Tag Archives: expat

Life is Better When You Make the Effort

I just got back from my morning walk, high off the pleasure of witnessing the break of dawn on a clear October day.  I stopped at one point near the apex, struck by the surreality of rows of yellowing grape leaves merging into a new blue sky painted with peach puffs of cotton candy.    And again, I am overwhelmed with the power of this practice.  I wonder how I ever lived without this walk.  I can tell you life is better when I make the effort, when I move toward beauty.

fall-in-cortaccia-2012-5I’ve been quiet these past nine months, but it makes sense now; I’ve been creating and incubating, cocooning.  Now it’s time to emerge.

Life is better when I make the effort.

Nine months ago, I was so concerned about whether or not I would want to return to my expat life, but when I did, it just felt like Life.  Sweet.  Mundane.  Beautiful.  Routine.  I returned at the end of January and jumped right back into my small town, work-from-home mom routines: shuttling my son back and forth to preschool, creating order, stealing time for clients, walking the dog, feeding the cat, the daily habits of being part of a couple again, monthly in-law encounters, my Italian class and, ahhhhhhh, my morning walk.

It was almost as if that other life in Washington with family and childhood friends, familiar hangouts and events, the hustle and bustle of American suburban life, it was like it had all happened in another dimension.  It really felt okay to be back.  It felt natural and right. But then, I returned to Italy a different person than when I’d left it.  It was a great effort for every member of my little family.

Life is better when we make the effort.

Unintentionally, I’d been checking things off my American Bucket List.  All the things I’d been missing (or thought I was missing out on), I was able to reality check.  I could no longer wonder what it would be like to live closer to my family and friends, to work in American schools again, to watch my son hit milestones within the cultural context of my hometown.

I realized that we could be both American and Italian.  I could love Mount Rainier, the Puget Sound and the rolling vineyards of the Veneto and Alto Adige’s rugged, looming mountains and apple-filled valleys.  My loyalties and nationalistic tendencies softened and the inner conflict I’ve so often felt throughout the past thirteen years dissipated.  I feel less torn and more whole.

I’ve been quiet through this transformation because it was just happening, little by little.   It still is.  When you slide into the bath water you don’t usually describe how the water feels touching your skin, not unless it’s something dramatic.  These last several months I’ve been observing my life less and living my life more, taking ownership of “this one wild and precious life” (Mary Oliver…again).

Sometimes transformation is loud and sudden and unwanted, like when you are hit with an illness or lose your job, or experience heart break.  But, sometimes you can decide to make the effort to change.  In this case, transformation is not as flashy.  She’s not as fancy or dramatic.  She comes into the room silently, moving slowly, she moves forward and then takes a step back.  Sometimes she goes the long way around the room, wandering through the shadowed corners, but in the end, she pushes out into the sunlight.  She slides into the sea with a smile and jumps out with a splash, telling you all about it.

Life is always better when I make the effort.

I remember that other person; the cynical one, the betrayed and resentful one.  I see her sometimes, in the distance, and I try to catch her eye.  I want her to look up.

I want to tell her all about it.

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How Do You Name a Journey?

Anyone’s journey is as unique and valuable as anyone else’s journey.
iPEC coaching principle #21
I thought about this a lot while attending the Families in Global Transition conference in Amsterdam last March. The expat “sectors” represented included missions, education, corporate, diplomatic, Non-Government Organizations, arts, entrepreneurs, and a few members military families.  I was among Third Culture Kids (TCK), Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCK), Cross-Cultural Kids (CCK), Romantic Expats (Lovepats), Missionary Kids (MK), Third Culture Adults, Third Culture Parents, Accompanying Partners, and service providers.
I thought about how I’ve lived all these years as an “expat”, but never identified that way. I moved to England to be with the man I loved.  It was our “third culture”.  A place where we both could be professionally successful.  Later, when we were moved to Italy, my husband’s home country, I became a “civilian employee” and then a “contractor working overseas”. For some reason “expat” had never been part of my story; I hadn’t thought of myself as leaving my country, but of moving toward life and love.
Not until I found myself among this dynamic, talented, intelligent, organized, creative group of “expats”, did I feel like I needed a label.  I played around with expat and lovepat, bi-lingual household, mother of a TCK (wrong), and expat transition coach. What am I anyway??
At first, I really felt like I’d found my long-lost tribe:  stories of brief romantic encounters, long distance relationships, and then the struggle of raising kids outside a home country with an unfamiliar, overbearing extended family and a language barrier. Stories MUCH more challenging than mine, some heartbreaking and still fresh and unfolding, some totally triumphant: language fluency, financial independence, thriving husbands and wives.
Later in the weekend, there were discussions about how women must preserve their fiscal independence, identify and use their assets, and then the disgust and disdain around the term”trailing spouse”.  I’ve never been called that, but I did do that; I left my career, my assets, my financial independence, language-dependent hobbies, and social network to follow my husband’s career opportunities in a places where I didn’t speak the language.  I’d followed him three times for his career advancements, each place with a different dominant language.
No one called me a trailing spouse OR an accompanying partner, so I didn’t feel the stigma nor the indignation.  Instead, I was la moglie americana–the American wife. Somehow, that doesn’t seem much better.  There was no recognition that I’d arrived, one way or the other. No welcome center, no coach or mentor helping me through the transition, no women’s club.  But, at the time, I wasn’t expecting that.  I dove in, an optimist, proud of my husband’s accomplishments and new job, excited for the next chapter of our lives as parents.
Was my face red, when at the conference, I confidently introduced myself as the “mother of a TCK”, thinking I’d gotten a handle on the lingo, but was told by a distinguished participant that she didn’t think of my child as a TCK.  Turns out, according to the program glossary, I’m a mother of a CCK–a Cross-Cultural Kid–because he has two passports and has lived most of his short life in one place.  I’d thought a 3rd culture kid was someone whose parents came from two different cultures and were raising their family in yet a 3rd culture.  It made sense to me, but I should have studied up a bit. I went from feeling like I’d found my tribe to feeling like maybe I’d missed the memo.
One person told me she didn’t think of someone like me as an expat because I was “settled” in one country, implying that staying in one place is somehow easier.  I certainly hadn’t felt settled.  I’d never planned on staying in Italy.  It wasn’t what I’d agreed to when I left it all for love.  I thought we’d move back to England after his “five years” in Italy, where at least I wouldn’t have to struggle with the language or credential conversion.  In fact, I spent those years in Verona, waiting and imagining.  It was the thought of moving again, that allowed me to stay.   At the time, living in limbo was much more desirable than the thought of staying in Italy for the rest of my life.
When preschool started (8 years an expat), I felt the urge to “go back to work”, but the opportunities in my career field were zilch. My language skills hadn’t progressed. I was not able to earn a comparable wage and my credentials were not valid in Italy.  Even if I could have returned to work, in the traditional sense, there was no childcare in my town that would have supported this agenda.  Most women with children in my town spend their days cooking, cleaning, and shuttling their kids to and from school.  School gets out at 12:30 most days.  The system does not support the idea of a financially independent wife and mother.
About four years ago, it all caved in one morning after watching the Oscars on SKY TV.  I woke up and realized this could be it.  We might never return to England, or the US.  This life could be for the rest of my life, not a cultural experience,  a global adventure, or even a romance at this point.  So, yes, technically, on paper, I have settled, an accidental immigrant who followed her heart.
It brought to mind this question:  What is the difference between “settled” and “settling” for something?
Words and labels are important sociologically, for research and academic purposes, but in our every day lives I sometimes wonder if by focusing our energy there, we lose sight of the essence of the issue. After all, when it comes to terms like “trailing spouse”, we know it’s not the label, but the story behind it that’s really where the pain is.  It’s about feeling degraded, undervalued, disrespected, unseen, and sacrificed.  It’s about feeling a lack of control, acknowledgement, and competence.   It’s about wanting more, and being more than we appear to be on paper.  Fascinating, how important words become. They tell whether or not you belong. They package assumption and make us think we understand each other.
The FIGT conference was wonderful, mind-expanding, friendly, rich, inspiring; I will go back to learn and share more….AND this experience with labels piqued my curiosity. This Accidental Immigrant-Lovepat-Accompanying Spouse-3rd Culture Parent/Adult-Mom of a CCK-Child Life Specialist-Expat Health Care Creativity Coach wonders…When we are struggling to feel at home, do we become more sensitive to differences rather than our commonalities?  Of course each sector has its unique advantages and challenges, but the CORE of our issues are absolutely the same.  Where do I belong?  Who are my people?  Where is home?  Are my core values in alignment with my lifestyle or the culture around me?  What will happen when it all changes?  How can I stay/When should I go?  How can I live up to my own expectations of what it means to be a “good” spouse, child, parent?  What do I need and want? How will I be able to do the work I came into the world to do?  
We are all traveling, “settled” or not.   The journey to belonging doesn’t have a name.
Anyone’s journey is as unique and as valuable as anyone else’s journey.

Ode to Cat Stevens

January 2016

Remember that movie Gremlins?  Those creepy little annoying and destructive demons that caused chaos and confusion?  I live with a few of those.  You know about Perfectionism already, but what about Woulda Coulda Shoulda (WCS)?  Did I tell you about him?  He’s the one that used to make me second-guess every single action, decision, interaction, and communication I made. Obviously, he’s in bed with Perfectionism (see On Perfectionism and Discomfort).  Sluts.

Blanco y Tinto May Rehearsal  (105)I have this voice. It’s pretty big. You either love it or you hate it, but between Perfectionism and WCS, it has its tinny moments.  I wouldn’t say it’s been silenced, though being a talker living in a non-English speaking country has left it much quieter and more melancholy than it used to be.  Admittedly, there  are occasions when it becomes wimpy, unsure of itself, afraid of being judged, of saying the wrong thing, singing the wrong note, being misunderstood.

On the best of days, it shines through me, light saber blinding (yes, I do have a six year old), and it is clear and loud, bluesy and hot.  It doesn’t care who hears and yet it wants you all to hear.

It says YES!!!  Sing it, Sister.  Let that joy, that dream, that truth, that story, that pain, that hope, that song….let. it. OUT.

Light it up.

You know why I love to watch karaoke (oh how I miss the karaoke pub nights in the village) so much?  Because the heart and voice (and maybe a little booze) become one on those little one-step stages.   People stand up there with all their dreams bundled up in their voices, the mic in their hands, their eyes closed or to the heavens and they let it out.  I seriously have cried at karaoke (and not out of embarrassment).

Voice is the power behind what you have to say.  It can speak without words. We don’t HAVE voices.  We ARE our voices.  The chords are where our bodies, minds, hearts, and our lives’ very breath meet.

When we bind them, quiet them, use them inappropriately, abuse them, they begin to disappear, sometimes abruptly and sometimes little by little, over time.  Get that diaphragm in shape.  Quit smoking.  Hydrate.  Take a day off, let it rest.  Don’t yell.  Keep it warm and then…Sing it.  Say what you need to say.boy singing

I’m not ashamed.  I’m not hiding that away.  It’s not perfect and I’m not showing off.  And yes, I DO like the sound of my own voice.  It reminds me of who I am.  It saved me.

Home Again, Home Again

Vacation with Dad and Carol 2013 moon and mountain (73)
Mount Rainier with her moon friend

I have returned…in so many ways.  Back “home” where I no longer live.  You might wonder if it still feels like home after living abroad for 12  years.  I did go through an awkward phase a few years back, but that was more due to the fact that I’d returned home as a new mom with a baby and no longer fit into the places and relationships that I left there.  But now, after a month of salt water, seafood, barnacles, seagulls, and salmon, I’m feeling pretty at home and so is my five year old.  He told me the other day that we “belonged” here because we speak English.  He’s enjoying the bubblegum ice cream, grilled cheese sandwiches, and French fries.   I’m cringing at the fast and convenience foods, 24 hour everything, giant food portions, and the abundance of televisions and computer screens.

This is his fifth trip to the US and yet he feels just as much as home here as I.  A month has already passed and we have five more to go.  I am curious how he’ll feel as time goes on.  He says he misses his toys and his dad.  My sweet, supportive husband holds down the fort and awaits our return.  He says he’s happy we’re doing this, but he must be nervous even if he won’t admit it.  Part of me is a little nervous, too.  What if I don’t want to go back?  What if it gets too comfortable here?  Ice coffees, everything open all day, friends and family, thrift shops, creative people selling their wares everywhere you look, the waterfront, the diverse and delicious menu choices, the children’s museums in every city, the array of activities and opportunities for young children, not to mention the employment opportunities and the ease with which I can communicate and connect with others.  What if I don’t want to go back?  What if love isn’t all you need?

My husband and I are GOOD at long distance.  We did it for four years.  Four years of poetry, passion, and pain. It wasn’t easy to be separated then.  What if it’s too easy now?  I’m not alone here.  I have my people.  My son.  My compatriots.  It’s so much easier just to be.  I don’t have to try, I just am.  The possibilities here seem abundant and endless. Just like they did when we were engaged, before we moved to Italy.

So, this is my honeymoon phase.  I know. Talk to me in three months and again in five.  Talk to me when we are on month three of nonstop rain and gray and damp and I’ve gained 15 pounds, my kid is addicted to TV and sugar, and I’m afraid to walk down the street at night (I’m only half kidding.).  Ask me, then, if I feel at home here.

On Homesickness and Denial

IMG_2478I’m from the Pacific Northwest.  I love that place.  The salmon, the mountains, the ocean, the inlets and bays, the trees…it really is all that.  Do I miss it?  Of course.  But, I missed it long before I moved across the ocean.  I’m used to missing it, so it’s not so bad.  I pushed myself to the East Coast more than once, but never felt like I’d found my place.  I don’t know why I wanted to go so far away.   I wasn’t from a bad place or a hard life.  I had friends and family.  I hadn’t burnt down any bridges.  I had a good paying job and an advanced degree. It just seemed like the possibilities were narrow and I wanted something exciting to happen.  You know, people always say, “Be careful what you wish for.”

People always ask me if I miss “home”. There are things I miss. Places.  Ways of doing business. There are people I miss.  I worry that one day it will all be gone.  I’ll go back and everyone I loved will be gone or so changed that we won’t know each other.   Maybe that will be okay with me at some point, but it doesn’t seem okay now.

I wouldn’t call myself homesick, though.  I’ve never expected to return to the US to live.  But, lately, I’ve been feeling a sense of panic welling in my chest. By the time I return to my hometown for a visit, two years will have passed since the last time.  I begin to feel disconnected and a bit lost.  It makes me think of the feeling I have when I’m on a boat and realize I can no longer see land.  There’s this feeling of being so tiny, fragile, and vulnerable when you realize there’s no chance of swimming ashore should something go wrong.  This is the feeling I get when I haven’t been “home” in a long time.

It’s strange because I have a home here, a family, friends.  But every once in a while, I remember, really remember, where I’m from and that it is all still going on there without me, while I’m over here spinning my wheels in pre-intermediate Italian and coming up with plan after plan to “reinvent” myself. And I think to myself, why am doing this???  I wasn’t forced to leave my country.  I’m not in exile.  I’m just married.

Dear Italy, I like you, but not like THAT

This is my 11th year living in Italy, though several years I was fully immersed in an expat American community which insulated me from feeling most of the discomfort that comes from being a fish out of water.  When I arrived in Italy with my husband, I’d not been part of
the decision-making process to move here. We’d met in the US and been living in England where I was hoping to settle down. I will not bore you with the torrid details of how we got from point A to point B, but rather get to the main event. This may be hard to believe, but when he told me he wanted to finish his professional training Italy, I was angry.  I loved Italy and had been to visit many times.

I loooooved Italy….For vacationing.  For losing myself.  For relaxing. For slowing down.  For indulging.  For disconnecting.  But to live my life there? Day-in, day-out?  Would I be able to learn the language? What kind of work would I be able to do?  How would we live on my husband’s 800 Euro a month stipend? (All very good questions, I would later find out.)

Yes, some of the baggage from that move, I still carry around, especially when it comes to finding (or creating) meaningful work.  I hope you don’t mind if I take a moment to unload this day pack from my back.

10th Anniversary New Year's in Venice (50)


Dear Italy,

Yes, I LIKE you, but not like that.  Not Like-LIKE.  I mean, we’ve been friends for a long time and all, and you were really there for me back in the day.

No…of course I think you’
re sexy.  You smell great. You taste amazing.  You’re bewitching and complicated. You’re passionate and rustic.  You’re totally seductive.  Don’t get me wrong…I’ve been attracted to you since I was fifteen and, I know we’ve crossed the line from time to time, but I never meant for it to go this far.

Yes, yes…I remember that time I me
t you after grad school.  I couldn’t stop thinking about you.  I flew across the ocean to see you.  I arrived on an overnight train from Amsterdam to the sun rising over Venice.  Remember that?  My heart filled up to see you like that…naked and fresh.  I wanted to get lost in you and never leave. God, you were so hot that summer… Remember when 
I nursed my hangover on your hidden beach in Cinqueterre,  your salty sea holding my browned, naked body close to the surface of the Ligurian? I remember how it felt to be suspended, light as a feather, gently rocking, wDSCF5737ith the sun on my face, breathing in your briny warmth.  This will always be a perfect, never-to-be-forgotten, moment in my life.   When I go to my happy place, it’s you, like that, I imagine. The same you I live in day-in and day-out.  

You’re still super hot of course, but it’s different now.  I resent you. You limit me.  (Although, YOU say I limit myself.) Instead of relaxed, I feel increasingly anxious.  I feel small.  Sometimes worthless.  Sometimes unseen. I feel trapped here by you, by the way you are (though you say, it’s the way I am).  We still have our moments, I admit, but I wish we could go back to the way it used to be.

When we were lovers, we never talked about language.  You accepted me just the way I was: monolingual and satisfied.  But now…it seems like that’s ALL we talk about.  My English, your Italian.  Every. Single. Day. We talk about language. English, Italian, German….Bohr-ring (insert sing-songy tone). And though it is necessary and even fascinating at times, there are other things on my mind, other things I want to explore and skills I want to develop. I’m tired.  Stop asking me. There is green vespamore to me than my ability to speak Italian or teach English.  And I know you’re more than good wine, creamy ice cream, pasta and pizza, Vespas, and beaches . You’re more than a vacation.  Can’t we just be friends again?

Sincerely,

Madrelingua Inglese

On Perfectionism and Discomfort

cropped-2013-06-22-16-56-09.jpg

11/11/13

Perfectionism is an insidious thief who comes to your door, a familiar face, and you let her in.  She can be a real bitch.  The kind you might find at a southern country club.  The kind who smiles and draws you in with compliments and flattery.  You feel flushed with warmth in the beginning.  You feel comfortable because she makes it look so easy.  Before you know it, she’s got you by the throat.  All the while, smiling, with crazy eyes and perfect lipstick.  Everything she’s told you, this kind neighbor,everything that’s built you up,  you know it was a lie.  That she is a lie, an impossibility.  A figment of your childhood imagination.  Perfectionism wears you down.

So, this is really what I talk about when I talk about my experience as a casalinga (homemaker).  It’s not that I don’t enjoy my time “at home”. I love the flexibility I have.  I love not having to commute to and from work. I love having time to exercise and eat “slow” food.  I love not having to answer to or impress anyone.  I love being free of the kind of stress that comes with work in a professional setting.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate my time with my son.  I am proud, and know I’m lucky, that I am the one with whom he spends his afternoons.  I am the one who gives him a dependable evening routine and sets limits to give him the freedom he needs to grow.  I am the one who bathes, reads to, and sings to him almost every single night of the week. I know this makes a difference.  I know I am doing the right thing for him right now.  The age-appropriate challenges were absolutely expected, but my temper and irritability were not.  Another truth.

Do I think I could work full-time and be a good mom and partner? No. Knowing what I know about myself NOW, no.  Pretty sure, things would fall apart a little.  I’m not yearning for that situation in the least.  But I do yearn for that feeling of being really good at something.  I miss that feeling.

When I pleaded my case for an “A for effort”, I realized that the drive to get an A is the real problem.  It’s this itchy, whining sound in the back of my head telling me to get it right.  It is my desire to do it “right” , to be good, that burdens me, and so many of you. (If you don’t know the work of Mary Oliver…especially her poem Wild Geese…check her out:  “You don’t have to be good.  You don’t have to walk on your knees for 100 miles in the desert repenting…’)

When I was in college, I had a boyfriend who had very clear career goals.  He had to take high level math classes to reach these goals and, initially, he struggled in these courses.  At the end of his first quarter, he received a poor grade.  My response would have been to change career goals, but his response was altogether different and it dictated his entire future.  He re-registered for that course, took it again and got the grade he needed.  I remember pondering why on earth he would take a class in which he knew he wouldn’t be able to receive high grades.  It takes courage and strength of character to allow yourself to experience failure without allowing these experiences to strike your self-worth.   To view failure not as a closure, but as an opening, as the impetus that pushes us forward.

So, yesterday, while reading Sherman Fleming’s 50 Actions for Gradual Improvement [in intercultural communication],I had an ah-ha moment. I want to share it with you because it sums up both the problem and solution to my South Tyrolean casalinga angst, but can be applied to so many other situations.

Accept Discomfort.  She writes, “So amidst all our differences, this is something fundamental that we share universally:experiencing discomfort, explaining our discomfort and trying to “solve” our discomfort. Once you look at discomfort in this light, you realize that you will never “solve” discomfort…Accepting that discomfort is normal and that there is nothing to fix or hide, and no one to blame, can be a huge relief. Acceptance does not mean that you will ever like discomfort. I’m sure all human beings prefer to feel comfortable all the time but that is an unrealistic expectation.

However,if that is your current expectation, I recommend that you practice accepting discomfort, instead. This will take practice, since acceptance of discomfort does not come naturally to most of us. So if your goal has been to eliminate or avoid discomfort, I encourage you to set a new one: accept discomfort.”you want breakfast in bed, sleep in the kitchen

Wow. Yes!  Feeling incompetent in parenting, housekeeping, language acquisition, artistic endeavors, work, communication, relationships, whatever you’ve got going on, feeling incompetent is so uncomfortable.  Accepting this discomfort with imperfection allows us to keep evolving.  It’s nice to know, we’re all in this existential cloud together.

As a friend recently reminded some of us on Facebook, if you want your grass greener, water it!    So, maybe I’ll take that sewing class even though I don’t speak German.  And maybe it will be REALLY hard and frustrating, but maybe I will learn enough, so that when I take it again, I get better.  And maybe I just won’t be that good at “keeping house”,but I will be good at taking care of myself, so that when my sweet son comes home from school, I am present and happy, and can whip out a felt sword or tent curtain or superhero cape with ease and skill.

I am watering my language lawn, taking my fourth Italian language course. I am filling my spirit with music lessons and I’m singing with a band.  I am feeding my body well and walking in fresh air with the sun on my face.  I am parenting with the bigger picture in mind. So even on days when I feel so uncomfortable and like I’m losing ground or treading water, I remind myself to accept discomfort and keep going.

I am SURE I will look back on this time fondly.  It’s just Perfectionism squawking in my ear with that freakish smile on her face, “You’re not fluent in Italian yet??  What is WRONG with you?  Are you stupida?? Come on! It’s your duty to keep this house clean.  You’re the one with all the time.  How hard can it be???  YOU know why L. doesn’t want to eat???! It’s your cooking!  Give him a PB&J on white bread with potato chips, bet he’ll be hungry then!  Give the kid a break! Quinoa? Seriously??  Who feeds their kid quinoa?!!  And take a SHOWER, for God’s sake.  You think he’s going to want to come home after a long, stressful day at work, to see you lying on the couch in sweats watching X-Factor??  Get it together, Hon’.”   I told you she was a bitch.