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Suitcases and Sacrifices

On Sunday evening, a new friend and I met up to see the two-woman play Suitcases and Sacrifices at Den Haag’s Pepijn Theater.

Another fellow expat had recommended it, and it sounded intriguing. As explained in TheHagueOnline here, this play has been translated from its original Dutch.

At times touching and deeply affecting, at others uproariously funny, the show tackles the highs, lows and inaccurate assumptions of the expatriate life.

The two talented actresses, Linda Moller and Mechteld Schelberg, portray a wide array of characters whose words, voices, facial expressions, body language and actions provide telling insights into the situations and emotions many expats face.

It’s never as glamorous as people ‘back home’ may think, yet at times it can be more exciting than they’d like to hear. Challenges abound, yet opportunities may be more constrained.

Time passes, expats stay or go, friendships are built and then someone moves on. Back ‘home’, everyone goes on with their lives, and friends and former colleagues grow apart.

Some of the most poignant moments in the play (at least for me) captured the surprising lack of interest in what we’re doing and what expat life is really like by those nearest and dearest to us.

A year ago I was asked by another expat (now moved on to a new posting) whether I’d been back ‘home’ for a visit yet. I explained that other than a short emergency trip back when my father had experienced life-threatening complications from heart surgery, no. But we were planning a trip back in the summer, and really looking forward to it.

What she said next took me aback.

‘It’s nice to see everyone and all, and they’ll be happy to see you. But what was so surprising is how little interest anyone seems to have in what your life is like here. I was shocked by how few questions I ever received other than ‘How’s it going?’ or ‘How do you like it?’ or ‘When are you coming back?’ You’re going through so many physical, emotional and psychological changes, and they only want one sentence answers. If I tried to elaborate on anything, their eyes glazed over. They just aren’t interested, but it felt as if they didn’t care.’

Wow. I thought of family and friends, people I’ve known and loved and who have always been there for me (and I them).

We always enjoyed chatting and catching up, and with some the hallmark of our relationships were the long, indepth, intensely private conversations we’d hold over a glass of wine on a hot summer’s day or a cold winter’s night. Surely this wouldn’t be the case with them??

Fast forward 5 months to our trip back to the US this past summer. In the weeks we were there, I visited many places in three states and saw almost three dozen friends and family members. I enjoyed it all immensely, but in the back of my mind I paid careful attention to what I was asked and by whom.

The results were staggering. One couple, who I knew probably least well of anyone I encountered, did ask ‘It must be so exciting to live in another country. What’s it like?’ They seemed sincerely interested in the answer, and we ended up having a very engaging conversation. Only one friend asked me what I was doing regarding work/career, and surprisingly it wasn’t even one my closest friends.

Despite the fact that with everyone I saw, I did what I always do. Ask several questions about how they’re doing, what’s new, how the old/new job was going, did they ever get a chance to do or play (fill in the blank) anymore, were they still listening to so-and-so or such-and-such band, had they been traveling or reading anything interesting lately, how was their family/parents/dog doing, and so on.

Beyond that, no one, and I mean NO ONE, asked me anything beyond the three simple questions my friend had outlined. No one.

Don’t get me wrong. We had lots of other interesting conversations, and I felt loved and missed. It was as if we just picked up where we left off.

And while that felt good and in some ways even very reassuring, it also felt like it totally ignored the 800 gorilla in the room: my life, and those of my family, have been inextricably changed in more ways than we can ever have begun to imagine.

If you’d been secretly filming it all, you never would have known that I live half a world away. Sometimes it feels like a lifetime away.

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