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

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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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The Coffee Ritual – Part 1

Despite living in different countries, there are common threads in our experiences. This project therefore aims not only to give a voice to each of the women, but also to highlight things to bring us together despite the geographic distance. In this two-part series, we aim to bring all seven Expat Coffee Club women together around our first shared theme of coffee.

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An Australian-style café

Erin

My drink is anything with caffeine, but despite my jittery desperation for stimulants, I’m quite the coffee snob. I won’t drink, lord forbid, instant. I grew up in Melbourne, Australia, which is pretty much the hipster capital of Oceania (although I’m told Wellington is a keen competitor for that title). Coffee is important there. It’s made with an espresso machine and perfectly foamed milk with floral designs on the surface served in pretty cups with mismatched pretty saucers.

lampMelbourne coffee culture has pretty much ruined me for all travel purposes. Living in Oxford, UK has been a repeated experience in getting not-right coffee at three times the price I’m accustomed to. When I can, I gravitate towards what I know – cafés that operate in the Australian or New Zealand tradition (Scandinavian-inspired is fine too).

And so, when I drink coffee in my adopted place of residence, I have to face the lies I’ve been telling myself: I’m not an intrepid traveller who is too excited by new things to get homesick. I’m not the kind of person who moves thousands of kilometres away and adopts the style of the locals (and it’s not just coffee, the Brits seem to like to measure distance on the imperial scale of ‘miles’ for some reason), I’m not humbly accepting of the idea that people just do things differently in different places nobody is better or worse. The coffee, by and large, sucks, and it brings out all that is stubborn and judgemental and parochial in me.

So, I’ve tended to order tea when I go out in the year that I’ve lived in Oxford.

Gabrielle

Funny enough, the days that I end up not having coffee are the days that I travel. I wake up nervous about being late and missing my flight, making me unable take the time to sit down and drink my daily dose of coffee. By the time I’m out the door, my nerves have kicked into full gear and have compensated for the lack of caffeine. On any other day, the taste and smell of coffee (as well as its caffeine boost) are highly satisfying, but it is fundamentally the ritual of making and sitting down to drink coffee that I enjoy.

img_20160602_170614Now that I think of it, this ritual is one of the only things that have remained constant through my travels and moving abroad. The clothes I wear, the food I eat, and the jobs I do, all change but this ritual remains. No matter where I am and what I am doing, I have a coffee in the morning.

That is not to say that the ritual has not been altered. While living in the UK, my consumption of tea increased substantially. This was due to my absurdly cold room in the winter caused by my ignorance of the need to “bleed” a radiator. I just thought that a very cold room was normal and that I needed to suck it up as a true Canadian. In the summer, my rate of tea consumption was maintained because of my new British housemate who kindly asked if you wanted a tea about four times a day (to which I always answered yes). When it comes to meeting with friends for coffee (or tea), my habits also have changed somewhat while living in the UK. When asked to meet for coffee by a friend coming from London to visit me in Oxford, I had difficulties suggesting a cafe. I answered that I knew the pubs much better than the cafes and we agreed to meet over a pint instead.

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I expect that my ritual will be further altered now that I am in Taiwan, but no matter what, my day will always start with a coffee.

Angelique

Angelique nana.JPGI’ve been taking tea with my Nana since before I can remember. It would happen on visits to her south Florida home, when Popi settled in for his afternoon nap. I would go to her enormous China cabinet, full of carefully arranged, mismatched porcelain cups and choose one for the day. Each had a story behind it; my grandmother remembered them all. Many were gifts, some Chinese, some adorned with irises (her name), one is even hand-painted by my German great-grandmother. She taught me the order to put in my sugar and milk, to check the watermark below to see which house had manufactured it (or maybe that was Hyacinth Bucket on Keeping Up Appearances, obsessed with her Royal Doulton). We’d stick to Twining’s English breakfast with a few Lorna Doone shortbread biscuits on the side (a southern twist), until I started to travel and cultivate broader tastes. I would bring her back afternoon bends from Harrod’s (which used to be her local grocery store as a teenager, living just two streets away), and we’d settle in, as always for a good chat. She told me colourful stories of her youth in England, Scotland and later Jamaica that gave me the travel bug and a severe case of Anglophilia.

Now, when I take tea in England I think of her, and remember her vividly through its tastes and smells and sounds, like Proust with his jasmine tea and madelines. It makes me feel a little more connected to the place and the choice I’ve made to live so far away from family. I was really wonderfully surprised when I moved here how much tea still reigns mighty in Britain. I suspected it might be one of those customs fetishised in American movies like monocles or bland food. But “put the kettle on” is a phrase used without the smallest hint of sarcasm, even if the kettles themselves are all electric.

I still use porcelain cups, a strawberry Wedgwood set I found covered in dirt and leaves in the garden. The rest of the house doesn’t really get it, because of course, most of England moved on to big builder’s mugs of tea ages ago, but invariably I never finish those, and, truth be told, I’m one of those purists who think hot drinks taste better out of bone china. My favourite place to have tea now is Louis Patisserie on Hampstead High Street. It’s a Hungarian spot that’s been open since the 1960s and apparently hasn’t changed much, in price or decor. It’s one of the first places I take visiting family. There’s no wifi, stuffed leather wraparound booths, chestnut cakes, sugar cubes, and of course, fine bone China.

Amanda

I’ve never been a big coffee or tea drinker. I’m used to everyone around me not functioning in the morning until they’ve had their first cup of Timmy’s. My sister even has

Amanda Waiting for Hot Chocolate to cool in Toronto, Canadaa “tea maker”, similar to a coffee maker that most people have, which has a timer and automatically brews you a cup when you wake up in the morning (of course, her tea is super-caffeinated!). It’s weird but I only drink coffee on planes. I’m not sure why. I guess it’s because I’m just sitting there, watching a movie, and it’s free – so why not? Obviously I add way too much sugar, because that’s how I like most things in my life – a bit too sweet :) All my life, whenever someone asks to go for “coffee” I always substitute the word “hot chocolate” or “cold, fruity drink” in my head.

However, when I moved to Bangladesh (and then directly to Nepal) in 2015, that all changed. Tea became a major part of my life. There was even a “tea lady” at work, and tea was served about 3 times a day to the entire staff. There were so many different kinds: black tea, milk tea, lemon tea, chai tea, and sometimes just hot water with lemon and honey (great when you have a cold!). Not only is it rude to refuse, it’s also an important part of the local culture. Not to mention, during cold winters in Nepal, tea is essential for warming up your hands. It also provides an important part of the local economy, with tea ladies in the office, and small tea Amanda Drinking Hot Chocolate with Friends in New Zealandvendors on every street corner (instead of Starbucks). Drinking tea in the office is a great way to be social and learn more about your coworkers each day. Now that I live in Bolivia, Coca tea is something I drink regularly, as it helps keep warm during the cold nights, and helps to stave off altitude sickness. So cheers – to tea, for bringing people together and keeping us warm. 🙂

Home is where the _?_ is

 

fitting-in

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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