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Home or Away?

When summertime beckons, many of us find ourselves pondering the annual question: home or away?

Whether it’s a long-planned holiday far afield, camping in a field (aka caravaning), day trips in the general vicinity, a picnic in a bucolic setting, or simply a barbeque in the backyard, it’s the season we want to be doing something different.

So when we began planning for this summer’s adventures, the immediate answer to the initial question was a resounding yes.

Both.

Not just home or away, home and away.

And from there it got complicated.

So many factors contributed to what quickly became a growing enterprise I affectionately refer to as OPERATION: EXTENDED SUMMER TRAVEL. And believe me, the logistics and complexity of details have rivaled many a campaign.

Take one wanderlust-fueled, holiday-starved family deeply missing the excitement and thrill of exploring new places and cultures. Add a high school reunion, a couple work-related opportunities, and the chance to write in different, enthralling and creativity-inspiring environments.

Toss in an overseas arts & humanities program for one child, and last-minute change in summer plans allowing for the crossing of paths with a global best friend for the other. Conjure the funds through scrimping and saving and scoring great deals on travel and housing, and voila! What might simply have been a short-lived vacation morphed into what is proving to be a marvelous few months. It’s not the same as packing up and moving abroad again, but close enough.

Many thanks to those of you who contacted me behind the scenes to inquire whether all was well. It was, it is, and, if the fates allow, hopefully it will remain so. I’ve taken an unintended but restorative break from blogging, not for lack of interest or ideas but because – even in this day age – wifi connectivity has been wonky at times. And sometimes you just want to spend time with loved ones, being in the moment and cherishing the chance to experience it all and do what you love.

The results have been and continue to be those of rejuvenation, growth, gratitude, creativity and a renewed sense of purpose. Special times abound, and I’ll share one with you now. Budva Lunch

Recently we found ourselves at (adult Third Culture Kid) Husband’s high school reunion in Rome, celebrating the 50th birthday of his beloved international school. As these weekend-long reunions only occur once a decade, they are generally well-attended. We’ve been going for, well…, let’s just say we’ve gone a couple prior and not mess with the years involved as it’s a rather scary number.

Having been raised in his adolescent years in Rome, Husband has a great fondness and affinity for Italian life, one that he has generously shared with us, and, over time, we have come to share with him. It’s encouraging for Son and Daughter to observe firsthand how, with a bit of effort, their father has remained close to those people with whom he spent his middle and high school years.

Yes, nostalgia and the passage of time can combine into a formidable pair of rose-colored glasses, making us not only look back fondly on old times but imbue them with a significance and value they might otherwise not necessarily deserve. So in returning periodically to the scene of so many formative life experiences, so many hijinks, so many hormonally-charged moments of drama and emotion and laughter and angst, it is heartening to find the ties that bind remain strong and true.

There is a special bond among Husband and his classmates, one forged in living and attending boarding school during one’s formative years in another country, in another culture, especially in a time and place as exciting and enriching and magical as Rome was then.

And, I can happily report, remains so.

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Welcome back to what I hope you’ll agree is a fascinating story of professional transition amid cross-cultural life.

This is the second part in a three-part series of how two expat business women —  Evelyn Simpson (previously The Smart Expat) and Louise Wiles (previously Success Abroad Coaching) —  living in different countries met, collaborated on a joint survey project, identified a niche and conspired to build an online business together: Simpson Wiles and Associates Ltd., and the corresponding website ThrivingAbroad.com.

Simpson Wiles and Associates is a UK-registered company in which both are shareholders; they deal with the financial consequences of the structure differently according to the rules and regulations of their respective host countries.

[Here's part one in case you missed it.]

*  *  *

So how did Evelyn and Louise come up with the concept of ThrivingAbroad.com, its mission and intended goods/services? Having each developed and run her own expat partner coaching business and then worked closely together on their successful Career Choice and the Accompanying Partner survey/report, they were on the same wavelength.

“We started with the products and services and structured our programmes around what we had learned from our research, the needs that we saw among accompanying partners and what we knew had worked with our previous clients,” Louise said. “We also knew that, to be successful and meet needs, we had to deliver something that offered more specific deliverables than just “coaching,” so we knew that the programmes had to be system-based.”

We also know that the accompanying partners who are most successful in transitioning are the ones who manage to develop a positive mindset, and who feel empowered to drive their own personal development while on assignment,” Evelyn continued. “We wanted the company name, website and materials to have the same positive, empowered feeling.”

Photo of a handshake involving two women by patrisyu portfolio 6621 freedigitalphotos.net

As for dividing up responsibilities, they each tend toward certain tasks which fall within their natural skillsets and interests, but share the rest, especially those efforts which have helped set the tone for the company.

“There was so much to do at the beginning that when one of us was finished with one task, she would go to the next one on the list.Some tasks we divide on an equal basis such as blog writing,” Louise explained. “I do two, Evelyn does two.”

“However, we do see some natural divisions. Evelyn (as a former investment banker) enjoys the finance role more than me, and so she has taken on the bank account and book keeping role, which makes me very happy! I am sure that we will need to take a more disciplined approach to the division of tasks/roles as the business grows. The bigger issue is getting it all done rather than who does what and I’m sure that at some point in the future we’re both going to have to do things that neither of us wants to do. We recognise that we cannot both do it all.”

Which brings up what can easily be a tricky issue for work partners: how to resolve differences of opinion. Even in this potential danger area, their mutual respect and willingness to put the business first seem to help keep things on an even keel.

“So far, there haven’t been any major differences of opinion but we’ve found that, when we disagree on something we’ve been able to reach a quick conclusion,” Evelyn said. “We’re each direct and respectful about expressing our opinions and we approach our differences of opinion with an open mind and a willingness to understand the other person’s point of view and to make compromises.”

“I ask myself, how important is it to me to defend my view point?” Louise added. “Generally, I realise that it is not ‘make or break,’ and I can see the positive in Evelyn’s point of view. I think that we both sense when one of us is more convinced or passionate about our point of view and tend to go with that one. We are conscious that we need to make decisions and act, not waste time arguing over who is right or wrong.”

At this point, talk turned to what they each consider to be their biggest hurdles when setting up their new business. They responded similarly, consistent with what most of us would expect from working mothers whose life partners’ jobs require fairly frequent travel.

“For me it’s been finding the right balance between home life and work,” Evelyn offered. “Even though I had to find that balance before, when it’s just you, it’s much easier to let other priorities get in the way.”

Ditto for me on the balance front. This is good in one sense as it means we have a lot of understanding for each other’s home challenges, which can be both good and bad as we tend not to pressurize each other in this respect,” Louise said. “Personally, my biggest hurdle is time management and focus. Getting things done quickly and getting it “out” into the world rather than thinking it all needs to be absolutely perfect. Having a business partner who expects me to get it done, helps motivate me to get things done – accountability and agreed deadlines are very helpful.”

And then Louise shared this:

“Our biggest challenge is not in the joint venture, but in trying to convince companies of the rationale for supporting accompanying partners and actually persuading them to devote resources to supporting accompanying partners.”

I wish I could say I was surprised or stunned or even taken aback. Sadly, what seems to be a “no-brainer” in terms of a small financial outlay for accompanying partner support compared to the potential benefits to be reaped from an expat employee’s successful international assignment – in terms of greater focus and productivity, feeling appreciated by and therefore appreciative of the organization, peace of mind that family members are being supported, emotional support from those spouse/partner/family members – is instead a major bone of contention.

The simplest way to justify providing accompanying partners necessary support is that family issues rank as one of the most common reasons expat assignments fall apart, end early or are turned down before they begin. All of which costs a business money, time and effort to hire, replace and train new employees, not to mention the churn and disruption encountered.

Having addressed the challenges of starting a new joint business, we turned to the benefits.

“As I mentioned before, for me it is the accountability and being part of a team, albeit a small one at the moment,” Louise said. “I also think people take more notice of “us” than they did when it was just “me.” We also have double the contacts, and our different locations I think can be a real bonus as well.”

Two heads are definitely better than one, and the more we’ve talked about the company and what we want to do, the more our dreams and ambitions for it have grown,” Evelyn said. “It’s also lovely to have a colleague, even if we’re currently separated by a few national borders.”

What about lessons learned for those interested in setting up such a partnership?

“Take on a smaller project together first and see how you manage it,” Evelyn said. “It will give a strong sense of whether your values and your objectives are aligned.”

“Yes, you need to have a good mutual understanding of each other’s values, objectives and goals, their style of working and their way of communicating,” Louise concurred. “I think it is working well so far because we really do listen to each other – of course we do, we are both coaches − but also I think you have to be careful that you don’t become simply a talking and ideas shop. What is important is getting your thoughts, ideas and services out into the world and we are constantly conscious of the need to do this.”

Finally, I asked about advice to accompanying partners:

“Before deciding to relocate, it is important to think carefully about what you want from your career and then to do some serious research about possibilities in your potential new location,” Louise said. “Bear in mind that you may need to be creative, flexible and patient, and see the relocation as an opportunity perhaps for reinvention.”

“Think broadly about what you want to do as an accompanying partner,” Evelyn added. “Challenge and opportunity often go hand in hand, so when life feels tough, keep your mind open to the opportunities that might be around you.”

As fate would have it, our intrepid expat entrepreneurs are both on the move this summer to the UK, Evelyn’s family to Scotland and Louise’s family to England. Do check out the blog at ThrivingAbroad.com to keep up with their respective repatriations, then join me in September when I’ll report on what it’s like to keep a business partnership afloat during the typical upheaval of expat transition.

[Image credit: patrisyu, portfoli 6621 at freedigitalphotos.net]

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C is for Committed

Time for another entry under Expats A to Z,  a series of posts about the little things that can make a difference in how we approach some of the challenges and experiences of expatriate — and repatriate — life.

alphabet on a web by Vlado portfolio 1836 image on www.adventuresinexpatland.com I’m talking about those qualities and traits we can nurture within us not only to simply survive, but thrive amid constant change. You know, the characteristics and features that can help smooth the way.

I started with A is for Acknowledging Differences and then went with F is for Flexibility. More recently there were K is for KaleidoscopeO is for Open and T is for Thoughtful. The last entry was P is for Patient.

I’m not writing this series in alphabetical order because I like mixing things up. Quite frankly, it’s a whole lot more interesting when you don’t know what’s coming next. More fun for me as well. I do hope you’ll follow along and share your own thoughts and experiences.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

C is for Committed

As I was running down my alphabetical list of characteristics central to a life lived across cultures, the letter C was easily filled in, yet has proven more difficult to write about.

When I say it requires commitment, I’m referring to one in both the public sense as well as a more private.

On the surface, you’ve got the reason why you’re tackling a cross-cultural move. Perhaps you’ve deliberately picked a nomadic life — say, representing your country’s government or working for an international business which considers global assignments a normal part of career progression. Or you’ve simply fallen into an opportunity to move abroad as a one-off, or you’re intent on emigrating, or your work is location independent and you’ve always wanted to live in ‘fill-in-the-blank’.

Maybe it’s none of the above, because one thing the intersection of enhanced mobility, advancements in technology and increasing globalization has shown us is that more people are moving to more places around this planet of ours than at any other time in history. And the numbers just keep growing.

So we head off on our grand new (or merely the latest) adventure, excited and wary and curious and full of hope.

While we all imagine it will be new as in original, unique, novel and untainted, sometimes we find ourselves smack in the middle of a type of new that is unfamiliar, dissimilar, unusual, strange. New as in different. Sometimes very, very different.

Most of us have heard the old adage ‘different isn’t better or worse, it’s simply different’, and I believe it’s true more often than not. Sure, we all tend to go through some form of culture shock, with the attendant fluctuations in interest, willingness and stamina to deal with settling in and making a life in a place which challenges our ability to adapt or adjust. We initially focus on survival, but our aim is usually far more than simply making it through: we aspire to thrive.

Blooming where we’re planted, and all that.

Yet sometimes the best we can hope for — or manage — is to find our way to acceptance. Even worse, we may need to claw our way there.

It’s possible we find ourselves flailing because it is far less than we’d bargained for, either the physical location we’re in or the emotional space we’re inhabiting. Or both.

In times like these we would do well to remind ourselves of how and why we arrived at this place, the choices we made, the decisions taken.

Yes I know there are instances when we end up somewhere because our livelihood depends on it. We get the call telling us ‘it’s on to X, need you there by Y’, and whether we like it or not, we dutifully go because what’s left unstated is the knowledge that to decline is to become unemployed.

If you’re confident of finding other work, perhaps better suited to your skills and temperament and dreams, then by all means go for it. But many of us struggle with hasty decisions pushed upon us. We prefer time to think and mull and consider and plan. If the economic outlook is pear-shaped, all the more reason to hunker down with what we’ve got and ride out the storm.

Sometimes, despite all our efforts, it is because we are unhappy, even miserable. In other instances, we may enjoy where we are and what we’re doing, but external life forces — accident, illness, divorce, the gradual realization that this nomadic lifestyle just isn’t working for us in our particular life stage anymore — propel us to leave.

I experienced that firsthand when we chose to repatriate earlier than expected for family reasons, to be closer to members requiring care. For some, leaving is necessary to address outright crises. I know others who moved on or back or away because of a family member’s struggles, or the death of a spouse or loved one, or simply because ‘it was time’.

So when I say you must be committed when you undertake a cross-cultural adventure, I don’t mean you do so blindly, ignoring warning signs or oblivious to the curve balls life has a way of throwing our way. Expatriate life isn’t a one-way ticket on the Ark in horrific storms, and you’re not Noah. You do the best you can with the information you have in the situation in which you find yourself.

Why? Because you’re where you are until circumstances — or you  — change. Even when they may have felt a bit forced on us or made under duress, owning our choices and accepting where we are does one of two things. It gives us permission to make peace with life lived here and now, which in turn might result in opening ourselves up to making the best of the experience, of making peace with life lived here, now. Or it frees you up to start doing the necessary reflection and preparation for what comes next.

I’m not advocating slapping on a big grin and telling everyone ‘I’m fine, it’s great’, either.

We go with the best of intentions, and give it our best in hopes we flourish. Sometimes it’s a match made in heaven. Or it takes awhile to get there, but we do. In a few instances, we may never stand a chance. In the latter case, we still remain committed, if only to making the most of the life spot we’re in until we’re no longer there. Knowing that nothing is forever, no situation is permanent.

We look for the takeaways in what we’ve experienced. We dig deep to unearth the lessons learned. We examine ourselves, our lives, to determine what this has done to us, what this has done for us, what it has meant.

The external, public commitment isn’t to attaining the perfect, blissful, cross-cultural experience, because that doesn’t exist. Our commitment is to making the effort, to trying, to persevering, and hopefully enjoying, even celebrating. In doing so, we uphold the internal, private commitment we make to ourselves: that of learning, of seeking, of wanting to understand. Above all, in expanding our cultural boundaries, we commit to growth.

Ever experienced a time/place that just wasn’t right, where your commitment waivered?

Hey, I’m joining Cate of SmallPlanetStudio.com for the April #MyGlobalLife Link-Up. Come on over.

[Image credit: Vlado, portfolio 1836 www.freedigitalphotos.net]

Updated 26 April to correct two sentences which inadvertently had been mangled into one in the original, thereby changing the meaning and intent.

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It’s hard to believe that a little over a year ago I was in the final stages of completing The Emotionally Resilient Expat.

This meant writing the last bits and pieces, tidying up the table of contents, drafting the acknowledgements, finalizing the references and resources section, creating an index, and responding to the edits, questions and suggested changes of my fabulous editor, Saint Jane.

As I double-checked contributors’ short biographies, one bright spot among the exceedingly detailed tedium at the time was learning that Evelyn Simpson (then The Smart Expat) and Louise Wiles (then Success Abroad Coaching) were themselves in the throes of giving birth to a new joint business venture: Simpson Wiles and Associates Ltd. and the corresponding website ThrivingAbroad.com.

While I kept this knowledge secret until last summer when my book was published and their new company was made public, I knew then I would write about this fascinating story of professional transition amid cross-cultural life. This is the first part in a three-part series of how two expat business women living in different countries met, collaborated on a joint survey project, identified a niche and conspired to build an online business together.

*  *  *

Originally from the UK – Evelyn from Scotland, Louise from England – both found their careers impacted by typical conditions affecting many expatriate partners: interruption from multiple moves, limited opportunities, language barriers, raising small children, and a sense of disconnect from their previous career paths.

“I started out as an investment banker, stopped working for a while when my children were little and found myself so removed from my original career, both practically and emotionally, that a rethink was the only choice,” Evelyn said. “After a couple of detours, I realised that coaching and working with accompanying partners were where my passions lay.”

Louise, too, ended up switching careers, reinventing herself as a coach.

“I have enjoyed the experience of living abroad and gained a lot from it. But it did challenge me from a career perspective,” she said. “Initially in Madrid I did a TEFL course and taught English for a while, then I went back to studying and gained a degree in Psychology and a Masters in Occupational Psychology. I then decided to train as a personal performance coach and chose to link that qualification with my experience as an expatriate.”

It was a discussion a few years ago in a social media Human Resources group that brought the two together. Someone else had complained that expat partners didn’t really seem to want to work; even when efforts were made to gain a work visa, many still chose to stay at home.

“If you’ve read some of my articles, you’ll know that I get a bit worked up about some of this stuff,” Evelyn said. “So I got online to respond and noticed that Louise had already expressed a similar opinion to mine.”

I thought the issue was much more complicated than just simply being able to get a visa or not, and that there were multiple other factors which would influence an accompanying partner’s decision to work or not,” Louise offered. “Even though some accompanying partners choose not to work, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are happy with that choice – it’s just the best available choice in the circumstances.”

Photo of a handshake involving two women by patrisyu portfolio 6621 freedigitalphotos.net

Louise mentioned she’d been thinking about doing some research around the subject of accompanying partners’ career choices, something Evelyn also had been considering.

At the time, expatriate employment surveys focused exclusively on the views of the employed spouses; very little, if any, research had been done from the accompanying expat partner’s perspective. The two decided to join forces to develop and conduct this groundbreaking survey and publish a corresponding report.

“Almost everything we did was done online. We set up the survey on Survey Monkey and promoted it though our respective blogs and social media channels,” Louise said. “We contacted women’s groups in various countries to solicit participants and also to promote the survey.  We also worked with many of our online friends in the expat world to ask them to write about the survey, and eventually, the results.”

To analyse the results and write the report, we spent over 100 hours working together via Skype − thank goodness it’s free. We’d split the work, go off and each do what we committed to doing and then get back on Skype to discuss what we’d done and work out the next part,” Evelyn said. “In many ways our skills are quite complementary – I’m a numbers geek so I did a lot of the quantitative analysis whilst Louise tackled the daunting job of analysing the qualitative data and tying it into what the numbers were telling us.”

The result to this initial joint venture was the successful survey report ‘Career Choice and the Accompanying Partner,’ released in 2012.

“We got quite a bit of coverage in various outlets when we first published, though we were a little disappointed that it didn’t get more attention in the HR world,” said Evelyn. “However, we are finding that as we talk about it in the context of what we are doing now (with their business partnership and Thriving Abroad), it’s getting more attention and gets us into conversations about the well-being of accompanying partners.”

The summary report has been downloaded by over 200 people so far and we’ve given away dozens of additional copies,” Louise added. “As far as we can tell, it’s been read by a mix of accompanying partners, people who provide services to expats and some HR/Global mobility people, too.”!

Both agreed they gained valuable insights on working together during this survey project.

“We learned a lot about conducting research projects. Having both conducted research as part of our Masters we had a good basis on which to build, however there is always room for improvement,” Louise said. “Also, having worked on my own for quite a long time, I had to remind myself at times not to be too defensive of my ideas, and to recognize that the synergistic result of combining and accepting each other ideas created a better end result than my initial individual thoughts and ideas.”

“I’m a bit of a control freak, so letting go of certain aspects of the project was a big step for me,” Evelyn admitted. “The upside was that I learned that Louise is someone whose judgment and way of doing things I could trust. Whilst we don’t agree on everything (nor do we want to), working on the research really set the foundations for the way we work together in Thriving Abroad.”

Working together on a project is one thing; dismantling your respective businesses to jointly build a new one is something else entirely, especially when working in different countries. So exactly how did the decision come about to take that next gigantic step?

“We talked about our businesses, what we wanted to do with them and the challenges of doing those things throughout the process of working on the survey research,” Louise shared. “We had very similar ideas about what we wanted to do and the same challenges (travelling husbands, young children), and as we worked together well over the months in which we were preparing the report, we both started to think about the potential benefits of teaming up.”

However, at that point we hadn’t ever actually met – looking each other in the eye is not really the same as on Skype,” Evelyn added. “We agreed that we’d both go to the 2012 Totally Expat Show in London, and just before attending we started to talk about combining our businesses. The in-person meeting in London was the final ‘test’.”

“Yes, I remember sitting down and discussing our ideas, it was obvious that we had similar visions, goals and that we shared a real passion for wanting to support the accompanying partner,” Louise concurred. “I remember thinking, this is great, but how will we ever mould these ideas and our dual involvement into a joint business? It seemed like a massive but very exciting challenge.”

Join us next week when we learn how Evelyn and Louise built a joint business together.

[Image credit: patrisyu, portfoli 6621 at freedigitalphotos.net]

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Feeding the Creative Beast

As mentioned in Under ConstructionI hope you’ll join me as I navigate the re-entry stage in our repatriation journey. Every three months I share a series of ‘snapshot’ blog posts about the particulars of building a new life from scratch, filed under the post category Re-entry Reality. I look at everything from making a home, engaging socially, staying healthy, and stretching creatively,  to becoming part of a community, launching new career endeavors and addressing spiritual needs and emotional well being.

* * *

It’s been a little more than half a year into our repatriation, and I can tell you I’m squarely in the midst of re-entry.

In Re-entry Reality I explained why I’m keeping track of what I’ve been doing — or not, as the case may be — in  a host of categories I believe are important to having a balanced, relatively harmonious life. [If you're new to this series, that post also contains links to my musings on the first three months of re-entry after moving back from the Netherlands.]

However, there were two major areas I didn’t manage to report on during the first quarter of repatriation: work/professional and creative ventures. So in Work? In Progress, I rectified the situation by explaining first what I did on the professional front during the initial three months followed by developments in the next three.

Today I’m going to do the same in an area I consider of paramount importance in helping us achieve that ephemeral goal of balance: recreation/creativity.

In short, I believe this is the wedge of the life-wheel which helps fuel our forward motion in daily life, propel our progress and feed our imagination.

For the sake of argument, I’m removing ‘spending time with loved ones’ (family and/or friends) from the equation. That is something which ranks high on most people’s priorities, mine included. But in this instance I’m talking about those activities we do solely for ourselves.

You know, the ones we tend to overlook or push aside as we spend our time, attention and energy in other spheres.

To me, creativity/recreation consists of doing those things we want to do, the sorts of things which soothe our soul, inspire our ideas and truly rejuvenate us. I’m sure you recognize the feeling I mean: when you’ve got a bundle of time — anywhere from a few minutes to several hours to a lazy weekend or longer — what makes us set aside our ‘to do’ lists and our ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’?

For as long as I can remember, reading has been my recreational activity of choice. I’m not talking about research-related reading. I tend to do a fair amount of that, and while I usually find it interesting, and indeed creativity-sparking, here I’m referring to books, articles, magazines read purely for pleasure.

I used to lament my lack of recreational reading time until a few years ago, I jumped on the Kindle bandwagon. Until then, lying in bed at the end of the day was when I’d try to fit in a few pages, a chapter if I were lucky, before succumbing to drowsiness and going to sleep. Then Kindle came into my life, and I’ve never looked back.

Suddenly I didn’t need to carry a heavy book or thick paperback around with me: that slim, lightweight e-reader was easily tucked into my purse, ready to be pulled out while standing in lines, before a meeting or appointment, or sitting in my car in parking lots waiting for my children to finish school/sports/social activities.

And the selection, oh the choices! I could jump straight back into whatever novel I was in the midst of, or if I wasn’t feeling that, I could pick among dozens of titles — all less expensive than a paperback, many even free. Just as freeing as the realization I could find snippets of time in which to feed my creative appetite by reading, the expanse of choice as to what I chose to read was even more so.

Since getting serious about writing nearly full-time almost four years ago, I’ve tended to write primarily non-fiction: articles, interviews and book reviews ending up in an array of print and online venues, observational or reflective or memoir-ish blog posts, my book The Emotionally Resilient Expat.

But a wonderful thing happened. As I became accustomed to parking myself at my desk and writing, I began to feel pangs of wanting to write fiction. I collected ideas for short stories and a couple work-in-progress novels, and began putting pen to paper — or far more likely, fingers to keyboard.

Pen on pad of paper by Paul portfolio 1526 as seen on www.adventuresinexpatland.com

Slowly a few pieces took shape. I took a couple short writing classes which served to spur me on: nothing like learning what you’re doing wrong to humble and inspire you to do better. And in the back of my mind, I could hear the refrain Once my book is done, I’m doing this full-time.

Except that I’m not, in large part because of what I wrote about in Work? In Progress.

Life takes its turns, and brings with it delicious, difficult, demanding choices. I’ve had to decide what is more important to me at this time, in this place of my life. I’ve chosen to embark on a second book in the emotional resilience series, this time focusing on global students.

I’m not complaining, because having options and choices and decisions is a privilege we should cherish, not whine about. This book excites me, gets me going in the morning, continually lurks in the back of my mind. It is bringing me in touch with amazing people, and taking on a life of its own.

And that is good. Very good indeed.

Except for my fiction writing, of course, which is not getting anywhere near the time and attention it deserves.

So what exactly have I been doing these past six months to feed and nourish my creative bent?

In the first three months, I didn’t write a single word of fiction. But I did read a whole heck of a lot, replenishing my severely dwindled reserves of creativity after the emotional demands of leaving the Netherlands, moving back to the US, starting over in rebuilding a new life, and far worse, losing my father to cancer.

I also attended an afternoon-long Writer’s Day forum held at our fabulous local independent bookstore, where I greedily took in gobs of information, advice and encouragement from a panel of online and print novel and short story publishers, another of successful novelists, and a third panel of poets.  And to commit myself to finding time to write fiction, I signed up for a writing workshop.

Building on my initial foray into what I’m finding is an incredibly prolific and supportive writing community, over the next three months I completed the six-week fiction workshop, hungrily absorbing new knowledge, insights, skills and experience. I joined a statewide professional association for writers, gaining access to a wealth of information and a calendar full of writing competitions and calls for submission to journals to consider and plan for.

And in what I find to be a wonderful source of inspiration and encouragement, I’ve been to several author readings/book signings of both regional and national talents at the aforementioned independent bookstore. These remind me of similar book launches I attended while living in The Hague, making for a warm connection to the source of my writing.

I may not be spending oodles of hours weekly working on my novel or whipping up short stories, but I am making steady —albeit slow — progress in both areas. For now, that will have to suffice. But every single moment I am engaged in a fiction-related activity, I am feeding the creative beast which lies within, and I am the happier for doing so.

So tell me, what are YOU doing to foster your own creativity? Do share, I’d love to know.

[Image source: Paul, portfolio 1526, freedigitalphotos.net]

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The Gift of Reinvention

Lately I’ve been doing a fair bit of writing on re-entry transition because, well, I’m several months into repatriation after four years in the Netherlands. I do so not simply because it’s what is foremost in my thoughts and daily actions, but also to understand.

Writing about repatriation helps me grasp significance, identify patterns, comprehend the alien environment in which I find myself. It aids me both from a big-picture perspective as well as a nitty, gritty, detailed level.

I don’t automatically assume because something’s happening to me that it’s of interest to others. Actually it’s quite the inverse: the likelihood something’s been happening to others, too, is of interest to me. Instead of being a one-way signal bleating out into the darkness — look at me! what about this?! then this happened! — I’m far more interested in being a transponder, picking up signals in addition to sending them out.

While I understand the allure of ‘write what you know’, I find more attractive the concept of ‘write what you’re unsure of.’

There’s something cathartic about blogging, in the gathering of your thoughts on the page, daring to put into words what is still being sifted about in your brain, trying to discern a particular rhyme and reason to help make some sense of it all. I suppose it helps me feels less adrift, more grounded, not simply reacting to each development and every little thing.

Rather than reeking of hubris, I find the vulnerability of being unsure, of not having a sense of certainty, freeing. It turns what can be seen as a one-sided monologue into a conversation; it facilitates connection. In turn, I know there is a community of others out there who will share their insights and experiences, helping to shine a light on my path from the lantern of their own.

And so it goes with repatriation in general, the re-entry transition in particular. It’s riddled with change and leaving and loss, but along the way I’ve come to appreciate the gift of reinvention this major life change has presented.

It’s certainly not limited to those of us navigating the shoals of return, either. Anyone gearing up for a move of any sort — across town, province/state, country, continent or planet — is doing a version of the same dance, albeit with fewer or added layers of complexity depending on the individual circumstance.

You don’t even have to be moving anywhere at all to be caught up in the maelstrom of change: a shift in careers, raising children or facing an empty nest, meeting/marrying/de-coupling from the person of your dreams, upsizing or downsizing to find the ephemeral ‘right-sizing’, tweaking a part of your life which just doesn’t feel ‘right’, stumbling upon a new activity or interest which consumes your time and attention, becoming part of a greater cause.

We’re all in the process of reinventing ourselves, aren’t we? Just in different ways, for different reasons, and at different paces.

I say ‘gift’ when I refer to reinvention, but the truth is a good part of building a new life (or altering an existing one) is meeting requirements: filling in the blanks, checking the boxes, adding color and detail. Beginning with the most basic, physiological needs such as arranging for shelter and being clothed and fed, we work our way up the pyramid of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (to which I’ve always appended ‘and Wants that become Needs’).

We nail down physical safety, which encourages emotional security. We seek employment, property, resources before turning our attention to relationships, acceptance and a sense of belonging. Feeling a part of community and cared for, we can seek fulfillment of higher-level needs such as respecting and being respected by others, achievement, confidence, and feeling good about ourselves.

If we’re fortunate, Maslow’s interpretation of human needs leads us to self-actualization: realizing the innate need to meet our fullest potential, our intended purpose, whatever that may be.

And woven throughout it all? Our changing sense of identity — sometimes shifting imperceptibly, other times being altered to our core, impacted by our experiences — who we are, what we value, what we strive for, what matters most.

Over time, what I’m coming to appreciate more and more is the richness of the opportunity to reinvent, re-imagine, redefine.

It permeates choices from where I live and how I make the blank canvas of that place ‘home’, to the kind of work I wish to do and the activities I decide to give my focus and energy. It’s there in who I surround myself with or seek out, and how I choose to rejuvenate, replenish, restore and recreate.

Whether I have a clear vision of who I want to be or feel the need to try things on to ensure a proper fit, it all boils down to determining who I am and fulfilling those escalating needs (and pesky wants). It’s about priorities. And growth.

It involves the fullness of choice and the luxury of opportunity. It’s not given to us, it’s hard-fought, but there for the taking. Often difficult and messy, sometimes uncomfortable or painful, I’m finding I wouldn’t trade the gift of reinvention for anything.

Today I’m joining fellow expat/repat, new found friend and NC neighbor Cate over at SmallPlanetStudios for her monthly #MyGlobalLife LinkUp. Why not join us?

My Global Life Link-Up
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In the early days of missing Malaysian Airlines Flight #370, I had no intention of writing about it. The tale of how 239 people boarded an airplane in Kuala Lumpur but never made it to Beijing is a sad, troubling one. The last thing I want to do is add to the grief, frustration and heartache of the families and friends of those on board.

Yet something has kept it in the forefront of my mind — something beyond its mystifying disappearance and presumed loss in the expanse of the Indian Ocean, more than the unremitting 24/7 press coverage.

I will confess that the very first thing I thought when I heard the news was whether my dear friend, writing mentor and publisher Jo was alright. I was fairly certain she had flown out of KL the day before, headed back to England to spend some time before eventually making her way to the conference we would attend near Washington, DC.

Beijing was an unlikely stop en route. Surely her stopover would be elsewhere?

Besides, our social media connections hadn’t lit up the internet as would have been the case had this well known, immensely popular and dearly loved woman gone missing.

But you see, that’s really the point. Every single person on #370 was beloved: by family members, relatives, friends, colleagues, neighbors.

A couple days later I saw Jo pop up on Facebook, and the wave of relief that washed over me was immediate and visceral.

Except that those holding vigil for their loved ones on the missing plane weren’t experiencing it… In fact, they were going through their worst nightmare, one being played out in public with much of the world along for the ride — watching, waiting, wondering.

A list of the various nationalities represented on the flight manifest speaks to the deepening globalization inherent in present day life. I knew it likely there were some on board who are ex patria, living outside of their home/birth/or passport country. Perhaps Jo or others I know who have lived in Kuala Lumpur knew someone who was on the flight, or knew someone who knew someone, and so on.

Six degrees of separation isn’t all that far.

A day or so later I caught a short televised interview with a woman whose partner was on the flight. As she spoke, it became clear she was a Westerner, well versed in the propaganda the government in Beijing is capable of, wholly uninterested in being held up by the Chinese — or any other media, for that matter — for the fascination of onlookers and morbid curiosity seekers.

When she spoke of seeking refuge in the international school where she taught, how they had gathered around and were so protective of her privacy, it struck another chord. Because that’s often what happens when you’re living in another culture and tragedy strikes: friends, neighbors, coworkers close ranks and pitch in to help, forming the closest thing to sanctuary possible under the circumstances.

I once wrote about a family living in the Netherlands while we were there. When the father died suddenly during treatment for cancer, it was a few hardy souls from the children’s school, still in town during the annual summer exodus, who helped pack up the family’s belongings, sold unwanted items at a yard sale and dealt with the movers while the widow and children attended the man’s funeral in their home country.

Three years later people rallied around and did something similar when a friend’s planned repatriation was unexpectedly accelerated after her husband was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.

It is difficult to be away from family and close friends during crises. Yet in the darkest of times we are reminded that ‘unexpected angels’ do indeed exist: they are the ones who help others in desperate need, providing comfort during turmoil, going above and beyond in an emergency, doing whatever is needed for however long it’s required.

I returned home late Sunday after spending three days at the annual Families in Global Transitions conference outside Washington, DC where I was able to hug Jo and give thanks for her safe arrival. Having attended last year as well, I knew the 2+ days spent there would be its own haven of sorts.

No need for complicated answers to supposedly simple questions like ‘Where are you from?’ and ‘Where is home?’, or having to balance the many wonderful positives of living across cultures with some of the troubling negatives such as ambiguity, continual change and identity development issues, conflicted loyalties and being pulled several ways by well meaning family/friends, nagging questions of where we truly belong, the constant comings and goings in our lives, mourning the loss of people and places which matter to us.

Instead, we could get right to the heart of complex issues: discussing writings and research findings and latest trends in challenges faced and ways to mitigate suffering associated with such difficulties, while also celebrating the many gifts and cultural richness of international life.

No one in this world — regardless of background or station and in spite of talents or treasure — is exempt from experiencing both the good and bad in life. Those in attendance at FIGT are no different; they’ve simply experienced these extremes with the complicating overlay of cross-cultural interactions, language differences and increased mobility. With such shared experience comes understanding, insight, and kinship.

So when I picked up Sunday’s New York Times yesterday morning and read about the woman I’d previously seen interviewed on the television, it came full circle. Her partner is — or perhaps, more poignantly, was? — an American IBM executive who’d been commuting between Beijing and Kuala Lumpur as they prepared to relocate from China to Malaysia.

According to the article, she indicated they’d exchanged a dozen or so text messages before the flight about the movers, scheduled to arrive the next morning. “We discussed the state of packing, what still needed to be done,” she said. Back and forth on the mundane matters of packing up and preparing to leave one place for another, and all that entailed. His last message to her came just before he left for the airport.

In that instant, I felt fully connected to her. Not because they were American (as I am) or he was from Texas (where my sister’s family, a close expat friend’s grown daughter and several other expats I know now live). It wasn’t because he worked for IBM (as several of my friends, dotted across the US and other countries, do) or because I know people living in both China and Malaysia.

Those last texts may have focused on the myriad details of an international move, but behind them were the unspoken emotions of taking leave, saying goodbye to those who had become part of their life in China, mixed with the likely sense of excitement, wonder and perhaps even a hint of apprehension inherent in the start of any new adventure.

The bond connecting so many of us was the universality of the experience this couple was in the midst of — intercultural transition — until fate cruelly intervened.

 

 

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Work? In Progress

As mentioned in Under ConstructionI hope you’ll join me as I navigate the re-entry stage in our repatriation journey. Every three months I’ll share a series of ‘snapshot’ blog posts about the particulars of building a new life from scratch, filed under the post category Re-entry Reality. I’ll look at everything from making a home, engaging socially, staying healthy, and stretching creatively,  to becoming part of a community, launching new career endeavors and addressing spiritual needs and emotional well being.

* * *

In my last post (Re-entry Reality), I explained why I’m taking stock of the progress – or lack thereof – I’ve made in building a new life upon repatriation.

So just how did the first three months of re-entry go in terms of the work/professional sphere of my life?

Slowly.

Not entirely glacial in pace, more like molasses.

Coming off the completion and publication of The Emotionally Resilient Expat, overseeing the dismantling and pack-up of our life on Ten Hovestraat in The Hague, returning to the US to spend precious time with my parents as my father entered the end stage of cancer, reconstituting our nuclear family after being separated for periods of time during and after the move and my father’s passing, and settling into our new home, the last thing I was thinking about was work. 

And I mean the Very. Last. Thing.

I was physically, emotionally and mentally drained. I didn’t write, I didn’t plan, I didn’t plot, I didn’t even think about next steps or new projects or blogging or writing.

I just went about the motions of constructing the beginnings of a new life, of rejuvenating, of healing.  I didn’t worry. I wasn’t concerned. I didn’t fret about a growing ‘to do’ list.

I simply accepted that my mind would know when it was ready to handle more, and it did. About two months in, I awakened one morning and knew exactly what my next book project would be and precisely how I wanted to focus my new consulting practice.

Never mind that I’d sworn I wouldn’t write another non-fiction book after TERE. That I’d felt I’d done what I was meant to do and could move on. That I couldn’t conceive of any non-fiction subject meaningful enough to me to make me want to do it all over again. That I’d been looking forward to shifting entirely to writing fiction from this point onward.

I literally woke up one day and the way ahead was clear, including the what, the why, the how. And the consulting work I’d been thinking about for the preceding two years? It all came together in my head, with an Aha! moment of clarity.

To be sure, over the previous year or so I’d periodically think about what I wanted to do once the book was done. I had a rough idea in my mind, and had even invested in some specialized training to help get me there. But the simple plans I’d counted on, the opportunities available to me and the connections I would rely on? They disappeared – or were put on hold – in one fell swoop when we decided to repatriate.

I knew when the dust settled after moving I’d have to figure out how to adjust, how to roll with the punches and alter bits of my plans, but I hadn’t given it any thought – well, at least no conscious thought – since last spring. Until that day I awakened and knew Oh, THIS is what I’m going to do. THIS is how it’s going to be.

And then I really didn’t do much of anything about either the new book or the new career for another month.

Yep, that’s how I express gratitude to my work fairy. I pretty much continued doing nothing.

Oh, I slowly began blogging a bit more regularly again, and gave some thought to how things might proceed. I contacted my publisher, editor and layout designer and gained their buy-in on the new book, The Emotionally Resilient Global Student: Engage, Adapt and Thrive in Cross-Cultural Learning.

But I didn’t really do anything on either front. I just let it all continue to ferment in my brain, and trusted I’d know when it was time to start.

Which brings us to what’s been happening on the work front the past three months, the second quarter in this re-entry saga. I can confidently say the pace quickened from the flow of molasses to that of thickened cream.

For the book, I came up with an extremely rough draft of the table of contents, but enough to begin research requiring a fair amount of reading and note-taking. Sometimes it’s been tedious, other times energizing as when it triggers a new angle or sends me down a new trail. I’ve been compiling lists of what I need to do and who I need to reach out to, but haven’t checked off very many of the items. I’ve even done a little writing.

As for preparing to launch the start-up of my consulting business, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work required, and I’m learning more about that every single day. Suffice it to say you need to have a very detailed handle on, not only on your business vision, mission and services to be provided, but also your target market, ideal customer/client, niche and on and on and on.

Husband is also moving into his own area of consulting, so together we’ve attended a couple sessions on starting up your own business and how to develop a comprehensive business plan.

We’ve also consulted our accountant – you never want to get on the wrong side of the US Internal Revenue Service – and researched the business legal status. Every piece of information and bit of data has helped us piece together this complicated puzzle, and as in most challenging projects, it’s very much a case of ‘two steps forward, one step back’.

Just when you think you’ve nailed down something over here, something else pops up over there. The ripple effect of the most minute changes in thought, service, process, delivery or wording is incredible.

And don’t even get me started on the moving parts of and content development for a business website.

So that’s where we were when we passed the six months’ repatriated mark recently: beyond early stages but nowhere near approaching a well-oiled machine. Days spent excited about what I was doing and where it’s going, and holding my head in confusion, frustration, fear and the threat of overwhelm. Often all in equal measure.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Made a career/job change recently? How’s it going and what’s it feel like?

 

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Re-entry Reality

As mentioned in Under ConstructionI hope you’ll join me as I navigate the re-entry stage in our repatriation journey. Every three months I’ll share a series of ‘snapshot’ blog posts about the particulars of building a new life from scratch, filed under the post category Re-entry Reality. I’ll look at everything from making a home, engaging socially, staying healthy, and stretching creatively,  to becoming part of a community, launching new career endeavors and addressing spiritual needs and emotional well being.

* * *

When I began this series of three-month check-ins on how re-entry into life back in the US was going, there were several topics I wanted to track, as reflected in the opening paragraph above. I dutifully posted on social/physical/emotional/spiritual well being (Small Steps, Self Care & Simplifying) and creating a home (A Picture’s Worth), and expected to report shortly thereafter on both professional and creative progress.

Yet sometimes the best of intentions are circumvented, and we don’t quite stick to our schedule. In the case of these two areas, it seemed as though every time I felt ready to share an assessment of what I’d been thinking/planning/doing, there was some new development or hurdle – plenty of both – which threw me into a cycle of postponement.

Yeah, I know, it’s an ongoing struggle with me. Maybe for you, too.

So now that we’ve hit the half-year mark in our repatriation journey, it’s time to step back and report on what’s been going on in the work realm. In order to help remind me of how and when things have unfolded, I’d like to stick to a record of progress in three-month increments.

But before I start, I’d like to address the question, Why am I doing this type of review?

It certainly isn’t to brag of decisions made or boast of progress charted – or not. It isn’t to hold my experience up as a standard of some sort – it’s not. Nor is it to imply this is how things should go, or how others ought to handle re-entry.

Actually, I’m doing this because I know something about myself, something I believe many others tend to do as well: rather than look at what we’ve accomplished or achieved or survived, we fixate on what we didn’t do or finish or even begin.

That’s why I force myself periodically to look backwards and acknowledge what I have been doing, what did get started and/or completed or even pushed aside, and whether there were extenuating circumstances or events – major, minor or trivial in nature – which impacted my advancement.

Not excuses or alibis, just the truth. How life really unfolds.

I’ll tell you something else. I’m doing this public ‘re-entry reality’ series for accountability. Not to you – although my writing these posts knowing full well you’ll read them is what keeps me honest – but to myself.

I chose the categories I’m reporting on for a reason: I personally believe physical, social, emotional, spiritual, creative and professional well being are the six most important areas in which we exist as humans. Together they capture the essence of how we live our lives.

And I’ll tell you something else. Knowing I’m going to be sharing my progress with you helps keep me cognizant of what I am or am not doing in each of these six spheres. Not so much in an ‘I’d better hurry up and get my act together and do something’ kind of way – although let’s be honest, no one likes to have to confess they’ve done zilch in an area or two. But when I don’t do much, I’ll put on my big girl panties and tell you so.

Instead, these three-month assessments actually help me see and celebrate little victories along the repatriation path. And just as candidly, they help me understand where I may be lagging or even a little out-of-balance, areas where perhaps I need to spend a little more time and attention in the days and weeks ahead in order to feel my actions are in better alignment with my values.

So with all this in mind, I’ll fill you in on what I’ve been doing in the work arena in my next post.  And don’t worry, you won’t have to wait long. In fact, it’s already written. :)

When you move to a new place, how long does it take you to settle in?  What life areas do you concentrate on initially, and do you keep track of your progress? 

 

 

 

 

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Sneeuw to Snow

What a difference a snowfall makes.

Actually, it’s our third of the winter. I’m from upstate New York so we don’t count flurries or dustings or even light coatings. If it doesn’t stay on the ground and can’t be measured in inches, sometimes feet, it doesn’t count.

So with a good six+ inches of unspoiled snow and branches covered in ice, we’ve found ourselves inhabiting a veritable rural winter wonderland.

Winter Wonderland on Adventures in Expat Land

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ice-Kissed Branches on www.adventuresinexpatland.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ice-Coated Wonderland on www.adventuresinexpatland.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

Icy View from my Office on Adventures in Expat Land

 

 

 

 

 

 

Winter Woodland Path on www.adventuresinexpatland.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other than the occasional shouts from neighborhood children sledding down steep driveways or the beast of a hill connecting the upper road to ours below, it is silent.

Yet as I gaze into the frozen woodland, aural memories echo in my mind:

The clang of a tram moving slower than usual as it navigates the icy tracks, the occasional bundled up passenger wiping condensation from their inside window.

The singsong lilt of conversation among buurvrouwen on their way to pick up their kinderen from the local elementary school.

The scrape-scrape-scraping of our next-door-neighbor’s son shoveling snow and ice from the sidewalk and tiny courtyard in front of our rijtjeshuis.

The laughter of Catarina – oh, my beloved Catarina – huddled with her friends in the front entryway of our local Albert Heijn grocery store for warmth, calling out to exiting shoppers to share the giveaway toy of the month.

As in North Carolina, snow in the Netherlands – or I should say, sneeuw in Nederland  – doesn’t happen all that often, so when it does, everyone tends to embrace it with childlike delight.

Of course snowfall there immediately turns the conversation to the likelihood of the canals freezing enough to allow skating. It’s a rarer possibility than you might imagine despite the prowess of Dutch skaters in the Winter Olympics currently underway in Sochi.

As I take advantage of the unscheduled retreat Mother Nature has visited upon us – after all, schools, businesses and many roads remain closed – I am transported back in time and place.

I remember making hearty soups, stews and casseroles to ward off the winter chill.

I reminisce about hours spent tromping through snow-laden paths in adjacent parkland with our dog.

I think back to steaming verse munt thee with gember koekjes (fresh mint tea with ginger cookies) in the company of friends.

I recall winter scenes across the depth and breadth of the Dutch landscape… windmills covered in snow, the sail-covered arms dripping in icicles… glowing candles in gezellig homes… darkness descending in mid-afternoon… the clarity of celestial diamonds in the inky, frigid sky.

Ten Hovestraat on Adventures in Expat Land

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dutch Street in Den Haag www.adventuresinexpatland.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dutch Snow-covered Canal on www.adventuresinexpatland.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

Snow in Wassenaar on www.adventuresinexpatland.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

So many memories triggered by snow. I walk the earth in this country, while my doppelganger – frozen in time – continues to tread on Dutch soil.

My body may be present in the here and now, but my mind is firmly tied to the there and then.

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Respect the Squirrel

A couple weeks ago, I was walking past our dining room window when something caught my eye. In the front yard was a squirrel.

No news flash there as we live surrounded on several sides by woods. Squirrels and deer are regular visitors, along with the occasional raccoon, spotted owl and annoying woodpecker.

But this was different. The squirrel wasn’t darting hither and yon, playing tag with his buddies or running spirals up and down the trees. It was recycling day in the neighborhood, and this little fluffy-tailed tree urchin had brazenly confiscated a plastic water bottle from our recycling bin.

Squirrel chewing on plastic water bottle by Linda A Janssen on www.adventuresinexpatland.com

In the shade of a large tree, this ambitious squirrel was gnawing on the bottle cap.

He was chomping away with such gusto that occasionally the cap popped out from between his little paws, bouncing on the hard winter ground and landing a foot or more away.

Whenever this happened, he’d look around to ensure he wasn’t in danger of being attacked by natural enemies – our cairn terrier, Oli, for example – then dart over and snatch it back before continuing with his rapid-fire nibbling.

The little rascal was daring – no fear of chewing away in broad daylight – and I found the whole thing amusing enough that I grabbed my phone and snapped a photo.

Then I went on my merry way and forgot all about the squirrel.

Until the next day.

As I headed down the driveway to bring up the empty bins, I had good reason to remember my little furry friend. The lawn around the tree looked as though local college students had partied heartily and left their detritus behind.

It seems the squirrel had managed to snag a number of items out of the bin, and, over the course of the afternoon, he’d attacked them with a vengeance, searching for a culinary treasure. When he was finished, he left them strewn across the yard.

That’s when I saw it: an empty glass peanut butter jar, lying against the trunk of the tree.

As I bent to pick it up, I noticed it had been licked absolutely clean. Now I rinse any and all bottles and jars before they go into the bin, but let’s face it: peanut butter is gooey and sticky, and it’s tough to get all remnants of it out of the jar. This was spotless.

Then I saw the lid.

Bright blue plastic jar lid chewed up by a squirrel at Adventures in Expat Land

To say that the squirrel had done a number on the lid in order to gain access to any remaining peanut butter is an understatement.

Like a can opener, he had methodically chewed his way around the edge of the lid, then ripped it open, peeling it back as he would a banana.

Stunned by the ferocity of my masticating mascot, I felt compelled to take an ‘after’ photo just for proof.

After all, who would believe such a little rodent the size of a squirrel could wreak such havoc on a plastic lid? An extremely thick, durable plastic lid at that.

In the ensuing days, my thoughts kept coming back to the squirrel and his dental assault on that peanut butter jar lid. There were life lessons to be gleaned, and I found myself experiencing a growing admiration for the little critters.

Before you laugh, here are some thoughts to ponder:

  • Squirrels seem to be naturally inquisitive: if they see something they think they might like, they go for it. Okay, I don’t really know whether squirrels act solely on instinct, if they even think at all. They see something attractive, which they really want, and that curiosity pushes them to act.
  • Squirrels are courageous. Let’s face it: they’re fairly low on the animal food chain. Yet they operate well in trees and on the ground, under deep cover of forest, in open spaces like clearings and parks, even in close proximity to humans. Clearly they don’t let something like fear of being attacked, eaten, or looking foolish stop them. Several years ago my family visited the Grand Canyon and one thing we all remember – aside from how truly awe-inspiring that natural wonder is – was the squirrel who hung out on the dining patio of a restaurant situated along one of the walking trails. Somewhere in a closet we have photos of the fearless little fellow hanging out near Son’s shoulder trying to score a piece of a chocolate bar. No time for being afraid, he had food to mooch.
  • You know what they say – if you’re going to aspire to a goal or result, dream big. Bestselling author Brené Brown exhorts us to Dare Greatly, and squirrels seem to have taken her encouragement to heart. They fly through the trees with the ease of trapeze artists, taking in the big picture from a bird’s eye view. Yet they also hone in on the minutest of details. The one in our yard saw the recycling bin and said yes. He started by wrestling with a plastic water bottle – not much of a payoff there – and worked his way up to a glass peanut butter jar.
  • He stayed the course, and would not be dissuaded or denied. Not only did this jar weigh as much as (if not more than) the squirrel himself, it was topped with what appeared to be the Fort Knox of lids. Did he let little inconveniences like these stop him? No. This resilient little guy simply set to work, and with time, effort and intense focus, he was rewarded richly. Licking watered down, leftover peanut butter may not seem like much of a prize, but hey – to him it probably felt like winning the lottery. Or a trophy. Or a National Book Award. Depends on your dream ;)

In recent months I’ve been working on a few projects that push me in new and different ways. I wouldn’t be doing them if I didn’t want to, if I didn’t feel they are important to my personal growth and professional development, if I didn’t believe they would help lead me to where I want to be in many facets of my life.

Given the boldness, curiosity, strength, tenacity and singleness of purpose I witnessed, I have renewed respect for the lowly squirrel: they do indeed have much to teach us about dealing with challenges.

Besides, there’s one last thing I’ve learned from all of this. The current fixation with zombies, vampires and the walking dead? That is sooo last week.

But a Squirrel Apocalypse? Now that’s something to worry about…

 

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P is for Patient

Time for another entry under Expats A to Z,  a series of posts about the little things that can make a difference in how we approach some of the challenges and experiences of expatriate – and repatriate – life.

alphabet on a web by Vlado portfolio 1836 image on www.adventuresinexpatland.com

I’m talking about those qualities and traits we can nurture within us not only to simply survive, but thrive amid constant change.

You know, the characteristics and features that can help smooth the way.

I started with A is for Acknowledging Differences and then went with F is for Flexibility. More recently there were K is for KaleidoscopeO is for Open and T is for Thoughtful.

I’m not writing this series in alphabetical order because I like mixing things up.

Quite frankly, it’s a whole lot more interesting when you don’t know what’s coming next. More fun for me as well.

I do hope you’ll follow along and share your own thoughts and experiences.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

P is for Patient

This can be a hard one, especially if you’re not of a particularly patient persuasion.

(Yeah, I’m looking at you there in the mirror, Ms Impatience personified.)

It’s something I struggle with on an almost daily basis, but in this instance I’m talking specifically about practicing patience in the face of overwhelming, ongoing, cross-cultural transitions and change.

You know the story. You could be in the throes of full blown culture shock in those early stages of entry into a new and different culture. Or in that period when you’re no longer the newbie but still not a seasoned member of Team Comfortable in the place you now call home.

You might be firmly ensconced in your current country, feeling savvy and aware and a part of things, only to experience the occasional sharp sting of reminder that you’re not and never will be entirely of this culture.

You could be in that nefarious netherworld where you don’t yet feel entirely settled but you no longer feel fully – heck, sometimes even loosely – connected to where you’re from, or where you were, or where you wish you were.

Perhaps you’ve said goodbye one too many times to cherished friends and honored acquaintances, and can’t quite summon the energy to start over – yet again – with a new crop of fresh faces. Farewells can be particularly disheartening when the exodus of members of your ‘tribe’ involves your closest comrade(s)-in-expatria (which may include locals as well), or the number of friends heading off is rather large, or when you’re the one doing the leaving.

After all, loss is loss.

You could be a Third Culture Kid in the midst of transitioning to a new school or university, or an adult TCK trying to make sense of your peripatetic childhood.

And I – along with many others  - can vouch for the fact it can also happen when you’re repatriating to a birth or passport or ‘home’ country, however you may define the latter. (Believe me, for some – second or third generation expats, for example – these labels can get complicated.)

Change takes energy. New requires focus. Different demands attention.

Our identity is subtly shifting. It may be in total flux. Or worse, we feel as though we’ve lost it completely, and we’re scrambling frantically to find the scattered pieces of the mosaic which is or was or will be us.

Identity development is the search for congruence (i.e., agreement  or alignment) in who we are by integrating and resolving differences among who we see ourselves to be, who we thought we were, how others see us, and who we’d like to become.

It also happens to be a slow and, at times, exhausting process, all while juggling the demands of creating the latest version of our life. Whether that becomes a better or fuller or simply more comfortable version remains to be seen.

The point I’m making is we’re all somewhere on a change continuum of a sort. Ignoring or wallowing in or railing against it aren’t healthy options, although they may temporarily help us feel a little better.

There’s no way around it, we just have to go through it.

That takes patience.

Patience isn’t giving up. It isn’t sitting back and doing nothing, and it’s certainly not running around trying to do too much, too fast, either.

What patience looks like is doing the best we can at any given moment. No more, no less. Whatever we can muster.

It’s showing up daily to what is our life now, and hoping that with experience and the passage of time – and a whole lot of effort and acceptance – it’s a place we want to be, and a person we’re glad we’ve become.

[Image credit: Vlado portfolio 1836 on freedigitalphotos.net]

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Refocusing Resolutions

In my latest blog post, Intermezzo, I wrote of taking stock of 2013, a year which for several reasons I’m glad to see in my rear view mirror.

That’s not to say that many wonderful things didn’t happen last year, they did. But there were some unexpected challenges on top of some tough moments, and the year certainly didn’t play out quite as I’d thought when it was new and bright and shiny last January.

It’s just as well we aren’t always able to foresee the twists and turns in the road, or the myriad changes they bring. If we were, sometimes we’d take one look at the looming adjustments, shifts, reversals and deviations ahead and choose to crawl back under the covers, vowing not to come out until a season or two has passed.

Real life isn’t like that: doing a disappearing act when things get tough or sitting it out until things settle down isn’t an option. Besides, if there’s one thing I’ve learned – over the years, through the ups and downs and vagaries of life – it’s that we’re capable of handling far more and far worse than we think we can.

Whether we’d care to do so is another matter, but it is liberating and reassuring to know we can deal with change far better than we think. You know, ‘what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger’, and all that stuff.

In addition to having a renewed appreciation for the importance of mindfulness in daily life, my lovely, reflective interlude at the end of 2013 taught me that I needed to adjust how I approach New Year’s resolutions.

Let’s face it: I love me my New Year’s resolutions.

I’m fond of assessment and analysis and growth – personal and professional – and making lists.

2014 puzzle piece by Stuart Miles of freedigitalphotos dot net on www.adventuresinexpatland.com

I’ve always enjoyed reviewing the previous twelve months, noting the little victories and causes for celebration (and yes, even the lesser screw-ups and big fat failures).

I like combing through the residual matter of another year gone by for insights and lessons and areas for improvement.

Then, like a witches brew, I like to stir the cauldron and mutter some incantations meaningful only to me, and voilá – whether through magic or alchemy or scientific reaction – I come up with a short list of those actions and mantras which will illuminate the path ahead and guide me along the way.

Signposts, if you will.

It may seem that mindfulness – deliberate, continual observation while suspending judgment, also known as being ‘in the moment’ – is at odds with reflection and resolve.

Actually, it’s not. Not at all.

Mindfulness is the process taken to mine the raw natural resources of your life – those actions, reactions, situations and experiences which, at a later time, become the fodder of your contemplation and reflection, and ultimately the fuel for your improvement efforts (i.e., resolutions).

And so it goes, a repetitive cycle. Mindfulness, reflection, resolution. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Reflection and resolution without the mindfulness in the first place is like looking at finished products and assuming they’re a given – unchangeable – rather than seeing them as the composite materials they are.

So how did this all conspire to make me adjust my beloved New Year’s vows? Rather than drilling down, I went the other way, moving up in camera angle for a clearer view.

I went for the bigger picture.

In our case, we’re in smack in the middle of that humongous transition known as repatriation. We’re dealing with monumental change, issues of coming and going, leaving and arrival, loss, differences, crossing cultures, introduction, unfamiliarity, career adjustments, life construction.

Change comes both at warp speed and a glacial pace. My overarching wish, desire, fervent hope is not to skip this process, or fast-forward through it (while attractive, these aren’t realistic), but to gut it out and do the hard work necessary to make this transition as fruitful as possible.

In other words, I want to embrace it and experience it in the moment, and do what needs to be done to not only get us through but to come out on the other side happy, healthy and living an emotionally engaged, culturally connected, meaningful life.

Thriving, not simply surviving.

This overarching goal translated itself into the following triad of resolutions: three actions I’ve committed to doing on a daily basis, a small number of things I’d like to do more of in the year ahead, and a few things I’d like to cut back on or do less.

What are they, you ask? I’d rather not say right now, because that’s not the point. They’re personalized for my situation, our life. You can be sure they include creativity and writing.

Sure, I’ve got some specific things I’d like to achieve in the year ahead, but they aren’t my resolutions; my resolutions are ‘bigger picture’, and it’s my belief that in focusing on them, many or some or a few of the smaller, more specific achievements may come to pass.

It doesn’t matter whether you are a current or former or aspiring expat/TCK/global nomad/serial wanderer or what we euphemistically refer to as monoculturalists (i.e., living within your home culture). We’re all dealing with transitions of some sort or another. We’re all at the beginning or in the middle of or approaching the end of some form of significant change in our lives.

That’s why I’m sharing these thoughts in case you happen to find relevance, whatever your situation. For what it’s worth, I hope you find taking a larger view more instructive for the transitions you face, and the change that is, or was, or will be.

[Image credit: Stuart Miles, portfolio 2664 of freedigitalphotos.net ]

 

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Intermezzo

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been taking it easy.

Really easy. As in not doing much of anything other than what absolutely, positively needed to get done.

For example, that time spent pulling together receipts, filling out reimbursement claims for our international health care provider, making photocopies of the entire stack and then standing in line at the post office to ensure it all gets to Belgium in a timely manner? Five hours of my life I’ll never get back – yeah, I’m looking at you.

Necessary, if mind-numbing.

Otherwise, for the most part I pretty much did what I pleased (if a parent is truly ever able to do precisely that). I hunkered down, enjoying the holidays, relaxing and spending time with my family. Oh, and reading. LOTS of reading.

Lest you think I have been a complete and total sloth, I should note that in the run-up to Christmas, I was doing quite a bit. Trust me.

We all know what that’s like: errands, chores and myriad little details attended to before we can sit back, take a deep breath and declare ourselves ready. Because we all know holidays don’t happen by themselves. Or rather, the celebration of holidays doesn’t – it requires time, effort, energy, focus and an innate ability to juggle multiple tasks.

But at a certain point I was finally done with all the preparation. I’d wrapped up a couple small projects that had been consuming a fair amount of my time. After careful consideration and much discussion, the Christmas tree was selected and brought home, and subsequently set up and decorated. Final gifts were purchased, wrapped and either posted or put under the tree. Christmas cards were written and dropped in the mail, on their merry way.

The pine garland, wreaths and outdoor lights were hung, bringing a properly festive spirit to our front entrance. My excitement at being able to decorate our door this year may have been a bit over the top, but when you haven’t been able to do so for quite some time – our rental house in the Netherlands had neither an exterior electrical outlet for lights nor a way to hang a wreath on the thick old door without pounding in a nail, which of course was thoroughly taboo – it’s almost akin to, well, Christmas morning for a waiting child.

I’d finished the meal planning and food provisions were acquired. The house was clean, laundry done, and extraneous items were put away. Son arrived home from university; Daughter’s high school mid-terms were finally over and done with.

In short, we’d reached that precise moment when you look around and can declare ‘let the celebrations begin’.

In many ways there is no sweeter moment: the humdrum and the mundane have been set aside, there is nothing demanding your time, your focus is entirely on those you love, and the season lies before you like an unfurled ribbon.

Time stands still. Hope and good will abound, and expectations remain in the realm of the possible. Nobody has had time or reason to become stressed, and no one has gotten on anyone else’s nerves. Nothing has gone pear shaped.

In a word, all is perfect.

Now we all know that perfection is an illusion. It doesn’t exist.

I’m just saying that the instant when you let yourself go, allow yourself to appreciate the holidays and whatever finite amount of time you have with loved ones, when you slip into complete and utter mindfulness – continuous, intentional observation without judgment or expectations, thus being completely present and ‘in the moment’ – now that, my friends, is sublime.

No matter what happens, you’re in the thick of things. You’re open, welcoming, curious, accepting. You gain perspective and knowledge of self and others.

That’s how it was, this holiday season. We celebrated as a nuclear family, as we did in the four previous years when we were living in the Netherlands. But unlike in years past, we collectively decided not to head out the day after Christmas (Tweede Kerstdag in Dutch) to travel.

Yes, we would miss exploring a new country/culture, but we were unanimous in our desire – no, our need – to stay put this year and extend the cocoon of privacy, security, relaxation. This past year has been one of ongoing, often unremitting, change. Something had to give, and for us, it was choosing to forego satisfying the itch to journey. We traded in wanderlust for time spent in our new homestead.

Let me tell you, it was the best decision ever.

serenity of a beautifully decorated Christmas tree on www.adventuresinexpatland.com

It has been a wondrous intermezzo of sorts. Having such a large block of free time is incredibly luxurious, rejuvenating, and oddly energizing. You can almost feel stress evaporating and your reserves of emotional resilience being restored and repleted.

Like many people, I spent quite some time reflecting on the year coming to a close: where we were a year ago and what we were doing, what circumstances and the passage of seasons have wrought, and all that has been experienced, embraced, tolerated, surmounted, and yes, even survived.

It has been a year in which we have mourned the deaths of my father, Husband’s mother, and the gentle soul – a single parent leaving behind three children, extended family and a community of grieving friends – who unknowingly set in motion a series of events that ultimately led to my changing careers and becoming a writer.

This past year has seen us decide to cut short our time overseas, expedite our return and fling ourselves headlong into this dizzying transition known as repatriation.

But it has also been a year in which one highlight was finally finishing The Emotionally Resilient Expat: Engage, Adapt and Thrive Across Cultures and, with the help of Jo Parfitt, Jane Dean and Lisa Hall, seeing it published by the expatriate Summertime Publishing. I wrote about mindfulness in TERE, often in the context of dealing with change and difficulties and turbulence, respecting transitions and keeping an open mind during turmoil.

It has only been in hindsight during this sustained period of reflection at year’s end that I’ve come to see mindfulness as the ultimate gift received as a result of that long labor of love, one that has stood me in good stead throughout 2013 and which I hope to practice for the rest of my life.

And so I’m sharing with you one of my favorite views during this intermezzo, from the popular vantage point of the couch, often in solitude, usually with a book in hand. It wasn’t always as sunny as the moment I took this photo, and the room certainly wasn’t always neat and orderly, but that’s not the point.

When I look at this picture, it reminds me of time well spent with people well loved. Of practicing mindfulness, hoping for the best, handling the worst, and being present throughout.

 

 

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Hello, My Name Is…

It’s been so long since my last post, I feel as though we ought to get reacquainted.

Let me introduce myself, my name is Linda and once upon a time I wrote an expat blog in which I posted regularly. You might have heard of it – Adventures in Expat Land?

Seriously, I can’t blame you if the answer is ‘uh, no, the name doesn’t ring a bell…’.

Long time no write, right?

Yes indeed. I’d say a month between posts surpasses ‘irregularly’ and goes straight into ‘downright neglectful’.

Okay, okay. I’ll take my lumps. Will it make it any better if I say I missed you?

It’s true. Perhaps not believable, but true nonetheless.

At first I was going to explain why I haven’t been blogging lately, but as time went on the tale become longer and more convoluted. Then I thought ‘Oh, why bother going on about it, no one cares. They may not have even noticed.’

But then I started thinking about how much pressure we put on ourselves to do, act, or be in a certain manner, and how we give ourselves such a hard time when we don’t measure up to our self-imposed standards.

My intention was to post at least twice a week, and I didn’t do that. It wasn’t for lack of interest, because most of the past thirty days has been spent wishing I could sit down – uninterrupted – and pound out a post. I even found myself scrawling post ideas and particular phrasing on napkins and scraps of paper to keep from forgetting.

That’s not to say I haven’t been writing, as I have, but I’ll save that update for the next post.

So here’s the short version of why I’ve been out of the blogging picture:

  • Prepping and hosting a weekend house party of longtime friends
  • A loathsome head cold given to me by Daughter and then dutifully passed on to Husband
  • A family member’s illness requiring time, concentrated attention and a fair amount of stress and worry, and despite my best efforts, sorely trying my emotional resilience
  • A particularly pernicious malware infestation which resulted in my having to replace the laptop – already on its last legs with a rapidly dwindling battery and dying hard drive – at precisely the point I neither wished to encounter such an expense nor had time to deal with learning a new system and getting used to a different keyboard
  • Prepping for and hosting family for a several days’ celebration over Thanksgiving, which included getting half my Christmas shopping done beforehand so gifts could be wrapped, distributed and sent off with their intended recipients
  • Collapsing in a near-exhausted puddle while still enjoying a few days until Son had to return to university
  • Myriad other little things I managed to cram in and then immediately forgot – have I mentioned my memory’s going?

So there you have it: the good, the bad and the ugly. Nothing earth-shattering or catastrophic, and plenty of highs mixed in with the lows. Just a list, not unlike anyone else’s.

In a nutshell, life.

That’s why I haven’t blogged lately. It isn’t that the dog ate my homework – although Oli did manage to run off with a hefty piece of roasted turkey.

It’s because life intervened.

Now back to our regularly scheduled program…

 

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A Picture’s Worth…

As mentioned in Under ConstructionI hope you’ll join me as I navigate the re-entry stage in our repatriation journey. Every three months I’ll share a series of ‘snapshot’ blog posts about the particulars of building a new life from scratch, filed under the post category Re-entry Reality. I’ll look at everything from making a home, engaging socially, staying healthy, and stretching creatively,  to becoming part of a community, launching new career endeavors and addressing spiritual needs and emotional well being. The first post in the initial three-month review, Why Hereexamined where we decided to repatriate.

* * * 

It’s been almost four months into our rather sudden repatriation from The Hague, and Husband and I hit a milestone this week. No, it wasn’t our anniversary – that was back in October. We finally got around to hanging up our artwork. Before you roll your eyes and think ‘why on earth should it take so long to slap up a few framed pictures or a print or two?’, let me explain. We’ve been together a long time. Twenty eight years, to be exact. We dated for four years before tying the knot, and last month we celebrated our twenty fourth wedding anniversary. (I was a child bride, thereby putting my current age in the late thirties mid-forties early ahem, prime of my life.) We both value art. By ‘value’ I mean putting our hard-earned money in amounts large and small – mostly small – where our aesthetic interests lie. And by ‘art’ I don’t mean expensive, pedigreed, fussy pieces. I’m talking prints, paintings, posters, pictures, ceramics, textured pieces and sculpture that move us. Speak to us. Inspire us. Demand we take them home and add them to the menagerie. There’s even an exquisite postcard or two among the bunch. Over the years and across the miles, wherever we would go, we’d stumble upon some inexpensive treasure that ended up carried back in a suitcase or backpack or hand luggage, even occasionally in someone’s fist. They range from posters of all ages, sizes and nationalities which go on to be matted, framed, or simply left au natural on poster board, to the discovery of four hand-drawn flower prints from an 19th century botany book in an obscure shop in the shadow of the Vatican, to gaily painted arte folklórico from Guatemala, Costa Rica and Mexico. Our haul includes small icons painted on wood and other materials from Israel, Hungary, Russia, Morocco and Greece, a Spanish box of inlaid wood, a religious statue from Belgium, Dutch tiles and Turkish trivets, a pair of sculptures from here in the US, painted eggs from the Czech Republic, fertility totems both large and small from various African nations, Christmas ornaments from all over the world. Expatriate life and travels have brought us batik prints from Indonesia, a moody painting of dark clouds, windmill and windswept flat land from the Netherlands next to the bold, vibrant pair from an elderly local artist, the ceramic plaque marking our wedding date acquired on our honeymoon in Bermuda, and small drawings of landmarks and landscapes in Estonia, France, Jamaica, Finland, Norway, Portugal, Egypt, and Germany. Our painted plates are unique and colorful yet look as though they have always existed as a set despite being collected over many years from places as diverse as Sicily and Assisi and Majorca and Delft. One piece claiming a special place in our hearts is a charcoal drawing of Rome’s Spanish Steps from Husband’s time there growing up as a Third Culture Kid. We can point to the exact spot on an upper landing of the Steps where we had Son’s and Daughter’s likenesses drawn – also in charcoal – several decades later when we were showing our children where Dad grew up. The original piece now draws yours eyes when you enter our home, and the latter have pride of place on the upstairs landing. Over those twenty eight years we’ve added to what is now a fairly sizeable collection of memories, of cross-cultural remembrances, not trophies. When each piece literally represents a story or set of experiences, you can’t just throw them up on a wall or stick them on a side table and be done with it. No, the recollections of a shared life – of marriage, parenthood and growing older together – deserve extensive thought as to where they belong. And that is how we’ve spent our spare moments over the past few days. Curating life’s moments, putting objects from a lifetime of love in their proper places. Making this house our home.

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As mentioned in Under ConstructionI hope you’ll join me as I navigate the re-entry stage in our repatriation journey. Every three months I’ll share a series of ‘snapshot’ blog posts about the particulars of building a new life from scratch, filed under the post category Re-entry Reality. I’ll look at everything from making a home, engaging socially, staying healthy, and stretching creatively,  to becoming part of a community, launching new career endeavors and addressing spiritual needs and emotional well being. The first post in the initial three-month review, Why Here, examined where we decided to repatriate.

*  *  *

Three months into repatriation, and in terms of well being – social, physical and emotional – I’d say I’m doing fine. Not fine as in amazing, terrific, couldn’t be better. Fine as in decently, pretty good, occasionally rather pleased, not bad.

Initially I was going to give my progress a score on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being just having crawled off the plane, newly arrived and standing in front of a mirror giving myself a pep talk about what a gift it is to start anew with a blank slate. This self-encouragement of course being necessary to avoid focusing on the realization that a blank slate is just that. Devoid. Empty. Zilch. Nada.

On such a scale, ten would therefore represent being fully re-integrated and prospering in an emotionally engaged, culturally connected, happy, healthy life. In other words, perfection.

As if.

On this broader scale, my current score would be something like a 2 or a 2.5, stretching toward a 3. Not so bad when you think of it as making steady progress toward a desired end state. But I’m a preternaturally glass-half-full kind of gal, so such an assessment rankles.

Far better to chart the well being quotient of my life-building escapades in terms of where I am in relation to what I’d come to expect, and how I’m doing relative to how far along I was hoping to be in the short span of ninety days.

Have I mentioned how long a period of time three months is to live through, yet how short it is to be measured against?

On this comparison of progress to hopefulness and expectation tempered by knowledge, research and the experience shared by former expats who’ve blazed the repatriation trail before me, I’d say I’m a solid 6.5. Now and then a 6, but on some days, even a 7.

Now that’s  a score I can feel good about.

Which brings me to the three things I’ve learned in these first twelve weeks. Number one: it’s about taking steps – even baby steps – but steps nonetheless, each and every day. Or almost daily. It’s about seizing opportunities to construct the shell of your well being, and incrementally but steadily adding materials to fill in the structure. Bit by bit. Beetje bij beetje. Slowly but surely.

Second: it’s all about making yourself feel good, not bad. Accountability and goals and objectives are all well and good, but I tend to think that sort of thing is better left for when your ship is sailing pretty much under full steam, not when you’re in the early days of building your ark. This is about caring for yourself, nurturing your body and mind. Recognizing that thrashing and smashing and dashing your way forward is simply a recipe for disaster. Better to cut yourself a break, listen to your body as well as your soul, push the pedal when it feels right yet show a willingness to ease off when it gets to be too much.

And so we arrive at the third: nothing beats simple. Simplification is hip, it’s happening. It’s trendy, en vogue. So let’s not make this any harder than it has to be. In these past three months I haven’t taken on any big projects or said ‘yes’ to unrealistic requests. I haven’t hosted a block party or volunteered for anything but the smallest, most necessary things. I’ve gotten out and about, but even that has been on a slow, steady, simplified basis.

What have I focused on? Being there for my parents during my father’s final days as soon as we arrived back. Being there for my mother and family in subsequent days and ever since. Helping my family settle into our home after the household goods shipment arrived. Helping Daughter navigate a new school and Son return happily to university. Enjoying well-earned time with Husband as we plot this new life chapter. Caring for everyone, including myself.

Incrementalism is where it’s at.

Not too much this, not too much that. Staying in touch via social media, but in a reasonable amount, and never at the expense of the hard work of making new flesh-and-blood connections. Easing back into writing and blogging, and making some interesting changes in the work arena (more on these areas in a future update). Walking regularly, swimming a little bit before it got too cold, and getting back into jogging.  Using the transition as an opportunity to clean up my diet, lose a few pounds, book a couple overdue medical appointments. I’m making a concerted effort to move more, sit less.

I’m getting back into a morning meditation routine, and giving some thought as to which church in our denomination (there are several in the vicinity) we might attend. Upon waking up – okay, once I’ve walked the dog and made coffee – I think of three things I’ll do that day which are interesting, fun, helpful, involve others or otherwise keep me moving in the right re-entry direction. I end every day expressing gratitude for three people/things/happenings for which I’m appreciative.

And on the social front? That has taken a little longer in part because I was so focused on family support during the first six weeks. In general I think I’ve been patient, but I distinctly recall the morning I took my mother to the airport after a visit over a holiday weekend. Daughter was at school and Husband was working in his study. The dog had been walked, I’d tossed a load of laundry in, and straightened up the kitchen. I hadn’t yet worked out what my next writing project was going to be, and as I walked down the sunlit hallway I was overcome with such a wave of loneliness and the thought Where are my friends??

That was enough to get me going, because let’s face it: friends don’t magically appear on your doorstep when you’re ready for them. You have to find them, put yourself out there and make the effort to share enough experiences in the hopes that friendships will develop.

One of the first social engagements I had was meeting for lunch a fellow repatriate whom I’d met months ago on Facebook. The connection was instantaneous and heartfelt; we ‘get’ each other and where we are on this repat journey, and the conversation flowed freely. We’ve got some things cooking, and I’ll be sharing more on her soon-to-be-launched book about entrepreneurial expat women in another post.

I’ve met several of our neighbors, brief yet pleasant encounters while out walking the dog or with Husband. The logical next step is to invite one or two of them for coffee or tea, but I haven’t quite gotten around to it yet. I know, I know – what am I waiting for?

Of the handful of people with whom I’d been friendly when we lived here years ago (albeit in a different neighborhood and at a different stage with younger children at the time) and stayed in touch, I’ve managed to meet up with two. One started blogging while I was away, and we enjoy discussing writing projects. The other has already incorporated me into her small early morning walking group which includes two (!) expats – one from Scandinavia and the other from Southeast Asia. A few times a week we gather to chat while maintaining a fast-paced 4 mile walk up and down hilly paths among the deep forest of a nearby park. I’ll be contacting a few other friends in the coming days and weeks to get together when schedules mesh.

It’s early days, but overall I feel fortunate as these are good people, fun to be with, easy to talk to and learn from. Not BFFs or as expats refer to ’3 am friends’ you can call when things go pear-shaped, but you never know.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a Skype session here or there with two close expat friends.  We know each other well and have shared much, so the conversation quickly goes deeper. We grab a cuppa and catch up, stay abreast of current happenings and solve each other’s problems, and I am grateful for their willingness to maintain our friendship across the miles, no matter what.

So there you go.

When it comes to physical, emotional/spiritual and social well being, I’ve managed a 6.5.

There’s so much more to do, but I’ve survived the first ninety days and I’m fine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why Here?

As mentioned recently in Under Construction, I hope you’ll join me as I navigate the re-entry stage in our repatriation journey. Every three months I’ll share a series of ‘snapshot’ blog posts about the particulars of building a new life from scratch, filed under the post category Re-entry Reality. I’ll look at everything from making a home, engaging socially, staying healthy, and stretching creatively,  to becoming part of a community, launching new career endeavors and addressing spiritual needs and emotional well being.

*  *  *

Now that it’s been three months since leaving the Netherlands, I’m fully entrenched in re-entry into this new culture of ours. While returning to one’s country – in this case, the land of my birth, passport and where I grew up – generally hasn’t been considered ‘crossing cultures’, the majority of seasoned repatriates will tell you otherwise.

The best way I’d describe it is akin to the concept of being a ‘hidden immigrant’ espoused by Ruth Van Reken and the late David C. Pollock in the expat bible, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. We may know the language, history, and political/socio-economic landscape; our cultural moorings are attached to the bedrock of our country. Yet we’re changed by our time and experiences abroad.

We’re not familiar with up-to-the-minute developments and are missing large chunks of popular culture references. We look, sound, dress (usually) and carry ourselves as though we fit in, yet we don’t always feel that way. Perhaps most importantly, few really seem to notice how we may have changed and aren’t particularly interested in discussing why that may be. And no, the latter is not limited to the US, it’s a phenomenon repats have noticed around the globe. It’s as if our fellow countrymen simply expect us to slot back into our former lives and move on from there. It feels as though an important part of our identity is invisible to others, or worse, ignored.

I bring all of this up not only to illuminate some of the challenges of repatriation, but also to help explain why we ended up choosing to live where we are now.

Nine years ago, we had left our previous life after two decades in the fast-paced world of America’s capitol city, Washington DC. We were in search of something different, something a little calmer, simpler, more relaxing, with more time spent both with family and outdoors – and preferably at the same time. Yet as news and culture  junkies used to a steady fire hose of informative discussion of nuanced issues of global relevance, and easy access to artistic and creative endeavors, we wanted to stay connected, informed and inspired.

Let’s face it: we wanted to keep the highlights of life in a major metropolis while leaving behind all that makes it demanding and draining. We wanted to find the good life we knew existed outside the Beltway without giving up the perks of cosmopolitan living. Best of both worlds, anyone?

And for five years we had it while living in the Triangle, an easy mix of semi-urban, suburban and rural within the rough boundaries of Raleigh (North Carolina’s capitol city), Durham and Chapel Hill. A high-tech, health care and international business corridor carved out of bucolic countryside, the Triangle boasts renowned institutions of higher learning, research facilities, development projects, and established companies and start-ups alike working on the cutting edge as well as a vibrant writing/publishing community.

We spent five years happily ensconced Chapel Hill, the smallest corner of the Triangle and home to the highly regarded and oldest public university in the United States. It was only the lure of living overseas that eventually managed to pry us away. Not sure whether, when or where we’d return, we packed up, sold our house and headed to new adventures in the Netherlands.

Four years and a treasure trove of experiences and memories later, we had a clean slate when deciding where we would live. Proximity to a sizeable airport for easy access to family, international work and travel, and decent school options for Daughter were the only indisputable requirements. Everything else was entirely up to us.

Like kids in a candy store, we spent our share of time kicking around ideas. A house on the water? An urbane penthouse? The privacy of a large tract of land and few neighbors? Ultra-modern, rustic, country charm or classic architecture? In the mountains? At the beach? Why not! The sky was the limit and we thoroughly enjoyed the search.

But in the end, it boiled down to this: a cozy older home with plenty of character and space and some amazing upgrades, nestled in the four-story trees of a lovely wooded neighborhood, bordered by never-to-be-developed forest dating back to the early 1700s and safely entrusted to the state’s botanical gardens.

Greenwood Road, Chapel Hill NC on www.adventuresinexpatland.com

It is our own little rural compound and humble oasis, yet within easy walking distance to the concerts, plays, outdoor stone amphitheater, libraries, conferences, speakers, museums, galleries and athletic events of a first-rate university.

This charming small town holds history (albeit of the 300 year variety rather than the six+ centuries version we left behind) with a quaint main street where town folk and students coexist amiably. The university is not sealed off aseptically, away from the locals – you walk, jog and drive through campus as you live your life.

I especially like the almost palpable feel of excitement and limitless possibilities of young minds being stretched, molded, educated and prepared to go out into the world and make it a better place. Small city urban centers are a short drive away, and rural countryside and small lakes abound. The mountains and beaches are both less than two hours away.

Every bit as importantly, we have settled in an area in which expats, repats, cross-culturals and internationals do exist, in town and further afield. It may take a little effort to seek them out, but rest assured: I will find them. In fact, I’ve already begun and with positive results.

Score one in the win column for finding others who understand and appreciate the intercultural wayfarer in all of us.

We are home.

 

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Under Construction

I hope you’ll join me as I navigate the re-entry stage in our repatriation journey. Every three months I’ll share a series of ‘snapshot’ blog posts about the particulars of building a new life from scratch, filed under the post category Re-entry Reality. I’ll look at everything from making a home, engaging socially, staying healthy, and stretching creatively,  to becoming part of a community, launching new career endeavors and addressing spiritual needs and emotional well being. The first post in the initial three-month review, Why Hereexamined where we decided to repatriate.

* * * 

It was nearly three months ago to the day when Daughter and I walked out of the airport following our flight from the Netherlands and into the blast furnace heat of a northern Virginia mid-afternoon in early July.

We had a tough road ahead of us, literally and figuratively. Our immediate concern was the five hour+ drive in rush hour traffic, with our dog Oli and cat Ava in tow.

Our immediate destination would be North Carolina, the first stop in a series of comings and goings which would include three trips to Florida, spending precious time with my parents as my father’s health declined rapidly, being reunited on this side of the pond with Husband and Son who had followed ten days behind us, closing on the house we’d put under contract, nailing down Daughter’s place at school, camping in our new home while awaiting arrival of our household goods shipment, my father’s passing and memorial service, getting Son ready for return to university.

All of that and more – far more – awaited.

However, for those few minutes as Daughter and I struggled to get the pet carriers, hand luggage and large suitcases aboard the shuttle bus headed for the rental car facility, the feeling of being on the cusp of a new adventure did permeate the fog of jet lag and concern, and lifted my spirits just a bit.

Because isn’t that what transitions offer? The promise of a fresh start, the allure of new beginnings, the adventure of fashioning another life…

Indeed they do. Yet they are only one side of the re-entry coin: the other is the lack of familiar faces, activities, routines, rituals, structure.

For each of the past ninety days I’ve been chipping away at an extensive ‘to do’ list chock full of items. Some are mundane: arranging for utilities, deciding where to store kitchen utensils and cooking paraphernalia – closer to the stove or the refrigerator? high shelf or low cabinet? – hanging pictures, prints and art work, renewing my driver’s license.

Other tasks are practical: finding curtains for the master bedroom, replacing a leaky shower door, arranging and re-arranging furniture to get the ‘feel’ of each room, buying a car.

Still other items on the list are more substantive: getting Daughter settled in her new school, kicking around questions and ideas with Husband as we both consider what career adjustments we want to make, deciding on my next big writing project, reconnecting with old friends while beginning the process of seeking out new, supporting my mother in the early days of widowhood after 62 years with my father.

At times it is daunting. We celebrate the smallest of victories, and keep plugging away. We work hard, yet take time to care for ourselves and each other. When problems arise or things prove overly difficult, I try to put a good night’s sleep between us and those feelings of being unanchored, adrift, lonely. We spend time together, and look ahead. We laugh a fair amount, and sometimes we don’t. There has even been a tear or two shed along the way.

After going through many transitions over the years, what is the single most important thing I’ve learned?

Transitions are exhausting.

No two ways about it. They are energy vacuums, sucking the stamina and vitality and vigor right out of you.

They are also to be respected, which is why my mantra has been ‘Be one with the transition.’ Over and over and over again.

Be one with the transition.

Emotional resilience at its finest: Be one with the transition.

All together now Be one with - well, you get the picture.

So when family and friends ask how (or what) I’m doing, I say this: every morning, I get up and strap on my imaginary tool belt. You know, the one carpenters and construction workers use to hold the instruments of their trade.

Blueprints and construction hard hat photo by Adamr portfolio 4061 of freedigitalphotos.net on www.adventuresinexpatland.com

The difference is that I’m not pounding nails, cutting sheet rock, painting walls.

But I am ripping out old emotional dry wall, laying a solid foundation, filling in cracks along the fault lines in my life. I’m plastering over the niggling holes formed when I yanked myself away from one life and plopped down in another.

And where the crevices are too large to fill, the holes too gaping, the edges too rough to smooth over? I’m having to tear it all down and start over, building anew from the ground up.

I do this every day, a little work here and a little work there.

It’s a life under renovation, an existence under construction.

*  *  *

I hope you’ll join me as I navigate the re-entry stage in this repatriation journey. In the weeks and months to come, I’ll be sharing blog posts about the particulars of building a new life from scratch, everything from making a home, engaging socially, staying healthy, and stretching creatively,  to becoming part of a community, launching new career endeavors and addressing spiritual needs and emotional well being.

[Photo attribution: Adamr, portfolio 4061 at freedigitalphotos.net]

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Growth of the Expat Genre

At the risk of sounding entirely self-serving, I am going to share with you a development I hope expats*, cross-culturals, current and adult TCKs/CCKs, global nomads and repatriates alike will find heartening: the rise of books chronicling all and sundry aspects of expatriate life.

I know my mentor, Jo Parfitt, will find this gratifying as she’s spent the better part of her expat entrepreneurial writing and publishing career championing the creation of just such a genre.

I like to keep up with what is happening in the expat book world, and frequently find myself reading such books. I also write book reviews – primarily here in my regular features ‘Riveting Expat Reads’ and ‘Expat Authors’, but occasionally for print and online media venues. I do this because I want to share with expats, readers, and expat readers those books I find of value in navigating our way in lives led in other countries or cultures.

You name it, I’m intrigued by it all: non-fiction accounts, memoirs, novels, short stories, how-to and do-it-yourself and self-help books for making life in an exotic, foreign or strikingly unfamiliar locale. Many are well written – some quite so – and they all tend to offer kernels of truth, parables to learn from, and heartfelt advice to ease the way for others.

And how, you ask, might this be misconstrued as self-serving?

My book The Emotionally Resilient Expat: Engage, Adapt and Thrive Across Cultures (Summertime Publishing) was released over the summer. In the interest of full disclosure, I was recently informed that a review would be forthcoming in the quarterly magazine, American in Britain, a sister publication to the monthly newsletter and website aimed at American expats in the UK, The American Hour. In the course of discussion, I was asked whether I’d like to write a review as well, and it could be of any expat book of my choosing.

There was no quid pro quo involved. I could graciously say no and still the review of my book would go forward. The person making the offer simply knows I read, write about and help publicize books in the expat genre.

A quick rundown of the other books being featured in the September issue and I knew immediately which book I’d review: an oldie but goodie (if a book published two years ago can be considered ‘old’) in Julia Simens’ Emotional Resilience and The Expat Child. I’ve written on this site twice about Julia’s book,  first in Riveting Expat Reads and then in the Expat Authors’ post Writing My Book. Her book fits nicely with the other books being reviewed, and what a great way to introduce it to a new audience of expats/cross-culturals.

Many thanks to the good folks at The American Hour/American in Britain for their support of this genre. And if you’re interested, here are the American in Britain Quarterly Expat Book Reviews Sep 2013.

Now there is still significant work to be done as few online and brick-and-mortar booksellers have an explicit expat genre. On Amazon, my book is slotted into broad subcategories such as family travel, emigration/immigration and self-help. Seriously. Maybe it’s just me, but I happen to think there’s a little difference between books on visiting Disney theme parks around the world and those about living cross-culturally.

The wonderful thing is that the number of venues sharing reviews of books in the expat genre continues to grow. Just off the top of my head I can think of The Telegraph, Global Living, Expat Arrivals, Expatica, Expat Focus, Expat Women, Expat Woman, Xpat, and IAmExpat, not to mention Summertime Publishing’s Expat Bookshop, and on myriad sites of individual expat bloggers.

I’m sure this list is just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, why not tell me of other expat/cross-cultural sites and magazines featuring expat book reviews and I’ll add them to a running list? That way we’ll all know of the growing number of places to catch reviews of expat books.

If you know of other magazines and websites which run reviews of expat/cross-cultural books, please mention them in the comments!

*I use the term expat in its original Latin form: ex (outside) patria (one’s country). I leave it up to the individual to determine whether that is their birth or passport country, where they spent the preponderance of their childhood, the country to which they have the greatest affinity, or so on.

 

 

 

 

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