10 May 2012

Expat Survival Kit II: The Toolbox

In my last post I gave a lot of general principles about moving to a new place, especially abroad, and how important it is to build a life when you get there rather than just sticking it out until you move on--but I gave very little information about how to do that. So, for my Inner New Expat, who read that post and wept, "but how? How do I make friends, and find the grocery store that carries Grape Nuts at less-than-extortionate prices, and figure out how to spend the hours I used to be at work?", I present:

The Expat Toolbox

The following are the actual items you will find in your Expat Survival Kit. Some of them are actual, and you can find/buy them. Some of them are metaphorical, and that's the hard part--you'll have to figure out how to create those for yourself.

(Note: most of these are geared toward the person who's not moving for his/her own job. If you move with a job in your own place, several of these issues--how to meet people; where to get advice; how to spend your days--will take care of themselves. I assume. I've only ever been in the position of moving sans day job.)

Before You Go:

I.  Guidebooks
You might as well start with the fun stuff. Pretend you're going on vacation, only this time you don't have to worry about "Three Day Itineraries" or "Top Ten Must Do"s because you'll be able to go see/do whatever cool stuff, whenever you want. Bask in this idea for a while.

II. Novels/Memoirs
While you're picking up your guidebooks, spend some time in the bookstore or library collecting books set in your destination. Maybe it's just me, but I find reading narrative gets me into the spirit of a place better than even the best guidebook.

Of course, it helps that both places I've prepared to move to have been literary powerhouses. (Though the downside of Dublin is that, historically, her writers have written mostly about how miserable it is there and how much they or their characters want to leave. Thank heaven for Roddy Doyle--and if anyone knows any books that present Dublin as a grand place to live, please pass 'em on.)

IIa. Movies
See II. Same principle, but even better, because you get to see the place!

Once You've Arrived:

III. Comfort Food from Home
Food is important. Eating doesn't just fuel the body; it gives the soul a sense of security. You'll have a lot of fun trying out local foods in your new home, but when you're at the end of your rope--and you will get there--you'll want that familiar-from-childhood comfort food you used to take for granted at home.

This one's tough, because you probably won't know what you'll miss most until you get there, can't find it, and miss it. This is where the next item comes in handy:

IV. A Visit from Your Friend from Home
This has to be scheduled very carefully--far enough from the date of your move that you can accommodate a guest, but close enough that the two of you will have the fun of exploring together. Not only is it incredibly reassuring to move knowing that in just a few weeks you will see a familiar face, but having a friend coming also means you have someone to bring you whatever you've realized you can't live without, and can't get in your new place.

V. Comfort Food from Your New Home
Your grocery store can be your friend as well as your biggest source of frustration. Take a break from trying to find the foods you're used to, and find the foods you're really going to miss when you move away from this new place. For me, it's sharp cheddar and tomato chutney on whole wheat; and ready-meal curries; and Turkish delight; and bite-sized chocolate rolls.

I once overheard a bunch of American college students getting very depressed in Sainsbury's because they couldn't find Hershey Kisses. I took pity and told them where to get them (the gourmet store near their dorm, of all places), but I still wish I'd told them the much, much more important secret: forget Hershey's anything and grab a selection of 1/2kg Cadbury bars. What's the point of your year abroad if you don't go back telling people, "oh, I got spoiled by real chocolate in Europe--American chocolate just tastes so bland in comparison"? (Even though calling Cadbury "real chocolate" is stretching the truth--it's still better than anything you can get at a grocery store in the States.)

VI. Club Memberships: if you're on a really good expat package, your/your spouse's company might even pay for these!

VIa. The Gym
Because exercise is good for you, and you suddenly have time for it. Also because endorphins can be your new best friends, until you meet some human best friends. And, not least, because finding your new favorite foods and building your new social life is going to involve consuming a lot more calories than you're used to.

VIb. The Expat Club
The Expat Wife is such an institution that, in certain cities, a whole infrastructure has sprung up to support her. You can start googling before you leave: "American Women's Club" [city]; "International Women's Club" [city]; "expat support" [city]. This is what your first friends in your new home are doing.
Back-to-school kits assembled by volunteers--including me!
--for students at a local primary school
This was probably my least-favorite part of moving to London. I felt like I kept having the same conversation over and over, and it just got less and less interesting. But! Going to club meetings was an excuse to wear nice clothes every couple of weeks (otherwise I could've just lived in whatever I wore to the gym in the morning); club meetings and activities gave those early, endless days some structure; other members of those groups had some great advice on living in London (it's thanks to the Kensington and Chelsea Women's Club that I could tell the college students where to get Hershey Kisses); and--oh yeah--I met some of my closest friends. So while I'm not looking forward to renewing the round of "so, have you figured out how to work your washing machine?" chat in Dublin, I know this is an important step in figuring out how to feel at home in a place, including building real relationships with wonderful people.

VIc. The Interest/Hobby/Service Group/Class
While going to museums and having long lunches with your new friends can be fun for a while, every one of my American-in-London friends eventually discovered that we needed to find a way to invest our time, instead of just spending it. Especially if you move for someone else's job, without one of your own, you will probably discover that one of the aspects of your old life that you most need to replicate in your new one, is a sense of purpose.

In some ways, this can be the hardest part of integrating into your new community. Expat clubs are, by definition, very welcoming to newcomers; it can take longer to prove yourself in an established group of locals. I sang with my choir for almost two years before I started to feel like one of the gang, and during rehearsals for my second Messiah performance last winter, I found out my fellow sopranos refer to me as "the American lady" (and my Canadian friend as "the other American lady").

Being "the American lady" instead of one of a largely American group makes me feel more at home in London. This has been increasingly true as I've joined more and more non-expat-focused activities: my volunteer group is largely American, but through them I spend a few hours a week working with local kids and teachers; in SCBWI, the important thing is that I write for teens. I'll always be "the American," but it's important to keep putting myself in situations where what I'm good at--or, in the case of the yoga and cooking classes I've taken, what I'm learning--is vastly more important than where I came from.

VII. Slack
This is probably the most important tool in your Expat Survival Kit. Wherever you're moving, under whatever circumstances, you're going to need as much of this as you can muster. The various situations in which giving yourself slack will come in handy could be their own (very long) post, but here are what I think are the two most important:

You're not from here. No matter how much advance prep you do, how much you embrace local culture, you will never have grown up in this place. No matter how many similarities you can find between the place you've left and the place you've arrived, there are going to be big, important differences, and they're going to trip you up and make you feel like an idiot. All you can do is keep giving yourself permission to just be an idiot when necessary. It sucks to learn the rules by breaking them, but the important thing is that you're learning the rules. Every dumb mistake you make gets you closer to the day when things that seem so weird now, become second nature.

Your local support system is weak. You're under an enormous amount of stress and the people who usually help you through stressful times are several time zones away. Many of your usual coping mechanisms aren't available in the new place, and you haven't figured out what will replace them yet. This is going to break through in some strange and potentially embarrassing ways. Forgive yourself for the occasional breakdown--no one you know can see you sobbing in the grocery store, anyway.

As the most important weapon in your arsenal, slack comes with a pretty major caveat: if time passes and you find yourself stuck in a helpless, hopeless, negative rut, get help. Cities with expat communities have therapists who specialize in emotional issues related to relocation: call one (or two, or a few). If you're in a place without that kind of expat support, try out a few local therapists, or see if you can set up phone/Skype sessions with someone in a more cosmopolitan location. If you're truly in the middle of nowhere, talk to the organization who sent you there about ways others have dealt with the situation. Don't just resign yourself to hating your situation: the whole point of all this is building a happy life despite the challenges of living abroad, not just enduring the various ways living abroad can suck.

Of course, this advice is all based on me and my one (so far) experience with moving internationally. I'm sure I've left out some piece of advice that's been a lifesaver for someone else. So, expat friends and relatives (and friends and relatives of friends and relatives), what have I missed? What's the most important advice you'd give to someone on the brink of an inter-cultural move?

27 April 2012

The Expat Survival Kit

London icons, a block and a half from our flat.
And then the day finally comes. ... Although there have been moments of wondering if it will ever happen, given enough time and a genuine willingness to adapt, we will once again become part of the permanent community. ... We have a sense of intimacy, a feeling that our presence matters to this group.  We feel secure.  Time again feels present and permanent as we focus on the here and now rather than hoping for the future or constantly reminiscing about the past."
David C. Pollock
Ruth E. Van Reken 

When I first read the above paragraph last weekend, I immediately commented to Gino, "and then it'll be time to move again."

I speak from experience.  The book I quoted is right: it's taken a lot of effort (and a lot of thinking it would never happen), but the last eighteen months or so London has truly felt like home.  I have meaningful work I love, and Gino and I have built a circle of smart, interesting, caring people as friends.  We have our favorite restaurants and things to do on a free weekend afternoon, and we've worn the "touristy must-do in London" list down to a nub.  We know the relative advantages of Sainsbury vs Waitrose and that you can buy pretty much anything you can ever imagine needing at Peter Jones.  We have become, as the book puts it in another context, competent.  We're good at London, good at being Americans in London.

And next week we'll be moving into corporate housing for a stretch, pending a move to Ireland later on this summer.

I shouldn't have read Third Culture Kids so hard on the heels of Chris Pavone's The Expats, which I downloaded to read on a driving holiday around France.  I've read a lot of books about expat life over  my life, and especially the past four years, and The Expats was the first one that had me nodding along: yep, been there, done that.

The novel made me want to create a survival pack for new expats, especially the new expats brought overseas by a spouse's career.  (The term of art is "trailing spouse."  If you think that alone isn't a blow to the ego of a competent, independent, previously self-supporting adult, you would be wrong.)  It would include a copy of The Expats, because one of the amazing things about moving to a new country is the sheer amount of free time you have to get through when you get there, and Pavone's novel could kill some of that very enjoyably, while giving you a glimpse of what you're in for.  The survival pack would include a bulk package of your favorite treats from back home, a sampler of delicacies native to your new home, and a list of the instructions I wanted to give the book's protagonist:  find some kind of work, even if it doesn't pay.  Take a class in something, anything, you're remotely interested in, or pick a hobby and find a way to pursue it in a group setting.  (And don't worry about being a cliche.  Cliches are often based in truth.)   To the extent that this is in your control, make a few friends who are native to your new home, or have lived there long-term.  Get together with the other parents at your kids' school and form a baby-sitting co-op so you can have the occasional non-parental evening, even when your husband's traveling.  Don't just get through the days--invest them in building some kind of life.  

I started to feel downright cocky about the move to Ireland: I've done this before.  I've got this changing-countries thing down.  This'll be a lark.

And then Third Culture Kids knocked me off my high horse.  No Expat Survival Kit would be complete without a copy of this book.  Seriously, even if you have no kids and no plan to have them--that just means you can skip the "schooling options" bit.  You should still read most of the book, which has tons to say about the process of relocating into a new culture, and repatriating back.  It was one of those books that told me all kinds of things I didn't realize I knew.

Holy cow.  The book stressed me out in advance.  It reminded me of everything I'd forgotten about exactly how hard it is to switch cities, let alone countries.  How you have to prove yourself all over again to a whole new group of people.  How you have to figure out where to get American products, because someday you will find yourself insanely homesick and only Betty Crocker Devil's Food Cake will make you feel better.  How you have to figure out where to get everything and how many things you didn't realize you can't live without until you decided to leave them behind.  How you have to find some way of passing the time while you slowly accumulate replacements for all the bits of your life you took for granted in the old place: Your work.  Your hobbies.  Your gym.  Your favorite restaurant that actually delivers.  Your friends.

At the same time, it made me feel validated.  All the emotions I experienced in the move to London, even the really embarrassingly immature and provincial ones, are chronicled and catalogued and pronounced perfectly normal.  And who doesn't love to have their more shameful moments--that time you burst into tears in the grocery store because you didn't recognize a single brand of peanut butter, say, or the week you bought something new every single day just so that somehow, something would be different at the end of the day than it was at the beginning--pronounced perfectly normal?

Whisky tasting at the Jameson Distillery.
Dublin will have its compensations.
But it did remind me that those steps I recommended above are necessary and the rewards of going through them really are great--but oh, they're hard.  And there's no getting away from it: the reason you know you need all that stuff, the friends and the gym and the work, is that you already had it, back where you came from.  And no one is going to hand any of it to you in this new place--you have to go out and get it all again.

Everyone I've talked to about this has noted the wave of homesickness that hits around the one-year mark in a new place.  The new glow has worn off and you're just integrated enough into the new community to know how integrated you're not.  When I was about at that point, I had tea with a dear friend who was about a year ahead of me on the expat cycle, and I admitted that I was tempted to give up on making a life and just go into endurance mode until someone told me it was time to leave London.  Since someone was going to tell me to go away eventually, what was the point of making London into somewhere I wanted to live?

My friend listened patiently, and pointed out: "if you're as heartbroken to leave London as you were to leave New York, that's not necessarily a bad thing."  And surprise surprise, she was right.  The grief at leaving London, the conviction that Dublin can't possibly be as good... I wouldn't be feeling any of that if I hadn't done a pretty damn good job of making myself at home here.  And four years ago, I didn't think that was possible, either.

About halfway through The Expats, Pavone describes guests at a Christmas party in Luxembourg:
This party was dominated by the sizable contingent who'd circled around themselves as Americans, exclusionary, flag-pin wearing.  Behaving as if they hadn't chosen to live in Europe, but had been moved against their wills, and were putting up a brave resistance.  Freedom fighters.
I've definitely met those people, and as I said, I understand the temptation.  Third Culture Kids notes that one response to moving into a new culture, recognizing that you'll always be an outsider, is to broadcast your difference and cling even more closely to the culture you know and understand.  When I first moved to London, I met several women who played a lot of bridge and went on a lot of day trips and, from the way they talked about living here, generally just tried  to endure the time before they could go home and back to real life.

Having had periods of living that way, and periods of throwing myself at London until it let me in, I can tell you: in the long run it's a lot easier to make yourself at home in the new place, than to grit your teeth and endure being away from home for years at a time.

And it's so totally worth it.  It's not exactly easy to rebuild your life every few years, and it really sucks to say good-bye to what you've built.  But you have to keep reminding yourself: this is your life.  These two or three or ten or twenty years you're spending abroad, you don't ever get these back.  Home is a long way away, in both time and space. Since you have to be here, you might as well put in the effort through the initial rebuilding process (and deal with the eventual, inevitable grief).  Then you get at least a couple years where things are easy again, and you get to go home with years' worth of amazing memories and stories and friends from all over the world.

14 February 2012

My Imaginary Boyfriends

Calvin O'Keefe.  Jeff Greene.  Joe Willard.  Stan Crandall.

Scholastic's Blog has me thinking about my first loves.

Joe Willard was the responsible,
mature man in Deep Valley.
Even without the bibliophilic inspiration, of course my first crushes were from books.  Looking back on it, I'm surprised I can't come up with a longer list.  Whatever was drawing me into all those hours of reading must have been the plots or the themes or the settings or something, 'cause it wasn't the characters.

Except for some of them.

When I read them as a kid, all of the guys in my favorite books were wise beyond their years, masters of any situation--and this was pretty much what I thought guys must be like in general.  So, in jr high or high school, if a guy I liked didn't ask me out (despite the rumor mill's assurance that he wanted to), I had no idea that he might be shy or scared of rejection or waiting for me to pick up on some of his more obvious hints and give him a smidgen of encouragement.  No, if a guy I liked wasn't asking me out, it must be because he wasn't interested.
Jeff Greene woo'd Dicey
--and me--with American
roots music.

That must have been hella wishful thinking on my part.  'Cause I've read all those books as many times as an adult as I did as a kid--which is a lot--and what I love about the books now is how none of the characters are perfect. The guys in the stories are excellent, yes, but excellent teenage boys, not paragons of maturity and wisdom.

Jeff, the boy in love with Dicey in one of my favorite books ever, is comfortable around Dicey's family and always says the right thing--except that he doesn't; he's awkward and unsure of himself and the only reason their friendship goes anywhere is because Dicey occasionally gets out of her own head enough to meet him halfway.  Joe Willard, who ends up married to my imaginary best friend Betsy Ray, is handsome and talented--but he's prickly and officious and gets offended at the drop of a hat, which is why it takes him and Betsy five books to actually get together and stay together.

Or take Stan Crandall, the love interest in the first romance novel I ever read.  The whole point of Stan Crandall is for Jane Purdy to figure out that despite his height and smarts and charm, he's not a Lord of Creation (to borrow Louisa May Alcott's turn of irony)--he's a kid, like her, and one of the big things they have in common is an overabundance of self-consciousness.

Which brings us back around to Calvin O'Keefe.  (And Josiah Davidson.  And Adam Eddington, be still my heart, Adam Eddington.  And, oh, Queron Renier.  And almost--almost--every other young man ever thought up by Madeleine L'Engle.)

Adam Eddington somehow managed
to be the boy next door and
unattainable all at once, while
Zachary Gray brings out the amateur
shrink in all of us.
Even on re-reading as an adult, Calvin is as close to perfect as a human can conceive.  He's popular but doesn't let it go to his head.  He's completely sure of himself, to the point of being able to tell Meg "what dreamboat eyes" she has, within hours of their first meeting.  He's come to grips with his dysfunctional family at a ridiculously young age.  And while the biographical details of each differ, L'Engle's heros are the only guys from my favorite books that match my youthful idealization.

Which is why, as an adult, my favorite L'Engle Guy is Zachary Gray, who never made my list of crushworthy characters.  Zachary is, at least in the books I've read the most, a cautionary tale about the tendency to get into relationships with people who need a lot more care than a teenager can hope to give.  His function is generally to be the bad-boy temptation and get rejected--for excellent reasons--by the protagonist, and the fact that he's smart, rich, sensitive, and handsome, yet bad for a girl, makes him among the most complex male characters in the L'Engle canon.

Paying it forward: who were your teenage literary crushes?  If you've re-read those books lately, how do they hold up to your memories?