Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Papa

Life sort of interrupted blogging -- mostly in a good way.  A summer and early fall full of visitors and travel has gifted me with a load of extraordinary experiences but rarely enough time to sit down and craft them beautifully into words.  Now that winter is creeping around the corner, I have a bit more time to pay attention to this blog, and hopefully nurture it into something larger.  I had begun a series on 'love' when I last left off this spring, and I had been thinking about my own experiences on love when one almost fell into my lap a few days ago.  Here it is...and more to come soon.

S.


Papa

Almost a decade ago (although sometimes it feels like yesterday), my grandfather was killed in a car accident.  My sister is the one who called to tell me what had happened and I will always remember, in technicolor detail, the events of that day. Every phone call I made to family members, telling them the news. Every word spoken at dinner that night with my cousins. The smell of the jasmine hanging in the humidity that Texas afternoon when I ran outside into the street to hear my sister better. The intensity of the heat of my tears. It is so embedded in me, because I loved him so much, but not in the uncomplicated way that most grandchildren love their grandparents.  No, Papa and I loved each other like two boulders wedged in canyon -  intractable and uncomfortable, often grating up against each other, but also propping each other up with our strength so that we wouldn't fall.

My father was an only child and so my sister and I were the only grandchildren on that side of the family.  My grandad, or Papa as we called him, adored us.  And we adored him too, but, as I said, the relationship wasn't easy.  My grandfather could be cranky and impatient.  When he lost his temper, he was demanding and loud.  He could be stubborn.  And he adhered to archaic notions about many subjects, particularly women in the workplace, that women had no business being in charge. "Women shouldn't be CEO's" he would say, "they're too emotional."  To which I would always reply "I'll tell that to the board when they offer me the job."

But he had a fabulous sense of humor. And he always wanted to know what was going on in our lives. And if we weren't with him, then he was planning the next time he could see us.  He frequently sent us postcards from his travels and many page-long letters telling us about how proud he was of us, how much he loved us, and how he hoped we would be the best at everything we tried.  His archaic notions about women in the workplace only applied to women who weren't his granddaughters -- to him, we could do or be anything we wanted.

Papa and I argued a lot, but we loved each other a lot too, and neither one of us ever doubted that.

As it turns out, what has been the greatest gift to me from him after his death, were those letters and postcards.  Shortly after I was accepted into my Ph.D. program at Tulane in New Orleans, I found a postcard he'd sent me from New Orleans where he was attending a medical conference many many years earlier.  His postcard said that he knew I could do anything I wanted, all I had to do was try, and that he was proud of me.  It was one of the few things I took with me when I made the temporary move there for my coursework.

Over a year ago I moved to London from Texas, and then last weekend I moved to a different house here in London.  As I was unpacking my cookbooks, one of them fell off the shelf, and I caught a glimpse of the last page.  This was a cookbook I rarely used, and in fact, had almost forgotten I had it since these days I find most of my recipes online.  I noticed my grandfather's distinctive handwriting*; he had given me the cookbook for Christmas when I was 17 years old, and had written a letter to me on the back page about the generations of cooks in my family and my similarities to them.  He pointed out details about how I was like each of my grandmothers and great-grandmothers and great-great grandmothers.  He noted how I was an early riser like one of the great-grandmothers - a trait which I have noticed over the years as being unusual in my family (everyone on that side of the family can sleep until noon).

I didn't even get halfway through the letter before the tears arrived.  I had forgotten he had given me that cookbook and I hadn't read that letter since the Christmas he gave it to me (almost 18 years ago).  I had just dutifully carted it around with me through the years and through many moves.

I've noticed that my grandfather's old letters to me show up in times of transition.  They arrive (in the sense that I come across them) before or during a significant life change -- before my wedding, before beginning my Ph.D., before moving to London, and now during another move.  It's as if he's telling me the transition will be ok, and that he loves me. It seems that the words he wrote are perfect now, decades after he wrote them.

I remember a lot of the arguments we had over the years.  I remember rolling my eyes at his (in my opinion) annoying rules.  I remember yelling at him in a hotel room in Paris for being rude to my grandmother.  But I also remember the time that he sheepishly stood in a doorway and apologized for losing his temper.  And I remember my 1st grade Christmas play, when I came on stage (I was in the chorus as an angel, NOT a major part) when he leaped out of his seat and waved wildly at me.  No one else did that when their kid or grandkid was on stage, but my grandad did.  At the time I was mortified, now I think it was amazing how proud he was of my tiny part in the chorus.  On the weekends when I was younger, I remember dragging him around Six Flags while he dutifully took me on every ride -- no doubt exhausted after a long week of seeing patients and performing surgeries.  He never complained about our time together, no matter how it was spent.

What I remember most of all, though, was that he loved me. And while we had a complicated relationship, there was always love.  And he continues to remind me of that love when I need it the most.

When I originally conceived of the idea of doing a series on love, I anticipated that I would write about my husband, or some abstract thoughts about love as a construct, but when I read my grandfather's letter a few days ago, I realized that our relationship was the perfect example of love.  Very complicated love.  Love in spite of crankiness and stubbornness.  In spite of generational gaps and out-dated ideas about gender roles.  In spite of two strong-willed people with wildly different views on life.  But we loved each other and we kept on loving each other until the day he died. 

The last conversation I had with my grandfather was an argument.  It was completely fitting, given our dynamic, but in spite of my hanging up the phone while rolling my eyes, I did tell him that I loved him. And he said the same. And it was completely the truth for both of us.

Love isn't always simple.  It's often messy and spiderwebbed with complicated emotions needing constant maintenance. That's the love that Papa and I had, and that's ok.  I learned from him about working on a relationship, even when the love is there, that the relationship requires showing up in the tough times, and apologies when you're wrong.  Had our love been simple, I wouldn't have known that I could have a screaming argument with him about going out at night (when I was 26 years old!) and the next day he would tell me he was sorry and that he loved me.  I wouldn't know about forgiveness, because we both had to forgive each other. A lot.

I had Papa for 27 years.  And I loved every minute of it.

Today, with complicated love,
 



*Finding these letters over the years written in my grandfather's handwriting have been such an incredible gift.  Because of email, we often don't receive handwritten notes from people anymore.  When I looked down and saw Papa's handwriting, I was so grateful to have a tangible piece of him rather than an email with words but little else.  Take a moment today to write someone a note in your handwriting.  It's you, and they will be grateful to have that part of you someday.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Unfilling the Landfill

I'm taking a brief break on the love series to insert my recent experience helping my grandmother unpack her house. Back to love soon.
S.

Unfilling the Landfill

I frequently struggle to find bits and pieces of me that are like my mom, as we have few personality traits in common. But one thing I inherited from her is her adherence to minimalist living. My mom just doesn’t accumulate *things *. She doesn’t really shop unless it’s to buy something she truly needs, and she thinks long and hard about whether she needs it. Sometimes for weeks, or months, or even years.

As her only biological child, I am so incredibly grateful for this. Even though I never want to think that someday she’ll be gone, I realize what a gift it will be to me that she will have left me with so little to do. And I’m grateful that, either by nature or nurture, I’ve become ruthless about not accumulating things as well.

I have spent the last two days helping my paternal grandmother unpack from her most recent move. I was overwhelmed by the accumulation of decades of indulging in purchases. Unlike my mother, my paternal grandmother is a borderline hoarder, with a depression-era mentality. I felt almost suffocated as I went through hundreds of boxes today trying to help her sort through a life filled with buying.

I won’t go into my grandmother’s backstory, but I will say this, it’s clear that she buys to fill a hole in her life. When you buy big houses (as she does) and you buy things to fill it (as many do), what you’re really buying is ‘pain medication’, something to take the place of the emotional pain that you carry with you, often from childhood.

I’ve had my own struggles from childhood. Abuse, immediate family members with mental illness, divorces, custody battles – it’s all been there. And I realized in my early 20s that if I didn’t start spending some significant time in therapy, I would catapult my own life into that of excess. I would seek to impress others (because of my own insecurities and lack of self-worth) and fill voids in myself by 'over accumulating' things.

We can all justify purchases – but actually really and truly *needing* something is rare. And it takes a lot of work and will-power to really live within your needs, not your wants. And it takes a tremendous amount of grace and self-assurance about who you are to live small and with just enough to meet your immediate needs. I’m still not there yet. But I strive to be.

And two days of physically working for hours upon hours because someone never chose to be present about what they really needed, which was therapy – and not the retail kind – made me realize something: that when we don’t truly tend to our emotional needs, we burden others – sometimes many generations down – with our chaos.

I didn’t mind helping my grandmother unpack today, because I love her. But I couldn’t help but feel frustrated that I could have spent today taking her somewhere fun, like the museum, if I weren’t slicing open boxes looking for her dishes so she didn’t have to eat on paper plates.

And let me tell you, I went through hundreds of boxes and I never found those dishes. Not even close. And there were probably (and trust me when I say, I’m not exaggerating) several thousand more boxes to go.

Live smaller. Buy less. Scale down. Collect experiences, not things.

Every single thing you buy, someone will have to eventually discard – you, your kids, your grandkids, your spouse. It’s just stuff. It will wind up in a landfill. So stop filling it.

And when you want to go to the mall, or go buy something at some big box store – detour instead to take a walk in the park, or go to the movies, go to a museum, take a painting class. If you still need what you needed today two months from now, you might actually need it.

Today, collecting less and experiencing more,

Sunday, March 4, 2012

On Love

I'm starting a new series for TECP on love. It's a strange and difficult topic for many of us, because we've all been drowning in or thrown violently out of...love at some point in our life. Aside from the intimate nature of some versions of love, there are thousands of variations on what love actually is. I read somewhere years ago that the Greeks have many different words for love -- sibling love, romantic love, divine love, lust etc. The English just have one word and we have only context to give us clues to what we 'love' when we say "I love...".

One of my closest friends wrote the first post (below) in the series. She's been through love school recently. "What the hell is love?" she must have asked aloud one day. Because, (read this in a Texas drawl) I tell you what, she has learned what love is. As a friend, I watched this journey and watched her leave her marriage. And I watched her find the most beautiful and also the most excruciating relationship. And I watched her fall in love. And I watched her let that love go. And now I'm watching her heal.

And here's what I love, for her, and for all of us who find and explore love; we are all learning that Love is a journey, not a destination.

Today, love,



On Love
By: Laura Smith

I never understood love songs. I used to listen to the lyrics and think to myself, "Damn. That person is completely insane. Co-dependent. They need to be less insecure. More confident. Less dramatic.. More boundaries. Not so pathetic. More sure of themselves without the other."

I thought, "This is not real life. People don't really feel that way about other people, not if they really know them, not if they live in reality, not if they are healthy and whole." I was a therapist in training (literally), a control freak (totally), and someone who not only believed there was and should be a
plan - but had written and was executing the plan herself. Someone who had never had her heart broken, and maybe even had never really been in love. From age 16 through age 34 I was someone's girlfriend or someone's wife (and even someone's Mom), and I could not relate to a love song.

I was living with and then married to a man for 12 years. I met him when I was 20. I looked up to him. I admired him. He was 8 years older than me, and a leader in the work I was doing. He was to me a symbol of everything I wanted -- someone who would treat me well, share my same goals, someone who wanted to have children, and who would support me in my dreams and aspirations. Someone who would never raise his voice to me, or lie to me or cheat on me, or, be unpredictably mean like my father. I chose well. I chose a solid, honest, smart, kind, gentle, loving person to marry and have a son with. I care about him and respect him very much.

Can I really say I loved him? I don't know now. I was happily married a long time, and moving forward in "the plan" very peacefully. I know when the marriage was crumbling and I wanted nothing more than to be out, I did not feel love. I felt trapped and suffocated and like a part of me would die if I stayed. Not because he wasn't a good man, a kind man, a great father, and a supportive husband. But, I felt like I was starving for something I had never even tasted. A kind of beauty and adventure that was not possible in the marriage I was in. And I know I caused him great pain and suffering because I couldn't name it. I just knew it existed outside of him and outside of the life we knew together, and I had to leave.

Song lyrics started to play in my mind:

"Looking at you makes it harder
but I know that you'll find another
who doesn't always make you wanna cry
started with a perfect kiss
then we could feel the poison set in
perfect couldn't keep this love alive..."

And I was right. And, very shortly after our separation, I met a wonderfully charming and indescribably dynamic and brilliant man who I absolutely fell in love with. I would even go so far as to say "head over heels in love." Never understood that phrase before either, but now I do.

Head over heels, knock you on your ass, challenge all your sensibilities and practical judgment, drink it in, let it intoxicate you and take over, kind of IN LOVE with this man. The sex was unbelievable. We cooked, we laughed until our stomachs hurt, we spent endless days hiking and exploring little Texas towns, we traveled, we camped, we tried new foods, we slept late, we jumped from bridges, we spent whole evenings eating junk food and dreaming up travel plans, we struggled with how to negotiate all the things in our respective lives, to make them fit, because we so desperately wanted to be near each other.

And when it became clear to me that he was very ill.....we talked to doctors, we stayed up all night in pharmacies, and hospital waiting rooms, I spent hours on the phone with his family and friends, and I agonized over his well being and the future of our relationship. AGONIZED. I knew, deep down, from the beginning it wasn't practical. He was a bit of a disaster, and he was young, and it probably wasn't going to work. But, I wanted to be with him so badly.

More song lyrics seem appropriate:

"Hey darlin', do you gamble?
Cause I'm runnin' the inside track
And I'm takin' all that I can
And I'm never lookin' back
Now I believe, you should run with me...for a while"

And, eventually, we broke up. He left. He said he couldn't handle a relationship, and he wanted to go travel the world, and that he couldn't stay in Texas, and he couldn't get better, and he couldn't meet my needs.

And, my heart was literally broken open.

That relationship was no picnic. There was a lot of turbulence and a lot of pain. But, I can tell you for sure I loved him. Loved him to bits and tiny pieces, and would have done anything to make that work. Was I angry and hurt and disappointed sometimes? Yes. Did I ever question whether we should be together? Yes. But, question loving him I did not.

Then, from a book, this passage made a knot in my chest, and literally pulled tears out of my body:

"Once after several days completely to ourselves with no contact at all with the outside world, he brought me an anthology of writings about love. He had tagged one short entry that captured the essence not only of those intense, glorious days but of the entire year as well.

Thank you for a lovely weekend. They tell me it rained."

When I was young, maybe I thought it was a weakness, to let yourself go like that, lose control, not be holding all the cards, allow yourself to be vulnerable enough for someone else's circumstances, whims, fancies, addictions, hurts, moods, hang ups, or just plain bad timing to affect you so deeply. When I was young, I thought the right answer was to think practically, to protect yourself, to make sure you were in the driver's seat, and to choose WISELY, above and beyond all else. Now I know it's both.

Now I know that you have to take a risk. If you feel that chemistry, that spark, that "je ne sais quoi" with someone, that feeling that you might just kiss them on the first date, in the midddle of a crowd, without asking permission....you have to go for it. All in. Both feet. And drink it up, because, that is the good stuff.

I've also learned that you must love yourself first. You deserve to have that person risk for you too, and go all in with you, and be vulnerable, and a little crazy too, because we all are just a little bit broken, and those are some of the best parts.

 I've learned that it won't be like those endless sex filled dreamy days all the time, but it should be sometimes. And it won't always be deep, meaning of life, tearful conversations, but it should be sometimes. And, I've learned from my friends who have this - solid, long lasting, real life, sturdy marriages - that it's all of that. It's getting on the roller coaster and being willing to stay on, holding hands, and enjoy it.

And when you are sitting in the hospital room, or dealing with errands and bills and daily life, that you still think to yourself, "Damn, I love him. I don't want to do this, I don't want to be here, but I do love him. "

I know what that feels like now, that deep aching feeling in your chest that can bring tears to your eyes, of happiness, of pride, of joy, of relief, of sadness, of loss. And I know how rare it is. How absolutely special and sacred it is. With love and with risk, comes loss, but I am willing to stand in line for the ride again. "Look, Mom, no hands!"

And more song lyrics are relevant:

"Come head on, full circle
our arms fill with miracles
play hearts kid, they work well
like magic, play aces, stay with me, go places
once more for the ages"

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Lemons, Gin and Tonic

I'm going to keep this intro short and sweet -- and anonymous. Sometimes in the greater wide web of the world we want to say things 'out loud' but we really don't want our name splattered all over the place. And as the guest author would rather maintain some privacy, I'll be using the pseudonym D. Price for her name. 

D. is one of the funniest people I know and some of my favorite times in London recently have been drinking (a lot of) wine and laughing with her. Here's her take on her expat experience.  (And of course, you'll see why we laugh a lot together...)


Today, making a gin and tonic lemonade,





Lemons, Gin and Tonic
 By: D. Price

My journey as a expat began in 2004, and it's one that started with a boot; a boot to a relationship that I received from my ex-boyfriend, which arrived, helpfully, over email. "Not sure if this is working out, but being really mature, I'm gonna split and not tell you face-to-face. C'est cool?" Well, not exactly those words, but you get the gist.


Things didn't get better afterwards, a string of bad luck with a persistent injury led me to quit my post-grad work early, a bout of sadness I just couldn't shake - life just wasn't exactly working out the way I had planned it.

However, never one to get bogged down, I figured that if I was given the lemons of life, I would get resourceful and make a gin and tonic to go with them. So, I packed my bags for new adventure abroad, and headed off to Manchester in the north west of England.

While I had visions of Mary Poppins, the English countryside, tea and crumpets, and the Queen, Manchester was a cracking good surprise - gritty, buzzing and full of energy and life! It was home for over five years until I left for London town, but it was just the jolt that I needed to get myself back on track.

I never actually thought I would stay this long, but when I look back at all of the cool experiences, it's not hard to see why. Being in England, you are, often, just a short journey away to continental Europe, whether by plane, train or boat. The closeness to so many different cultures and countries is just incredible and I'm so glad I've been able to take advantage of being able to see and do lots of different and exciting things.

I've yelled 'PROST" in a beer hall of 1000s at Oktoberfest in Munich; danced to the wee hours under the Ibiza sky; smelled sweet tulips in Amsterdam; been horseback riding in the Slovakian Tatras Mountains; seen ancient battlefields in the Scottish highlands and 'tracked' the Loch Ness Monster; watched the Eiffel Tower sparkle at night in twinkly lights; drank Gluhwein at the Christmas Markets in Berlin…the list could go on forever!

But, that's just the point, it could go on forever and will continue to do since there will always be places to see, people to meet and adventures to be had. So, when things aren't going to plan, take the time to think of something completely new to try and just run with it.

Without trying to get all gouda or fromagieux on you, Ferris Bueller, it would seem, had it right. "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Loneliness and the Expat Experience

I met Emm at a party given by my pal Melizza. As Emm notes later in this post, expats and friends of friends are crucial to the survival of expat life. It really can be lonely, particularly if you're used to more culturally open and friendly societies and you move to a somewhat cool and removed one such as London.  Emm and I have compared Texas and her home country of South Africa -- warm weather, wide open spaces, friendly locals, and houses with central heating and air. Often you long for the ease and comfort of the familiar, but there's a reason you moved and more importantly, there are extraordinary new people whom you will meet. Being exposed to expats, not just from the U.S. but from other parts of the world is one of my favorite aspects of expat life. Meeting Emm was and is part of the *best* of being an expat -- new and fascinating friends to create new memories and share new experiences.  Sure, there's nothing like your best friends who've known you forever and know your neurotic charming quirks, but having the immediate commonality of 'expat' makes for rapid friendships and likely ones that last a lifetime.

Be sure and visit Emm's fabulous expat + travel blog as well as A Passion to Understand a blog she began to explore social and political events such as war, genocide, human rights and equality.  She also has a fun blog, Addicted to Media about...well, her addiction to media.


                        Loneliness and the Expat Experience                     
By: Emm

When Sarah asked me to write a little story about my expat experience, I was really keen at first.  I love to think of myself as the type of person who would help other expats to make the move and to settle down in their adopted country.  The weeks ticked by though and still I hadn’t written anything and then came the email from Sarah reminding us that she would soon need to wrap up the expat stories!

The problem is that I have found myself in the middle of one of the hardest aspects of being an expat: the inevitable change in relationships. December 2011 was when it all came to a head.  I had my husband’s parents over from South Africa but never have I felt lonelier than I did right then.  You see, my friends back home are rubbish at keeping in touch.

People often express surprise when they hear me say this.  What about Skype, FooCall, Facebook, email or letters, they ask.  I then have to explain that no, they don’t understand, my friends back home are really rubbish at keeping in touch.  Phone calls, voicemails and emails go unanswered and even unacknowledged and I’m stood up for more Skype dates than I care to admit.  It is heartbreaking but the hardest part is that I get it.

I’ve been the one who was left behind before.  When my friends traveled around Africa or moved to the UK or Australia for 2 year working visa stints, it was as if they did not exist.  Part of me was happy for them but part of me, the part I would never have wanted anyone to know about, was apathetic and a tiny bit resentful.  I was absolutely rubbish at keeping in touch and in retrospect I have to admit that I failed to read their blogs or group emails.

When they returned, it was like they had never left in the first place!  We were best friends again and amazed at how we picked up where we left off.  I know that if I ever go back to South Africa, it will be exactly like that.  I will immediately be assimilated into the crowd and I will never need to feel lonely again.

The problem is that we’re not going back. I have always been a British citizen and my husband recently obtained his British citizenship.  Even if we were inclined to leave England, it would be to continue on our big adventure somewhere new; we certainly wouldn’t be returning to South Africa.

Which is where that tiny bit of resentment grows into something more.  South Africans do not like to admit how dangerous and corrupt their society is and they take it as a personal affront when people leave.

When I put all of this into perspective, I can’t really blame my friends but I do have to admit that the time has come when I need something more.  Being an expat can be the hardest, loneliest, most soul-destroying experience on earth and doing it without friends is near to impossible.  It has really made me open up my eyes to the friendships that I do have, that have survived or have blossomed into something new.

There are five broad classes of friends that expats can turn to when their lifelong besties are overcome by apathy for their Big Overseas Adventure:

  • Other expats: there is something incredible about meeting up with other expats.  They come from the widest corners of the world but somehow landed up in the same city as you.  They share your love for adventure and travel and are usually intelligent, witty, educated and interesting. The best thing about other expats is that they totally get it.  They will sit with you over coffee and just nod and pat your hand while you talk about loneliness, homesickness and bureaucracy.
  • Colleagues: I don’t know about the rest of the world, but here in London, it is incredibly hard to make friends with the locals.  I had been in London for nearly four years before I was actually invited to the home of another Londoner.  This is especially notable when you consider that I spent the first 35 years of my life identifying as British! So colleagues are important.  Make friends with them, go out for drinks with them and get to know them because they are often the closest you will come to making friends with the locals!
  • Hobbyists: whether it is sewing, blogging, movies or photography, meeting people with the same interests as you is priceless when you are in need of friends. Sites like meetup.com are brilliant for meeting people but also look out for notices in local shops or community centres.  Some of my closest friends are people I met through sharing similar interests.
  • Friends of friends: whichever city you decide to move to, it is likely that someone you know will know someone in your chosen destination.  These are often the best and easiest friendships to make because there is something intrinsically trustworthy about the friends of our friends.  The two couples I am closest to in London were originally friends of friends but over time they have become part of my inner circle.
  • And finally, there are the friends you never realised you had.  With so much social interaction on Twitter and Facebook, it can sometimes be easy to miss the individuals who are willing to move beyond being just pals or acquaintances, those that have a genuine interest in you and are willing to take the extra step in becoming your friend.  While I was so busy feeling miserable because my besties were ignoring me, I almost overlooked the two or three people from back home who had become much closer to me over time.  We wereemailing each other, catching up on messenger and generally trying to keep in touch.  It is not easy to admit things like this but the truth is that friendships change and sometimes the most rewarding relationships are right under your nose.  My advice is to take hold of those friendships and appreciate them! Put your energy into the relationships that matter.
That said, if you are ever in London, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. I work in an office from 9-5 each week day so I am always looking for some company at lunch time!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Expat Life is Never Perfect

I met Melizza via her blog and we became fast friends.  We both love coffee, travel, dinner parties with friends, afternoon tea, and bopping around enjoying London's free and fun things.  Melizza and I have also found, with each other, a safe space to have expat meltdowns. There are days when you miss home and you need to vent about it. Melizza came to London via Austin (as well as Brooklyn, New York and a few other places) and she loves Austin as much as I do...the trails, the people, the weather, the food.  And we've both sat in a coffeeshop talking about Tex-Mex and Town Lake on a cold rainy day.  Does it mean we don't appreciate our incredible opportunity to live in London? No. Does it mean that sometimes being an expat means you need to have a really good friend from back home who understands that sometimes being out of your comfort zone is difficult? Yes. And I'm SO grateful for her friendship. (Also, if you have a chance, you should check out her adorable sewing blog! She's a genius!)

Today, thankful for Austin Texpats,



Expat Life is Never Perfect

By: Melizza

In 2010, eight years after living in London as a graduate student, I found myself living the dream, returning to live there as an adult. My husband was offered the chance to transfer within his company to the London office, so we took it. We were very happy in Austin but we couldn’t say no at the chance of traveling and living in such a beautiful, historic city.

As a student I didn’t get to experience as much of the city as I would have liked. I was really looking forward to this new opportunity. To me, London was going to provide me with the chance to change careers, a great home base to travel from, and charming English friends who we would have over for dinner monthly. Sadly life here has been a lot less amazing than I imagine, and a lot more frustrating.

The cost of living in London is outrageous and the pay, as it’s been in our case, low when compared to our earnings at home. And when I say “our earnings” I really mean my husband’s. I haven’t had the best of luck finding full-time employment. Navigating through the job market has been quite a heart-wrenching and depressing experience. I had a certain expectation of what my career would be like in my 30s and temporary part-time jobs weren’t part of it. As a student it was okay to pick up a retail job with a constant changing schedule. But now, with quite a job history behind me, I’d prefer a role that was challenging and consistent.

Finding that has been my biggest struggle while living here. Living on a single income has affected our travel plans a bit. We can’t zoom off over the weekends as much as we’d like (I know, I know, first world problems) but we’ve made it work by seeing and doing more in the city and the rest of England. The museums are free so we constantly go and wander about. We take day trips to the countryside and see shows here and there. We have done and seen a lot of London. And there’s still so much to see.

When I was a student I was constantly working or going to school so I couldn’t afford the time to explore.  But I was okay with not doing as much because my entertainment came from friends. Friends were a lot easier to make at university because everyone is there for the same purpose. A woman who lived in my hall invited me to the campus pub to meet her friends and enjoy a drink. We’re still very good friends today. In fact, she was in my wedding party. I am very grateful for her friendship because she has been so welcoming since we have arrived. Unfortunately I don’t see her often enough because she doesn’t live in London.

To say making new friends in London is hard is an understatement. It is especially hard when I don’t have a job, go to school or belong to a church. My husband’s colleagues are mostly unmarried and younger. We tried reaching out to them when we first arrived but nothing came of it. I've often gone out to meet people through a friend or from online, and like a first date, I really hope they like me. And when a friendship doesn’t pan out I wonder what the hell is wrong with me. It has taken quite a few months, but I have finally met a few good friends through one of my part-time jobs and my blogs. They keep me sane when I gripe about finding a job or the lack of feeling at home.

What I miss the most about living in Austin is that sense of community: people taking time to ask you how you’re doing, businesses providing great customer service, and neighbors looking out for you. Londoners walk around with blinders on and I understand that’s a city mentality but it doesn’t mean I’m fond of it. Living in London hasn’t been as glamorous as I would have liked. Nor is it as carefree as when I was younger.

The expenses wear you down, the shit job market keeps you frustrated, and the lack of belonging to a community saddens you. But we’re going to make the best of the hand we’ve been dealt. We’re going to continue to do and see as much as we can before returning; because there isn’t a doubt about that. Before moving here we considered starting a family and making a home here. But the decision to move back comes down to quality of life, and ours was way higher in Austin. So by the end of the year, hopefully, that is where we will return and the life we have on hold can continue.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Separated by a Common Language

I met Betsy shortly after I arrived in London.  She writes this fabulous blog Betsy Transatlantically and before I made the move across the pond, I began scouring the internet for bloggers who had navigated the expat waters before me. I was deep into research mode and found Betsy's blog in the process. We started emailing and then one day I received the cutest email from her "Blog friends = real friends?".  Definitely!  So we had drinks, and had a blast.  I asked her to write about one of her expat experiences and she sweetly agreed. Thanks Betsy! Drinks on me next time.

Today, grateful for expat friends,

 

 Separated by A Common Language (or Everything Tastes Like Chicken)
By: Betsy

I came to London to pursue an MA in autumn 2009 and, after a brief hiatus in DC for a job offer, returned to London to work in June 2010; I have lived in London for 17 of the past 27 months.  I identify as a Washingtonian, as a Londoner, and definitely as an expatriate, and I don't think that there's any contradiction in belonging to more than one place at a time.  That being said, sometimes the intersection of different cultures, homes, and languages can prove a bit tricky...

Earlier this January, I caught a flight to New York to spend a long weekend with my grandmother, who is very unwell.  (As my family is Jewish and doesn't celebrate Christmas, my big annual trip to my parents' house falls over Thanksgiving, and so this jaunt was unplanned though unfortunately not entirely unexpected.)  My mother and sister and I went out to lunch for Thai food on my first day in Manhattan where, surprisingly, I hit a snafu.  

I had decided to order the shrimp pad see ew, but when the waitress came by I realized that I had completely forgotten the word for "shrimp."  The only word I could think of was "prawn," which is generally what "shrimp" are called in the UK.  I grasped around my mind, but simply could not come up with "shrimp."  For some reason, I grabbed the closest word I could think of that an American might understand: chicken.

"But, Betsy," my sister said, confused, "didn't you say you wanted it with shrimp?"

"Yes!" I gasped.  "Shrimp!  I want the shrimp pad see ew!"

Everyone - the waitress included - looked at me, bewildered as to why this had been so difficult for me and why I seemed to have needed my sister to translate.

When I explained later, my mother and sister laughed, but didn't see it as a big deal.  It might not be, in the grand scheme of things, but it shook me up a bit because I thought I had been able to firmly compartmentalize my American and English lives and I was proved mistaken.  I did see the humor in the situation, though, and finally I truly understood that English and American are not always the same language!

Friday, January 27, 2012

On Being Weak in the Knees

Almost 18 years ago, in 1994, I moved into Spence Hall at Texas A&M University, (D1OTQ for any former Aggies out there).  Across the hall, I met this beautiful southern California transplant, Heather Redderson, who drove a little red car across America (at night, because it didn't have air conditioning and it was August, y'all) to begin her new life in college.  We were fast friends and I remember plenty of late-night conversations, walks around the quad, laughter and stories about 'boys' (and maybe more than a couple of 'walks of shame'.) I only attended A&M for one semester, but over the years Heather and I would find each other off and on, say hello, and then disappear.  Always, always, I loved our interactions and loved the incredible spirit I saw in her.  And then, via Facebook, we found each other again.  And we slowly began to catch up.  And then she moved to Austin and we would talk for hours  over coffee between our crazy schedules...and we found out that we had this common 'itch', to dig deeper into our core, live more meaningfully, and be more authentic in our life's journeys.  And then we both started, about the same time, realizing we would be moving to England within months of each other.  So I asked Heather to write a post for TECP about her expat experience...and write she did.  This post brought tears to my eyes (and I'm not even pmsing.) Thanks Heather. I love it so much. And I love you, and your journey.


Today, weak in the knees,

 

On Being Weak in the Knees

By: Heather Redderson

I remember the exact moment when I got off the plane in Rome.  It was January 1996 and I was just beginning a long-term study abroad program in Italy.  I remember the stunningly surreal realization that I was in another country... another world exploding with possibility and life.  That single experience of stepping off that plane resonated in my bones.  And it changed me.  Forever.

Fast forward 13 years to 2009.  The year I decided to throw all caution to the wind and make some changes.  BIG changes.  I was living the life in New York City - making money hand over fist, experiencing professional success like never before, enjoying a bevy of friends who were always up for drinks and laughs, and savoring my apartment in Greenwich Village that I had lovingly curated into my dream home.  But... it wasn't enough. 

Sure, it was 'enough' from society's perspective and I should have been over the moon with my success, with my surroundings.  But I wasn't sleeping, I was extremely unhealthy, I was emotionally drained and constantly stressed-out and I knew something had to give.  At the most random moments – while sitting in a meeting at work, while ordering another glass of wine, while waiting in line to purchase yet another expensive handbag, a memory would suddenly make me go weak in the knees and I would have to stifle a sob.  It was the memory of how I felt that day I stepped off the plane in Italy.  The memory of how free and how new I felt in that solitary moment in time.

And then something began to happen.  Instead of pushing that memory to the back of my mind, I sat with it.  I felt it.  I tended to it.  That single memory gave me the resolve to quit my job, to end the lease on my apartment, and to begin a journey with no destination

The journey has been, in a word, amazing.  I've had many people ask me if I came into money to fund my travels; if I had a ton of money saved before quitting my job.  They are always shocked when I tell them no.  There was no safety net.  For some reason I just trusted that mine was the right journey and I would figure it out along the way.  And I have.

My experience over the last three years has been frightening, exhilarating, freeing, emotional, and at times, overwhelming.  But there is something priceless about knowing, without a doubt, that I am doing what I am meant to do and am exactly where I am meant to be... even when I don't have all the answers.

So, where am I now? 

After spending the last three years traveling the world and finding a curious contentment with my life I recently moved to the UK and currently live in Devon, England.  I am one month away from getting married to the love of my life whom I would never have met had I not been willing to hack out a new path and a new place for myself in this world.  I am pursuing my passions for hiking, photography, yoga and simple living.  I am in the germination phase of creating a yoga retreat in the UK that encapsulates all I have learned in the last three years into an experience that can be shared with others.

I am exploring.

It is no longer a memory of stepping off a plane that makes me weak in the knees.  What does it for me now is life, my soon-to-be husband, a new and fascinating country to explore, and unique memories just waiting for me to find them.

Hello life.  Hello marriage.  Hello United Kingdom.  Let's do this.


Heather spinning prayer wheels on the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Climbing Up Your Solsbury Hill

One of my favorite artists is Peter Gabriel.

And one of my favorite songs is Solsbury Hill.

'Solsbury Hill' (as I understand it) was Peter Gabriel's thought journey through the decision to leave Genesis.  His career was taking off with this new band, 'success' (at least the traditional version) was creeping up on him...and yet, his gut was telling him, this was not the right path.

Big decisions are tough for a lot of people, but they completely terrify me.  Mainly because I was never taught as a child how to trust my core instincts.  This was a skill I didn't develop until adulthood.  My parents (via divorce, custody changes, school decisions etc.) made a lot of incredibly large (and poor) decisions on my behalf which skewed my internal compass.
Had to listen had no choice
I did not believe the information
I just had to trust imagination

Trusting 'imagination', or my 'gut', is now second nature to me.  But I've worked very hard on it. And even still, big decisions, even when I *know* they are the right ones, seem intimidating at first. 
My heart going boom boom boom
Moving to London was one of those big decisions.  When the Canadian told me we had the opportunity to move to London, I felt incredible excitement while feeling at the same time like throwing up.  But I knew in that exact moment what I would do. And that I would go.  But still, I thought it over incessantly, thinking mostly of all that I would give up in Austin. My friends. My home. My comfort. My familiarity.
To keepin' silence I resigned
My friends would think I was a nut
Turning water into wine
Open doors would soon be shut 
So I went from day to day
Tho' my life was in a rut 
'Till I thought of what I'd say
Which connection I should cut
I knew it would be a trade-off.  I knew that there would probably be some friends that I might lose in the process (not the core group, but some on the periphery).  I knew that life in Texas would go on. That someone else would live in the house that I built. That I would be moving forward on a totally different trajectory than I'd imagined.  But. It was that constant voice that was telling me that I had to go.  It was important.
I was feeling part of the scenery
I walked right out of the machinery
My heart going boom boom boom
I listened to this song over. and over. and over. In the moments of doubt, during the meltdowns (particularly after the movers came), during periods of questioning.  I would just imagine myself, climbing Solsbury Hill and sitting there, watching the sun set and thinking "I know this is crazy, but I seriously think I have to go. For my sanity. And to get my life back. And to figure myself out. And to see the world through a different lens, because this one is dull and blurry."
Watched by empty silhouettes
Who close their eyes, but still can see
No one taught them etiquette
I will show another me
Today I don't need a replacement
I'll tell them what the smile on my face meant
My heart going boom boom boom
"Hey," I said, "You can keep my things, they've come to take me home."
We all have our Solsbury Hills.  Those moments when we *know* we have to make the less safe, more radical decision. We might think about it, we might talk it out with friends, but our gut, our imagination, is pushing us forward into the extraordinary unknown. Trust it. Emphatically.  

Solsbury Hill, near Bath, England Via
Today, emphatically,

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Expat Experience


Just over seven months ago, I moved from Austin to London....joining the global fraternity known as 'expat'.  When you live abroad, dealing with life's everyday errands frequently becomes an experience accompanied by a story. Especially at the beginning. You ask a lot of questions, you're always lost, and trying to get the simplest of tasks accomplished seems to take an inordinate amount of time.

You have a palpable awareness of who you are and where you're from because you don't sound like anyone else.  You know that the moment you speak to a local, they will assess you based on your accent.  You know that you will always be 'different'.

I've always known I would live abroad. And I also always knew I'd marry foreigner (I know, Canadian is barely foreign, but still...he has a different passport.  That counts right?).  These were never a question of 'if', simply 'when'.


            "You gotta have a little crazy...."               

Moving to a foreign country, even one who shares a language, is not for the timid.  And it's not for those who love a comfort zone. And it's not for those who resist change.  And it's not for the unadventurous...you gotta have a little bit of crazy in you to leave friends, family, comfort food, familiar streets, easy access, and pretty much everything in the world that feels 'normal'.

When I first stepped off the Queen Mary 2 (yes, we took the boat...that's another experience), I thought, "Woman, you have lost your mind."

I'd left Texas where it was warm, and sunny, and summer, and moved to London where, the day I arrived, it was 55 degrees and pouring rain with wind gusts in the 40 mph range.  It took more than a little courage not to turn around, commandeer the ship, and sail to Galveston.

But I didn't.

And here's what I learned.

I thought that moving abroad would change me - and in some ways it has - but really what it's done is expose me *to* me. More of me.

It's like when you start lifting weights and you've never it done it before - the next day your muscles feel like you were in a bar fight.  You didn't even know they existed and now they're screaming at you.  That's how it feels to be an expat.  You experience yourself differently.  You see yourself reflected in people who have preconceived notions about your home country.  You hear yourself say things that are clearly out of place.  Your belief systems are challenged. You are more *you* and you are less *you* than you've ever been before.

And let me tell you, it's extraordinary.  

I've laughed a lot more, I've cried a lot more, I've been in awe a lot more.  You don't realize, that when you're in your comfort zone, you can numb yourself to the human experience. This is, by no means true of everyone, but it was certainly true of me. I knew I was too comfortable and the feeling of 'wonder' just didn't show up in my daily life.  And I was in danger of becoming someone who constantly re-modeled their perfectly adequate house, or needed to keep upgrading their 'things', because I almost wasn't checked in enough realize that wasn't the problem....that it wasn't the house or the things. It was me.

So I left (with 1 Canadian and 1 dog). And moved to London.

Today, making life more extraordinary,