is full of observations and new
discoveries. Like most honeymoon periods, this stage eventually ends.
I always saw the
honeymoon phase as a romantic, but not entirely realistic way to describe the first
stage of cross-cultural adjustment. Perhaps I was biased by my own experiences,
which rarely started with such a phase. Some of my friends who read last week’s
post commented on how positive I sound about Zurich, so soon after the move.
One of them, who has lived in Zurich for several years, felt compelled to bring
me down to earth: “This is just the honeymoon; wait until the winter comes.” He
proceeded by laying out the upcoming stages I could look forward to: “It will all
look positive the first few weeks, then you will sink into depression for at
least six months, and then you will start to feel better again.”
I beg to differ. I think
that this honeymoon is here to stay.
To begin with, I believe
that seeing things positively can be more a function of expectations vs. the
reality “on the ground,” rather than just a generic reaction rooted in human
psychology. My expectations – on how easily I would adjust or how much I would
like living here – were remarkably easy to exceed. I anticipated the
differences and the initial language barrier. I knew that it would take a while
to feel at home. Then things turned out better than I anticipated. Therefore, the honeymoon.
Another major factor,
for me, is attitude. I was not wild about the idea of moving, mostly because I was
nervous about uprooting my children for the first time. Once I made the decision,
however, I committed myself to make it work. I notice now what a difference
that commitment makes, because it was not there in my previous move and the
contrast is stark. I “married” this move; therefore, the honeymoon.
One’s stage in life also
matters. Because of where I am in my life right now, I have a clear idea of
what I want the basic parameters of that life to be and what I want for my family.
From my experiences so far, I know what homesickness feels like (it does not
get any better, but I know what to expect). I am more pragmatic. I don’t idealize. I am more appreciative. Therefore, the honeymoon.
It does not hurt that
the circumstances and general parameters of this transition are favourable. The
language barrier is relatively easy to overcome, not just because of the
language itself, but also because of the attitude of the people around us. The
cultural differences – at least with our previous place of residence – are
relatively mild. The culture here is still starkly different from my home
culture, but I am used to the contrast. If anything, I find elements here that
fit better with my personality. As for the winter, I have already been through
the weather shock more than once.
Finally, there is an
element of luck. We have had an exceptionally good beginning, but despite all
the favourable circumstances, things could still have gone wrong – they still
can, in fact. The schools could have not worked out; my children could have
felt unhappy, homesick, frustrated, lonely. That would have made for a very
different experience. So far, so good.

What it takes

I never thought of
Vienna as home. There was a home aspect to it – “my people,” family and
friends – but it was not home in a complete sense. Vienna was not the place
I missed when I was away. When I returned to Vienna from a trip, I do not
remember having that warm feeling – the one you get when you come home. Whether
it was the environment or my own stubbornness (or, most likely, a mix of the
two), I was always the foreigner there. I never felt fully integrated.
Then, a few weeks ago, on the
last day of our vacation in Greece, as we were getting ready to fly to Zurich and
start our new life, I had this flash. I pictured myself in Vienna, in some of
my familiar places – the park where our children played, the market around the
corner, the café where I met my girlfriends – and I had “that”
feeling, the feeling of home. For the first time in eleven years our home
destination was not Vienna. I felt a little pang of regret, knowing that I was going
to miss all that – not only the people, but the places, the feel of the city, even
our non-“homey” apartment.
Maybe I was idealising what I no longer had; or maybe Vienna did represent
home after all. And if it took me nine years to accept Vienna (albeit
reluctantly), what are the prospects for Zurich? What does it take for me to
feel at home and how much of that can I find here? First, the people factor. I feel very fortunate, because,
even though I miss my “Viennese” friends every single day, I have close friends
here who are like family and that makes a huge difference. Also, some of the people I have met during my first
few weeks here have been enormously kind and welcoming. Even in my daily interactions – on the street, in shops, at school – while I instantly stand out as the foreigner (thanks to my non-existent
Swiss-German or my car’s foreign license plates), I have not yet been treated
like one. On the contrary, I have encountered extreme politeness, if not
Then, there is the home
environment. I continue to like our new place a lot. In my mind, it is much more
“open” than the previous one; it is fun to have guests here. And it feels much cosier.
Our kids are happy here. I can be happy here.
Last, but not least, with
all that beauty surrounding me, how can I not like living here? As I am writing
this, I look out my window to the lake and, even though it is overcast, there is
one ray of sunlight that has managed to break through the clouds and turn that
patch of water below it a bright, shimmering shade of orange. It is as if it is
on fire.
Is all this enough to feel
at home? I don’t know. It is too soon to draw conclusions. But I will keep you posted.
What do you need to feel
at home?

Me? A House Person?

Remember the discussion, a few months ago, when we were trying to decide where to live – apartment near the city versus house in a more remote
location – and I was agonizing over whether I had the right to deprive my
kids of a garden, so that I can live close to my beloved city centre and thus
maintain my sanity? After two weeks plus of living in what I like to call “the countryside,” not only have I survived, but I also kind of like it.

It helps that the weather has been spectacular. Maybe
I would not have felt that way about living in a house if I were stuck in it all
day because of pouring rain, bitter cold or back-to-back snowstorms. I had such
low expectations of the weather in Zurich and am so amazed at the radiant days
and warm temperatures, that I tend to forget that it is August after all. There is nothing like a little afternoon
sun and a glittering glimpse of lake Zurich in the background to warm my
soul to the point that I even come to appreciate the positive aspects of our living arrangement. Like the fact
that we can finally have some “outdoor life” – which I value and miss: having a meal on the veranda; or just sitting on our doorstep
with a friend, glass of wine in hand, chatting while the kids play soccer. For me, these moments are priceless.
Coming to my proximity issues, I seem to have warmed up
to the idea that it is a fifteen-minute tram ride to the nearest Starbucks – although
I will have to see how I feel about that in the middle of winter. Those who
know me will appreciate how utterly untypical of me it is to not mind living
in a small community where everything is bunched up around that one miniature town “centre.” I walk my older children to their soccer practice at the sports complex around
the corner from our house; which is around the corner from the little one’s pre-school;
which is around the corner from the shopping area, the bank, the music school. There is even that cute little café and bakery where I can retreat to write (unfortunately not serving matcha latte).

The only thing that is (only a bit) further away is
the older kids’ school, but even that has a redeeming quality: getting there
involves driving along the lake. I can think of no better way to start my
day: being next to the water both soothes and energizes my Greek soul. Short of living on the seaside, this is as good as it gets.

As for the kids’ adjustment to the new school that I was
fretting about last week, they seem to be doing really well. I am impressed at
how cool they are, building friendships and learning all sorts of new things, including
a new language (that would be Swiss-German J). The eternal realist in me suspects that this is not the
end of it and that the adjustment pains could well come further down the road,
but, even for me, this is a good start.