Table for One

How moving abroad can be a fast-track to something we all need to learn: how to be alone

A couple of months ago I took myself to see La La Land. I strolled, on a picturesque winter’s day over the hill to Hampstead’s small independent cinema. ‘Just one ticket?’ the clerk wondered. Indeed. I asked myself if I’d like popcorn, I replied, ‘yes please!’ and then me, myself and I stretched out on one of the theatre’s velvet sofas, put our feet up and proceeded to laugh and cry and snack with abandon. Continue reading

Taken for Immigrant-ed

Immigration is a hot-button issue at the moment, so I think it’s time for an important re-labelling. ‘Expatriate’ may sound glamourous in a Lost Generation sort of way, but really it is just a euphemism for ‘immigrant’ – in fact, the dictionary entries for the two words are nearly identical, with some variation on length of stay. Expat seems to be a more temporary state: someone who goes to another country, works, creates, lives and takes their earnings home eventually. ‘Immigrant’ implies a more permanent move: a person who leaves one country and commits himself fully to a new one without plans to leave, therefore stimulating the new economy long-term and making lasting cultural contributions. Surely the latter is more favourable than the former, but immigrant remains a dirty word, expat an exciting one. What is more telling is the example sentences given for each in the dictionary: “they found it difficult to expel illegal immigrants” and “American expatriates in London.” Expats are privileged westerners moving to another country in search of adventure or culture. Immigrants are ethnic minorities looking for opportunity or often fleeing danger in their home countries. In the current xenophobic political climate it is too problematic to continue to use the whitewashed term ‘expat’. Call me an immigrant. And let it be known that other immigrants have as much a right to be here (or there, or wherever) as someone whose Syrian background is much less obvious.

So in this month’s installation let me take you instead to Immigrant Green Tea Club, a foreign culture within a foreign culture I found hiding in the privileged enclave of Hampstead, Northwest London.

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Plane sailing

I love flying and always have. Yet, even in my 24 years, I’ve seen changes to the air travel experience – in security, cost, frequency, comfort, style and most notably, entertainment. A few years ago, there was a spate of articles and nostalgic photo galleries celebrating the ‘golden age’ of airlines (namely the 50s, 60s and 70s) when passengers dressed to the nines, chateaubriand was carted through wide aisles, and brightly patterned seats were arranged spaciously. As an appreciator of all things retro, I find these glamourous images drool-worthy. However, that is not the main reason I lament modern flying. Continue reading

Boas Festas

I write this, cozy in the glow of the Christmas tree in its traditional corner spot of my childhood Florida home, surrounded by dipped shortbread cookies, and sweating in my holiday dress thanks to the warm weather as I have done for many years. Such familiarity is welcome comfort after so much travel and tumult. Yet I find myself thinking of last Christmas, spent in a small seaside village in Portugal…

It was my first Christmas and New Year’s spent abroad and it certainly didn’t disappoint for cultural flavour. I mean this both figuratively and literally. The Portuguese know how to eat any time of the year, and they certainly don’t hold out on Christmas. Roasted chestnuts, king cake, phallic cookies (evidently it’s a symbol of yuletide fertility) and more egg yolks than you can shake a whisk at are the standard order. But the shining jewel in the Christmas menu is, of course, bacalhau, rehydrated slabs of salted cod that form a national culinary creed. There are famously hundreds of ways to prepare it, some unique to December, like the molten mountain cheese-filled pasteis de bacalhau served piping hot from street vendors. On Christmas Eve, my boyfriend Pedro made some for me and my mother, whom he invited to stay for the holidays. His version was boiled in olive oil, then mixed with broccoli, more eggs, breaded and baked. I’m not really doing a great job of selling it with that description, but that’s alright – more for me.

One of my favourite parts about December in Portugal was rehearsing the holiday play at the international school where I volunteered. The theme, appropriately, was Christmas traditions from all over the world. I helped choreograph the dance for the class assigned Australia; it was all surfboards and barbecues. Their sketch was about spending Christmas on the beach – something both I, who had spent all but one Christmas in Hawaii or Florida, and the children living on the coast of Portugal knew a lot about. And indeed, though I have yet to have a white Christmas, I’ve taken my share of Christmas swims. Last year, while others unwrapped presents, Ped and I wrapped ourselves in towels, plunged into the icy ocean at the village’s beach and were warmed back up by the temperate Iberian winter sun.

 

The other common denominator has been my mom – I’m lucky enough to have never spent a Christmas without her. Coming to Portugal was a first for her too, her first international Christmas and her first time meeting Pedro – a brave move for them both, and a huge gift to me.

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And as we all stood watching New Year’s Eve fireworks in the teeming village square, facing the dark, thrashing curtain of the Atlantic, out toward America and home and a different life, I had the sensation, that has before and since sometimes eluded me, of being in exactly the right place.

How To Deal With The Loss Of A Loved One Abroad


angelique-profile-picAngelique:
This year I’ve been hit by a lot of loss. Too often, when a loved one dies, I find myself on the other end of a phone sinking slowly to the floor of a room thousands of miles away from where I feel I should be. Saying goodbye is never easy, whether you’re in the same room or another hemisphere. Modern technology makes it much easier to deal with the latter, certainly. Sea voyagers did not have the option to call home to a sickbed, and often would only find out someone they loved had passed weeks later, upon reaching their destination port. But when you are living far from an elderly loved one or pet what is the best course of action? My childhood cat, Gandalf, developed terminal cancer while I was living in Portugal and I completely panicked, going as far as to fly back in part to see him. I was happy I did, but it still crushed me beyond belief when a month later my parents skyped me in when the time finally came to put it him down.

My grandmother was 89, but ostensibly healthy. As her only living descendant, I gambled each time I went abroad, from 2011-2016. So when she said again ‘this is the last time I’ll ever see you” I just brushed it off with “Oh Nana, you always say this. I promise it won’t be.” But of course, that is a promise you never really can make. If only I had stayed just a few extra days with her that trip. If only I’d woken up a bit earlier on the days I was there to spend more time with her over the morning news, granola and defrosted blueberries…

Phone calls are a great way to close the distance for a few minutes. And though I called my Nana nearly every day, I still feel immense guilt that the week she died I was busy and called less, and even stronger guilt that I wasn’t with her when she went. The life I have envisioned for myself is one abroad. But it comes with a big fear of being far from my family, in times of joy and vivacity, in times of need and worst of all, during final moments. I returned home in August; why fly back for a funeral when you can fly back to spend precious time with someone while they are living?  Is it selfish to leave at all knowing your time with people is limited, or must you not let things get in the way of forging your own path? Have you ever been held back from travelling by an elderly or ill family member at home? How do you manage knowing when you leave your hometown/country that it may be the last time you see them? What’s the best thing to do in that situation?

rosemary-gillan-kuaa-headshotRosemary: Angelique: I had no choice, we moved so often, and our moves were very erratic, sometimes a month here, sometimes three months, sometimes 13 months, 17 months, two years…. And the only thing I could do was spend all our summers back home in Australia. Sadly, both my parents died while I was an expat. My dad died when we were living in Singapore in 1997, and my mum died while I was living in Malaysia in 2013. I flew down to see my dad the weeks before he died; I saw my mom a month before she died. But I was still not there when they passed, and I have and will continue to have huge regrets over that.

nicola-beach-headshotNicola: We have been through this once already and it was tough—and yet BECAUSE we were overseas my husband’s employer was more flexible and understanding that those of his sisters so despite being in another country he was able to travel back home more than either of his sisters and be present and helpful at a difficult time. You can live in the same country and not be able to see your loved ones any more often than family members abroad because of work commitments and financial constraints. It’s a biggie though and certainly something to consider very seriously if/when moving abroad. Having said that any one of us could get hit by a bus tomorrow whether we live in our home country or abroad.

lisa-ferland-headshot-smallerLisa: We have traveled back for “one last goodbye” with our elderly grandparents. My husband’s grandfather died while we were away and he traveled back for his funeral. Every goodbye, for everyone, must be seen as the “last” because nothing is guaranteed—not for the elderly or the young. There’s no easy scenario. I try to comfort myself knowing that someone could die without me being there even if I lived around the corner.

 

Morbid Election

Being an expat, you carry the stereotypes of your nationality with you. When people find out I’m American, they might tell me ‘Howdy’ in a thick drawl, ask if I’ve ever seen an alligator and wonder if healthcare really costs that much (answer to both: yes, lots). Of course, it’s not always light-hearted. Thus, early Wednesday morning, when it was becoming clear that the infamous name Donald J. Trump will soon be prefixed with the prestigious title ‘President,’ one of the cascade of worried thoughts that suddenly descended over me was…

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Home is where the _?_ is

 

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Fitting in with your surroundings isn’t easy

In some ways I’m very adventurous, in others I’m a bit of a homebody. But when continent-hopping is a way of life, that begs the question – where is home?

Two days ago I landed in Portugal from visiting my family in my childhood house in Florida. Florida isn’t my birthplace, that’s Hawaii (and whenever I visit there, it feels like home too) but it’s where I’ve grown up and spent the most time, so when I think of home, my mind travels automatically there. But when I arrived at the house in Portugal where I lived for six months recently, it felt automatically familiar. I slid back into the rhythm of things with ease, I noticed little details out of place that one would only catch due to an intense intimacy – the scissors not stuck to their magnetic strip on the wall, some new plastic cups in the cupboard. So this feels like home too, even though I’m only briefly here before going back -home- to London, to the same room that I occupied for a year during university, to a house with cats and people I love.

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“Grow where you are planted.” Air plants and succulents, like this Portuguese aloe, do this well.

So which of these places is home, really? All, of course. But when I’m feeling down, depressed and Dorothy-esque and think fervently “I want to go home” where do I mean, exactly? I suppose this dilemma is a diluted version of what “third culture kids” must feel about their identities. These are children who (increasingly in such a globalised society) are born to parents of different nationalities and then brought up, perhaps due to a career abroad, in an entirely different third one. Where do they consider home? Where are they most comfortable? Often, they are viewed as foreigners in each place. But as an expat, this confusion is not inborn, but elected. And it also has its benefits. With the increased connectivity and distribution of information in recent years, and prevalence and precedence of Western media, cultural disparities can appear less stark than they used to. Therefore, amid such homogenisation,these little culture shocks are good for us, I think; they remind me how big and diverse the world really is, and, though they can sometimes overwhelm, remind me of the possibilities life holds in different locations.

So, are internationals simply home-greedy?

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Flâneuse it or Lose it

Angelique finds a kindred spirit in Laura Elkins, whose book Flâneuse explores the stories of brave women who navigate cities on foot.

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The boots in question

I was recently listening to Book of the Week on BBC Radio Four, and Flâneuse by Lauren Elkins was being featured. She writes of her experiences as a young American woman traversing the cities of Europe alone, comparing them to those of famous women in history who have done the same. She calls these women “flâneuse”, the feminisation of a term I am familiar with, “flâneur”: a man who saunters around observing society. I think I even have this definition written in garish calligraphy on the inside cover of one of my travel diaries. Though, of course, I changed “man” to the genderless “one”. Elkins doesn’t see this concept as genderless, however, and delves into what it specifically means to be a woman navigating a foreign urban jungle, then, in a world of Victorian oppression, and now, in a climate of cat calls and kidnappings. She sees how despite this, walking is empowering, soothing and educational.

“To walk alone in London is the greatest rest,” wrote Virginia Woolf. I know what she means, though this wasn’t always the case. When I first moved to the capitol, my dream city, to study abroad I was a (tremendously) naive 18. My visions of London were built up from stories of my grandmother (who had last lived there in the 1940s) and books and films I’d immersed myself in as a child and teen. The second day after arriving, I took the first few hours not eaten up by class orientations to set off on my own. It was only the second time I’d walked alone in a city, the first being the summer before in Portland, Oregon. I was at Marble Arch when I parted ways with my new coursemates. Home was Notting Hill, which I knew I could get to through the park. I had no phone, no friend, just a big grin, a pink dress, my floral Dr. Marten’s, and a few lines from Chapter 20 of Douglas Adams’ 1984 book So Long and Thanks for All the Fish in my head:

“Let’s not mince words. Hyde Park is stunning. Everything about it is stunning except for the rubbish on Monday mornings. Even the ducks are stunning. Anyone who can go through Hyde Park on a summer’s evening and not be moved is probably going through in an ambulance with a sheet pulled up over his face. It is a park in which people do more extraordinary things than they do elsewhere.” 

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