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#NightNightAlice

Many of you have Adventurers have followed here with great interest the story of Alice Pyne, an incredibly courageous English teen who faced down terminal cancer for the past five years.

I first wrote about Alice in A Teen’s Bucket List eighteen months ago, and provided updates in A Teen’s Bucket List – Update 1, Hey Alice! Good Works are Spreading Thanks to You!, Checking In on Alice Pyne).

The most recent update post, Alice Update: A New Charity Helping Others, shared how Alice and her family created the charitable organization Alice’s Escapes to help arrange caravan/hotel holidays in her local Cumbria for children fighting cancer and other deadly diseases and terminal conditions.

Photo of Alice Pyne by Rex Features on www.adventuresinexpatland.com

Alice Pyne at 10 Downing Street (Rex Features)

In the year and a half that I followed Alice’s journey, I have been amazed and humbled by their steadfast devotion to spreading the word about signing up as a bone marrow donor at one of the registries in the worldwide network. By heightening awareness, they also ended up raising funds – directly and indirectly – across the global.

Their ‘hook’ for attracting publicity was Alice’s own Bucket List of things she wanted to do before she died. With the assistance of others, Alice was able to check off many of the items on the list.

But it really wasn’t about giving Alice memorable experiences; she and her family made sure that it was always about raising awareness, raising funds, raising marrow donor numbers.

Yesterday Alice lost her battle, surrounded by her loving parents and dear sister.

Her mother Vicky announced on the Alice’s Escapes page on Facebook. I checked Alice’s website and the message is the same:

‘Our darling, Alice, gained her angel wings today. She passed away peacefully with Simon, Milly and myself by her side. We are devastated and know that our lives will never again be the same.

#NightNightAlice

Vicky             12 January 2013′

Knowing this day would eventually come doesn’t make it any easier. Last night I said a prayer, and despite not ‘knowing’ Alice personally, I shed some tears for her and her family.

I’ve spent this morning in quiet introspection, and later I’ll go for a long walk in the sunny woods with Daughter. But as soon as I finish this post, I’m going back to work on a project that is near and dear to my heart.

Why?

Because as I wrote in the last update, everything Alice ever did and achieved in her seventeen years on this earth ‘reminds us all of the power of focused minds, loving hearts, helping hands and limited time.’

#NightNightAlice

 

 

 

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We’re already into double digits (gasp!) in January, and fortunately my New Year’s resolutions for 2013 are going swimmingly.

I say this because I want you to know that I have not neglected you, my Adventurer community. (See how neatly I just tied you back to one of my resolutions? Impressive, I know.) It’s just that I’m recently back from a visit with my parents, which means another foray into the black hole that is a home without wifi connectivity.

Oh they have Internet, but their computer connection is only one step above dial-up. Remember that, back in the dim recesses of the Dark Ages? Their system is incredibly slow, easily overwhelmed and limited solely to the old laptop configuration set up in their guest room.

It’s great for unplugging and focusing on spending limited time together. But for maintaining communication with family members scattered to the winds, confirming flight plans and checking in online, and doing quick things like posting a finished blog piece? Eh, not so much.

* * *

Alrighty then, time again for another Riveting Expat Read in which I shine the spotlight on a new (or new to me) book in this richly varied and rapidly growing niche. There has been a slow but steadily expanding upsurge in books written by and for expats/global nomads/TCKs which examine life lived cross-culturally.

In fact, the ‘expat life’ genre is experiencing such growth that I’m now going to be showcasing such books more frequently. I enjoy reading them, and I do hope you’ll enjoy reading about them.

* * *

I actually read British expat/repat Laura J. Stephens’ forthright and enlightening memoir An Inconvenient Posting: An Expat Wife’s Memoir of Lost Identity (Summertime Publishing, October 2012) in late summer and couldn’t wait to write about it.

51pbYsh9Y7L__BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_However, as with many of our best laid plans, life has a pesky way of intervening and I’m just now getting to this review post.

Please don’t in any way infer that I wasn’t enthralled with this book, as I was. Was and in fact still am.

Why? Because Laura has written one of the most well developed and emotionally honest depictions of a downward spiral into depression around.

That Laura’s bout with depression on relocating from England to Houston, Texas with her family and her slow, steady climb back up occurred during her second expatriate assignment is of note, as is the fact that Laura herself is a licensed therapist.

You read that correctly. Even therapists are not immune to the vagaries of expat life that can batter and besiege our confidence, sense of wellbeing and most importantly the core of who we are/how we see ourselves – our identity.

Within expat circles it is quietly common knowledge that continuous moving, leaving the friends and support structures we’ve worked hard to build (and/or being the one left behind as others repatriate or move on) and the emotional upheaval that comes with transitioning from one culture to another are ripe conditions for feelings of unease, feeling adrift, unremitting loss, unresolved grief, and yes, even anxiety and depression.

For far too many, it is the insidious little secret that isn’t talked about as openly, honestly and at length as it should be.

Well, Laura has bravely owned up to having dealt with such a full-blown depression. She captures in detail the slippery slide down from loneliness, feeling disconnected from the basic actions of everyday life and being lost into a deep, dark, ongoing funk. Equally courageous are her descriptions of how it impacted her marriage and relationships with her children and friends.

Better still? She’s chronicled how she worked her way back to emotional and mental well-being, sharing how therapy, journaling and various self-care measures associated with emotional resilience made all the difference for her.

While her situation may have been all too common – hesitantly agreeing to a move for the sake of her spouse’s career, interruption of her own deeply cherished career aspirations, wrangling with transitional issues in a new environment, trying to keep a stiff upper lip while being overtaken by an insidious depressive episode – it is the overlay of contributing factors stemming from sudden immersion in a new and often unexpectedly bewildering cross-cultural situation that makes this intimate memoir ring true for so many expatriates.

Her descent into depression is reminiscent of the frightening, pre-tornado scenes of The Wizard of Oz  shot in black and white, entirely devoid of color. Similarly Laura’s painstakingly slow recuperation and re-entry back into a healthier, more positive mental state evokes Dorothy’s awakening into a strange, new, colorful world.

Laura isn’t afraid to own up to irritation, frustration and exasperation with any and all aspects of her Houston life during her dark days. This makes her later appreciation of and delight in many of those same cultural nuances and differences ring all the more true. Who among us hasn’t had similar feelings when we were going through culture shock, feeling out of sorts in a new country, usually going on to embrace and enjoy what may once have bothered us beyond compare?

It is to Laura’s immense credit that An Inconvenient Posting is a no holds barred account, a candid depiction of both her physical and emotional decline and her victorious re-emergence into a newer, stronger, wiser, more grateful version of her old self.

If you or someone you know (expat, repat or otherwise) is or has ever experienced depression – or know someone who has – you’ll want to read An Inconvenient Posting.

Actually, I’m betting you’ll want to read it regardless.

* * *

For more good information and insights, do check out Laura’s self-titled blogAn Inconvenient Posting on Facebook or catch her as @LauraJStephens on Twitter.

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3 Cs of Change

I know that everyone is either partying hard, out and about and thus not reading blog posts, or already in bed. I’m not one to judge, so whatever floats your boat…

Or you’ve been busy and only now are finding your way to reading this.

So I’m going to keep it short and sweet.

When you do happen to stumble upon this post, I hope that you’re having a wonderful entry to the year 2013.

It happens once. We’ll never see it (2013) again. So while it’s here, why not make the best of it?

I’ve always been a reflective person who makes resolutions, and while I won’t share specifics, I do think it’s important to share broader themes.

Initially I was going to go with Change, but quite frankly each and every year is filled with change.

Whether you’re new parents or newly empty-nested, switching careers or switching continents, starting anew or starting a new fill-in-the-blank, you’re probably up to your eyeballs in change.

Yeah, me too.

Change is present in virtually everyone’s life, no matter how it appears to others on the outside.

Believe me, I learned that firsthand this year. Big, in-your-face Time.

2012 was a year in which so many wonderful, exciting, fantastic things happened. And a year in which a number of some downright awful things occurred. Sometimes almost at the same time, often sequentially, even simultaneously.

I’ve had so much thrown at me this year that at times I almost didn’t think I could handle it. I’ve been knocked back, knocked down and knocked every which way.

But I did. I got up. I employed every single trick and tip and suggestion to maintain/enhance/ conjure up any remnant of emotional resilience I could possibly summon.

And I kept going.

It worked. And thankfully it’s still working.

I’m praying that the toughest parts are past, but honestly I know that there still will be tough times ahead.

But that’s okay. Whatever I’m dealing with, there are others dealing with far worse.

Believe me, in my darkest hours it took every ounce of strength to try and remember that. And when you do keep that in mind, you realize that you have no control over what comes your way. It just does, and you do your best to deal with it.

When you remember that others are feeling/hurting/suffering with worse, you become aware that you could encounter more than what you’re dealing with, you may well be thrown on your back but that sooner or later, you still might just find your way through to the other side.

So back to Change, reflections and my New Year’s Resolutions.

Autumn Walk in Duke Forest NC on www.adventuresinexpatland.comI realized that my personal and professional resolutions fall into the following three broad themes which will lead the way into 2013:

1. Centering – in body, mind, soul. More on this in posts to come.

2. Creating – I’ve got a few things I want to complete, some new cool ones to start, and new directions I wish to pursue. I’m a wonderfully squishy, scary combination of excited, thrilled, nervous and apprehensive. Can’t think of a better mix.

3. Community – whether it’s your nuclear family, broader relations, neighborhood, village/town/city, old friends, new friends, colleagues or the wider world, community matters. So I’m going to be concentrating on it throughout 2013.

So rather than slap up a photo of fireworks, pretty bodies in slinky outfits, champagne flutes or raucous partying, I prefer to show you a walking trail that I’ve been making great use of lately. I feel safe there.

It’s where I’ve done some of my deepest thinking, my most heartfelt contemplation, and my most plaintive pleas. After the passage of time, it has became the scene of initially tentative and then rapidly accelerating planning and scheming and dreaming big.

I’m grateful for these woods, I’m grateful for what I’ve been through (yes, every little bit of it), I’m grateful for what I’ve learned and I’m grateful for you here reading this.

Happy New Year’s and May You Have a Rocking 2013!!!

 

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Holiday Intermezzo

It’s been quite a holiday season this year, in oh so many ways.

Nothing about it has been ‘normal’ or ‘same old, same old’ or even vaguely familiar.

Given a whole range of circumstances, some of which will go unmentioned out of respect for others’ privacy and most well beyond our control, my family has found itself in the odd situation of celebrating the holidays stateside yet for a few days by ourselves.

Gingerbread star Christmas ornaments on Adventures in Expat LandIn recent weeks we’ve been scattered to the winds, and only as Christmas approached has our nuclear family unit finally been reunited.

We’re Christmas people.

Not merely from a religious perspective, but also from a deeply entrenched cultural one as well.

My family not only tolerates my love of seasonal celebration, they appreciate and encourage it.

So year after year you’ll find us decking the halls in the same manner, following the same routines and rituals, eating and imbibing the same favorites.

That’s not to say we aren’t capable of change, because we are.

For instance, after a dozen years throwing renowned Christmas parties – I’d like to think they were well-attended as much for the eclectic guest list, scintillating conversation and fabulous food as for the mucho glasses of bubbly and Husband’s decadent port tasting held in a back room – we chose not to recreate those soirées when we moved away, intent on developing new traditions.

Then there was the almost seamless transition from the annual selection of a healthy, live tree to finally breaking down and admitting that an attractive artificial behemoth beauty that fit well in the new living room had its redeeming qualities.

I’ve gone from baking a half dozen kinds of Christmas cookies to barely managing to eke out basic sugar cookies. Covered with luscious frosting and candy decorations, mind you. But still, the family has learned to do without just fine.

When we moved to a home without an outdoor electrical outlet allowing for our traditional interwoven greenery and white lights framing the doorway and porch railings, we rolled with the punches, sucked it up and made due with additional pine boughs, red velvet bows and an oversized wreath.

(No comments on overcompensating with wreath size, please.)

Heck, we even learned to take it all down several notches when we moved to Nederland several years ago. Well, on the exterior, at least.

So don’t think we can’t tolerate change. We thrive on change – nay, we excel at change.

But this year was something altogether different.

Nothing quite says ‘Happy Holidays’ like trying to celebrate Christmas while living out of suitcases in temporary accommodations, our extensive collection of beloved ornaments, decorations and seasonal trappings safely tucked away back in The Netherlands.

What’s a vagabond family to do?

Declare it a stripped down holiday season and make do with less, fewer, other or simply go without. It’s amazing what you can accomplish with limited time, space, and budget but unlimited creativity, innovation and panache.

The results? A far simpler, cleaner, greener Christmas than usual, but one that didn’t skimp on spirit or cheer.

We’ve focused on the importance of being together, being a family.

We’ve spent more time taking long hikes in sun-dappled forests, seeing a movie, enjoying leisurely lunches, and – thanks to a far more robust glut of post-season bowl games in recent years – instructing Daughter in the finer points of American football.

We even spent what the Dutch and others call the ‘Second Christmas’ (Tweede Kerstmis) – Boxing Day to Brits, Aussies and Canadians – out bowling.

Yes, bowling. As in silly looking shoes, hurling a heavy ball down a waxed wooden lane and trying to knock over wooden pins. Rest assured our amateur status was never in jeopardy, especially when we required the services of the kindly lane manager to reset the electronic score-keeping system for us.

Not once, but twice.

We may have attracted more than a few quizzical looks with our unorthodox bowling form, and our utter inability to get the balls to go where intended, but hey – we were together, we laughed and we had a wonderful time.

So goes the holiday intermezzo, these lazy days after Christmas and before New Year’s Eve celebrations, then once again we scatter to the far corners of the world. I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

 

 

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In Search of Grace

It’s been a busy few weeks lately with more than the usual ups and downs, ins and outs, whethers or buts, what ifs and why nots.

I’ve been dealing with an amalgam of diverse issues, activities, and events ranging from the mundane to the weighty, the tedious to the tentative, the banal to the seemingly overwhelming and all the way back ’round again.

Some are of an ongoing nature; others are new, emotionally charged, complicated and demanding of resolution now. Still others are the irritating little pop-ups that we all encounter and could easily do without.

Add the complications of how and where to be over the holidays in light of some of the more pressing issues – no small feat in and of itself – with the litany of things to be done to actually celebrate Christmas and New Year and…

Well, you get the picture.

By the way, how’s that everloving to-do list going??

Yeah. I thought so. Let me get back to you on that.

Often when daily life becomes more complex, more challenging, more unnerving, we get the urge to write, create, share.

For me, that entails actively carving out private time for the fingers to fly across the keyboard; at the least it means greedily clinging to what little personal time I can muster these days.

Sometimes the creative spark flickers, buffeted by an unseen wind.

Sometimes we need to step back and recharge, all our emotional energies seemingly sapped by emergent priorities and everyday existence.

And sometimes external events conspire to stop us in our tracks.

It has been a mixture of all of the above, with an embarrassingly yawning chasm of time since I’d last posted. Friday I was all set to put that right.

And then, I wasn’t.

I couldn’t.

The thought of stoking the creative fires and forging something, anything, was unpalatable.

The truth is that after what occurred in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, no one could put it right. I’m not sure anyone ever will.

Ask the people of Dunblane, Scotland. All these years on, and everyone living there will tell you why people from around the world have heard of their little town. Ask tennis star Andy Murray, a proud Dunblane son, who can’t be interviewed without the topic coming up.

Or the Shandong, Shaanxi and Fujian Provinces of China where schoolchildren and their teachers were murdered by knife- and meat cleaver-wielding assailants.

Or Colombine, Aurora, Virginia Tech. The list goes on.

I’m not here today to write about these manmade events so horrific they bring to mind war zones, the latter with their own atrocities marked by the names of the places where they were perpetrated: Rwanda, Srebrenica, Auschwitz and Dachau among many. Far, far too many.

I’m not here to write about gun control, although I personally believe the United States – my United States – is in dire need of a comprehensive overhaul to the legislative framework governing the sale, ownership, access to and use of such weapons.

I’m not here to write about mental illness – although I have before and will again – except to say that I personally believe that significant improvements to the mental health system are and should be called for – no, demanded – by everyone.

Hating the perpetrators and placing blame on them is understandable, but it won’t help others from becoming future victims. It won’t help others from gaining access to weapons in the heat of passion or in their darkest moments, or while at their weakest, or frailest.

How could any of the aforementioned horrors occur and someone still not understand that societies which do not care for their most fragile citizens are letting down all of their citizens?

Not just in America, but in every country around the world. I’ve been to dozens of countries, and spent a lifetime getting to know about them and many, many more, and I can tell you the need elsewhere is just as great and in most instances much greater.

I’m not going to write about any of these issues. There’s plenty of time for that. Indeed, work has already begun, in the media, in constituencies, in communities and in the corridors of power.

The reason I haven’t written for the past four days? Because I needed time to take in, process and attempt to make some semblance of sense of Friday’s events.

I’ve succeeded with the first and second tasks. I doubt I’ll ever get there on the third.

I know that there were immediate cries for action on the part of many, multitudes of voices raised at the outset. Understandably so. I don’t fault them at all, it’s how they choose to deal with it all.

I didn’t – couldn’t – join them. Not out of weakness. For me it was just too early.

The cacaphony of outrage, anger, overwhelming sadness and raw unadulterated pain unleashed was deafening, and it has continued to grow as retorts fly and clarifications are lodged. It will serve its purpose, but there are no gold medals for being first to blog and post and tweet and share and comment.

When I thought of the children and those adults who gave their lives trying to protect them, I saw their family members and friends. I saw the parents, those grieving, bereft parents.

And I just couldn’t join in. Not yet.

Instead, I’ve been in search of stillness. Stillness of mind, stillness of heart, stillness of soul. Stillness that I imagine they themselves are sorely in need of.

I’m not alone in this. C.C. Chapman, author of Content Rules and the season’s inspirational bestseller Amazing Things Will Happen, wrote of this need for many to slow down.

‘You have to say something. You have to react. Or do you?…We each react differently. Some will scream solutions and then scream louder when someone suggests something different. People position, proclaim and pontificate as if sudden experts…Take it slow.’

And then I was reminded of Geoff Talbot’s recent Seven Sentences piece on Grace and Creativity.

It spoke to me.

It’s a long road ahead; more than anything, we need grace. Now more than ever.

 

 

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T is for Thoughtful

Earlier this year I introduced Expats A to Z,  a new series of posts about the little things that can make a difference in how we approach some of the challenges and experiences of expat life.

Letters of the alphabet on a web created by Vlado portfolio 1836 on www.adventuresinexpatland.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

T is for Thoughtful

Over the past few years I have come to appreciate the word ‘thoughtful’ more than just about any other word in the English language.

Why? you ask. Well, just think about it (pun fully intended).

The word ‘thoughtful’ has many nuanced meanings.

It can mean being aware, mindful, taking heed: It’s not surprising, being a new father, that Russell is now even more thoughtful about the importance of family. Choosing to repatriate back to the UK, Jack and Liam are particularly thoughtful as to the challenges of dealing with aging loved ones across great distances.

It can also be defined as being absorbed in contemplation, or meditative: Carrie’s thoughtful nature serves her well not only as a writer and artist, but as a talented sports, massage and hypno-therapist.

It can also mean being characterized by careful reasoning: As always, Jane offered thoughtful comments to the draft of my latest piece of writing.

The word can also refer to being concerned about or given to anticipating the wants and needs of others: Time and again, Maria has shown herself to be a kind and thoughtful friend.

So let’s take those same definitions and apply them to traveling and/or living across cultures.

Aisha has worked doggedly to share her thoughtful views on religious tolerance, with positive results. (Well, with the exception of a few charmers who obviously prefer spreading intolerance and hatred.)

Apple’s memoir reflects a thoughtful approach to an expatriate life lived across continents, timezones, decades and shifting eras. Matt’s thoughtful walk across Turkey fills me with hope for a world in which people seek first to truly understand.

I can always count on Anne, Norm and Judy for their thoughtful, reasoned insights into culture shock and expat transitions.

I have indeed been blessed by a wealth of thoughtful kindnesses, from the aforementioned and so many other dear members of the global expat community.

So there you go. Perhaps you’ve been on the receiving end of a handshake, hug, a few much-needed kind words (or in Matt’s case, a meal and a place to lay your head at night) when you found yourself floundering as the newbie in a decidedly different environment.

You’ve probably been thankful for an outstretched hand or deep bow and introduction that came just when you may have least expected them but needed them most; you’ve also likely reached out to more than one frustrated, ornery, angry, complaining person you’ve encountered, recognizing in them the look of someone who is really just sad, lonely or lost.

You may have been the one to welcome someone into your coffee group, your inner circle, your home or your heart. Or you’ve encouraged your own TCKs to remember what it feels like to not know anyone and reach out to the new child at school or in the neighborhood.

You might have celebrated someone’s (even your own) coming or going with truly felt words of friendship, caring and the importance of what people have meant to you along the way.

Maybe you’ve kept up via letter, email, Skype or Facebook with friends not so near but still dear, or kept tabs on someone having a hard time finding their way ‘back home’ or on to the next stop in a nomadic life.

You’ve experienced the wonder of life lived in different countries and cultures, learning firsthand that different doesn’t mean better or worse but simply different. You’ve come to appreciate the richness of the world’s tapestry, and respect the cultures, religions and ethnicities that make it so.

My guess is you’ve likely been the recipient of any number of kindnesses during your journey through this big world. I’m betting you’ve also been thoughtful according to any of the various definitions, in any number of ways. You’ve been there, done that, remembered it, reciprocated and played it forward in spades.

Such is thoughtfulness reflecting cultural tolerance, respect for tradition as well as inevitable change, and man’s humanity to fellow man.

And it fits us all to a ‘T’.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Time again for another Riveting Expat Read in which I shine the spotlight on a new (or new to me) book in this varied and rapidly growing niche. There has been a slow but steadily expanding upsurge in books written by and for expats/global nomads/TCKs which examine life lived cross-culturally, and we are all the richer for this.

Today’s choice is a doozy, one seriously stellar book.

Cover of Expat Life Slice by Slice by Apple Gidley on www.adventuresinexpatland.com
Apple Gidley’s Expat Life: Slice by Slice is, simply put, one of the very best expat memoirs I’ve read in recent years (and I’ve read many).

Why this high praise? In a word, Expat Life: Slice by Slice is complete.

As an avid reader and expat myself, I’ve enjoyed many a book about travel and/or life overseas. I appreciate a good story as well as the next person, easily becoming wrapped up in the storyline of a well-told tale regardless whether it’s contemplative, epic, tongue-in-cheek, earnest or comedic in style or tone.

As a writer and author, what I don’t like – and hence, you’ll never read about them here – are books that are boring or poorly written. Or even worse, boring because they’re poorly written.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not talking literary snobbishness or grammatical policing or editorial infractions here. I’m referring to books where the writing is wooden or heavy handed or overwrought, the dialogue is non-existent or dull or simply not believable, and the author just never seems to find his or her voice.

Sort of like a joke that falls flat, so badly mangled in its delivery that not even an hilarious punchline can save it.

Which is why Expat Life is such a joy.

Rather than simply relaying her life story in chronological sequence as far too many authors are wont to do, this Adult Third Culture Kid, parent and now grandparent to TCKs has achieved the trifecta of good writing, good storytelling and making us care.

Apple Gidley shows rather than tells, not simply in her dialogue but in her narrative writing as well. She possesses a good ear for dialogue, moving the story along in believable fashion. She also touches on a wide range of issues across the human condition, covering myriad topics without once evoking images of a scribe hunkered down over a manuscript consulting a laundry list of ‘must covers’ (as in ‘I must cover this, can’t forget to cover that’).

Gidley has spent a lifetime living and traveling on all of the continents save Antarctica, although it’s probably just a matter of time before she reaches the latter. She’s experienced colonial rule firsthand and witnessed how decolonization, the emergence of newly independent states, globalization and advances in technology have transformed expatriate life over the intervening years.

Yet the writing never feels dated, remaining fresh and timely throughout. The stories she weaves run the gamut from humorous to sad, difficult to the lighthearted, uneasy to fascinating and everything in between.

In addition to relocating 26 times while living in twelve countries, Gidley has, among other things, become certified as a Montessori instructor, served as British Honorary Consul in Equatorial Guinea, taught English, established and edited a quarterly magazine for an international charity in Asia, worked in a scuba shop and written for their diving newsletter, blogged for The Telegraph in the UK.

Whether by worldliness, temperament or some combination thereof, Gidley falls squarely on the side of emphasizing our common humanity and what brings us together rather than differences that might divide us.

More so than most, she is able to put her expat life experiences into perspective and share those highly personal thoughts with the reader. It’s no surprise that her chapters dealing with topics as varied as the special challenges of raising TCKs and parenting across time zones, staying connected with family and friends, dealing with parental aging, illness and death, and pondering repatriation and life after the empty nest are rather dog-eared from my constant return to particularly pithy or poignant insights.

In the end, she takes us with her and makes us care. And that makes this sweeping saga of multi-generational expatriate life a romping good read.

*     *     *

Learn more about Expat Life: Slice by Slice (Summertime Publishing, March 2012) at http://www.expatapple.com/ or purchase it (paperback or Kindle version) on Amazon here. Apple Gidley blogs regularly for The Telegraph and is on Twitter (@ExpatApple) and Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/apple.gidley).

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It happened again.

A little more than a week ago I was over at a friend’s blog, reading a post that got me thinking.

The good ones always do. They intrigue and inspire, prod and provoke, query and occasionally even quarrel.

A sign of a good post? For me, it’s the ones that stay on my mind, hiding in the recesses of my brain. My thoughts return to them over and over again, like your tongue sneaking its way over the sore, empty socket where a tooth recently resided.

Another sign? Again, for me, it’s when I immediately scroll down to respond in the comments section. I type along, fingers tripping over each other as they race to keep up with the words spilling from my lips.

Yes, at times like this I tend to get excited and start muttering aloud in the hopes that if I hear it as I think it, I won’t forget to write it.

Hey, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. It works. Usually.

And somewhere in the midst of drafting my comment – often by the third sentence but almost certainly by the fourth – I realize that I’m so taken with the topic that it may well require a blog post of my own.

Such was the case with Russell’s The Flip Side of the Coin over on his site In Search of a Life Less Ordinary. It started with some emails from aspiring or soon-to-be expats who credited his blog with encouraging them to take the plunge into building a new life abroad.

It then segued into a rumination about ‘the other side of the coin’ that expat bloggers may not always be so quick to share: missing those ‘back home’ while building new friendships overseas, and how a visit to the former can leave some of us lamenting the seemingly superficial depth of the latter as we’ve connected in a ‘we’re all in this expat life together’ sort of way.

It isn’t that we don’t like our newfound friends and acquaintances, it’s more that we may not have the time and mileage of experiences under our belts the way well-worn friendships do.

Russell mentioned how visiting ‘back home’ and the ease with which we fall back into conversation and shared remembrances with family and lifelong friends can make us wistful and a bit withdrawn when we return to our current lives in expat land.

He went on to wonder whether some of us expat bloggers inadvertently gloss over the negative in our exuberance to share the positive. Are we candid enough? Do we suppress the less-than-pleasant? Do we paint the full picture?

As with every good post, it generated many comments and prompted a little introspection.

My thoughts? Between the post and the insightful comments, Russell had started an honest, heartfelt conversation about the other side of the expat coin, one that anyone considering pulling up stakes and moving abroad should definitely take note of.

It also got me thinking about the many reasons we all tend to blog, and thus the blogs – and by extension, the blogging communities – we create. When I started Adventures in Expat Land, I was fully cognizant that while we usually think of excitement and new experiences when we hear the word ‘adventures’, it can and does include the less-than-savory as well.

I’ve tried to present the entire picture, or as Russell describes it, both sides of the expatriate coin. Why? Because I never positioned my blog as anything other than one woman’s conversational view of life in another culture.

I’m fully aware that as a raging extrovert (yes, I once rated a 49 out of 50 for extroversion), I’m a people-person. I like meeting new people, striking up conversations, making connections regardless of whether they are short-lived in nature or destined to last.

I like learning about what other people find of interest, what matters to them, what makes them tick.

Why just last night Daughter was regaling her aunt, uncle and cousins the story of how she ended up sitting on Queen Elizabeth’s thronelike chair in Westminster Abbey during a family trip to London a few years ago. My sister-in-law reported that Daughter led with ‘Well, you know how my mother always wants to make new friends everywhere she goes…’

So, yeah, I tend to meet people as I go through this world. LOTS of people. Interesting people, sad people, contented people, unhappy people, fascinating people, lonely people, charming people – you name it, I’ve met them. There are far worse ways to be described by your child than Daughter’s gentle poking fun at my penchant for making connections.

I’ve learned more about the world we live in and the little microcosms in which these people live, and my life has been richer for these connections, no matter how fleeting. I’d like to think that their lives are enriched in some small way by our encounters as well.

I’ve come to also realize that in the end, all I can do is write about my life, my experiences, my perspectives.

Husband is generally a very private person, and Son and Daughter are (now) older teens, which by definition means ‘I can spill whatever I care to about my own life but don’t you dare share anything without asking’.  For the record, I do check with them if I’m in any danger of straying over the line into their privacy.

With my ‘writing boundaries’ clearly delineated, I think I’ve done a fairly good job of adhering to the spirit, if not always the letter, of the law.

I don’t think I’ve allowed this to become a whitewashed, Pollyanna-ish version of expat life. Along the way I’ve found it easier to sometimes share certain of the less appetizing aspects in articles published elsewhere, and then often shared back here on this site.

I feel that I’ve shared the positive as well as the less positive, the pros as well as the cons, the upside as well as the down.

Taken all together, I’m comfortable with how I’ve portrayed expat life because I’ve usually focused on sharing my expat life. Not every minute detail, but the bold brushstrokes that make the painting.

Because in the end, I may well be an extrovert and a glass-half-full kind of gal, but I am also nothing if not one who seeks balance. I deplore the false sunniness of ‘life is perfect’ blogs every bit as much as I cannot tolerate the whining ‘Debby Downers’ of the blogosphere.

Give me reality. Give me honesty. But also give me growing insights borne out of experience, a sense of burgeoning wisdom, a knack for putting things into perspective.

Give me the strength to seek improvement, the fortitude to make necessary changes and above all, the capacity for appreciation and gratitude.

It’s what I hope for in my life, it’s what I strive for on this site, and it’s what I look for in the blogs I read.

 

 

 

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We the People

Husband woke up at 4:45 this morning and got up to follow reporting on the US Presidential election returns.

I went back to sleep and didn’t join him until a more civilized 5:45 am, but regardless, there we were, foregoing much-needed sleep to studiously eye the electoral college estimates and state-by-state tallies.

Photo of American flag by Chuck Felix portfolio 303 on www.adventuresinexpatland.com

Why? Because we care. We care deeply.

I’m not going to share with you whether we were on TeamWin or not, because that isn’t the point.

Neither is whom we each cast our ballot for or why. How we voted isn’t the issue here; how we feel about our country is.

The popular vote count ticked ever highward and key states were called in favor of one presidential nominee or the other.

Finally Mitt Romney conceded to Barack Obama, both contenders speaking first to each other, and then to their devoted followers.

I am always in awe of the ability of the losing candidate to publicly concede defeat after an exhaustive, often bruising campaign. I empathize with putting your heart, soul, time, energy and effort into a cause for months (indeed years) on end, only to have it snuffed out in the final hours.

Romney kept his concession remarks brief but gracious; Obama kept his appreciative and conciliatory, attempting to forge a united electorate out of bitter rivalries.

That’s what you do when you transition from candidate to President: you set aside your role as outward face of your political party and take on, or in the case of an incumbent President, continue on with your role as leader of the American people.

Whether they agree with you or not. Whether they believe in your way ahead or not. Whether they share your views or not. Whether they like you or not. And for Obama, that means roughly 48% of the voting citizenship.

Much will be made of what the Republicans should have done or neglected to do or of the Democratic ticket taking such a decisive victory in the Electoral College (currently anticipated to be 303 to 206 electoral votes); of the shifting definitions of the tags  ‘independent’, ‘moderate’, ‘political center’; of voter turnout and the voting predilections of various sub-groups by gender, age, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, religion, sexual orientation, geographic region.

You can talk all you want about trends, shifts, nuances, subtleties and clearcut changes in voting patterns.

Those endorsing the victor will celebrate the results; those supporting the losing candidate will lament them. There will be extensive analysis by both sides of what worked (and  didn’t), what resonated (and didn’t), what mattered (and didn’t).

But there is no getting around a simple fact: asI write this, out of the estimated 115 million Americans who voted in this election, the winning candidate did so by approximately 2.3 million votes. In a country of 320 million people.

Almost 59 million people voted for Obama; nearly 57 million of his fellow countrymen did not. Now he must shift gears and do his best to lead the nation, a divided nation. A deeply divided nation.

He must spend his days and nights working tirelessly to move the country forward: bolster a sagging economy showing minimal improvement in fits and starts; get the unemployed, underemployed and those who have simply given up looking back to meaningful, productive, lucrative work; deal with myriad national and global political, economic and security challenges; put forward legislation to try to solve problems, mend fences and improve the lives not merely of the most vulnerable and fragile members of society, but of everyone.

A couple months ago I read a post that was starting to go viral at the time. I saw it on Facebook, but it was getting shared across a wide array of social media venues.

In it, the author calmly reminded his or her family, friends, coworkers, associates and/or followers that when they castigated or demonized members of his (or her) political persuasion – which remained unstated – they were, in essence, speaking directly to him (or her).

If you vocalized that conservatives or liberals were ignorant, arrogant, unfeeling, stupid, uncaring, unsophisticated, holier-than-thou, idiotic, unpatriotic, lazy, hard-hearted or any other of a long list of slurs, it was as if you were saying it to him/her when you chatted before the morning staff meeting, over coffee or at lunch, while picking up your children from school or dropping off their child from carpooling, over drinks at happy hour or over dinner in their home.

You can’t spew negativity at a group and then turn around and say ‘oh, but I didn’t mean you’. If you know someone whose political views differ from yours – at home, at work, at your place of worship or in your classroom, on the soccer field or at the ballpark, while volunteering or sharing a hobby or other interest – and care about them in any way, you can’t ascribe negative connotations to followers of those political beliefs but claim that the person you know and care about is an exception.

Enough with the negativity. Enough with taking one issue and making it your litmus test for acceptance or rejection.

Enough with the articles and speeches and talking heads telling us that one party believes in religion and values and security while the other believes in jobs and personal freedoms and acceptance.

Enough already.

Because when I look across my extended family, across the friends and acquaintances I’ve accumulated over the years, across the colleagues I’ve toiled next to in various jobs over a couple of careers, I know that we all care deeply about a whole host of issues, none of which are the sole purview of one political group or another.

Just as none of the values bandied about belong exclusively to one group and not the other.

It’s about respect, decency, democracy.

We are all good, kind, hardworking, caring people who want the best for our families, our communities, our nation, our world. We may differ as to the sources of various problems and societal ills, or the policy prescriptives to remedy these challenges, even the legislative and judicial fixes and the very people we want to see creating that change.

So when we badmouth this group or that, this party or that, this candidate or that, this individual or that, we are talking trash about those we respect, care about, perhaps even love.

I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t difficult challenges ahead. Of course there are, and always will be.

But I’m sick and tired of the ‘us vs. them’ mentality. And believe me, it goes well beyond the United States. It is pernicious and infects people, groups, countries around the world.

Wars have started over as much, not to mention bigotry,  persecution, alienation, objectification, conflict, violence.

I’m tired of the snide comments and smug cross-cultural insults floating through the blogosphere, media and social media. Because when you criticize another nationality, another group, another faction, you are perpetuating this dark whorl of negativity.

I don’t slap labels on your views, your religious preference, your causes or pet issues, your nationality, your political systems. I don’t wonder aloud or online why ‘you people’ don’t do this or try that or can’t get your act together on the other.

When you do so, not only are you ignoring the complex and complicated roots of so many issues while advertising your own lack of cultural understanding (and please note that I said understanding, not acceptance or agreement), you’re really labeling me, and those I love. Whether you meant to or not.

Enough already.

No more ‘us vs. them’. There’s far too much to do in this world to make it better, to ease pain and suffering and promote equality and justice.

Starting now, it’s We the People.

I hope you’ll join me.

[Image credit: Chuck Felix, portfolio 303, freedigitalphotos.net]

 

 

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Autumn = Change

Yesterday was Halloween, and it was a smashing one indeed. It began dry and sunny (two big pluses during autumn here) and remained so throughout the day; Halloween night was, well, amazing.

Halloween is HUGE in the United States, and every year, more and more Dutchies and other internationals join Americans in celebrating this fun-filled holiday. Cross-culturalism at its best. May I just say that I love it?

Love. It.

I’ve always loved the thrill of deciding what you wanted to dress up as, putting the costume together and heading into the darkness with friends for an evening of trick-or-treating. All that and a huge candy stash at the end. What’s not to like?

As I got older, trick-or-treating morphed into attending oh so fun Halloween parties, and eventually to being the one to stay home, oohing and aahing over the little childrens’ costumes and giving out the candy.

Quite simply, it is one of my favorite holidays of the year.

Our little Ten Hovestraat and its sister street Vivienstraat were filled with the sights and sounds of costumed trick-or-treaters rushing up in feverish anticipation to ring doorbells or slam heavy iron door-knockers, sometimes both.

This year I kept it simple, dressing in black and orange, topping it off with a witch’s hat. The kids are always pleasantly surprised when you make an effort to dress up, even just a bit; one of the accompanying parents even whipped out her camera and caught me dispensing mini chocolate bars to a horde of the living dead.

Last year we had six houses on our little, one-block long street participating; chez Janssen received 96 little ghosts and goblins.

This year? Ten houses got into the festive spirit and we had 105 creatively attired witches, zombies, fairies and ghouls.

Best of all was our featured Halloweener, little Elliott. Dressed as Little Red Riding Hood, she was adorable.

How adorable? Afterwards, Daughter couldn’t stop telling Husband ‘she was so cute, she was sooo cute!’

Elliott is the 18 month old daughter of an American woman and her Dutch husband now living here in The Hague. Theirs is an expat love story as they met while both were working in Dubai; they made their way back to the Netherlands just before Elliott’s arrival.

Mom wants Elliott to have an understanding of American holidays in general, and in particular a sense of the magic of Halloween. She found last year’s Halloween post on Adventures in Expat Land, and contacted me though the blog’s Facebook page.

So the entire family, including their four-pawed furry child (a docile boxer), came to Ten Hovestraat to join in the fun. How great is that?

And yes, Catarina came by with a group of her Dutch classmates. We didn’t get a chance to talk, but underneath the zombie face paint I did get the head tilt, sweet smile and half wink, so we’re cool.

My only regret is that I didn’t have a chance to grab my camera and document some of the merriment in pictures. Oh, and how to get rid of the leftover candy…

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

For most of my adult life I’ve viewed autumn as the major period of change.

Yes it’s my favorite season, for sensory as well as emotional reasons, but it’s more than that. It seems to be part of my genetic makeup, my brain’s hard- and/or soft-wiring.

You’d think it would be springtime with its planting and blooming and growth (and perhaps it is for you), but no.

September, October, November? For me, it’s the call of the new, the fresh, the different.

I’ve put a lot of thought into this over the past few weeks, and the result is captured in my October column over at Expat Focus, Autumn Equals Change.

Guess what I realized while writing this post? Husband’s and my decisions for our past two moves, including taking the plunge into expat life here in Nederland, both took place in the fall.

Go figure.

Do YOU have a favorite season or time of year that seems to be your ‘changemaker’? Do share!

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Invisible Ink

It’s been almost three weeks to the day since my last post.

Believe me, I know. It’s been weighing on my mind.

Not in an ‘oh cr@p, I have to post something on that d@mn blog’ sort of way, because this blog has never been like that for me.

It is a labor of love, perhaps sometimes with more emphasis on the latter, other times the former. But it has never, ever been a drag on my life or a chore to post.

I’ve just been out there dealing with real world problems and situations that impacted my time and ability to conceive, write and post on this blog. They’ve affected my time, ability, sometimes even my interest in, or otherwise interfered with writing non-blog things as well.

After I posted last, I was running around helping get Daughter ready for a nine-day school service trip to Thailand over her autumn break. She’d gone last year, fallen in love with the country and working with the children of Burmese refugees, and saved up babysitting funds for a return trip.

The morning after she left for Thailand, I jumped on a plane to go back to the US to visit my parents. I’m never quite sure when I’ll be able to visit again, so I decided to go while I could.

It was a quick trip in that I was only there one week. That may not seem like a short trip – or maybe it’s just because I’m getting older – but I don’t bounce back quite as quickly from jet lag as I used to.

While there, my priority was spending time with my parents and Son who was visiting on his own four-day university autumn break. I did do a little writing, including starting some drafts of blog posts, but my parents don’t have wifi and the set-up they do have is so archaic that it takes forever to get internet connection, and even longer to do them once online.

I know what you’re thinking and no, it’s not worth it to arrange for wifi for them. Or at least not at this point. They only barely grasp using email and Skype, and any change to their established routine will only result in unnecessary angst, chaos and confusion.

Don’t even get me started on the pervasive lack of wifi at local restaurants: I’ve learned the hard way that the internet police at the Panera Bread cafe near them severely limit usage hours during the only part of midday when I could have snuck away (their nap time) to try to get anything done.

No local Starbucks, either.

Seriously, how strip mall/rural do you have to be in the United States to not rate a Starbucks within reasonable driving distance?

Throw into the mix the fact that I’m taking two writing courses, and my attention to blog posts took a further hit. Now you might be asking why I’d sign up for two courses at the same time, and you would be a wise person to do so.

Short answer? One’s local in the Netherlands, taught by my mentor Jo Parfitt, and I wasn’t sure when she’d be offering it again. The other’s online, taught by a favorite American author/writer/blogger of mine; I wanted to take this course now because it’s helping me prepare for some things I want to do in 4-6 months.

Different writing courses, different writing instructors with different specialities and perspectives, different writing foci (for me), same limited schedule. Unless someone has figured out how to get more than 168 hours in a week, I’m left with making the tough calls and shoehorning in whatever I can, when I can.

The reason I share all of this with you is not for sympathy. You’ve all got busy lives with your own litany of must-do’s that are claiming your precious time. I share this because I’ve been asked by a few people whether I’ve stopped blogging for good.

‘It’s only been three weeks, people,’ I think to myself. ‘I’ve checked in on any number of blogs now and then, and found them on temporary hiatus and didn’t automatically assume they were defunct…’

They ask it as if that’s a bad thing, something which would make them unhappy, so I take it they like what I’m doing and want me to continue. Which is very kind of them. I’m flattered. Or they just want me to continue blogging because it makes me happy. Which is also kind.

Whatever the reason for their inquiries, I did not get the sense they were encouraging me to stop. Which is kinder still.

I’ve also been contacted by sweet people asking if I’m okay. Yes, but life is rather challenging right now, and some days are better than others. Visiting my parents was equal parts wonderful, bittersweet and frustrating as he!!.

Believe me, I’m sure my presence contributed a bit to the latter, but I’ve also come to a stark realization: no two ways about it, the intersection of advanced aging and illness sucks.

(If you know me, you know that I can’t stand that word, but it is truthfully the most accurate one I can find in this situation.)

Dealing with my father’s terminal cancer is difficult. He’s started receiving mild chemo treatments to ease (not reverse) things and they’ll scan him in two months to reassess, but for now the prognosis is under a year, possibly under half a year remaining.

It’s hard on him, my mother, my siblings and me, the rest of the family and all of my parents’ friends. But it dawned on me on the flight home that it is actually some of the more challenging symptoms of advanced aging that have tended toward making it all harder still.

We’re also dealing with other family members who are ill, including some particularly challenging developments, things we’ll continue monitoring and dealing with in the days and months ahead.

To add a truly American ‘and then the dog ate my homework’ quality to it all, my dog does have a cancerous tumor on his flank.

In the past three weeks, I’ve taken poor Oli to appointments with the veteranarian for a biopsy, and an ultrasound. Today was the surgery.

He can’t walk for a few days, needs to be carried everywhere and for everything. He’s even wearing large, snap-at-the-crotch ‘onesies’ to prevent him from picking at the stitches. It’s like having a baby in the house.

We’ll find out next week whether we can rest easy or are in for more decisions on unpleasant courses of action.

Let’s just say that I’ve been practicing many of the suggestions and tips for maintaining emotional resilience in turbulent times included in my book. The one about which still more people have inquired.

It’s coming along, slower than I’d like, but I am making progress. I wish it were faster, but when I think about the other things going on, I am comfortable in the knowledge that I’m doing the best I can. And that’s good enough for me.

So in the end, it’s pretty simple. Just because you don’t see the results doesn’t mean I’m not writing. And even when I’m not writing, it doesn’t mean I’m not turning things over in my mind, plotting and planning, getting creative in different ways.

You didn’t think you could get rid of me that easily, did you?

 

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It is an exciting day here in Expat Land: we’re madly flapping our wings for take-off, determined to catch the wind currents, achieve flight and soar.

‘What’s with the flight metaphors?’ you ask. ‘They’re flying left and right.’

Heh heh.

Today marks the book launch of the second edition of Forced to Fly: An Anthology of Writings That Will Make You See the Funny Side of Living Abroad (Jo Parfitt, editor & publisher, Summertime Publishing, 2012).

This is no simple reprint; the immensely popular book of humorous stories of expats traveling far and wide, finding themselves in exotic (and not-so-exotic) faraway lands and ridiculous situations has been updated considerably.

Sure, the same great stories and suggestions for making it through those tough transition days that made this book a hit the first time around are all still there.

The tales of culture shock, culture clash, overwhelming change, figuring out who you are when most elements of your identity (family, friends, work, language, activities, community, culture) have been stripped away, creative fixes and innovative workarounds, eventual adjustment, simply trying to make it day by day, and repatriation will amuse and delight you.

Some will have you laughing uproariously, and others will also tug at your heartstrings and have you nodding in empathy.

Now Jo’s brought Forced to Fly firmly into the 21st century with a chapter on the importance of emotional resilience in expat life (woman after my own heart) as well as twenty more amusing stories from authors, writers and bloggers who’ve been there, done that and lived to tell the tale(s).

Yours Truly is over the moon to join the ranks of such luminaries as Apple Gidley (Expat Apple), Jack Scott (Perking the Pansies), Deb Fletcher (Bitten by Spain), Wordgeyser, Niamh Ni Bhroin (The Singing Warrior), and many others in contributing to this book.

The ultimate ‘expert expat’, Robin Pascoe, graciously provides the foreword. I could blabber and gush and make a complete fool of myself over Robin Pascoe, so let’s just say I’ve read five of her highly regarded books on making your way in expatriate life and leave it at that.

I’m in very fine company indeed, wowed beyond words.

(Well, not for long. You know me.)

Earlier this week I had a fun conversation with fellow contributor and friend Maria Foley of I Was an Expat Wife. We chatted about finding the hilarity in expat life, writing humor and how laughter can keep you moving forward.

And yes, we laughed almost the entire conversation.

I’m in the midst of a technical snafu, but posting difficulties will be overcome and I’ll share Maria’s words of wisdom ASAP. In the meantime, why not wander over to her site and see what we were up to?

And by all means, please check out Forced to Fly: An Anthology of Writings That Will Make You See the Funny Side of Living Abroad. You can find it at Jo’s Expat Bookshelf and Amazon (paperback and Kindle).

Here’s the trailer, complete with a song written especially for the occasion by Niamh Ni Bhroin.

 

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She’s Baaack

When the doorbell rang late Sunday afternoon, it took a moment to register in my brain.

Lounging lazily in the family room with my feet propped up on the coffee table and the Sunday Times Culture magazine section spread across my lap, I suddenly felt my shoulders tense and the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

‘Uh oh,’ I muttered under my breath as I tossed the newspaper aside and stood up. ‘D@mn…’

The Dutch rijtjeshuis we call home in the middle of our quiet, one-block street rarely gets all that many unexpected visitors.

If it’s midday during the week, the chime of the doorbell usually signifies a delivery package to be held for one of our neighbors; similarly, if it’s a weekday early evening, it’s likely someone collecting for the latest Dutch charitable foundation or overseas humanitarian crisis.

But a Sunday afternoon?

That could only mean one thing: Catarina was back.

Now many of you know Catarina as my darling nine-year old Dutch neighbor who has given me many wonderful moments in our 3+ years living here. I close my eyes and can see her wide smile, head cocked to the side and eyes squinting in the dappled sunlight weaving its way through the leafy coverage of our tree-lined street.

She always rushes to greet me, pulling on my arm while her Dutch words tumble out, telling me the latest in games, friends or school projects.

She is such a happy, easygoing child, unembarrassed to be seen talking to a middle-aged American woman. She is friendly and outgoing, and I love being pulled into her world, into the creative mind of a child.

My (adult) friend Nicky – yes, I do have friends my own age – always says that if she were reincarnated she would want to come back as a Dutch child, and I can see why. Catarina is a poster child for that belief.

As I explained in Learning the Language? Child’s Play, my intermediate language skills are well-suited to conversation at the 8-12 year old level. I understand most of the vocabulary, the sentence construction and verb tenses aren’t overwhelming, and they tend to speak at a pace reasonable enough that I can keep up.

But as I’ve written in the first two installments of this trilogy (An International Trade Rep’s Got Nothing on Her and Head of Delegation Written All Over Her), there is a darker, more sinister side to Catarina that has me shaking in my boots.

Is she mean? Of course not.

Angry? Never.

Rude? Perish the thought.

Demanding? Well, not really.

Let’s just say she is very persuasive, what with that sweet smile and the head tilt/squinty eyes/innocent face thing going on.

It’s just that she gets a little…possessed caught up in the excitement of collecting and trading the promotional freebie of the moment.

Sort of like a junkie, desperate for the next hit, the next fix, the next score.

[Note to self: better lay off the late night crime shows…]

She’s always pleasant but politely insistent.

I can’t blame her: after all, there is much at stake. And with her entrepreneurial mind, the wheels are always spinning. This time the Albert Heijn giveaway features animal cards.

‘Ze zijn super dierenkaarten!’ she exclaimed breathlessly as I opened the door. Oh dear, no semblance of the usual pleasantries and polite greeting, just straight to the point.

This was serious. She was caught up in the thrill of the hunt, and she had it bad.

But that’s how we peeps roll, her just blurting out the treasure in the grocery store’s latest giveaway promotion, me instinctively understanding just how AMAZING super animal cards are without having a clue what they even look like.

She knows me. I’m her loyal lieutenant, someone she can depend on to come up with the goods. I’ve got her back.

‘Heeft u gedaan de boodschapen nog?’ she asked, eyes gleaming with excitement. ‘Moet u naar Albert Heijn?’

Patiently I explained that I’d done the grocery shopping the day before so no need for a trip to Albert Heijn. The crestfallen look on her face was like a knife in my heart.

‘Oke, misschien morgen?’

‘Ja, ik denk zo,’ I replied, making a mental note to be sure to go shopping the next day.

The famously furrowed brow softened slightly, and she turned away, tossing a heartfelt ‘Bedankt’ and a half-smile over her shoulder.

Catarina took two steps and suddenly swiveled around.

‘Vergeet niet om ze in de brievenbus!’ Her instructions to put any dierenkaarten immediately in the mail slot rang out as she ran off.

As if I could forget.

I know what I’m up against. She is a formidable presence, a force of nature.

Her obsession is nothing short of intimidating. The pressure is intense, the stress excruciating.

I couldn’t leave too much time between grocery trips or she’d be on my doorstep in a heartbeat. Sure, she’d inquire in that sweet voice of hers, but her disappointment if I failed her would sear into my soul.

As I slowly closed the door and headed back to the family room, an idea came to me.

No more amateurish attempts to duck behind cars to avoid her on the street or hide behind the curtains, quaking with fear, if I were remiss in my efforts to score the valuable trading cards.

Not because I am a grown woman, but because this time I would be prepared. I’d have a plan.

Since you receive one animal card for every 10 Euros spent on groceries, all I needed to do was ensure that I didn’t ‘leave money on the table’.

If my grocery tab looked like it would hit 16 Euros, I’d simply grab a bottle of wine to round it up to 20 Euros and nail a second kaartje.

Similarly, if the bill was headed toward 12 or 23 or 31 Euros, time to put back an item or two until the next visit.

More importantly, every afternoon I would place a card in Catarina’s mail slot.

Every. afternoon.

Like clockwork.

By doling out the kaartjes one by one, I’d be covered even on days when I hadn’t shopped, and she would be none the wiser.

Sheer brilliance!

Flush with the confidence that comes with a well thought out plan of attack, I smiled. I was secure in the knowledge that I had resumed the upper hand in our relationship, or at least some semblance of balance.

That is, so long as she doesn’t find fault with the pace of my deliveries…

 

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You know the old adage ‘two heads are better than one’?

Well, during the summer when I learned that Evelyn Simpson (aka The Smart Expat) and Louise Wiles (aka Success Abroad Coaching) were joining forces to conduct the Career Choice & Accompanying Partner Survey, I knew this dynamic duo would be a formidable combination.

I’m a fan of both of these women and already follow their individual sites, and now I’m eagerly tracking their new joint business site, www.AccompanyingPartner.com, as well.

Depending on the source, 50-60% of all those in international assignments have partners. The majority of these partners want to continue working when they move overseas. Often they know little of the myriad obstacles and challenges that make it difficult to do so.

In carrying out this groundbreaking project, Evelyn and Louise surveyed more than 300 accompanying partners in 59 countries around the world, exploring the decisions these partners make in relation to their own career choices when they relocate to accompany their partners in an international assignment.

Both women are highly qualified, well regarded professional entrepreneurs. They share a passion for coaching and working with accompanying partners as they take on the challenges of adaptation and relocation to their new lives abroad.

Equally as important? Both Evelyn and Louise are seasoned accompanying partners with a total of over 40 years of expat experience between them.

They know what it’s like to leave behind careers in other fields to support their spouses in overseas assignments.

They’ve done the tough yet necessary business of relocating a family and helping all members settle in during the expat transition cycle.

They’ve each gone back to school for the necessary coursework, training and accreditation, and successfully launched new careers for themselves.

With this endeavor they combine all of their talents, skills, training, experience and know-how to help create change that will benefit others who find themselves in the similar situation of accompanying partner.

I for one am thrilled that they conducted the survey and have put together this highly effective report.

By focusing on the wants, needs, challenges and opportunities of the relocating partner in general and career development and employment options in particular, this survey report goes a long way toward helping address the issues that can make or break an overseas assignment.

The extensive survey draws several important conclusions, which Evelyn and Louise share here:

The majority of accompanying partners do want to work in some form whilst on assignment and this makes the challenge of recruitment and retention of employees who are a part of a dual career couple very real and relevant to organisations.

There are some very real obstacles for accompanying partners to working whilst abroad in addition to the well documented and recognised challenge of work permits. Understanding these obstacles will help employers to target the resources that they use to support accompanying partners in a more effective and therefore cost efficient way.

Assuming that partners are happy in their supporting role is not always valid. Whether accompanying partners do not work due to circumstance or choice it may have a negative impact on their level of assignment fulfillment.

Accompanying partners require support in helping them to identify purpose and meaning in their assignment experience regardless of their ability or desire to work.

I’ve read the entire report and find it accurate, thorough and comprehensive. Evelyn and Louise have done their homework (pun intended), and have conducted a thoughtful and indepth analysis of the data provided in their survey results.

Perhaps the most important point made (with plenty of data to back it up) is this:

Instead of seeing accompanying partners as an additional cost and a difficult issue, the study proposes that partners be seen as an asset in the relocation process.

You have no idea how refreshing that simple statement is.

Just how invaluable is this report?

Image of Forum for Expatriate Management EMMA Shortlist Nominees 2012 at Adventures in Expat LandConsider this: it has already been shortlisted by the Forum for Expatriate Management for the European EMMA 2012 Awards in the category of ‘Thought Leadership’.

If you’re a current or aspiring expat, global nomad or international/transnational employee or partner (or know someone who is), you’ll want to check out the free summary report of the survey findings and Louise and Evelyn’s insights and assessments.

You can do so by clicking on this link Career Choice & Accompanying Partner Survey; you’ll receive the 13-page summary report as well as informative news updates on developments in these issues of interest.

If you’re a Human Resource professional, talent recruiter, global relocation and mobility specialist, cross-cultural or expat coach or consultant providing services to the expatriate community, by all means purchase the full report.

Ingest every word, put your thinking cap on and ask yourself how you can take immediate action that will enhance the satisfaction and well being of the people you serve.

It’s not only good business, it’s a smart strategy that will reap benefits for your employees, customers or clients, and just as importantly, for their families.

 

 

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World Gratitude Day 2012

Glancing at headlines in the news yesterday, one in particular caught my eye. It seems today, September 21st, is World Gratitude Day.

Image of earth by Idea go (portfolio 809) on www.adventuresinexpatland.com

The seed of an idea planted in 1965 has grown and taken on a life of its own over the past five decades.

It seemed rather fortuitous that the concept of gratitude was raised since I was in the middle of writing on the benefits of positive psychology (also referred to as learned optimism).

The premise of positive psychology is simple: go beyond traditional forms of psychology which focus on alleviating suffering and treating mental illness to take a more proactive approach to improve the human condition.

Or, as I like to think of it, an emphasis on prevention (beefing up the positive) rather than or in addition to treatment (diminishing the negative).

Positive psychology seeks to enhance daily life and help build thriving individuals, families and communities through scientific understanding of and effective interventions to encourage well-being.

Personal growth and flourishing through affirmative thoughts and actions. Thriving rather than simply surviving.

Now before you start thinking that positive psychology is simply a bunch of new-age psycho-babble about hugs and kisses and rainbows and cuddly kittens, bear with me.

Thanks in large part to the pioneering work of Martin Selgiman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, positive psychology has come to play an important role in maintaining our emotional health. It’s an evidence-based discipline with significant research to back it up; it’s centered on positive emotions, traits and institutions.

To practice gratitude is to make the effort not only to recognize and be thankful for positive aspects of our lives but also appreciate their presence. It’s a method to help us develop, project and reinforce an optimistic view of current and future events and an upbeat presentation. Gratitude is only one of many such methods, but a powerful one nonetheless.

Positive psychology in general, and gratitude in particular, both contribute to our personal reserves of emotional resilience.

Emotional resilience is the psychological ability to weather whatever life throws at us – all the negative stuff, the tough challenges, even the worst we can imagine – while maintaining or eventually working our way back to a sense of feeling good about ourselves.

I happened to be looking at the benefits of positivity to an individual: in other words, why you and I reap the rewards of practicing gratitude and related conventions. Yet Seligman and other positive psychologists believe you can extrapolate the benefits beyond the individual to the family unit and the broader community.

So why not the world?

It certainly isn’t easy.

Expressing appreciation for the good that exists on a global level is challenging on the best of days when there is so much conflict and strife, so many in need. It has become even more difficult in recent days when the clash of cultures in terms of individual rights and religious convictions have turned threatening and violent.

A cyber friend of mine who is Muslim wondered whether the effort to differentiate between moderates and radicals had simply become ‘Muslim white noise’ to non-Muslims.*

I’ve been pondering how you convince others that people speaking, writing and filming foolish and offensive things does not equate to agreement by those who lament the insulting nature of the discourse but staunchly support their right to spew it, an abstract thought to someone not raised in a society in which speech is an inalienable cornerstone of individual and collective freedoms.

If you work feeding the hungry, housing those without shelter, teaching the uneducated, reuniting the disposed, helping those without a voice, it can get pretty grueling dealing with the emotional fallout day after day.

And that is precisely why we need a day dedicated to gratitude on an international scale.

If as individual voices, groups and governments we’re going to keep trying to deal with all of the $h!t that is flying around without throwing up our hands in despair, if we’re to make headway in improving the human condition, if we’re to shift the dialogue from anger to engagement, we need emotional resilience.

Collective emotional resilience on a grand scale.

Have a look at the words of Edna Lemle as she recognized the accomplishments of Sri Chinmoy, head of the UN Meditation Group and recognized founder of World Gratitude Day at a UN ceremony back in 1977:

WHEREAS, words of praise and positive thoughts generate dynamic harmony, and

WHEREAS, decisions made from a grateful heart are endowed with intrinsic wisdom and engender prosperity; and

WHEREAS, gratitude, the opposite of “taking for granted,” is a positive emotion which generates good will, is a basic emotion which is indigenous to all people, is a peace-engendering feeling;

AND WHEREAS, September 21 is a special day. It is an equinox: one of the two times of the year when the sun passes over the equator and night and day are everywhere of equal length and everyone is equal under the sun;

THEREFORE let us proclaim World Gratitude Day, a holiday for all peoples, a day of meditation for all religions, a day of celebration for all humanity, united by knowledge of simultaneously shared emotion, a day when triumph of the spirit can make a world community.’

World Gratitude Day offers a reminder that sometimes we need to dig deep and recall all that we have to be thankful for on a global level so that we can get up tomorrow and keep working on all that remains to be done.

*Updated 26 Sept 2012 to reflect Aisha Ashraf’s great article ‘The Truth About Islam’ on Expatlogue.com

[Image credit: Idea go, portfolio 809, freedigitalphotos.net]

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Last month I mentioned that I was catching up on reading in the broad genre of expat life stories.

At the time I was hopping between four distinctly different books: a memoir sharing insights and experience for those considering a mid-life move abroad, another about the journey back from the dark side of depression, still another filled with sweeping stories of an author enthralled with a certain Spanish city, and an Adult Third Culture Kid’s (TCK) saga  of multigenerational expatriation (see Riveting Expat Reads: Expat Alien by Kathleen Gamble).

No sooner had I finished these four – and yes, I’ll be writing about the other three in the coming days – when five more promptly took their place.

I share this not to impress you with my reading prowess. It’s actually rather pitiful if truth be told, consisting mainly of stolen moments throughout the day: while morning coffee brews, a laundry cycle completes, dinner simmers or waiting in various parking lots for Daughter’s activities to finish. 

I am nothing if not the Queen of the ten-minute interval.

I share this to highlight the good news of how varied this rapidly growing niche has become. There has been a slow but steadily growing upsurge in books written by and for expats/global nomads/TCKs which examine life lived cross-culturally. 

Today I want to showcase a book published earlier this week which holds special meaning for me: Catherine Transler’s Turning International: How to Find Happiness and Feel at Home in a New Culture.

Why is this book important to me?

Several reasons.

Earlier in the year I was doing research on my own book on emotional resilience in expat life when I came across Catherine’s website ExpatScience.com

A PhD and researcher in developmental, cross-cultural psychology, Catherine had finished a manuscript on the psychological and neuroscientific underpinnings of many of the emotions and behaviors associated with the expatriate experience.

Not surprisingly, she, too, emphasizes the impact of differing cultures and building resilience.

However, editing had taken a back seat upon her dismaying diagnosis and subsequent treatment of cancer.

While differing in format, approach, style and some content, our books do share many issues and concepts, and I couldn’t wait to discuss these with Catherine and learn her views.  She graciously shared her draft, eager for any feedback and suggestions I might have.

With Catherine living only 40 minutes away in Rotterdam, early spring saw us meeting at a cafe there for a lively discussion on an array of topics. 

Over cups of verse munt thee we traded stories on moving abroad, expat life in the Netherlands, what went right and what didn’t, parenting. As authors we commiserated on the extended timeframe for non-fiction writing projects of this sort.

She mentioned feedback she’d received, I shared my perspective and together we tossed about ideas and possible ways to incorporate them in the ongoing editing.

In short, it was the quintessential expat experience. We didn’t let a little detail like not knowing each other stand in the way of beginning a conversation that I look forward to continuing in the months and years ahead.

Now that Turning International has been published (available in paperback at Lulu.com here and on Amazon here, and soon to be in ebook form), it’s time to celebrate this amazing milestone with Catherine.

When someone decides to pick up and move abroad, they tend to have a sense of the many opportunities that await them: enriching experiences, personal growth, the chance to travel and possibly learn a new language, broadened perspectives, enhanced cultural understanding.

But challenges exist as well, and Turning International outlines and explains them with great clarity: discomfort with transitions, questions of identity and belonging, feelings of loneliness, social isolation and alienation, missing the familiar, longing for people and places in one’s past, figuring out how to fit in. 

The book is a thoughtful mix of key psychological concepts relevant to these challenges, comments and experiences shared by other expats, and French-born Catherine’s refreshingly candid insights into her own struggles to make a new life in a foreign country.

In her case, that came  with a newborn baby, fewer options for maintaining her emotionally and financially rewarding career, lack of familiarity with the language and a marriage going down the tubes.

In succinct language that helps make complex concepts easy to understand, Catherine explains the ‘chemistry’ of loneliness, process of acculturation, physiological basis for anxiety and other negative feelings we might posses when living in a culture other than our own.

She also addresses how to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty, language struggles and perhaps above all, the need to reach out to others.

If there is an overarching theme to Turning International, to me it is the benefits of connectedness: by widening our support networks we are more likely to find emotional, social and physical wellbeing.  

Catherine doesn’t neglect our own internal resilience, including an array of methods useful in dealing with stress and challenging situations such as meditation, mindfulness, visualization, exercise and relaxation techniques.

Her chapter ‘Cultural Differences in Values and Attitudes Across Societies’, based on the pioneering work of Dutchman Geert Hofstede, goes far in illuminating how great a role our previous cultural experience plays in our perceptions of subsequent cultures in which we may find ourselves. 

Understanding where our base culture falls on the continuum for each of five pairs of cultural diversity factors as compared to the culture in which we currently reside is particularly insightful.

Finding Turning International a book with much to offer both the new and seasoned expat alike, I offered to write a short review for inclusion on the inside cover. It is a testament to Catherine’s generous spirit that she not only used a shortened version as a back cover blurb but also mentioned me in the Acknowledgements.

Small wonder that she is also donating half the profits from sales of Turning International to Kiva.org for ‘loans that change lives’ by creating opportunities and alleviating poverty.

 

 

 

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If Ever A Need for Resilience

I swear, I wasn’t going to write today.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s how I started my last post, written two days ago.

I’ve got several posts lined up in my mind, generally upbeat topics and interesting things I’d like to share with you, and I thought I’d get to one of them later this week.

In the meantime I’ve been keeping up with Dutch elections. Voters went to the polls yesterday to express their views toward creation of a new coalition government, with important implications not only for the Netherlands but also for the future of the European Union and Euro Zone.

I’ve also been lamenting the sorry state of affairs in the Middle East, but that’s another story.

I’ve even managed to squeeze in some work on my book; it’s going slower than I’d like, but progressing nonetheless.

While focusing on reading, writing and doing some research these past two days, the theme of gratitude has been on my mind.

You know how you read an article about a topic, and catch a snippet of the same issue in a blog post, on the radio or in the news? It seems to be everywhere, in part because you’ve opened up yourself to being receptive to that subject. Your antennae are poised.

Yet there’s no denying that it also feels as if the universe is trying to tell you something. All things considered, I think gratitude is a pretty good message to have reinforced, from cosmic messengers or otherwise.

So I was puttering along with gratitude and emotional resilience on my mind when I got the equivalent of a karmic bitch slap upside the head.

Let me digress.

In my extended visit ‘back home’ this past summer, much time was spent catching up with a lot of family and friends. Much of the time the news was upbeat; sometimes it was up and down (my father’s situation), and sometimes downright difficult (visiting my friend suffering from a cancerous brain tumor).

Yet even in the midst of the darkest moments, the flame of resilience continued to burn. The concept of gratitude for life’s blessings was present as well.

However, during a relaxing lunch with a former neighbor, I was stunned to learn of a heartrending scandal (no other word to describe it) that had rocked the neighborhood since we’d left more than three years ago, one involving our former next-door neighbors and another family.

No need to go into seedy detail, suffice it to say that it involved adultery, a very public lawsuit about a sexually transmitted disease, two marriages in tatters and two families ripped apart.

I’m not writing this to share salacious gossip or cast stones. I’m not assigning blame or passing judgment. I don’t believe it’s my (or anyone else’s) place to do so; it is my belief that a higher order (in my case, God) will sort all that out and he/it doesn’t need my help.

I couldn’t help but be surprised and deeply saddened by the turn of events. These were nice people, good people (well, 3 of the 4 at least, I’ve never liked the fourth, and let’s just say he appears to have been showing his true colors in all of this).

These weren’t some unknown people caught in the news with tawdry headlines, they were people I have known and liked (Mr. Fourth notwithstanding), people I care about. I felt for their pain and shame and humiliation.

Above all, I felt incredibly sad for the children involved: six innocent children, undeserving of the grievous pain and embarrassment served on them. Their lives upended, torn apart, because of the actions of the people they loved most.

None of them live there anymore, they’ve all moved away.

This isn’t the sort of news that you hear once and forget. It remains tucked in the back of your mind, periodically coming out whenever you are reminded of someone involved. I especially think of the children from time to time, wonder how they are doing, whether they are coping.

In the year before we moved (and so a little more than a year before decisions were taken that irrevocably propelled them all down a path that I daresay each regrets), my next door neighbor was almost killed in a freak accident when another woman ran a red light at high speed. Miraculously my neighbor was barely injured.

We didn’t usually hang out together much, but I remember her ringing my doorbell one day, eager to take a walk and talk about the accident. She was shaken, a jumble of conflicting thoughts and emotions. She was still stiff and sore and dazed in the way only a person who has truly cheated death can be. She expressed concern for the other driver, critically injured and near death in a nearby hospital.

Above all else, I remember her being immensely grateful: for having survived, for being given another chance at life, for more time with her husband and children.

How could twelve+ months have changed everything so much?

It’s not as if this sort of thing doesn’t happen everywhere, because it does.

It happens whether you spend your life as a global nomad, serially wandering from one exotic locale (or hellhole, depending on your perspective) to the next. It also happens, in the case of my former neighbors, when you stay put all your adult life.

Expat life is rife with stories of wayward spouses, marriages cracking under the strains of constantly moving and living in different cultures. My mind immediately goes to the softspoken woman whose husband chose to dump her by moving on to his next assignment without her or their daughter, then sealed the deal by moving in with a young woman half his age.

Or to the family that was here one day and suddenly gone, repatriated when the marriage collapsed and the wife and children no longer had visas. Or a particularly messy breakup played out publicly in the halls and grounds of one of the local international schools.

This morning, as I occasionally do, I popped online to check out the local newspaper from where we used to live. Headlines exploded amid allegations of potential wrongdoing in the workplace.

Another neighbor (seems the neighborhood was such a hotbed of activity, who knew?), having dumped his wife and mother of his children sometime after we had moved, now forced to resign his prominent position and under investigation for alledged improprieties regarding work-related travel with his well-known girlfriend.

Another household torn apart, four more children waking up to the latest in what has likely already been a series of emotionally painful and now highly embarrassing developments.

So many adults who lost sight of gratitude. So many children, vulnerable, struggling to make sense of their world, hoping for the pain to ease, in desperate need of emotional resilience.

Emotional resilience is more than simply surviving whatever life throws at you: it also includes maintaining or returning to a healthy, positive view of oneself, during or after the turmoil.

I can only hope that these children (the adults too, for that matter) find their way back, sooner rather than later.

 

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We Endure

I had not planned to write today.

As the day approached, I felt a gentle shroud of melancholy descend and wrap around my shoulders like a soft caress.

I had a prodPurple-blue hydrangeas on www.adventuresinexpatland.comuctive day yesterday, one in which I not only made good progress on a project, but also laid the groundwork for two new ones. One personal, one professional.

I went to sleep last night pleased with my efforts and content in the knowledge that I am moving forward.

Today dawned cool and rainy, another Dutch autumn day. Yet it’s felt anything but ordinary.

For me, it can never be ordinary.

Pink hydrangeas on Adventures in Expat Land

(Broken Shards and Let the (Re)Building Begin help explain why. I haven’t within me this year the residual anger of last year 9/11 Cultural Insensitivity 101.)

 

 

I don’t wish to hide away, I merely desire solitude.

Time for reflection. Remembrance. Loss, and grief.

I wished a friend ‘Happy Birthday’. It’s his 50th, a major milestone to be acknowledged and feted. I remember a few years ago his quietly telling me that September 11th was his birthday, how it had always been an ordinary day for others, but a special day for his family and him.

Until it wasn’t anymore. Until it changed.

He is a sensitive soul (I think he wouldn’t mind my saying that), and so his words were neither angry nor indignant, but gentle and understanding.

It was, and then, it wasn’t.

He deserves a wonderful birthday, full of celebration. And I told him so.

He deserves to have his lovely wife and beautiful daughters gather around him, mark his day with love and laughter.

I don’t know when the tears started to fall. They took me by surprise, first a lone teardrop slowly tracing its way down my cheek.

It was joined by another, and another, so many I’ve lost count.

I wasn’t expecting them. They don’t always come, perhaps because I’ve spent so long with them bottled up.

I suppose I’ve willed them to remain inside, out of embarrassment that I, here today, writing this, should have the privilege of shedding tears when so many cannot.

Sometimes I cannot fathom how far away I am from that day, how much my life has changed. It was two houses ago, two towns ago, two sets of friends and community and daily happenings ago.

A different country, different profession.

It’s still not a topic I feel comfortable writing about. I don’t know how to explain it except to say that it feels too sacred. Too holy.

But writing requires throwing open the doors to our soul, being open. Creativity demands honesty. Vulnerability. Even when it’s painful or isn’t pretty.

You can’t create positive works of beauty and light when you have a deep pain hidden away within you.

Eventually it demands to be recognized. Then acknowledged. And finally, accepted.

The rain stopped hours ago, the temperature has risen and it is now a brilliantly sunny day. The tears have dried although the melancholy lingers.

Shortly I will go to watch Daughter play soccer. It usually gives me joy to do so because it gives her great joy to play.

There is a beauty in her strength, an artistry in her movement.

It will not give me joy today, but it will give me comfort.

It is a different life now. But I have been marked all the same.

 

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Creative Spark

I must confess that it still astounds me how, in this day and age and in the comfort of my own home here in the Netherlands, internet connectivity and the various social media venues it has spawned allow me to maintain contact with friends and family and build associations with others.

Like the old Bell telephone ad campaign showed us, it’s never been easier to ‘reach out and touch someone’.

Except how often do we do it by phone anymore? Not when we can text or email or interact via social media.

You want to realize the power of internet connectivity?

Consider this: I am able to Skype with my elderly parents who aren’t on social media sites; get news highlights, touch base with fellow writers around the globe, and reconnect with a different cousin on Twitter; grow a professional presence while seeing what my aunt is up to on LinkedIn; marvel at the ultrasound pictures of my niece’s first baby, ‘chat’ for a moment or two on the odd occasion I can catch either Son at college or my nephew currently deployed in Afghanistan, see the photos of the latter’s growing little girl posted by his wife, and stay in touch with my siblings privately on family matters – all on Facebook.

The access to information of all sorts offered by global connectivity is staggering. Want to know something, anything? Simply type in a few letters and check a search engine.

‘Look it up in the encyclopedia or dictionary’ was the usual response when someone would ask a question in my parents’ generation.

Nowadays the answer has changed to ‘Google it’. Encyclopedias themselves are online,  joined by gazillions of pieces of other information and trivia.

Yes, gazillions is a technical term for ‘lots and lots’. Google it if you don’t believe me.

Instantaneous access to news and information can’t help but stretch our minds, widen our vistas and broaden our perspectives.

How did I happen to get on this roll? It all began so innocently earlier today. I was over on Facebook, sipping my koffie and catching up.

I read about a North Carolina friend and teacher’s jam-packed, exhaustingly productive day; caught an inspirational quote from my cousin in South Carolina; saw the latest paintings from a relative in upstate New York; checked in on the progress of Matt Krause now six days into his eight month walk across Turkey; learned how very different Matt’s breakfast was from the more whimsical one shared by an expat friend and well regarded marketing coach for entrepreneurs; and learned the latest on the burgeoning musical career in London of another friend’s extremely talented lead singer/songwriter rocker chick daughter.

That was all before I saw new family photos from one fellow writer/blogger, ace alliterator and cyber friend in Canada, and the latest post from another.

The latter woman is someone I’ve come to know fairly well. For some time we were both part of a four-way monthly virtual blog from the four corner of the earth (quite literally: Japan, Australia, Canada and here in Nederland).

A few years ago and you couldn’t even have a ‘virtual’ four-way blog!

A fan of each other’s work, we’ve ‘known’ each other for quite some time. We’ve shared work leads and professional contacts. She interviewed me for a magazine article she wrote last year.

We’ve even had a Skype conversation, our updates on current writing projects and potential future collaborations bleeding over into the personal realm of children heading off to university and illness in our respective families.

We were all set to finally ‘meet’ face-to-face when she was here in the Netherlands for a business trip recently, and would have if not for some sudden developments on her end.

How could any of that happen if not for our connected world?!

Nowadays, we share bits and pieces of ourselves, in our writing and online. Never quite the totality of our lives as we might eventually offer in person with family and best friends, but certainly more than with acquaintances and polite strangers.

Over time, more and more of our true selves is revealed, and we see insights into each others lives. We see what moves us, inspires us, the local and global issues and causes that preoccupy us.

Once again, we have technological advances in connectivity to thank. And these interactions with others in our ever-widening circles can’t help but spark creativity as a result.

Creativity in what we observe, what we learn, what we think about and what we do.

Back at Facebook, I scrolled down the screen and clicked on the link offered by yet another talented writer/blogger friend sharing his foray into Vizify, a new social media venue that connects your interactions on other sites such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, etc. and then displays it visually in a ‘graphical bio’.

He and I often share info and thoughts about writing, social media and minimizing time/maximizing connections, so it was with an open mind that I perused his Vizify bio and got a sense of how it all worked before sharing a comment on my initial feedback.

Yes, we have to be vigilant not to spend more time in a cyber world than living in the real world.

I can be awed by photos of Mother Nature’s majesty, but not at the expense of getting out and enjoying the waves crashing on the sandy beach of the North Sea or the softly filtered light that inspired some of the greatest painters of all time.

But once again I was taken aback by the sheer innovation and creative genius of visionaries such as the creators of endeavors such as Vizify, apps, products, websites.

Cutting edge today, possibly gone tomorrow. Or gone mainstream, used by millions. (Gazillions if they’re really lucky.)

Who knows how the roll of the dice will turn out? I just love the entrepreneurial and inventive spirit, seeing what people are thinking, working on, dreaming of.

Then I happened on the little gem below, tagged by a dear friend of a few decades years.

She herself is one of the most creative people I know: adept at design, fashion, art, writing (a children’s book published in Germany), philanthropy (founding a local charity, fantastic at fundraising), community activism and various other forms of culture.

In her ever-evolving entrepreneurial artistic life, this imaginative and talented painter of highly sought after oils has expanded into jewelrymaking and a job as the Deputy Director of a new regional art center.

Watch the Netherlands Radio Choir, and I dare you to not feel the tugs of creativity pulling deep within.

My mind is buzzing, the synapses firing on all cylinders and ideas flying.

All it takes is a little spark…

 

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Labor in a Day

Today is the first Monday in September. For many, it’s merely the start of yet another work week.

Whatever ‘work’ means for you.

Getting the children off to school before running a long list of errands and volunteering in the classroom. Pulling into the factory parking lot with a double shift ahead.

photo by Ambros of office workers in a meeting at Adventures in Expat LandTrading stories at the corporate water cooler of weekend highlights (or ennui, if you’ve nothing of interest to share) before the morning staff meeting.

Numbers to crunch, factors to consider, decisions to make.

Tackling those loads of laundry that have piled up, taking the dog to the vet, calling the plumber about the leaky toilet tank.

Opening up shop, doing the inventory, ordering new products, ringing up sales. Shelves to stock, orders to place, telephones and emails to answer. Vendors peddling their wares.

Preparing your lecture, grading papers, planning a field trip. Finishing hospital rounds, poring over X-rays, monitoring vital signs in the neo-natal ward, administering anesthesia in the first surgery of the day.

A big rig to drive across country, jets to refuel, bus routes to follow, taxi fares to pick up. Ground to till, vegetables to gather, crops to water. A house to frame, drywall to put up, roofing materials to order.

Consultations, meetings, appointments, exhibits, presentations, assignments, sales targets, objectives, strategic planning, start-ups.

I’m sitting here typing but my mind is six hours and some 3,900 miles west.

Different country, different work culture.

Today Americans will awake to Labor Day.

A national holiday to commemorate the economic and social contributions of workers and employees across the US, Labor Day has come to represent different things to different people.

Industries, organized labor and trade unions celebrate the victories of met goals and contracts negotiated, and lament the losses in membership and representation. Economic indicators remain dour, unemployment remains high: millions still out of work, others fearful they’ll be next.

At the same time, the majority of Americans will wake up to enjoy a day off. Plans loom for a picnic or backyard barbeque, grilled burgers and cold beer, watermelon and potatoe salad and ice cream, a dip in the pool, waving flags and listening to the marching band at the local parade.

For students, it’s the last hurrah as the remaining school districts begin the school year bright and early tomorrow morning. Those who have already returned to the classroom welcome a day to sleep in and get caught up.

It’s the end of the season, the demarcation between hot weather, summer camps and the annual vacation, and cooler temperatures, shortening daylight and leaves falling.

After today the door has slammed on wearing white, unless you’re fashion forward enough to do so deliberately and in a cheeky, ironic manner. Otherwise you’ll simply be seen as having committed a runway faux pas or (worse yet, gasp!) dreadfully out of date.

As I reflect on the meaning and nature of work, I’m mindful of deadlines looming: an article and a blog post to be written today, a review this afternoon, an extensive conference application later this week. Not to mention more chapters in my book that need considerable work, pages to edit, references to include.

And let’s not forget the mandatory school meeting late this afternoon and required paperwork to submit.

How I labor today is very different than it was two or five or fifteen years ago. It’s me, my laptop and my mind, limited only by my imagination and creativity.

The writing projects are of my decision and design, the goals self-set, the deadlines (well, many of them) self-inflicted. It’s creative and demanding and scary and exhilarating all at once.

As I sit here in The Hague organizing my ‘to do’ list, outlining the day’s chapter and checking facts, sunlight streams through the sheer white curtains of the open French doors. If I listen carefully I can make out the joyful sounds of Dutch children playing at recess in the elementary school a block away.

Beyond the school are the roads and intersections leading elsewhere, tall office buildings full of workers like Husband doing what they do, avenues and tram lines to the city center with its Dutch ministeries and foreign embassies, international organizations and local businesses, boutiques and department stores.

I am one bee in the industrial hive of business and commerce, laboring away.

I like where I live, I enjoy the culture in which I find myself, I am energized by what I do.

And yet I cannot help but wish I were several time zones earlier, turning over in my sleep, content in the subconscious knowledge that today is a glorious opportunity for one more day of relaxation and respite before facing the world.

Labor Day.

[Image credit: ambro, portfolio 1499, freedigitalphotos.com]

 

 

 

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