Tales of Transition
The Art of French Indifference: What life in Paris taught me about the futility of fitting in
By Michele Piercey
I’m sure it’s common, when embarking on an overseas posting, to have ambitions of learning the language, becoming immersed in the culture, and making lots of local friends. If you are given to romanticism (check) and unrealistic expectations (check) and that country is France (check) that desire likely burns especially hot. This would not be my first time living overseas –as an aid worker, I had been to many beautiful but challenging places and had met my recently acquired husband, an American diplomat, in the Middle East – but I’d only ever been to France as a tourist. I had long been smitten with the country, and especially, with its people.
After all, what’s not to emulate about the French? Their cuisine has inspired roughly one billion cookbooks. They elected a telegenic, radical centrist President who, it is said, “could seduce a chair.” French women are globally recognized paragons...
Letters from Amsterdam: First Letter, January 4, 1979
By Dianne Apter
Letters From Amsterdam is a recounting of an idyllic time our family spent in 1979 in The Netherlands, in Amsterdam. Although I have taken a few liberties with names and timelines, the stories I tell are all true based on the letters I wrote home to my parents and in-laws. Our kids were 6 and 3 years old and the piece tells of their school experiences and our lives through their eyes as well as my own. Our day-to-day life related in these stories has come to mean much more than the trip diary I kept filled with appointments, sites we visited, and descriptions. Those entries one can find in any tour guide book.
I have chosen to focus this collection only on our life in Amsterdam, although we did extensive travel while we lived there and after. Each section is a different month from arrival in January...
Family Standard Time
By Warren Leishman
“What time is it?”
A pretty mundane question, and in the COVID-19 pandemic, often irrelevant. If you can’t go anywhere or do anything, does it really matter what time it is?
Like many others, our family was uprooted temporarily from far-flung locations and unexpectedly thrown back together. But that period eventually morphed into something else entirely, distorting our very notion of time. Just like everyone, we needed to create a new version of normal life, but for us this also required creating our own time zone.
When the pandemic took root in March 2020, it still felt distant at first, both literally and figuratively. I am posted to the U.S. Embassy in Accra, Ghana, where the initial weekly count of positive cases barely broke into double digits, in contrast to the alarming increase of reported cases across the United States. In Africa, COVID-19 was viewed...
Why We Want to Return Abroad - Regardless of the Pandemic
By Analin Saturria McGregor
2020 changed everything. It’s understandable that people may reconsider moving or going abroad, for a number of reasons:Not wanting to get too far from family and friends (or wanting to come back closer)
An unstable job market
Wanting stability after a year of lots of (unexpected) changes. When we returned to the U.S. almost three years ago, we knew returning abroad was in our future. When the pandemic started, we wondered if the way things were going would make us change our minds.
Living and working abroad as educators have definitely influenced our mindset and our view of the world. Despite the deep despair that the pandemic has put people through all over the world, this season hasn’t soured our perspective on living abroad, or diminished our excitement to “get back out there.”
When people hear that we live and work in Hawaii, they often comment...
Adjusting the Culture Shock Curve to a Pandemic-Era Move
By Kathi Silva
It’s December, which in my world usually means I’m settled and making plans for the holidays, or I’ve recently moved to a new country and I’m worn-down and melancholic. This is the eighth international transfer my family has made, but moving in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic is a game-changer.
In a ‘normal’ move
I’m an analytical thinker, even in my personal life, so I tend to rely on the culture shock curve to make sense of my emotional state after a move. According to this model, most expats begin life in their new country climbing up to an emotionally high honeymoon phase, where everything is exciting and new, and there are people to support and help. Then there’s the crisis phase where we freefall downwards into loneliness or nostalgia, missing old creature comforts and friends, watching what used to be interesting become a source of...
By Catherine E. Norton
Pip, the (Pandemic) Hamster
By Nicole Schaefer-McDaniel
It seemed like my kids had been asking for a pet for as long as they could talk! But, as an expat family schlepping our belongings around the world every few years, adding the logistics of a pet to the mix had not been an option I was willing to entertain. Well, yes, there is the upside of having a consistent confidante for the children as they settle into a new home and school in yet again another country. However, the nightmare stories told by expats about dealing with expensive last-minute vaccinations and vet visits before jumping on a plane on top of strict quarantine restrictions (even before COVID) made a dog or a cat a less-than-attractive family member option.
So, we did what any parent would do. We stalled the pet conversation every time it came up. Cats were easily ruled out once we realized my husband’s...
To Switzerland with Love, from the Watchmaker’s Wife
By Elizabeth Boquet
I think I’ve finally figured us out. It took long enough!
Three decades, more or less. I know, I know,
you being the quiet type means I have to go first. And I will.
But only because I’m so in love with you.
How’d THAT happen? you wonder.
Well. Since you asked, first of all,
you have the sexiest watchmakers in the world, but there’s more:
Because instead of scissors, you gave my kids knitting needles
in Kindergarten to punch along dotted lines so they’d learn
precision, perseverance, and patience.
Because you made them walk to school.
Because you made them come home for lunch.
Because you made them walk back to school.
Because you have people with The Secret whom I can call for free,
and they’ll make 32 warts on the sole of a kid’s foot disappear.
Just like that.
It took some getting used to,...
By Nina Sichel
I am losing my hold on those things of theirs I insisted on keeping -- the armoire, the secretary, the furniture shipped from Germany to Uruguay to Caracas to Tampa, the things that surrounded me in my childhood and that I wanted to hold on to, to keep close.
Their dying was not unexpected but unplanned for. My father had always taken care of everything so we hadn’t had to but he hadn’t thought what to do about their things when the time came. Their treasured things. The things he said he didn’t care about any more in his last years, but we thought that was just him getting old. So it was up to us.
There were other antiques in the Caracas apartment, not just the German furniture, but pieces they’d chosen together -- things they’d gone out and looked for, selected in their own taste -- items...
Comparison Shopping in Canada
By Kelly Garriott Waite
Photos by Kelly Garriott Waite, and the drawing by SGC
The house is a disaster. The movers have just driven off, leaving boxes stacked to the ceiling in every room, claiming that unpacking isn't part of the contract. The kids are tired. The remote, not programmed to the new stations, brings in only static and French cartoons. Mike, the person whose job got us into this mess, is threatening to go to the office. I have to do something productive - make some sort of forward progression. I decide to go grocery shopping. I promise my husband a roast for dinner, anxious to try out my kitchen and hungry for something other than the slap-together meals we've been having in the days prior to our move.
"Do you need anything?" I ask Mike.
"Beer," he says. I add it to my list and trip out of the house, laughing at...
By Mary Al-Akhdar
Just before we moved away from the U.S. to be expats for the first time, I stood on my front porch and observed the homes across the expanse of my rolling neighborhood. Brick fortresses, each with its front door closed tightly.
The years at home raising children, the many moves from one city to another, and all the feelings of isolation that go along with that, I never felt as an expat in Switzerland.
I struggle to put into words the why behind that fact. The U.S. has apartment living, which I had experienced. And I was a homemaker in Switzerland, just as in the U.S. But it was actually difficult to feel isolated in Switzerland, even if you were at home raising children.
My husband and I found ourselves enjoying our natural surroundings in Switzerland much more than we did in the U.S. It was part of the fabric of living. People...
Hogar Means Home
By Abby Bowen
I felt like I was suffocating that first night. The ache that seared through every nerve in my body screamed doubts into my mind. I wanted to buy the next plane ticket out of that place and go home. Back to my house in Colorado where my family used words I knew, and I could eavesdrop on conversations without getting a headache from the effort of translating.
I thought back to the day I had bought my ticket down to Costa Rica for this semester abroad. I had nearly had a panic attack as soon as I hit purchase, wondering if I was making a huge mistake. My Spanish was that of a toddler, I had never lived away from home, and I once got lost going to a mountain that was literally right behind my house. How was I going to survive in another country all by myself? I’d...
By Elizabeth Boquet
I’m thinking of giving up. It would be a kindness to myself; I’ve been trying to master French for 40 years now. But how do you give up a foreign language when you live in one of its foreign lands, like Lausanne, Switzerland? And your family, friends and neighbors speak that way to you ? not to mention your dentist, plumber, mechanic, mailman, kids’ teachers …? Maybe I could go on strike for a day: just stay home and Skype English-speaking friends, read untranslatable poetry, binge-watch American series and take a stand with those telemarketers. I’m sorry? What’s that? I. Cannot. Un-der-stand. Yooo-uuu!
It all started in earnest in 1979, at the Northfield Mount Hermon School, which offered a term abroad in Arcachon, France. The program required the completion of French III which, in my 16-year-old mind, meant three years of French. Even though I was only in French II,...
Expectations and Reality: A Kiwi House-Dad in Bavaria
By Matt Colville
In my twenties, I travelled some. A couple of summer stints working on Hamilton Island in Australia. Two surf trips to Indonesia. A month in the USA. Two extended trips chasing girls around the European Union.
But I’ve always wanted to live in Europe. And despite the joy of my partner getting pregnant three years ago, it triggered a small nervous breakdown, as I thought my dream was fading.
So, after months of searching, my wife ? who has taught in Europe before ? gained a job in a small international school, in a tiny village in southern Germany. We swapped roles, and now I’m at home with our son. And by and large, it is great. But there have been many challenges along the way.
If you want to live abroad, please, please, for the love of God, have enough money saved before you leave.
We didn’t. My...
Friendship in the Foreign Service
By Regina Landor
The longest I had with a good friend in our current posting was nine months. That was long enough to feel comfortable going up to her apartment when I got mad at my husband. It was long enough for her to tell me she was pregnant before she told any other friends. It was long enough to be able to share a private joke in the company of others, just the two of us laughing.
My husband and I could go on a date night with her and her husband, say goodnight, and then I could plop into my bed and text her at midnight about something else I forgot to say that I thought was funny. And she’d text me right back, with something funnier. She was that kind of friend. And she lived only two floors above me. I’ve learned that forming bonds can happen quickly in the...
Voting With My Feet
By Laura J. Stephens
“All of us, from the cradle to the grave, are happiest when life is organised as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figures”.Jeremy Holmes, John Bowlby and Attachment Theory, p. 67
“Oh my God, you look a right size.” My mother greets me with a look of disdain as she approaches with an imperious air, striding at a lick across the ward. Her words ricochet in my head with the shame of the implication, or perhaps of having such a mother. My neck and face begin to burn red.
Marooned on the hospital bed, I suddenly feel huge. Crossing my legs self consciously, I swallow down the hurt and anger and with well-practiced ease avoid my mother’s face. My gaze falls instead on the cradle alongside my hospital bed. My first born, a lovely baby girl, sleeps on oblivious to the drama...
Denk Aan Uw Lichten
By Bernie Brown
Like a bird looking for a perch, Carol scanned the bus for a seat. Some of the faces she recognized from a welcome tea at The American Women’s Club of The Hague, but most of the names jumbled together. For a brief panicked moment, she wished she had stayed home, not just in their apartment here in The Hague, but all the way home back in the States where she could have continued her work on the Dukakis campaign.
She drew a deep breath and plunged down the bus aisle. Ingmar, a Danish woman married to an American, sat alone. Carol liked Ingmar’s way with scarves and the slight emotional distance she maintained with everyone. Not as if she had something to hide, but as if she already had everything she wanted. Carol stood in the aisle of Ingmar’s row. “Is it okay if I sit here?” she asked.
From Academia to Adventure
By Nicole Schaefer-McDaniel
I am sitting on a plane, all alone for the first time in what seems like ages,enjoying the luxuries of a glass of wine and my music on my iPod. I am not searching in-between seats for lost Playmobil horses or digging through my bag in search for the “right” colored pencil.
I am flying back to Vienna after spending a few days at a professional conference a mere two hours away. For a few, very precious days, I – not anyone else – was the center of my life and attention. Instead of negotiating clothing options with opinionated toddlers, I was dressed in my “finest” (still fitting) business attire and enjoying lectures and discussions about health issues around the world. I was called “Dr.” again; delegates spoke of my previous work; and the main publishing vendor was proudly displaying a book I had co-edited. To...
Farewell to Purgatorial Eden
By Kirsten Bauman
Today is Friday. I’m moving soon and my growing to-do list is daunting. First, I have to cash a check at the bank so I can pay my household staff. There’s my indispensable nanny, the housekeeper-cook who also does the grocery shopping, the gardener who doubles as a security guard and driveway gate opener, and the driver whose sole job it is to pick my two toddlers up from their preschool every afternoon. I also have to remember to leave money for the children’s last weekly French class and organize our last Saturday with friends at the Sheraton pool resort where our family has a membership. And then there’s the goodbye party to plan.
Not bad for a mid-level U.S. government bureaucrat. But there’s a catch. I live in Africa, a place where all these luxuries are negated by the shadows cast by Ethiopia’s dark side. It is a...
The £400 Fruitcake and Other Lessons on Fitting In
By Jennifer Richardson
Looking back, I pinpoint the end of my love affair with London to this moment: I was paying for a pint of milk at our dingy local convenience store—optimistically referred to as the corner shop—when, in midflow of taking my money, the shopkeeper vigorously spat on the floor.
For the past two years, I had ruthlessly deployed my American-expat optimism in overlooking this sort of deflating aspect of daily London life. Miniscule, closet-less flats and $20 hamburgers had evaporated from my consciousness in the face of the splendor of a morning commute through Kensington Gardens. But now, I had been undone by expectorate. When my British husband received a modest inheritance that was enough to upsize us in our yet-to-gentrify neighborhood but not to deliver us into the genteel reaches of say, Kensington and Chelsea, there was only one thing to do. We jumped at the chance to...
Les Mystères, Les Misères & Les Miracles: Learning Languages with Your Kids
By Melissa Dalton-Bradford
La langue means “the tongue” in French, and for the language-learning stories I want to share with you, we’ll begin with the French langue. That’s exactly the part of me that was tied in a sailor’s knot when I sat staring into the large melted-chocolate eyes of Madame M., my three-year-old son’s teacher at a public maternelle in Versailles, France.
She had called a special conference with me after school hours. I’d spruced up, throwing on pearls, ironing a seam down the front of my pantyhose, and brandishing killer heels. I came quickly, mincingly, trying to learn French, which I had never studied but was determined to learn. Like now. In the space of three city blocks.
“Votre fils, Madame,” said Madame M., speaking of my son, I knew that much, “Il crache aux enfants.”
Although the heat between us told me right off this was serious, I had no...
The Flight of Pegaso
By Marlene Monfiletto Nice
I knew that day would come.
With two avid horseback riders in the family, it was inevitable that we would buy a horse.
In Uruguay, it was not only easy and affordable, it was necessary so that our older daughter, Andy, could progress in her chosen sport.
When we bought Pegaso, an 8-year-old thoroughbred, we intended to keep him a year, sell and move on. Andy agreed to think of it as one of the lease situations we had entered into in the past. But something happened along the way: We all fell in love with Pegaso. Horses in Uruguay are special – super-friendly, happy competitors – andPegaso was a gem, even among them. So, as we started planning our pack-out in Uruguay, we considered adding one more complication: Pegaso.
Foreign Service families cart around a lot of things for various reasons – remembrance, comfort. Sometimes we don’t...
From Fast Food to Fresh Fish
By Wendy Jones Nakanishi
My three sons were horrified when I presented them last year with a T-shirt inscribed with the slogan “McDonald’s is Evil.”
We live in Japan but I am American. I had returned to my home state of Indiana to visit aged, ailing parents and chanced upon a shop personalizing shirts. On impulse, I decided on a present for my boys that I, at least, found entertaining.
“We like McDonald’s! Our friends will laugh! They like McDonald’s, too.”
“Don’t worry,” I breezily counseled them. “Hardly any of your friends can read English well enough to have any idea what the words mean.” Even my Japanese husband, who is fairly fluent, was dubious about the meaning of “evil.”
But my children weren’t convinced. They only wore my gift under duress, and I sometimes found the shirt wadded into a ball, stuffed in the back of the clothes cupboard. Their reluctance stemmed primarily...
Living on the Med in Turkey
By Colin Guest
Before going to Turkey, my wife Jenny and I were thinking of moving to Spain to live. Therefore, I was very surprised that after being in Turkey for only five weeks, Jenny said: “After you finish your contract, why don’t we buy a plot of land and have a house built?”
I said, “I thought that we were going to live in Spain.”
“No, I love it here,“ she replied. “Turkey is much better than Spain.”
We moved to Turkey from England in 1988, when I accepted a contract to work as an advisor for the interior-finishing work on a hotel complex in Kemer. I was pleased to find that Kemer was in a beautiful location, being right on the edge of the Mediterranean, backed by the pine-forested Taurus Mountains . The hotel complex was just outside of Kemer and set among several coves next to a long sandy beach;...
Starting Somewhere: A first step into the expat community in Singapore
By Patricia Tan
Just keep breathing
It takes an hour to shower, blow-dry my hair, and apply my favorite burgundy shade of lipstick. After another hour of trying on nearly everything in my wardrobe, I select an outfit – perfectly fitting boot cut jeans, a black v-neck top with delicate floral embroidery around the collar, and a pair of shiny black leather boots with 2-inch heels. Then I sit on my sofa, palms pressed on my thighs, and breathe deeply for fifteen minutes. It’s time to take a taxi to the meeting area.
I’m going on a blind date, but not the romantic kind. This is my first outing with a social group called Young Childless Female Expats (YCFE). After stumbling across their online forum, I became intrigued. Women in their 20’s and 30’s living in Singapore away from their home countries and seeking friendship are reaching out to other women in a...
No More Pork Chops: My Ghana Experience
By Magdalena Travis, age 10
In the summer of 2004, my family moved to Accra, Ghana. I was seven years old then. This was the first time in my life I was going to live in Africa. On the one hand, I did not want to say goodbye to my friends in Poland where my family and I had been living - my Dad works for the U.S. State Department and Krakow was our first post. On the other hand, I was curious: what would Africa feel like? My image of Africa was a big sand dune with elephants, giraffes and zebras, covered with plantain trees and coconut palms.
Well, this was one of the times when I was wrong. Accra is a busy town with dusty winds from the Sahara during the harmattan season. Over the two years I spent here, a great number of exciting things happened. In Mole National Park, I saw...
Ich Spreche Kein Deutsch
By Nichole Martinson
“You’re not stupid; you just don’t speak German,” I had to sternly remind myself as I picked up a pamphlet from a streetside kiosk in Berlin and was frustrated - mortified even - that I couldn’t decipher a single word, let alone the general message conveyed via leaflet to the masses.
Sure, I know I’m in a foreign country, but even after having lived in New York City -where English isn’t necessarily a priority - I had forgotten what it’s like to not be able to communicate. Can anyone remember back to the days of early childhood when letters, words and sentences were nothing more than an indecipherable, collective noise? Can any of us recall what it felt like before we could understand the groupings of letters that make up written language?
Street signs and billboards are collections of incomprehensible scribbling; the pre-recorded voice announcing each U-Bahn stop, a whirl...
Your Mouth Is Too Big: Food and Conversation in Morocco
By Christine Oulamine
Good food and good conversation - the mainstays of the Mediterranean world. For the Moroccans, good food is mint tea and almond cookies. And good conversation can consume an entire afternoon or evening, easily distracting one from tallying the number of those cookies eaten. For many of us nessraniyin (foreigners) living in Casablanca, the ability to eat large, talk at length and weigh little has always been an unmastered art -along the lines of belly dancing and rolling couscous into bite-size balls.
Upon our return to Morocco, after a three-year sojourn in the U.S., we were invited to my husband’s aunt’s house for a late evening mint tea. Although we were still sluggish from jet lag, Moroccan etiquette would not permit my husband, Reda, to refuse the invitation.
I begged Reda for a postponement, but he chided me, citing the incident many years before with his childhood friend Yassir, when...
Sí Soy Vegetariana: Yes, I'm a Vegetarian
By Nichole M. Martinson
“Nicholasa, you’re going to have a hard time in Spain with the food,” one Spaniard told me.
“Why are you going to Spain? You know they eat nothing but meat,” an American friend inquired.
“You’ll at least try the jamon, right?”
News flash: Ham has just joined chicken on the international list of not-meat meats.
I wasn’t even two hours out of the United States when the challenge and confusion around my not eating meat started to take shape. My vegetarian specialty meal was chucked like a shotput onto my tray; so much for the friendly skies. We’re all painfully aware that airplane cuisine is the worst on the planet, but that didn’t excuse the bland, overcooked, non-flavored meal set before me. I’ll give Iberia Airlines credit for not widening my thighs with fattening dairy products and sugar, but no meat does not mean no taste.
I had conducted...