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In Transition

Glancing at the calendar this morning, I realized it’s been almost three months since leaving the Netherlands.

Twelve weeks from when I strapped myself into my assigned airline seat, Daughter to my right, our pets Oli and Ava beneath us in the acclimatized pet cargo hold.

Eighty nine days since I watched the plane rise away from the flat Dutch countryside, the buildings and farms and automobiles and windmills growing smaller until they were mere dots on the fuzzy earth carpet below.

In the vernacular of expatriate, cross-cultural life, at that very moment I was in the eye of the transition hurricane.

The involvement stage of an active, engaged existence in The Hague had ended with our decision to move back to the US, and the emotionally and physically arduous frenzy of dismantling and taking leave of our life there was behind us. Before us lay still more hard work, starting with the long and deceptively tricky entry stage. In the distance, the mirage-like shimmer of the re-involvement stage beckoned, that point where we would finally begin to feel the disparate parts of our life beginning to come together.

Arvind Balaraman portfolio 1058 on freedigitalphotos.net

But for the duration of that flight, for those hours spent inside that air-frame hurtling through the thin air some 38,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, we were in transition. Literally and figuratively.

As I settled back and closed my eyes to nap, the running film in my head featured a large, leather-covered book lying open at the halfway mark. The tome was propped on a burnished wooden stand, calligraphied words dancing across the pages. I watched as an unknown hand grasped the lower right corner and turned the page.

The subsequent pages were blank, devoid of any marking. It didn’t take Freud to decipher the message my subconscious was sending me. We would be starting over again, building  from scratch a new life in a new home in a new neighborhood.

Whatever comfort to be found inherent in the progress of the re-entry stage would have to wait.  In the days and weeks ahead, we would be attending first to my elderly parents as my father’s condition worsened, the final decline to terminal cancer already underway.

The human spirit is capable of dealing with so much more than we can imagine. But the resilience required to face the future when we know full well it holds unpleasant or difficult or sorrowful events, depends in part on mindfulness. It calls for being rooted in the present – anchored, even – and dealing with things as they currently are and not on how they will become.

At that moment, as I felt consciousness give way to much-needed sleep, I found a strange solace in being in transition.

 *  *  *

Photo by Arvind Balaraman, portfolio 1058 on freedigitalphotos.net

 

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Taking Leave

Over the years, storytellers and screenwriters have been perpetuating a myth which many of us have bought into. The fallacy is that the hardest part of moving – be it across town, across country or across the world – lies in the decision itself.

Hours spent wrestling with what ifs? and how abouts? followed by a sleepless night or two, a little hand-wringing and some wittily poignant dialogue back and forth, and the main characters arrive at the ever-popular list of pros and cons.

Mattel Magic 8 Ball on www.adventuresinexpatland.com

Once various aspects and considerations have been weighed, the answer dramatically appears at the bottom of the columns, as simple as reading a Magic 8 Ball.

Stay.

Or go.

Moving again? Great. Rev up the planning juggernaut, get it in gear and get on with it. Done and dusted.

The cinematic license taken by any number of stories or movies would have us believe that once the decision is rendered, that’s it. One life chapter closes for our hero/heroine, and another begins. Having chosen the path to elsewhere, it’s time for the leading actor to embrace the new life which lies beyond.

Easy peasy. Piece of cake.

If only that were the case. The tendency is to draw down our mind’s steel shutters, announce we’re leaving and close up shop. Packing commences and farewells are tucked in around moving dates, flight plans and the myriad details of dismantling one’s home. Nostalgia is banished to those quiet moments between tasks, accompanied usually by confusion, occasionally by doubt.

Rarely is leaving ever as neat and clean as the quick severing so often portrayed. Even if it were, it would only cause far greater problems down the road.

The truth is, taking leave is complicated and messy, full of ambivalence and conflicting emotions.

Despite looking forward to the next stage in life’s grand adventures, we still come face to face with one simple fact: we’re leaving people and places that mean something to us. Who we are, what we’ve done, indeed a large part of our very identity have been wrapped up in our life here, in these relationships, in this place.

They matter.

We may never be entirely sure how to fully say goodbye, and in many ways I’m still not.

I have some ideas, and think I did as well as could be expected under the circumstances. Like it or not, with each move we become more experienced, although not necessarily more adept.

How do you prepare to depart from a place which has been home for several years?

Even from the other side of these past few months, the other side of the leave-taking, indeed the other side of the pond, the question still reverberates.

How do you take leave?

It’s far from done and dusted. It isn’t easy peasy, and there’s no cake in sight.

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Shared Transitions

Behind the scenes I’ve been working on a number of posts about what’s been going on and what I’ve been up to these past weeks and months.

It’s been a whirlwind of motion, a cacophony of change, some tough moments scattered among positive and uplifting ones, along with the more mundane. (Is there ever a time when moving isn’t exhausting?)

Those posts cover a range of topics, but at the core most deal with with one of the trickiest words in the English language: transition.

We spend our lives entering into, going through, and coming out of transitions. One after another. Over and over again.

Some are intensely personal while others include family members, friends, colleagues. Some are short-lived, others more complicated and can drag on for what seems like forever.

Some transitions are large and unwieldy, others limited, quick and to the point. Some are more emotionally challenging while others are more physically draining. But they’re all transitions nonetheless.

I’ve experienced overwhelming, multi-layered transitions lately, am still standing and have learned a lot. But I’ve set aside those other posts for another day.

On a day like this which holds such personal meaning for me,* I realized I needed a day to retreat, reflect and remember. I’ll be thinking about those events twelve years ago, and all that has changed in my life and those of so many others in the intervening years.

Mostly I’ll be thinking about people. Those we lost in moments of utter terror and depraved violence, and in the aftermath that has followed. I’ll be thinking about two former colleagues, their faces forever frozen in my mind, smiling and dedicated and tremendously talented, gone in an instant. I’ll be remembering so many others, brave, amazing, unsuspecting people who woke up that morning not realizing how their world would be turned upside down. I’ll be cataloging the pain, loss, sadness and grief.

And I’ll be remembering those with whom I experienced that dark day. It’s like a newsreel running in my head, images of people, scenes, action, emotions. We share a bond which, although forged in destruction, remains indestructible.

Life changed that day, for each of us, and the ripples are still being felt.

With every year that passes, we are carried further along the chronological continuum of time. The distance grows but we always remember. We heal, but never forget.

I’ve come to see that we share a transition – one which is and will likely remain unfinished. We are forever linked, and our transition goes on.

~  ~  ~

*For those wishing more on the back story, you might consider We Endure, Broken Shards, and 9/11 Cultural Insensitivity 101.

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Surfacing

Well, well, well. Look what the cat dragged in.

Yours truly, sheepishly shrugging while simultaneously cringing at how pathetic this looks.

When last I posted several weeks ages ago, I dropped the bombshell we were moving back to the US this summer. That news was indeed incendiary on a personal basis as we had fully expected to stay another year, possibly two, in the Netherlands.

At the time I had a list of nine – count ‘em, nine – relevant post topics I fully intended to crank out in the ensuing weeks before the movers arrived and I’d be forced to invoke radio silence for a while. Because that’s what tends to happen to expats/cross-culturals when in transition: we fall off the face of the earth.

Or at least it seems that way. But best laid plans go awry, and so on. I’d been humming along at a furious pace, trying to juggle move prep with finishing the 101 tedious little things necessary to get a book published, with an editor, publisher and layout designer practically pulling their hair out.

Okay, there may be a bald patch or two with my name on them, and for that I am truly sorry.

I was keeping up with packing lists and the household inventory needed by the Dutch moving company, and answering questions posed by the American company that would help our goods clear customs and be delivered later in the summer. Stateside school applications for Daughter were duly submitted and awaiting decisions.

I’d lined up temporary housing for when the furniture, clothing and assorted accumulations of family life would begin being packed up, and enlisted help for the notoriously exacting scrub down required by Dutch landlords which would commence the moment the truck hauling the shipping container pulled away from the curb and not cease until the keys were returned to their rightful owner.

We worked out the private sale of our car to a citizen of another European Union country, graciously arranged by the dealer from whom we’d originally purchased it. He even placed phone calls to the Ministry of Taxation to ensure we were fully compliant with Dutch sales law and then turned around and explained the lengthy and convoluted process to the administrative person at Husband’s international organization.

I ran errands, made travel arrangements and pet health paperwork appointments, and ferried family members, animals and inanimate objects hither and yon for a variety of reasons. We consulted spreadsheets and added items to already full ‘to do’ lists faster than we could cross out the completed ones. We tackled closets and dressers, tossing and donating and giving away, doing our best to make all that remained truly ‘shipment worthy’.

But in the end, something had to give. The tsunami of things left to do threatened to overwhelm the remaining days which ticked down to mere hours. There were also the protracted negotiations with our landlord over what constituted normal wear and tear for an average family living in a residence four years, and what each party thought was a reasonable amount of our security deposit, causing great consternation and grinding down our will to live: we were thinking in percentages and he was thinking all that and then some, the equivalent of some countries’ gross national product.

Not surprisingly, blogging and interaction on social media fell by the wayside. By the time things were settled in the Netherlands, it was time to head back to the US and two trips to Florida to be with my parents as my father entered his last days. There is much I don’t recall of that period, and it’s probably just as well. I liken it to being subsumed by a black hole, and whether my memory returns in part or in its entirety remains to be seen.

This coincided with and was followed by a period of protracted lack of internet connectivity, made all the longer by a cable company which insisted on operating as if in a failed state rather than a first world country. The household goods arrived a week ago, furniture has been arranged and the boxes have been emptied, although whether everything has been put away I refuse to comment.

At long last I’m beginning to surface, coming up for air in a new stage in a new place in a country and culture which seem familiar yet I don’t always recognize. I’m reminded on a daily basis that I’m not in the Netherlands anymore. Some days it hurts less than others. I’m getting better, if you overlook the time I burst into tears over yogurt at breakfast a month ago when I heard the guttural lilt of Nederlands spoken by a tourist in the hotel dining room.

Every day we exchange looks of satisfaction as we remember why we love it here so. The book is published, and I’m slowly easing back into catching up on social media. There are life changes and exciting plans underway, and new adventures to be embraced if we can just survive that d@mn ‘to do’ list. Funny how it managed to follow us across the pond…

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Tipping Post

I’ve often wondered what I would say in a post like this. I’ve played it out in my mind before, I just never thought I’d be writing this now.

You see, it’s time for that kind of post.

Not the kind where you tell everyone you’re moving on to another expatriate experience, although there were a couple of times over the past two years where we came awfully close to doing so.

Emergency Exit and Baggage Claim Sign photo by Artur84 on Freedigitalphotos.netNo, this is a slightly different post, one in which I let you know that finally the tipping point has been reached.

This is ‘the tipping post’.

Husband, Son, Daughter and I are repatriating back to the US.

Yeah, it still takes me by surprise, too.

I know there will be questions  - heck, even I have lots of questions – and I’ll try to answer them in a series of posts in the days ahead.

And for the record, believe me, I understand the delicious sense of irony in someone who has been blogging less than usual in recent months preparing to write a tipping post and suddenly coming up with a long list of posts to help fill in the blanks.

But for now, I’ll leave you with this:

The reasons why are several, but none more pressing than my father’s terminal cancer. As we found ourselves discussing the decision to repatriate, tossing it around gently as if it were a sea shell, holding it up to the light and examining every crevice and smooth surface, the sense of urgency has certainly been heightened by his condition. It isn’t good, and won’t get better. We need to be there for him, for my mother. We are in a race against time to get there, a race I am determined to win.

In expat terms that means we’ve completely thrown the repatriation handbook out the window. What I always envisioned would be a nice, leisurely, yearlong period of deliberate planning and careful preparation is gone. Just like that. Poof.

It’s been replaced by long days of lists and tasks and decisions, and late nights of worry and what-ifs and semi-panic as we try to do in a few weeks what rightfully takes a few months.

The book? Finally done, beautifully edited by Saint Jane Dean, the fabulous layout design completed by Lisa Hall of Lemonberry, and sent off to print yesterday by esteemed expat publisher, Jo Parfitt of Summertime Publishing.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well, I can tell you it takes a village to get a book ready for publication, and it takes an extraordinarily dedicated  ‘A team’ to support someone – an author – in getting it finished so they can leave abruptly. They’ve gone far above and well beyond, with firmness, focus and grace. They have made me an author, and believe me, there is no greater gift you can give a writer.

As for the blog, of course it will continue. Was there really any thought I’d have less to say in future days? So much to share on preparing to leave, transitioning, landing, building a new life.

I’m well aware repatriation is often as difficult as other moves across culture – if not more so, in certain respects – precisely because people don’t necessarily expect it to be. But we’re cognizant of how much we’ve changed, and been changed by our experiences abroad, and we know others ‘back home’ have changed as well. We’re not going back to a previous life, we’re moving forward into a new one.

Career? Yes, there will be some tweaks there as well. For one, I’ve finished the labor of love which has consumed my spare time and attention – as life developments would allow – over the past two years. I’m giving considerable thought to my next writing project(s), and while I haven’t locked in on all of them yet, I can tell you they will be squarely in the fiction camp. There are also some other interesting things on the horizon which I’m not yet at liberty to discuss, but will share when I can.

Expat life? That, too, remains an open book. Husband’s and my work will remain firmly in the international arena, and we fully expect to head overseas for travel, extended stays and even relocation in the years ahead. We’re building a home base from which to explore and go forth, something Ruth Van Reken wisely once counseled me would be of enormous value and benefit. (The full story’s in the book.)

So there you go. The ‘R word’ has entered my family’s lexicon. We’re up to our eyeballs in it, and will be for some time to come. Hope you come along for the ride.

 

 

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The Short and Long of It

Lately something’s been stuck in my head, like a snippet of a song’s refrain playing over and over again.

It’s as if I have my own chorus – although it’s actually more like a soloist, with a deep, resonant voice – repeating the phrase in an ongoing loop.

It’s to the point where it has taken on a life of its own. Not surprisingly, it’s gotten me thinking – about issues tiny and gargantuan, trivial and deep, temporary and enduring.

I picked it up from something I saw on Gretchen Rubin’s website, The Happiness Project.com.

Rubin’s the author of a book by the same title in which she chronicles her yearlong odyssey to test out and incorporate into daily life all the conventional wisdom and popular culture about what makes us happy, and how. She followed that up recently with Happier at Home, the result of a school-year’s worth of tackling family- and home-centric challenges to bring peace, tranquility and contentment into her personal sphere.

She’s even got a Happiness Manifesto complete with her own Twelve Personal Commandments and Eight Splendid Truths.

But of all the words she’s written, all the ideas she’s tried, all the pronouncements made, this is the one phrase that stays with me.

It’s contained in this little video, The Years Are Short (also known as The Bus Ride). Try not to get all teary-eyed, but instead focus on the ‘aha’ moment to which she confesses.

 

In my humble opinion, she’s cracked the code to the secret to life. I’ve always believed life is the journey, not the destination. But this goes a step further, and gets to what really, truly matters. It has been an epiphany, and it is changing my life:

The days are long, but the years are short.

 

 

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We’ve been having a pretty cool cold spring this year. The sun hasn’t really wanted to shine more than a day or so, here and there. The mercury hasn’t crept much above 50 degrees Fahrenheit more than a time or two over the past two months.

We’ve had days where it poured cold rain for hours on end, and others where the overcast sky seemed to be introducing its own version of Fifty Shades of Grey.

In layman’s terms, we’re starting to think we’re Ground Zero for global warming. I mean, is it really too much to ask that the temperature get close to the 60s by the time the calendar reads June 1st?

Clearly it is, but today has been an improvement. The sun has been shining, not a drop of rain, and the temperature has hovered near 60 degrees.

That, my friends, rates as a win-win-win this spring. Not wishing to fritter away such a lovely day, we jumped on our bicycles and headed to the beach to ride among the dunes.

We flipped a euro and decided to head south toward Kijkduin. It’s one of my favorite rides, immortalized in Sun, Sea, Sand, Voluptuous Curves and Dangly Bits.

Favorite bike path to Kijkduin at www.adventuresinexpatland.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The best part? We managed to enjoy a walk on the beach without accidentally stumbling upon one of the nude beaches.

At least I don’t think so, since it’s not really warm enough to be stripping down to one’s dangly bits…

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Big Chests

What I find fascinating about living in another culture is discovering how things are done differently than in my home or other countries.

An example is when people are required to wait in line. One culture will queue up neatly – with near military precision – while another culture’s line resembles a full-contact rugby scrum. The amount of personal space allowed – or the feeling of lack thereof – is another example. Getting utilities turned on, making arrangements to procure a mobile phone or renewing a driver’s license are still more.

Do you know what makes you feel even more proud of your accomplishment than learning how to do a familiar task in a different place? Learning to do something entirely new, for the very first time, in another culture.

For Husband and me, it was our first time participating in an auction. Online, and conducted entirely in Dutch.

It had disaster written all over it, which made it all the more exciting.

We’ve always been enamored of old and unusual furniture, pieces valued more for the story they tell than any provenance or value as antique. We also enjoy collecting items destined to remind us of treasured memories of places we’ve traveled and lived, different cultures we’ve visited. No trip is complete without an earthenware vase, small print of a street scene, ceramic plate, historic map, carved wooden box or holiday ornament in the suitcase.

So you can imagine our delight in discovering the antique house Onder de Boompjes a few years ago while strolling in nearby Leiden. The shop is always crammed full of Dutch, European, Asian and the occasional African artifacts. Several times a year they hold auctions over the course of four evenings, selling everything from rugs to furniture to decorative items to paintings and prints.

Whenever we headed over for a weekend visit to Leiden, we’d swing by Onder de Boompjes to check out the latest haul. Every time, as we were leaving the shop, we’d turn to each other and say the same thing.

‘We really should try the auction next time.’

Well, a few months ago that refrain turned to ‘Let’s do it!’

Online registration and a phone call to verify I hadn’t hosed it up, and next thing you know, we’re registered complete with ‘an account’. That sounds so glamorous, but all it means is they know where to find us should we fail to live up to any purchases we make.

So it was on a cold, dark – and since it’s Nederland – and rainy evening, Husband and I were found huddled on our family room sofa, wine glass in one hand, list of potential items to bid on in another. As we kept an eye on the items being auctioned, Husband laid out our grand plan of attack.

When it comes to territorial acquisition and offensive campaigns, the greatest military planning masterminds have nothing on Husband.

With our procurement strategy and bidding tactics in mind, we commenced in stages. Having already logged into the live auction for viewing purposes only, we dared switch to ‘live’ mode. We were in the auction, able to see and hear what was going on. More importantly, we could bid.

‘Careful, watch where you point the mouse. You almost bid on that 18th century commode!’

‘Here, leave the cursor over there before you buy that hideous table.’

I understand a fair bit of Dutch, but – all together now - not when a person speaks very quickly.

Guess the pace of the Dutch auctioneer. Go ahead, I dare you.

Suffice it to say I was reduced to listening as intently as possible, my mind trying desperately to recognize repetitive phrases and the odd word here or there. After awhile, I began to sense a cadence as the auctioneer got close to dropping the gavel to signal a sale.

We had our hearts set on acquiring a Dutch chest, historically used to store blankets, linens and out-of-season clothing. There were a half dozen to choose from, all varying in age and condition. And as with the other bidders, we hoped to score one on the lower end of the estimated price range, if possible.

We were outbid on one of the first of our top preferences, and I can only say thank goodness Husband had insisted on determining our bid limits before bidding began. The thrill of an online click to try to win something you desire is immense. Let’s just say it’s incredibly addictive, and leave it at that.

Soon another top contender on our list appeared. Fingers poised, eyes riveted to the screen, ears attuned to the auctioneer’s rhythm, we each held our breath. Then it was a mad jumble of words streaming, pointing, clicking, amid cries of ‘bid higher’ and ‘one more time’ and ‘are you sure?’…

Next thing we knew, we were the proud owners of this late 19th century carved lovely:

Dutch late 19th century carved chest on www.adventuresinexpatland.com

 

Forgive my limited photographic skills, she’s not quite as reddish as she appears.

Somehow we managed to snag her at an incredibly low price.

Flush with excitement, we toasted our skilled execution and sat back to enjoy the rest of the auction.

We were basking in the glory of our success when she came up for bid: the true objection of our affection, a nearly black beauty with the original date carved across her front.

1743.

Left front corner of the lid slightly warped from age and use.

We took one look at each other, and knew we had to have her, or end the night trying.

mid-18th century Dutch blanket chest at Adventures in Expat Land

We got her for a song, a real steal, and immediately logged out of the auction before we did any more damage.

These days, whenever I happen by one of the chests, I giggle a little and then launch into a rif on Sir Mix A Lot’s ‘Baby Got Back’.

I like big chests and I cannot lie…You other brothers can’t deny

Oh what the heck, you know you want to watch it:

 

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In Defense of Blogging

For the record, I have not fallen off the face of the earth.

It only appears that way.

You’re probably sick of reading a post in which I say I’m getting back to blogging on a regular basis, and then proceed to, well, blog on an irregular basis. I don’t blame you. I’m getting tired of writing such posts. And I sure am darn sick of not blogging.

photo of hands on keyboard by Ian Britton at FreeFoto.com

Ian Britton FreeFoto.com.

When I sat down to type this, I looked at the date of my last post and shuddered. Could it really be more than two weeks?

TWO WEEKS?

Yowza.

In the little world between my ears, I was thinking it had only been a few days. Six, maybe seven at most.

Nothing like the date stamp of a post to bring you back to reality and the stark truth I’ve failed miserably at keeping my ‘I will blog regularly’ promise. Mea culpa.

Because I really enjoy blogging. No, make that: I really love blogging. And when I don’t blog, I miss it.

Now I know some bloggers do so more for attention, publicity, designing their platform, building their ‘brand’. Good for them, more power to ‘em. Or they blog to entertain, inform, educate, motivate, persuade or inspire. I aim for at least one of the aforementioned, two on a good day.

But in the end, I blog because I like the connection that takes place when fingers hit keyboard, words come out on the page, and are read. The act of writing is sufficient reward, and that last part – ‘and are read’ – is just icing on the cake.

I like being part of a global online community of fellow bloggers, each of us writing what flows through us. None of us can possibly keep up with reading every single post we collectively put out there, but it sure is nice to touch base and know what’s going on, what’s taking up their time and what they find interesting.

I love knowing what others find blog-worthy, and seeing what they’ve done with their words.

So while I may not have been blogging, I have been thinking about blogging quite a bit. I’ve captured a number of notes on topics I’d like to share, questions I have, things I’m not sure of.

It was six weeks ago, in Back in the Saddle Again, that I was sure my book would be published at the end of April. However well meaning those thoughts were, the universe scoffed at them – Ha! For reasons too numerous to mention, many of my own making, this behemoth of a book is taking a little (okay a lot) longer than I’d hoped.

The editing and cross-checking are complicated, as Saint Jane* and I follow up on loose ends in the manuscript and try not to forget anything. Life’s thrown in a few curve balls as well, and things get interrupted here and there.

But we now have a solid, no kidding, drop dead date  to throw the sucker over the transom and into the lap of Lisa of Lemonberry.com to have her way with it. Wednesday. She’s already done a draft mock-up of the first 50 pages, allowing us to embrace the myriad details of what the words will actually look like on the page. We’ve tweaked it a teensy bit, moved this here and that there, and have agreed on the way forward.

We’re finishing up the last parts, filling in the cracks, polishing it up.

I don’t have a publication date as that’s heavily dependent on Lisa’s workload and schedule. But it’s looking like very late May or early June.

In the meantime, you’ll find me tap tap tapping away, setting things right and getting it done. And blogging. Because I’ve got a lot of connecting to do.

*  *  *

*One of the upcoming posts will be why every author needs an experienced book editor.

 

 

 

 

 

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Fijne Koninginnedag

Today was Queen’s Day, the biggest national holiday in the Netherlands. They’ve been celebrating the monarch’s birthday since the late 19th century, and this marks the fourth Koninginnedag festivities we’ve observed. I mentioned in another post that it’s a lot like a mix of New Year’s Eve, Fourth of July and Mardi Gras (with more clothes).

I’ve written about it before in Koninginnedag (Queen’s Day) and Happy Queen’s Day, but this year is special, because Queen Beatrix abdicated her throne in favor of her son, Prince Willem-Alexander.  She’s ruled for 33 years and ‘Trix’ – as she’s referred to lovingly by some – is ready to enjoy retirement and her grandchildren. It’s time for a new generation to lead.

With the overlay of the royal coronation ceremony and the desire to properly thank Queen Beatrix for three decades of service to her country, everyone knew this year would somehow manage to be bigger, wilder, crazier yet more stately. As Husband and I wandered down the jam-packed Frederik Hendricklaan (aka ‘The Fred’), I turned and corrected my assessment of Queen’s Day: this year it’s the equivalent of the three aforementioned holidays plus a super-sized presidential inauguration that comes around very, very rarely. For more about the Queen’s Day tradition, check out Passing the Crown, my April column in Expat Focus.

The jumbo-sized television screens and the orange-wrapped celebratory cigars are new this year (for the royal transition), but the national yard sale, big crowds, concerts, boat regattas, barbeques, picnics, musics festivals, ceremonies, services, parties, face-panting, dancing, bands and general merriment are not. Nor are the poffertjes (mini pancakes below).

The teenage acid rock band was a nice touch this year, jamming their hearts out. A couple blocks away a younger-version-in-the-making of pre-teens showed they had confidence and attitude, even if they still are lacking a bit in talent (sorry, no photo).

And check out the cool Santa statue one guy scored. Santa for the win – result!

 

Expectant Crowd in The Hague Queen's Day 2013 at www.adventuresinexpatland.com

King Willem-Alexander and Princess Maxima 2013 www.adventuresinexpatland.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crowds 2 2013 www.adventuresinexpatland.com

Crowd 3 2013 Adventures in Expat Land

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DSC05172 Crowds 1 on The Fred 2013 Adventures in Expat Land

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Acid Rock Jam Band 2013 www.adventuresinexpatland.com

Poffertjes 2013 www.adventuresinexpatland.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bedankt Koninginne Beatrix 2013 www.adventuresinexpatland.com National Yard Sale 2013 www.adventuresinexpatland.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bass Player 2013 www.adventuresinexpatland.com

Piano Player 2013 Adventures in Expatland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crowds 4 2013 Adventures in Expat Land

 

Scored a Santa Result! www.adventuresinexpatland.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Celebratory Cigars www.adventuresinexpatland.comCovered Carnival Ride 2013 Adventures in Expatland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Having a Good Time 2013 www.adventuresinexpatland.comGames 2013 www.adventuresinexpatland.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Queen Beatrix and her 3 graddaughtersVideo Queen's Day 2013 www.adventuresinexpatland.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Decorations 2013 www.adventuresinexpatland.com

Oversized Crown 2013 Adventures in Expat Land

 

 

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Run to Help

Last night I was all set to go with a humorous blog post today when Husband called down the stairs, telling me to turn to CNN.  Something about a suspicious explosion in Boston.

My heart sank just hearing the words.

I turned the channel and together we sat, eyes glued to the television, listening to the announcers cobble together the bits and pieces of information trickling in. We searched the looping video over and over again, scouring it for new angles, clues, answers.

None were forthcoming, of course, although it’s human nature to look for answers and their close relative, blame.

This post isn’t about that aspect of the explosions, now classified as bombings. It isn’t about the source of the bombings, potential suspects, the twisted reasons that will never, ever be good enough.

We were too busy making a mental note of all the people we know in the Boston area: Husband’s brother, his former wife and our two nieces, a friend from when we were twenty-somethings we keep up with on Facebook who was there with her partner and friends cheering on other friends who were running, one of my best friends from high school and her family, the son of an old  friend, the daughter of another, a serial expat (now repatriated) I’ve gotten to know a bit in recent months.

The sinking feeling worsened as the minutes ticked by. I was calm, yet I had a queasy feeling in my stomach. My chest was tight. My arms were crossed, hugging my body. I focused on the scenes flashing in front of me, anything to keep my mind off another time, another place.

This isn’t about September 11th. Whatever this turns out to be, this is about the people in Boston, those runners – those marathoners – their friends and family members nearby, the crowds of people enjoying a holiday from school and work. This isn’t about that day, it is about April 15th, 2013. This is about April 15th in Boston.

By the time I slipped into bed I’d seen the FB message from my friend that they all were safe yet shaken amid the ensuing bedlam. She was scared. She wanted a stiff drink. She wanted to throw up.

That made two of us. And likely many more.

As I lay in bed later, overly tired but my mind too active to fall asleep, I began to do a mindfulness body scan. You do your best to relax and then, one by one, assess each part of your body. Starting from toes to foot to knee to leg and further, up one side and down the other, you concentrate on each part, determining how it feels.

By the time you end up back at the toes of the other foot, your mind and body have usually relaxed enough to drift to sleep.

Not this time, but I was still calm. I had been calm watching the television, I was calm lying in bed, I was calm when I awoke this morning. I’ve been calm all day. I am still calm.

I have learned to remain calm, to be calm.

I know how to turn off that part of my mind, take the memories and put them in a little compartment where they are safely tucked away.

I rarely take them out, although from time to time I do. But it is never on a day like yesterday, or a day like today.

Today feels mournful in a quiet, composed sort of way. Not only for the victims, their families, those who witnessed it all, but also for a world in which things like this happen.

I am not a voyeur, or someone who reacts to horrific events as if they happened to me personally. I empathize, oh yes I empathize. I feel compassion for those involved, it saddens me deeply. But I know it’s not my story. I know my story, and I know not to take on stories that are not mine. I know where the line is drawn, and I don’t cross it. I don’t dare cross it.

As I trudged back from Albert Heijn with the makings of tonight’s dinner, I encountered three young children at different points along the way. A boy, a girl, another boy. Different races, different ethnic groups. Yet all were roughly the same age, three or four.

Not old enough to be aware of days like yesterday, to know of events like Boston.

Not old enough to have their minds warped by whatever makes someone plant bombs where people gather to celebrate the accomplishment of active bodies running 26.2 miles.

Many of the injured have lost limbs. The irony is not lost on me.

Much has been made of the immediate response, people – police, emergency responders, National Guard personnel, race volunteers, runners, spectators, average people  - running toward the explosions. Towards the injured, the dying.

Running to help.

What I want is a world where little children like the ones I saw this afternoon here on Ten Hovestraat, and elsewhere around the globe, grow up to be those who run to help.

 

 

 

 

 

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Time for another review of a book written by, about or for expats. Not only does Jeremy Holland’s From Barcelona: Stories Behind the City happen to be all three, it’s also a collection of short stories.

To non-literary types, they sound surprisingly simple: just rattle off a quick tale about someone who did something (or had something done to them) and you’re done. Our impatient, fast-paced world would have us believe that short always equates to easy, to child’s play.

Front Cover From Barcelona: Stories Behind the City by Jeremy HollandHa. Actually, double Ha.

(And by that I do not mean the laughing kind.)

The short story is one of my all-time favorite writing genres, but one that vexes me greatly.

Not only do you have to come up with plot, characterization, story-line, credible dialogue, tone, pace, flow and all other manner of aspects needed to construct a good story – just like a novel or novella – you also need to keep it spare and nimble enough to wrap up in a few thousand words.

Which means making every single word count, ditching anything superfluous, redundant or which simply doesn’t serve its intended purpose. All while spinning a good yarn that pulls in the reader and holds their attention until the very last word. As for the ending itself, you’ve got far less time and words with which to arrive at what the reader does (or doesn’t) realize will happen, leaving them with the just the right intended mixture of feelings.

Just as I have favorite novels, there are certain short stories that remain beautifully etched into my mind. Their construction is that seamless, invisible – indeed, approaching perfection – they linger on in my memory long after I’ve read them.

It’s the stuff that keeps me up at night, wondering how I’ll ever come close.

So let’s be clear: writing a book of short stories capturing one person’s perspective of the essence of a place is very difficult. That’s why Jeremy Holland’s collection about Barcelona is so enjoyable: through his choice of stories, he shows far more than he could possibly tell.

An Anglo-American adult Third Culture Kid who grew up in the Philippines, Saudi Arabia and England, Holland drafted the stories during the eight years he spent living in Spain – more specifically the enchantingly Catalan city of Barcelona – before relocating to the Netherlands where he currently resides. The book was originally published in 2009 by Native Spain, with the second, expanded edition issued last year by Summertime Publishing.

This bit from the Acknowledgements page provides insight into his feelings about the city and its people:

‘More than any one person, however, I would like to thank the people of Barcelona, past and present, who have made the city it is. Moltes gràcies / muchísimas gracias for providing the inspiration behind these stories. If I tease, it’s only with love, mixed with a bit of sadness. I will never forget my eight years there and hold Catalunya close to my heart.’

The dozen stories are set in different points in time, from modern day to a couple of historically-based ones (e.g., Gaudí’s Crypt, written from the famed late 19th/early 20th century Catalan architect’s point of view span). The characters include the wholly believable to the enjoyably eccentric, their actions plausible, their emotions understandable. Holland is unafraid of exposing the darker side of life in Barcelona, the rough edges and fraying nerves.

In Mónica and Juan, Holland makes personal the relentlessly soul-sucking, downward spiral brought on by the economic crisis of recent years that Spaniards are experiencing. By the time I reached this paragraph, I was already as exhausted as the young mother of two fighting to keep her much-needed job while every day the purchasing power of the meager salary it brings is further eroded:

Mónica wanted to cry from the sense of hopelessness, the feeling that time, money and patience were fast approaching zero before her body withered and it reached its expiration date. She sniffed. The ticking between her ears stopped her from acting on her bubbling emotions. She had to get ready for work and didn’t want to show up late or looking like a mess, becoming a topic of office gossip.

The story One Step Forward, Three Steps Back captures the sense of desperate irony felt by the main character, facing years of incarceration for assaulting a public servant in a moment of frustrated fury brought on by an unceasing, utterly inane series of bureaucratic requirements:

The man sighs in defeat. “What’s the next step?” he asks, wondering how he will stay alive long enough for his court date, once his wife learns of his probable jail time. The lawyer flashes a toothy smile and zips the bag.

“See my assistant this week, pay my retainer and pick up a form.” He explains that the man will then need to go to the judicial office in El Born before taking the form to his municipal office in L’Eixample, at which point they will begin legal proceedings.

Other stories feature love, relationships, nationalism, social mores and cultural values, religion. One particularly unsettling account is Running the Gauntlet, written from the perspective of a citizen driven to desperate measures to help rid the city of the bands of pickpockets who prey on simple folk with virtually nothing left to steal.

Whether you’ve encountered the magical mysticism that is Barcelona, hope to do so one day or simply enjoy well-written tales, Jeremy Holland’s From Barcelona: Stories Behind the City belongs on your reading list.

*  *  *

You can follow Jeremy on Facebook at From Barcelona.

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Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend the annual Families in Global Transition conference (aka on Twitter as #FIGT2013). The theme this year was ‘Cultural Integration and the Illusion of Closeness.’

It was, in a word, exhilarating. Inspiring. Tremendous. Thought-provoking. Reassuring.

Okay, it was many words, all those and more. Two thought-laden days dedicated to exchanging up-to-the-minute information, latest trends, greatest needs, groundbreaking insights. All focused on helping those living highly mobile, cross-cultural lives.

Think of the most welcoming, supportive tribe you can imagine. Folks who know what it’s like to move globally and transition across cultures. Then add creative types thinking outside the box, braniacs doing much-needed research, savvy small/medium/large businesses and organizations coming up with innovative ways to do things better, solution-seekers focused on solving the knottiest problems.

FIGT is considered ‘the global leader in cross-cultural education and training’ to support those living abroad. If you’ve encountered the opportunities and challenges of doing so – if you’ve dealt with (or simply heard of) culture shock, transition phases, emotional/social/cultural intelligence, identity development and congruence, Third Culture Kid issues, repatriation, the potential damage of unremitting loss and unresolved grief – you’re likely benefitting from years of candid discussions and research at FIGT targeted toward enhancing the positives and ameliorating the impact of the negatives for a happier, healthier expat experience.

Not hand-wringing whiners or complainers, but action-oriented, problem-solving doers.

I came away energized, impressed and with ten reasons why this conference somehow managed to exceed my already high expectations. We’ll do this David Letterman-style, counting down from the tenth to the top reason.

10. Opportunity to Finally Meet People in the Flesh Whom You ‘Cyber Know,’ or Have Read or Heard About:

I can’t tell you how much I was looking forward to finally meet Tina Quick (International Family Transitions), Judy Rickatson (ExpatriateLife), Laura Stephens (Laura J Stephens), Rachel Yates (Defining Moves), Apple Gidley (The Telegraph’s Expat Apple), Colleen Reichrath-Smith (CJS Careers), Rebecca Grappo (RNG International Educational Consultants, LLC), Duncan Westwood (Clinical Director of Expatriate Care and Development at the Toronto-based International Health Management), Ann Baker Cottrell (Sociology Professor Emerita, San Diego State University), Janet Bennett (Executive Director and co-founder of the Intercultural Communication Institute), Anne Copeland (Interchange Institute), Trisha Carter (CICollective), Kilian Kröll (Third Culture Coach), Elizabeth Vennekens-Kelly (Cross-Culture Training), Kathleen Gamble (Expat Alien) and many, many others.

Jo Parfitt was busy in Brunei but there in spirit, so we had a photo op for all of her Summertime Publishing attendees. Had Julia Simens (JSimens – currently in Borneo, 500 miles from Jo) been able to attend this year I’d have had almost all of my expat emotional resilience mentors/inspirers in one place.

Maria Foley (I Was An Expat Wife) and I have worked together and enjoyed Skyping hilarity before, and had the chance to do so again when she was patched into a panel discussion on expat blogging I did with friend Norm Viss (Expat Everyday Support Center) and Rachel, hosted by Judy.

Seriously, this place was a festival of friends-in-the-making: those you ‘knew’ and those you just hadn’t met yet.

One woman came up to introduce herself on the first day and I remarked how she looked familiar. Turns out I’d come across her blog a few days earlier and had really enjoyed a post she’d done on the challenges of relationships in which one person is located in a different city/country – usually for employment purposes – than the other person/family. And voila! I’d met Katia Vlachos (Diary of a Move).

9. Great Mix of Business, Educational and Social Events:

While this was my first time attending the FIGT conference, I was fortunate to have previously met in person Norm and two other fellow attendees (beloved FIGT co-founder Ruth Van Reken, and the effervescent Eva Laszlo-Herbert, also of The Hague). That’s  in addition to the aforementioned people I ‘knew’ online prior to meeting them face-to-face, or the great FIGT staff members who helped prep us through emails and online sessions for our presentations.

Good conference planning ensures that even if you’re a newbie traveling all by yourself,  having never met a soul prior to arrival, the physical layout and the agenda itself are put together to ensure you have plenty of opportunities to meet, mingle and mix without fear of feeling on the fringes or left out.

8. Excellent Opportunities for Sidebar Conversations:

Ever attend a conference that was so big or where they had you so over-scheduled you barely had time for a bathroom break, let alone a spare moment to reflect or chat quietly with others? Been there, done that, didn’t appreciate it.

At a few hundred attendees, FIGT is nicely sized. Similarly, the schedule includes choices and small pockets of free time to seek out someone for clarification on a point they made or introduce yourself to someone you’ve been meaning to meet. Between sessions I had a couple people come up to me and explain that as they were only able to attend that first day, they wondered if I would share the handout for my presentation the next day. Email addresses and contact info were swapped, conversations continued and connections were made.

On Saturday morning I needed some quiet time to regroup, so skipped a Concurrent Session and grabbed a table in the main hall to compose my thoughts and prepare for a later discussion. On my way to get a cup of coffee in the lobby, I encountered  FIGT President Peggy Love. After exchanging pleasantries, Peggy and I ended up having a deeper conversation on a couple issues of mutual interest.

This happened over and over and over again, to everyone in attendance. Networking was in full swing. How could it not be when everyone you encountered had an interesting story to share?

Hear a great presentation and want to ask a follow-up question? Just catch the speaker later in the day. Want to introduce yourself to a particular person? Ditto. Hit it off with a couple folks you met in a session? Make plans to grab dinner at one of the many restaurants conveniently located within walking distance of the Civic Center where the FIGT Conference was held.

It’s how I connected with reps from the World Bank, International Monetary Foundation, US Department of State and other companies/agencies about my work in emotional resilience, a topic near and dear to their staff members and families.

Want to tell Pico Iyer that you always aspired to grow up and be him? Simply mention it as you’re chatting while seated near him in a small group session. Yes. I. Did.

7. Consummate Key Note and Closing speakers:

Everyone knows a great opening speaker can set the tone for an enjoyable, informative conference experience. Similarly, a talented closing speaker serves to wrap up the conference experience and send you off on a positive note. Nailing top-rate speakers for both of these crucial bookend presentations? That’s the sign of a well-planned conference orchestrated by people who truly understand the issues relevant to attendees and have access to the right speakers.

You can’t beat celebrated, humble and utterly disarming author/writer/expat Pico Iyer (see Apple Gidley’s Telegraph post on interviewing him) and the multi-talented Arab-American playwright/storyteller/actress/ATCK Leila Buck. You just can’t.

6. Wide Array of High-Caliber ‘Extras’ to Take Advantage of If You Wished:

FIGT planners covered all the bases, from a ‘first time attendees’ webinar to previously mentioned prep sessions for presenters to training opportunities held the two days prior to the conference. I jumped at the chance at 1 1/2 days of personalized training with Tina Quick, and it was worth every penny. All attendees were invited to pre-conference sessions on FIGT membership, trends in relevant research, a welcome reception and the immensely popular Writer’s Session featuring Apple Gidley interviewing Pico Iyer (link above). FIGT ran a bookstore throughout the conference, handy for picking up a copy of that book you’ve been waiting for; they also featured author signings to meet and greet the folks who’ve penned some of your favorites.

5. ‘Real’ Presenters…:

Some of us were newbies, some of us have been doing presentations and speaking engagements for quite awhile. It didn’t matter. The programming committee was looking for compelling topics on a wide range of subjects relevant to issues in expat life. The tone was conversational and sincere, not slick and staged.

4. …Sharing on Topics They (and You) Care About:

Another sign of a well-constructed conference? When you’re given a choice of breakout sessions with such relevant titles you wish you could attend more than one (or all of them).

Even better? A conference that gives you plenty of opportunities to seek out the presenters whose sessions you cannot attend and ask for their handouts and/or business cards and contact information. This worked both ways for me. I was approached by several people who caught my 6 1/2 minute ‘Ignite’ session and wanted to learn more, and similarly I sought out others with questions (including my quasi-stalking of Pico Iyer – he was a good sport).  Now that’s a great conference.

3. Great Mix of Formats in Which to Receive Information:

This is important because we all take in information and are entertained in different ways. The FIGT conference planners clearly gave great thought to offering an array of different learning experiences.

A host of one-hour Concurrent Sessions throughout both days of the conference let you delve more deeply into subjects of particular interest.  Seven of us were tasked with giving super-short ‘Ignite’ presentations. If they satisfied your curiosity, fine. But if they whetted your appetite for a little more in-depth discussion or follow-on information, you could join any of us the next day as we and others hosted slightly longer Kitchen Table Conversations. Thanks to the divergent interests of the conference attendees who joined me the second day, these two half-hour conversations were each focused on entirely different aspects of my initial Ignite talk. I really enjoyed hearing the participants share their own insights, perceptions and experiences.

2. Emphasis on the Interactive, Practical and Actionable:

Presenters in the Concurrent Sessions were required to make them interactive, with attendees breaking off into pairs or small groups to complete short exercises or discuss penetrating questions. These events not only reinforced the information being conveyed, they provided additional opportunities to get to know fellow attendees. Some of the most interesting conversations (and possibilities for future collaboration) I engaged in took place during these entirely chance introductions. Similarly, a mandatory (and very welcome) requirement of all presentations was the expectation that speakers would develop a handout of useful information that would ensure relevancy of the topics to the lives of attendees.

1. Inspiring Kaleidoscope of Creative Calls to Action:

I don’t wish to use the word ‘inspiring’ loosely. Check out any dictionary and you’ll find the word goes well beyond creating positive feelings; it embodies the concept of affecting, guiding, influencing, moving , encouraging or filling you with the urge or ability to do something. Oh the possibilities!

I dare anyone to attend an FIGT conference and not walk away with your head swimming with ideas, what-ifs, projects, connections. I dare you.

 

 

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Back in the Saddle Again

I have been thinking about this post for days, weeks, even months.

I’ve longed to be able to write it, but made myself wait. There were times I never thought this day would arrive. Now that it’s here, my thoughts are a (barely) coherent mess and the words are tumbling out on the page.

Well alrighty then. Time to get the thoughts and words out. Let’s have at it.

First up is an apology for having been such a recalcitrant blogger.

Recalcitrant is precisely the right word: lacking obedience, non-compliant, resisting authority, difficult to manage or work with.

Look up the word in the dictionary and my photo is right there. Little Miss Recalcitrant, 2013.

It hasn’t been for laziness or lack of interest or something to say. There are actually a number of reasons, only some of which I can share right now, but the others will come out in the fullness of time. And by fullness I mean in the next few days and weeks.

As a blogger you sign up for the gig of writing about what’s on your mind, what moves you, what puzzles you and what matters. You’re free to define your ‘niche’ and select post topics with abandon. When it involves others? Well, not so much.

Beginning today, I’m back in the blogging saddle again. And yes, I’ve got Stephen Tyler screeching in my head so here you go: Aerosmith’s Back in the Saddle Again.

You’re welcome.

I’ll be posting on a far more regular schedule (back to 3x a week). I’ve really missed blogging, and when you can’t do something you end up spending a lot of time thinking about how you’d do it differently when you finally can.

First up is getting back to a blogging routine. Routines needn’t always be boring. For writers, it may seem counter-intuitive but routines actually are  freeing. You just focus on writing, and then post as the mood and topic strike you.

After much mind-wrangling as to where to begin, I’ve decided to go with today’s post: one of the reasons I’ve been off the blogging grid recently is that I’ve been finishing my book on the importance of emotional resilience in expat/cross-cultural life.

And no, it is not finished. Yet. But we’re so close I can taste it. We’re in final editing, which actually turns out to be several back-and-forth rounds as we zero in on the Holy Grail of publishing: a manuscript that is ‘done’ and can be turned over for layout.

The past eight weeks have been full of intensive writing, rewriting, adding, cutting, some reorganizing of material (which surprised me at this late date but came to me one morning after receiving some feedback, and makes eminent sense), my own editing and so much more.

In a perfect world you finish your manuscript and then send it out to hand-selected reviewers (i.e., experts/fellow authors in your chosen genre or, in this case of a non-fiction book, field) for cover testimonials.

My world isn’t perfect, and has been far from it for several months, but that is a post for another time. So with the encouragement of my publisher (Jo Parfitt, Summertime Publishing) and my editor (Saint Jane, aka Jane Dean/Wordgeyser), I sent out an 80% completed manuscript and hoped I wouldn’t be laughed out of finishing it.

And yes, doubt and insecurity do creep into the minds of even the most confident writers. Which is why I appreciate having Saint Jane around to tell me that it’s perfectly normal, part of the process and happens to everyone – even before I’ve confessed my fears and concerns to her.

What if they don’t like it? What if I forget something really obvious? What if they think it’s ‘light weight’? What if they’re out there rolling their eyes and thinking up polite ways to say ‘this really stinks’? What if they don’t even bother to be polite?

As the feedback and testimonials rolled in, I’d waste precious minutes with the cursor hovering over each email, mentally preparing myself for rejection. And what I received was such a gift – many gifts, actually – that bouyed my spirits and encouraged me to return to the keyboard and keep going.

In between writing spurts I got to do the fun but time-consuming task of working with my designer/layout person on the front and back covers. Lisa of Lemonberry.com is nothing short of amazing (and patient). I’m sensing a theme here.

We talked about what I was envisioning for possible covers, the concept I was going for, feelings I wanted to evoke and ideas to try out. She went off and did all of those cover mock-ups and then threw in a few more for good measure.  It was in the latter group that I clicked open a file and stared at what I knew would become the cover of my book.

Tears? You bet. Lots of them.

Just like the first time I saw the book’s ISBN (international standard book number). Wept like a baby.

I also had tears in my eyes when I went to pick up the foamboard mock-up of the final cover from my local print shop. I was heading to the 2013 Families in Global Transition conference (yet another forthcoming post). While my book was not yet published, I was going to participate in the ‘new author book signing’ nonetheless; I wanted to have something people could hold in their hands while we chatted.

I also designed business cards with the book cover on them, and had them sent directly to the conference hotel for collection upon arrival. Nearly cried when the hotel manager handed over the package, but Daughter was with me and would have been mortified so I held it together until we made it to our room. Tore the package open, raised the lid on the box and – you guessed it – started blubbering.

Color me nothing if not consistent when it comes to emotional crying.

So where are we now? In the dance that is ‘final editing,’ which in my case means taking the latest clean, edited version from the long-suffering Saint Jane and finishing up the last of the ‘to be added later’ sections. Lest you worry that I’ll send her over the edge (and yes, I have been concerned I’ll do just that), she’s getting away for a well-deserved break from the intensity of editing. Over the next ten days I’ll be butt-in-chair to finish this puppy off in time to hand it over for more ‘final, final’ and ‘final, final, final’ editing.

Because in writing a book, I’ve come to learn that nothing is ever final. I’m going for ‘done’ and over to lovely Lisa for layout and a publishing date in late April.

And yes, I’ll cry the entire way.

 

 

 

 

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Enterprising Catarina

Our dog Oli in the Netherlands on www.adventuresinexpatland.comSome weeks back, I was upstairs working at my desk when the doorbell rang.

I had a sense it would, given that Oli was already bounding down the stairs, barking his little fool head off. When he gets like it means he’s heard the minute squeak of the little wrought iron gate in front of our house. In his dopey dog world this can only mean two things: evil postal workers and handbill deliverers are stuffing our mail slot with their wares, or the doorbell is about to be rung.

Either way, it’s his duty to protect us from what lurks on the other side of the massive oak door. Or so he thinks – both about it being his responsibility and about his actual ability to keep us safe. Watch dog? Yes. Fierce fighting beast? Eh, not so much. All bark and no bite.

By the time I reached the front entry he’d worked himself into a total frenzy, his compact body making desperate circles in the tight space, all while trying to bark and growl simultaneously. It ends up looking more like an epileptic fit than the machinations of a trained canine killer, but don’t tell him that.

As I pulled the heavy door inward, Oli stopped in his tracks: there stood Catarina and her friend Anja. Recognizing his favorite friend, he ceased barking and proceeded to greet her with boundless enthusiasm, a wagging tail and a wet tongue. Licking their fingers gets the girls every time, that Lothario.

Now for those who have followed the Catarina Chronicles over the past few years, you know that any time I encounter my creative, sly, entrepreneurial nine-year-old Dutch neighbor on the doorstep I’m likely to be tasked with something.

Usually it’s turning my Albert Heijn grocery receipts in for whatever voetbal kaartjes or children’s toy they happen to be giving away. [Want to know precisely what I'm dealing with? Then do check out this Catarina trio: An International Trade Rep's Got Nothing on Her, Head of Delegation Written All Over Her and She's Baaack.]

I already was collecting the miniature grocery store products of the current AH campaign, stuffing little packets containing plastic fruits and vegetables, teeny boxes of cereal and miniscule cartons of milk and yogurt drink through the brievenbus (mail slot) per her strict instructions. Surely she wasn’t here to complain about my prompt service?

A torrent of Dutch words cascaded out of Catarina’s mouth. Anja stood behind her with eyes wide in anticipation, nodding her head in agreement. When Catarina had finished, they both looked up at me expectantly.

I was able to pick out geldhondjeOli (pronounced with a long O  rather than the Ah-ly we use), wandeling  and in de buurt when it clicked: the girls wanted to earn a little spending money by taking Oli for a walk around the neighborhood.

In light of our previous adventures, I capitulated immediately.

Fifteen minutes later they arrived back with a deliriously happy Oli in tow. Without thinking it through – always a mistake with Catarina – I gave each girl a Euro and sent them on their way.

The next day the doorbell rang.

I should have seen it coming but didn’t. There on my doorstep stood the ever-enterprising Catalina, big smile plastered on her angelic face.

‘Zal ik Oli voor een wandeling nemen?’

It is only then I realized I’d paid such a lucrative fee the day before that Catarina had immediately seized on this money-making scheme. By my calculations we’d be in financial ruins within a couple weeks if we kept this up, while my little capitalist padded her dog-walking retirement plan. Lord knows whatever happened to Anja, obviously cut out of any future action.

Surely I nipped this foolishness in the bud, right then and there.

Well, sort of.

Let’s just say I had a little chat with Catarina about only walking Oli on the weekends, and once per weekend at that. Same pay, one Euro, but not the two I’d given her and Anja.

Catarina isn’t the only one who knows how to play hardball in de buurt.

 

 

 

 

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Today’s a special day for Anne O’Connell, one I’m excited to share with her and with you.

Fourteen months ago I reviewed her nonfiction book Riveting Expat Reads: Celebrating @ Home in Dubai. Anne’s been busy since then, relocating from the United Arab Emirates to Thailand and writing up a storm.

Not only is today International Women’s Day, we also celebrate the launch of Anne’s first novel, Mental Pause.

 

Not one to craft a meek tale based on ‘safe’ story lines, Anne has unleashed her sense of humor on that bane of women’s existence: menopause. As if that weren’t enough, she’s dived headfirst into the genre of murder mysteries and courtroom dramas. I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but my back cover testimonial gives you an idea of Mental Pause:

‘Love, attraction, hot flashes, pending empty nest, sizzling nights, shifting identity, the meaning of friendship, surprising twists and missteps galore — it’s all here! Anne O’Connell has written a fun debut novel about one menopausal woman’s desire to let her hair down, and the trouble that can lead to.’

To mark the occasion, I’ve chatted with Anne on writing nonfiction versus fiction, NaNoWriMo, and using expat experience for book settings. So grab a cup of coffee, tea or your favorite beverage and settle in for awhile.

*  *  *

I originally ‘met’ Anne through her writing blog Writing Just Because! and knew she had a background in public relations working in her native Canada and the United States. When she moved to Dubai in 2007, she made a career change so I asked her to start with that.

‘I’ve been writing professionally for more than 20 years now, mostly in my career as a PR practitioner,’ Anne explained. ‘The move to Dubai was the catalyst to setting up a freelance business that I could easily do from home. I had previously toyed with the idea of working for myself and this was the perfect opportunity. The one thing that I was passionate about that I had been doing throughout my PR career was writing, so I started working as a freelance copy writer focusing on corporate communications, marketing, PR and more recently social media.’

Her nonfiction book @Home in Dubai grew out of emails sent back to family and friends chronicling life in the UAE. It was published by Jo Parfitt of Summertime Publishing who Anne had met through writing workshops she planned and hosted for Parfitt. So how did she transition to writing fiction?

‘I loved the process of writing a book and as my first book was launching in late 2011, I had just moved to Thailand. I hadn’t met many people yet and found myself with a little time on my hands. I also had been experiencing some serious peri-menopausal symptoms and wrote about it totally for cathartic reasons. One night, after a particularly horrendous night sweat, I found myself giggling as I wrote. I contemplated starting a blog but then decided it would be more fun to turn it into fiction and really let my imagination go wild. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) was about to begin so I signed up and just started writing. The challenge is writing 50,000 words during the 30 days of November.’

‘It honestly just poured out,’ Anne said. ‘I had these crazy thoughts and ideas rolling around in my head that seemed to take on a life of their own. I was grappling with my own symptoms but no matter how bad they were,  my main character Abbie’s were always worse! I actually started dreaming about characters and would wake up and run to the computer to get it all down before I forgot. My best plot twist actually came in a dream.’

Always fascinated by how other writers approach the writing process, I asked Anne to share a bit about how her preferences.

‘I write pretty much all day, every day. Whether it’s a copy writing project for a client, content for my own website, blog or other social media, magazine articles or guest columns, there’s always something to write. Once I have to get down to serious writing I prefer to be at my desk, usually with my cat stretched out on the half that my computer isn’t occupying.’

‘I tend to write one scene at a time because I don’t like to interrupt the flow,’ Anne continued. ‘If an idea or thought intruded that would fit later in the plot line, I would switch to my outline that was always open in the background; I’d quickly type a few key words so I wouldn’t forget about it later, then return to the scene on which I was working.’

So how does writing nonfiction compare to writing fiction?

‘I find writing fiction very freeing,’ Anne confessed. ‘The outline gets better defined as I progress. With non-fiction, I prefer to start with a more solid idea of where I’m going and how I want to get there, and use a more structured formula. I do just as much research and fact checking for both because fiction needs to be believable, especially when based on real-life scenarios such as court room scenes.’

As a Canadian expat who has lived in Florida, Dubai and now Thailand, I was intrigued as to why Anne chose Massachusetts for the setting of Mental Pause.

‘I was actually a few chapters into the novel when I realized I had to decide where it would be set. A good chunk of the book takes place in a courtroom so I decided I wanted it to be in the US since I had spent several years there, was more familiar with US law and had sources there who could help me check facts. I love Massachusetts because it’s the closest state, character-wise, to my home province of Nova Scotia. Since it was fiction I wanted the places to be a little further removed from my hometown as well. Also, I knew I wanted to publish through Create Space so the US market was key.’

Is there another novel on the horizon?

‘Oh yes,’ Anne shared. ‘I’ve started writing my next novel and it’s set in Dubai.’

*  *  *

Want to learn more about Anne’s debut novel Mental Pause? Here’s the press release, and you can check out both her writing blog Writing Just Because! and the Mental Pause The Novel blog. Anne’s writing business site is Global Writing Solutions Online, she’s on Facebook as Anne the Writer and tweets as @AnnetheWriter on Twitter.

 

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Expat Author Apple Gidley

A few months ago I reviewed longtime expat Apple Gidley’s terrific memoir Expat Life Slice by Slice. I knew many readers would find it interesting to hear about how a newly published author goes about her writing. Our interview follows.

*  *  *

I asked Apple to start by sharing when she first realized she had a story within her begging to be told, her vision of the book and how it developed.

“I thought about it for three years,” she explained. “Comments I received after delivering the closing keynote speech at the Families in Global Transition conference a couple of years ago gave me the confidence to have a go. My husband’s impatience at the talking and not doing finally galvanized me.”

“I wanted to tell a story and give a little background into some of the lessons I have learned along the global path. I don’t particularly like reading memoirs filled with angst, though do appreciate I have been very lucky. I wanted Expat Life Slice by Slice to be a mixture of light-hearted and serious, hopefully without sounding preachy.”

She’s been writing for several years: personal writing, writing and editing a regional magazine for an Asian charitable organization, and her ‘Expat Apple’ column for the Telegraph. I asked how she chose her blog topics, and if she approached writing book differently than her columns.

“Sometimes a blog idea transferred to the book and vice versa. Expat life is just life lived in a foreign country; many of the issues we face are the same no matter where we live, like finding the right doctor or school. Some things can of course be more complicated overseas, but I do think we can make it more so than necessary sometimes.”

“Topics tend to choose me,” she offered. “I overhear a conversation, or a hoarding (British English for a sign or billboard) might tweak a nerve, maybe a newspaper article, a current event or public holiday. Lots to talk about, lots to write about!”

All writers are intrigued by the process others use to write, and I’m no different.

“I have absolutely no writing routine, though I do try to write something every day even if it’s only to jot ideas down,” Apple shared. “I always have a note pad – the old fashioned kind that comes with a pen – because an idea can float out just as easily as it floated in.”

“I love my desk so it’s always a pleasure to sit at it, but occasionally the solitude unnerves me so I head off to my local coffee shop. If my husband is away I might write late at night, but normally I work in ‘office’ hours. I write a story or topic at a time. Sometimes I realize I’ve written 3000 words, others only 500. I’ve stopped worrying about it. Some days it is just easier than others.”

Writers usually struggle to silence our inner critic. For some of us, it’s learning to not simultaneously edit (or edit as much) as we go along. For others, it really is a matter of shutting up that d@mn inner voice! So where does Apple fall on this?

“I am very self-critical but am learning to realize you just have to stop at some point, otherwise you never get anything out. I write and simultaneously edit, I can’t stop myself even though the experts say you shouldn’t. Then I’ll put a piece away for a day or two unless it’s time sensitive, and go back and edit again. Then at the end of a chapter I’ll edit again. And again, and again. And then the editor edits! I think my style has evolved over the years and become firmer, though I hope easy to read. I’ve lost my fear of dialogue, which I think has helped enormously.”

Most writers are avid readers, and Apple is no different.

“I love losing myself in a book – over a movie any day. I like biography, travel, history and general novels, and I do like to learn something. Poetry is something I have always loved though can never remember lines and certainly can’t write it!”

“I have eclectic tastes and invariably have two or three books on the go at once and read them according to my mood,” she continued. “For example, I recently read a wonderful book about the North West Frontier called “The Savage Border” by Jules Stewart. I have always been fascinated by the Pakistan/Afghanistan region due no doubt to being a fed a steady diet of derring-do by my father who was stationed there before and after Partition in 1947. I have just finished reading “Sarah’s Key”, a novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, which I thought evoked the terror of occupation in Nazi-occupied France, decisions we make and the consequences we have to live with incredibly well. Oh yes, and I recently finished “People of the Book” by Geraldine Brooks – another fabulous read.”

One of the interesting aspects of Expat Life Slice by Slice is Apple’s moving between storytelling and personal reflection on a wide range of topics in expatriate life. I was intrigued to know whether she tended to write the stories first and then address key themes or topics involved, or the other way around.

“I suppose the short answer is I did a bit of both! When I wrote Expat Life: Slice by Slice I worked to a rough guideline of topics I wanted to cover. Some I had already touched on in my blog, and then as I got deeper into each slice other stories and incidents came flooding back, which in turn provoked reflection. I also had diaries and photos to help jog my memory.”

“I think I write how I speak. I think our speech is often peppered with stories, interspersed with thoughts. I tend to write randomly – I think my blog probably defines me best. There are, though, several issues that appear consistently – women and education for girls, the need for cultural and religious tolerance, expatriation.”

I wondered what Apple has found to be the most difficult part of writing a book (e.g., conceptual planning, the actual writing of the manuscript, the editing/publishing process, launching the book, promoting it). And like any great storyteller, she included an anecdote in her response.

“Promoting it. Without a doubt. I was rather naïve about that and didn’t realize quite how much is involved in book promotion. It is probably the British side of my nature coming to the fore but I do not particularly like tooting my own trumpet. The best example I can give is when I went into The British Isles Store here in Houston.”

“Good morning, my name is Apple Gidley and my first book has just been published. I wondered whether you’d be interested in selling it?” I said to the bearded chap behind the till, and whom I knew owned the store.

“What’s it about? Did you self publish?” he asked.

“No, Summertime Publishing in The Hague picked it up. It’s about life as an expatriate.”

“Give me a look then,” he said, running his hands over the cover. It was most disconcerting to see my life flicker past me like an old movie, as he shuffled through the pages. “Rightho,” he said. “I like the feel of it. The cover’s great. I like the photos. I think I’m going to enjoy reading it. I’ll take five.”

“Bloody hell,” I said, “Oh God I’m sorry. Thank you so much. You’re the first place I’ve tried to flog them.”

Thankfully he and a number of his patrons, whose heads were tilted our way as they browsed the cards, jams, crystal and bone china pretending not to listen, laughed.

“Writing the manuscript was great fun and really a very happy experience, even in the sad bits, as I could hear so many people’s voices as I wrote. Editing and publishing were made easy by Jane Dean and Jo Parfitt (Summertime Publishing). Launching was scary and fun in equal doses but I had wonderful support from everyone involved.”

Another popular question posed to newly published authors is whether publication changes their perception of themselves.

“Yes, people take me more seriously as a writer,” Apple replied. “I take myself more seriously as a writer and don’t mumble when I tell people what I do. It always seemed a rather nebulous description of myself before being published.”

What new projects does Apple have in store?

“I love short stories and have written them for years but never done anything with them. One, “The Sparrows,” I am turning into a novel – something my husband suggested when he read it a couple of years ago, saying he wanted to know more about the women involved and why they made the decision they did.”

“I should finish it this year and then comes the painful process of finding a publisher. Expat writing is definitely a niche market and I was very lucky that Summertime Publishing took me on. I’m confident it will be a lot harder with a novel, though it does have an expat thread.”

“I will then write a novel based on my mother’s early life. It has been simmering for years and by then I hope I will be able to do it justice. I’d also like to publish a book of short stories. So lots on the horizon, all very exciting.”

I enjoy hearing what authors would tell aspiring authors, and Apple’s advice was both practical and encouraging.

“As a new author myself I would say keep practicing. I look back at some pieces I wrote a few years ago and cringe. They really weren’t very good at all. Don’t be afraid to edit, edit and then edit some more, even though it kills you to cut some things out. Save them, or the notion of them, and use it somewhere else. People want you to write your best so listen to your critics, whether they are editors or friends. My husband is my toughest critic but most things he suggests, and I hate to admit it, are right.”

As for budding expat authors, she had this to share:

“Yes, have a go but try not to preach. We all run the gamut of emotions when we expatriate, and repatriate, and we all deal with them in different ways, and of course we can all learn from other people’s experiences, happy or sad.”

“Laura J Stephens recently published her memoir, An Inconvenient Posting, [reviewed here] which tells of her struggle with depression while showing a ‘happy’ public face. We don’t all sail through expatriation on the ‘good ship Lollipop’. I appreciate I have been very lucky and have loved my life, a few hiccups along the way notwithstanding. I hope Expat Life Slice by Slice reflects that.”

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Candy Apple Red

Right now, I am soooo excited I cannot tell you!

Yes, I do realize that I will now be revealed for the nerd that I am, but I simply don’t care. Not a whit.

Just. Do. Not. Care.

Why? you ask.

Because I have finally scored the one, the only, my beloved new tea kettle.

candy apple red tea kettle on www.adventuresinexpatland.com

Red Beauty, in all her glory

Let me tell you, she’s a beauty alright. Sleek, smooth, rounded and voluptuous.

Curves that go for miles.

And her shine, ahhh her shine.

It’s positively stellar. Intergalactic, even.

You see, Red Beauty as I like to call her, is not just any old red. Oh dear me, no.

She is CANDY APPLE RED!!! And shiny metallic to boot.

I know, I know, hard to believe I stumbled upon such an unbelievable treasure. It took months, eight to be exact. You’d think that it would be easy to find a tea kettle. Just go to the store, peruse the aisles and pick one out.

You’d think that, but you would be wrong.

My trusty old tea kettle – sadly I never named her, shame on me – was old, scuffed up, looking the worse for wear. It wasn’t until she began to rust around the bottom edges that I realized her days were numbered. Off I set to a couple stores looking for a new metal kettle.

How difficult could that be? Pretty d@mn hard, thank you very much.

Almost as hard as searching for the Holy Grail. Not quite, but almost.

It’s not as if I were being picky. I didn’t care if the new one was shiny or polished steel, I just wanted a simple tea kettle. Of course in the back of my mind I may have been hoping to find a red kettle, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up.

Why eight months? In part because I’ve been gone for some of the time dealing with family issues, but mainly because I had a hard time finding tea kettles.

Oh, I could find tea pots, no problem. One of my favorite places to meet friends for koffie of thee has a gorgeous line of imported English tea pots that I positively drool over. But I didn’t need another tea pot, what I needed was a tea kettle.

It seems the Dutch prefer electric kettles. To me they are so impersonal, so utilitarian, so…well, just plain ugly if the truth be told.

Besides, I’m often only making one cup of tea at a time, or as my British friends say, a cuppa.

I like the ritual of making tea. I enjoy filling the kettle with cool water, feeling the heft of the kettle as I place it on the stove, the click of the gas burner as the flame shoots up. Most of all, I enjoy hearing the pleasant, rising whistle of the boiling kettle.

I am no science geek, but the fact that a kettle of boiling water makes a whistling sound gives me great pleasure.

So when I finally found a place that offered a selection of kettles at reasonable prices, I was beside myself. I was perusing the aisle, weighing options in my mind when I saw her: Red Beauty.

I saw her and had one thought, and one thought only: she must be mine…

It seemed that there was only the store model remaining, so I excitedly asked the clerk whether there were any more in stock. I had visions of her loveliness brightening our uninspired kitchen, when he suddenly reappeared to dash my hopes.

Sorry, mevrouw. Geen meer.

The words cut to the quick, slashing my daydream of kitchen splendor into thin ribbons of disappointment, longing and regret. They pooled in the pit of my stomach, refusing to leave.

Even Husband’s look of confusion mixed with fear as I recounted my horrific loss later that evening did not deter me. I was inconsolable.

Until yesterday.

I had stopped by the shop to pick up some garbage bags – yes, I realize my life invokes envy in many – when I happened to see the store manager.

I approached him quickly. He would likely say I cornered him, but let’s not waste time with semantics. In my best mediocre Dutch I asked if I might purchase the store model.

My heart leaped upon hearing his reply: Jazeker, naturlijk.

He ducked into the store room. returning not with the empty box I was expecting but with a box containing my very own red kettle!

Why red? Because our kitchen is small and boring, white with mismatched appliances and touches of black. So we went bold with vivid red as accents: dish towels, some cooking utensils, small lampshade, garbage can.

I know, pretty outrageous. But that’s how we roll: out there, trend-setting, avant garde.

Well, okay, not really. But when I brought Red Beauty home yesterday, gently rinsed her out, toweled her dry and set her on the stove, that ‘s how I felt.

Like one of those Pinterest kitchenistas always pinning photos of dream kitchen counter tops, tiles, back splashes, faucets, paint chips, cabinets, appliances and cooking paraphernalia.

Pinterkitchenista, that’s exactly how I felt.

(Is that even a word? Well, you get my point.)

With Red Beauty on my stove top, I am indeed a Pinterkitchenista*.

So if you’re in the neighborhood, do stop by. I’ll put Red Beauty on to boil and make you een kopje thee.

 

*Now all I have to do is find time to go pin something on Pinterest.

 

 

 

 

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Almost Friends

I first met Tamara 14 months ago on the sidewalk in front of our neighbor’s house.

It was a cold, late Sunday afternoon in December, the air heavy with moisture off the frigid North Sea. The weak sun had managed to emerge briefly from behind large swaths of gun metal gray clouds. Husband and I had just left the house to take Oli on a walk in the nearby wooded parkland before it got too dark.

We were barely more than 30 feet when we encountered a couple looking to be slightly older than us walking in our direction. Husband pulled up on the dog’s leash and exchanged greetings with the man as they approached.

Introductions were made and the conversation took on the friendly yet slightly inquisitive tone of people scoping each other out: how long had they  (and we) been in The Hague, how did they (and we) like the neighborhood, how refreshing it was to see so many people outside walking and biking all the time, did we/they have children, where our respective sons were attending university and what they were studying, were they getting settled in alright, how were they coping with the damp cold and darker days?

James was Husband’s new boss (‘second level supervisor’ in organizational parlance); he and Tamara, American expats like us, had arrived from another European capital two months earlier. I knew that Husband found James to be a sharp, knowledgeable and colleagial sort of fellow.

Tamara initially seemed a little reserved but as the conversation flowed she joined in more freely: she had inquisitive eyes, a warm smile and an easy laugh.

We eventually bid our goodbyes with the mutual promise that we had to get together for dinner sometime.

Well, finally a fellow American woman here in the neighborhood, I remember thinking. She seemed friendly enough, and it would be nice to hear a familiar accent from time to time. We continued our walk, me flush with the promise that a new acquaintance might possibly end up becoming a friend.

Time passed quickly as the Christmas and New Year’s holiday came and went, followed by the dark, dreary days of January and February. I tended to be at home researching and writing most days, venturing out occasionally to meet up with friends or attend a class; mid-to-late afternoons were taken up with walking the dog, picking up Daughter from school activities, ducking out to the Albert Heijn for that evening’s dinner or running last minute errands on the Fred.

Every so often I’d run into Tamara and we’d lapse into easygoing chat about husbands, children, neighbors and the weather. I knew she was dealing with an empty nest but she always seemed genuinely upbeat and had become involved with an international women’s group. We would declare how we needed to get together for koffie or maybe grab lunch at a nearby café sometime, but between my projects and chauffer duties and the volunteer work she’d taken on, we never could seem to find the time.

I’d walk away thinking We really should invite them to dinner sometime, but we both always seemed so busy and besides, I wasn’t sure of the office etiquette as to who asks whom when one’s boss was involved.

A month later I caught sight of James and Tamara on their bikes one weekend afternoon, bundled up against the chill wind, riding side by side.

The days grew longer, the temperature climbed and the trees grew heavy with blossoms. One Friday afternoon in late April Husband came home with an invitation from James and Tamara for dinner two weeks later.

Oh good, I thought. It will be nice to finally spend some time getting to know them better. We’d go have a nice meal and convivial evening, then we’d reciprocate the invitation, and the next thing you know we’d all be friends.

I knew that as employer and employee Husband and James might choose to keep a certain reserve between themselves, but it still would be nice to get together as couples now and then. More importantly, Tamara and I would be able to accelerate our friendship; it was clear we enjoyed chatting whenever we ran into each other, and a get-to-know-you dinner was just the thing to cement ties.

Husband and I enjoyed the dinner immensely. Tamara and James had invited another couple and the six of us spent an enjoyable evening of delicious food, flowing wine and effortless conversation.

Tamara and James regaled us with tales of meeting in a Southeast Asian country while both were idealistic dreamers brand new to international development work. They met and married, Tamara chose to stay at home when they had their son, and life became a dazzling parade of one exotic locale after another as James’s career progressed.

She was witty and lively and relaxed; James was an accomplished cook and an eager party to the fun. They made a good team, cooking and serving and making us feel at home.

I promptly sent a thank you email and mentioned we should set a date to have them over to our house. When I saw Tamara two days later she lamented the fact that she was getting ready for a short trip to their previous city to visit friends. Upon her return their son would be arriving back in The Hague, fresh from six months in a study abroad program in Japan.

Shortly after that, Daughter and I would be heading back to the US for college visits and time spent with family. My father had been diagnosed with cancer and had been experiencing additional medical problems; we wanted to spend as much time as possible with them.

What about mid-July when Daughter and I would get back? They would be getting their son ready to return to school followed by their own summer holiday. By the time they returned in early August, we would be off on a family trip before Son had to head back to the States for university.

But as often happens, fate intervened.

My father’s health took a turn for the worse, Daughter and I extended our stay while Husband cancelled the vacation plans, and he and Son joined us at my parents. We returned to The Netherlands right as Daughter’s school was about to start, and suddenly weekends were consumed with catching up on chores on the to do list, last minute shopping and her sporting events.

I ran into Tamara once in September (James was traveling, she was up to her eyeballs in work preparing for an upcoming volunteer event) and again in early October. Both times we hit it off, but the stars never seemed to align to get everyone together.

In our last conversation two days before I was to make a quick trip back to visit my ailing parents again, we laughed about the scheduling difficulties. It nagged at me how months had already slipped by, but I knew we’d have plenty of time to make it right once we both got over the pop-up hurdles life kept throwing our way.

When I returned from Florida in mid-October, Tamara was off to Southeast Asia to visit old friends. I remember thinking that she’d be back by Halloween, but then another far more serious family emergency presented itself, and immediately our time, attention and energy were focused elsewhere.

It wasn’t until early December that I surfaced enough from dealing with that last crisis to inquire of Husband about Tamara and James. That’s when he dropped the bombshell: Tamara had left James weeks earlier. Apparently she’d taken a trip back to Indonesia to visit friends and decided not to return to life with him in The Hague.

I was stunned. It wasn’t that I hadn’t seen it coming (although I didn’t), because I know that no one can really know what goes on in a marriage, and Tamara certainly never opened up about any unhappiness or difficulties. I felt badly for both of them, knowing that when a marriage ends, no matter how amicably or not, there is great sadness, pain and grief both for what the parties once had and for what had become of that somewhere along the way.

I felt as though I’d let Tamara down, hadn’t done enough to make make her feel welcome and help her find her way in a new place, racking my memory for fear I’d missed signals of loneliness and despair. I felt sorry for James, left adrift by himself without family or close friends to help pick up the pieces.

And as selfish as it sounds – and indeed it is  - I mourn the loss of the promise of the deeper friendship we never had.

 

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Remembering Jijiga

On this momentous occasion when we observe the strength and inspiration of the peaceful transition of power in a democracy with the inauguration of Barack Obama for his second term as President, and we celebrate the life’s work of civil rights activist Martin Luther King, it is only fitting to share another guest post from Tracey Buckenmeyer.

All three have dedicated their lives to making a difference, knowing that while progress is achieved, sometimes it takes generations to see the promise fulfilled.

Tracey has made a career of helping refugees and displaced persons, working for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She’s worked in many different countries, and currently is posted to Ethiopia. Her previous guest posts were Tough Neighborhood and Geographical Gingerbread Man.

* * *

Kinda got an idea of what a war veteran feels like when he fondly reminisces years later about his war experiences. People look aghast at how anyone can wax nostalgic over a war but what he’s really remembering is his youth, the rush of strange experiences and things and places new and exotic.

Going back to Jijiga last month, 18 years later almost to the day, was like that.

Jijiga, a small village in eastern  Ethiopia was my first posting with UNHCR, at the time (1991) ground zero for nearly a million Somali refugees. I’m chasing memories, lots of good times, good experiences…along with some bad ones…though I’m not quite sure what I was looking for now.

It’s not here anymore, definitely not in a physical sense; if someone plopped me in the middle of Jijiga but didn’t tell me where I was, I would never know it was Jijiga. It’s changed entirely, I can’t identify a single landmark: UNHCR’s residence and office are still in the same place but so transformed they seem alien. The one-camel town I knew has exploded into a bona fide city.

Its only raison d’etre two decades ago was to be home for dozens of aid agencies; now it’s the capital of Somali Region. Ethiopia adopted what is called ethnic federalism, dividing up the country based on its ethnic makeup, and Jijiga is now the regional capital.

Photos of Jijiga, Ethiopia 1991 & 2012 on Adventures in Expat Land

Jijiga, 1991 and 2012

The dirt road leading into and out of town has been replaced by a four-lane boulevard complete with street lights.

Also missing are the people.

Many have moved on, to other jobs, other regions, especially any non-Somali staff as the newly created ethnic state exercised its new autonomy by a purge of all non-Somalis.

A few of the old staff are now working at the Addis office but sadly, a surprising number have passed – many of whom were my age.

Even the refugees are different. Twenty years ago, the camps hosted Somali refugees from northwest Somalia. With that part of Somalia now stable and more or less a self-declared state, those refugees have returned home only to be replaced by the refugees from the restive and destructive southern area of Mogadishu, a fraction of what was hosted before (some 40,000 people now) since most have gone to camps in southern Ethiopia.

The few staff who actually stayed in Jijiga are older and grayer, not unlike myself. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the wind, but with far less dust to blow around since it’s all been paved over.

So, no landmarks, no people. What is it that I am looking for?

I finally realize it’s my youth, as well as the youth of UNHCR since in the early ‘90s it was just starting to transition into the major aid agency that it’s known for today. I stared around the UNHCR residence compound trying to imagine, remember those crazy days, running to and from work, to bircha sessions (chat chewing rituals) and coffee ceremonies to Cozy’s bar where all the aid workers congregated.

The images faded as soon as I conjured them up. It’s all gone, including my naivete, replaced by a certain jaded feeling that can only come with layers of crazy experiences of refugee operations laid upon one another in the two decades since.

I’ve struggled to describe what I feel. It’s not nostalgia since I thought that was supposed to feel warm and tingly, I don’t feel that good about this. I feel like I’m walking amongst ghosts and it’s best to leave them be.

The changes are all good for Jijiga, neglected under Emperor Haile Selassie and the murderous Dergue; it’s coming into its own and that’s a very good thing. But the Jijiga I know is long gone.

Sadly, the refugees are not, the focus merely redirected to the south where the new, young aid workers are probably getting their version of the experiences I had so long ago.

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