Finding Home

House with a sold sign

We sold our house this week. No, we’re not moving overseas again, not even across the country, in fact we may well end up living within walking distance of where we live now. We simply decided, for a number of reasons, that now is time to move from a house to condominium apartment.

Deciding to sell the house was probably one of the most difficult decisions we’ve made. But why? We’ve owned this house 26 years, but almost half that time we were overseas. We owned 4 other houses before it, and have rented 7 other homes since. And yet this house held a special place in our hearts, which made selling it seem akin to selling a family member.

The rationale side of me knew that we’d been perfectly happy in all the homes we’ve lived in. The shabby post-soviet apartment in Baku, the gleaming 5* luxury apartment in Dubai, a villa the size of an aircraft hangar and the tiny apartment where everything had to be stowed away like on a submarine, had all been “home” for a while. We cooked, entertained, pursued hobbies and had fulfilling and fun lives no matter where or what we’d lived in. So why did the thought of moving here in Canada break my heart?

A lot of soul searching later, I’ve come to the conclusion that, for us, it’s the years we weren’t there that made this house so special. It became a psychological safe harbor, an anchor, the place we knew we could always return to when culture shock, loneliness, or the stress of not knowing if or when we’d move again overwhelmed us. David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken in their book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds talk about “sacred objects” which help connect one part of a global nomad’s life with the next. Perhaps this house had become our sacred object. A place we knew we could always go back to, “home.” It would welcome us, we’d brew a steaming cup of tea and all would be well.

During the decision-making process, and even after the house was listed, tears were shed, although we knew our decision was the right one. But surprisingly, now the house is sold, we’re at peace. Perhaps because it’s been bought by a lovely retired couple who are moving to be close to their children and grandchildren who live a few doors away. Knowing we are passing the torch to immigrants (expats) like ourselves has helped.  The house will be in safe hands.

Living overseas taught us that brick and mortar (or concrete and steel) don’t make a home. It’s the people within it and the life you build for yourself that matters. Home can be anywhere you are and is what you choose to make it.

Perhaps it’s fitting that the theme of the next Families in Global Transition Conference is “Finding Home.” It’ll be just in time for me as I transition yet again from one home to another.

Expat gone soft

Toronto Ice Storm 2013

How soon we forget!  A couple of days prior to Christmas, Toronto was hit by a major ice storm.  The weight of the ice broke many power lines, as well as trees overhanging the power lines, resulting in a major power outage affecting 300,000 customers for several days.  As we awoke to a cold, dark house, my heart sank as I realized how poorly prepared we were. 

Toronto Ice Storm 2013

When we lived overseas I’d always had a back-up plan for water cuts, power cuts and even, heaven forbid, an evacuation plan, but settling back into a comfortable life in Canada, I’d oh-so-quickly let myself backslide.

All I had at my disposal was a bag of tea lights and flashlight with a fading battery.  No alternate heat source, no means to cook or heat water, no “magic socket.”  My heart sank.

After a joyless breakfast of peanut butter on crackers and a glass of water (no COFFEE!!!!!) we set about assessing our situation.  What was quickly apparent was our increasing dependence on electrical appliances.

I picked up the phone – cordless – not working.  Thank goodness we still had an old-fashioned corded phone in the bedroom.  No wifi, but at least I had cellular data on my phone, as long as the battery lasted.

We had a fridge full of food, but no means to cook it.  On the bright side, with sub-zero temperatures we were able to stash the contents of the freezer in plastic storage bins in the garden shed.

Toronto Ice Storm 2013

By 4pm in the afternoon the indoor temperature was 13C and falling as fast as my spirits.  Sitting in our overcoats as dusk approached we contemplated a dinner of cold canned food and sleeping fully dressed under our duvets.  But help was close at hand.  An angel, disguised as my friend, Shila, phoned to check on us.  On learning our plight, all she said was “Come.”  A delicious dinner, warm bed and hot shower never felt more luxurious.

Toronto Ice Storm 2013

Late the following day our power was back and life quickly returned to normal.  But a month later I’m left with a nagging concern that repatriation has turned me “soft.”  Where has that pioneering expat independence gone?  I need to toughen up and, quite literally, get my house in order.  Storms lanterns and a primus stove are on my shopping list.  And of course maintaining my friendship with my Christmas angel ;-)

The Repairman Cometh (again)

Ma'adi ApartmentI’ve written about repairmen before, but reminiscing with someone about our life in Cairo reminded me of my year–long struggle with air conditioning which, as the summer here in Toronto draws to a close, seems like a fitting topic for a blog post.

We were fortunate to live in a brand new apartment building for the year we spent in Cairo.  It sounded great until we got possession and I realized all the construction debris had been left behind for us to deal with … but that’s another story.

While in Azerbaijan we had the old-style window air conditioners and in Dubai full-on central air, in Cairo we had ‘split’ air conditioners, which means there’s a unit on the wall inside and the compressor sits outside, mounted on brackets.  There was one unit for each room, except the kitchen.  Why no a/c in the kitchen, I wailed?  I was told that the maid didn’t need a/c.  Unfortunately, in our case, the maid was me.  No, we didn’t live on salad for a year, but I was sorely tempted.

We arrived in January when the weather was still cool, but as the thermometer rose we decided it would be a good idea to get the compressors cleaned before firing them up.  Anyone who’s visited Cairo will know that everything, and I mean everything, is covered in dust.  You might think it’s the sand blowing in from the Western Desert, or the mummies’ tombs, but the most likely suspects are the cement factories just to the south of the city.

The Engineer arrived with his young assistant (everyone has an assistant in Egypt, sometimes the assistant has an assistant) equipped with a dustpan and brush.  To my horror he was instructed to climb out the window and perch on top of the compressor outside and brush it clean.  We were on the 8th floor – refer to my photo above to appreciate my full horror.  I felt like someone out of a Dickens novel sending a small boy up the chimney.

Fast-forward a couple of months into full-blown summer and a large puddle developed in my son’s room.  The a/c was deemed to be at fault and the Engineer was summoned again.  This time a condensate drain was needed, which required a hole to be drilled in the wall.  The assistant brought in a fearsome looking drill for this purpose, which for some strange reason had no plug on it, just bare wires sticking out the end of the cord.  The assistant’s job was to stuff the bare wires into the electrical socket while the Engineer drilled the hole (obvious serious work, if the Engineer himself did it).  Every couple of minutes the wires would fall out of the socket, and the assistant would duly stuff them back in again.  Why?  Why?  I asked myself.

All this time we had yet to receive an electricity bill.  Our neighbours, fellow Canadians working for British Gas, assured us that it would take a while because it was a new account, but as the months ticked by we grew increasingly concerned about how large the bill would be when it finally came.  I carefully socked money away in the lockable drawer in our bedroom, crossing my fingers it would be enough.  We exhorted our son to  “Turn that damn a/c down, it’s like the Arctic in here!”

Finally as September rolled around and we were told another move was on the cards, I decided something had to be done.  I kidnapped OH’s assistant from the office one morning and we headed off to the electricity company in search of a bill. We trailed from room to room, from one disinterested clerk to another.  Huge ledgers were consulted (no sign of computers here) and finally we were told that the bill was paid.  How could that be?  Who had paid the bill?  Further consultations revealed that our benefactor was British Gas.  Aha, a lightbulb moment!  There were several British Gas families in our building, including our neighbours, obviously our bill was being paid in error.  Back to the office and OH got on the phone to the accountant at British Gas.  Long and short of it, he completely denied they were paying our bill.  No amount of argument would persuade him otherwise.  But by then we were getting wise to bureaucratic incompetence and denial.  To this day we suspect he just didn’t want to admit a mistake had been made.

As we started to pack up for yet another international move, the bedroom drawer offered up a cash bonus to mitigate our disappointment at leaving Cairo so soon.

Taking a career break as an expatriate partner

Stay at home mother and boyIf you’re interested in the topic of accompanying partners and their careers then I’m sure you’ll find this article in the New York Times (The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In) to be of interest.  It’s a follow-up piece to an article written 10 years ago about high-powered women who gave up their careers to become stay-at-home mothers.

Although it’s not about families that relocated, I couldn’t help but see many parallels with expatriate partners, whether or not they have children.

  • Giving up careers
  • Creating meaningful lives around volunteer work and child rearing
  • Financial dependence
  • Changes in the marital relationship
  • Challenges returning to the workforce

These women gave up careers in order to raise their children, but their lives once they did so, sound achingly familiar to those of many accompanying partners.  On the one hand they talk of loss of identity, lowered self-esteem due to financial dependence and difficulty returning to the workforce.  But on the other hand, they experienced improved quality of life, enjoyed spending more time with family and speak of finding meaning in their lives and changed values.

None seem to have regretted it despite the fact that most earn far less money than they did formerly; they believe the positives of the experience were a fair trade-off even though in most cases life did not turn out as expected.

“The 22 women I interviewed, for the most part, told me that the perils of leaving the work force were counterbalanced by the pleasures of being able to experience motherhood on their own terms. A certain number of these women — the superelite, you might say, the most well-off, with the highest-value name-brand educational credentials and powerful and well-connected social networks — found jobs easily after extended periods at home. These jobs generally paid less than their previous careers and were less prestigious. But the women found the work more interesting, socially conscious and family-friendly than their old high-powered positions.”

Much is made of the conflicted feelings of these formerly high-powered women and their struggle to return to the workforce which rang a lot of bells with me, as I’ve felt this way myself and know many accompanying partners do too.  Did I throw my career away?  Was the trade-off worth it?  

“What I heard instead were some regrets for what, in an ideal world, might have been — more time with their children combined with some sort of intellectually stimulating, respectably paying, advancement-permitting part-time work — but none for the high-powered professional lives that these women had led.”

We will never know the answer, as it’s not possible to know how things would have worked out if we’d stayed instead of following our partners.  I’m sure some expat partners regret it, but personally I’ve never met one.  Instead I’ll end on this quote, which reflects far better the common response from those who give up a career to follow their partners

“And not a single woman I spoke with said she wished that she could return to her old, pre-opting-out job — no matter what price she paid for her decision to stop working. “

The Magic Socket

The Magic Socket

The Magic Socket was located just beneath the water heater

We had a 7-hour power outage the other evening due to a bad storm, which is pretty unusual for Toronto.

In the late 90s in Baku power cuts were a regular event, usually lasting several hours and sometimes days.  Coupled with daily water cuts, it made life rather complicated, but you learned to cope.  We had several large rechargeable lanterns, a battery radio, a gas stove for cooking and a gas fireplace for heat.  But our real savior was the Magic Socket.

We discovered it soon after arriving.  Our washer and dryer were located in the bathroom of our apartment and mysteriously when the power went out the washing machine continued to work. Vitaly, the electrician, discovered a wire snaking its way out of the kitchen window and down the back of the building, and came to the conclusion that the socket was hot-wired to the street lights.  As the streetlights usually stayed on when our building lost power, we were golden.

From then on, whenever the power went out, we’d connect several extension cords in sequence and move this magical source of power around the apartment as and when needed.  In the morning it would be in the kitchen so we could run the coffee maker and then the toaster.  Then it would move to the bedroom so I could dry my hair.  When everyone had left for work and school, I fired up the computer to check my email.  Whenever it wasn’t in use elsewhere we’d plug in the freezer.  If you think several extension cords plugged together sounds like a dangerous arrangement, you’re right.  But we were already living with cars without seatbelts and a leaky gas stove; dodgy wiring didn’t seem so bad.

So the other night as we scrambled in the dark looking for candles and a flashlight with a working battery, I realized how unprepared we are for a power cuts here in Canada compared with when we lived in Baku.  And I missed my Magic Socket.

Book Review: The Ruby: A re-entry survival story by Suzanne Johnson

Book review: The Ruby: A repatriation survival storyThere’s something compelling about personal stories.  It’s not just the guilty pleasure of vicariously living someone else’s life, it’s also revealing as to what really works and what doesn’t when it comes to facing life’s challenges.

There are  few books written on the subject of repatriation and reverse culture shock, and the ones I’ve found most useful have been written as personal stories rather than the earnest “how to manual’ approach.

The first half of Suzanne Johnson’s The Ruby: A re-entry survival story is devoted to describing her family’s expatriate experience working at a missionary-run orphanage in Mozambique.  Having been paid substantial sums of money to live in locations far less challenging, I have the utmost admiration for those who do so on their own nickel.  She certainly makes it sound rewarding, and even fun in places, although that doesn’t include the episode when a nearby exploding arms depot literally rained shells on top of them.

Although half the book is NOT about repatriation, this section is an entirely enjoyable and interesting read and of course sets us up for a deeper understanding of the profound re-entry shock Suzanne faced upon returning to life in the UK.

Her biggest challenge was re-integrating into her church community, perhaps a more tight-knit community than many of us come from, but the issues she faced are common to all repatriates – grief and loss for the friends and life left behind, identity crisis, values which no longer align with friends and family and no one who understands the pain you’re experiencing.  I found I related strongly to the emotions she describes, although I have to admit I was left wondering whether her faith was as much a hindrance as a help in her gradual readjustment.

Repatriation is still a topic most expatriates don’t talk about much.  It’s almost like death; in fact many would describe it as the death of a way of life.  But it is a transition you get through eventually.  Books like The Ruby are valuable for anyone in the midst of this difficult and often lengthy process.  Knowing that your feelings are not unique, that others have struggled with similar issues and resolved them, one way or another, is sustaining.

This book is well written and definitely worth a read.  All proceeds from sales are donated to the Zimpeto Children’s Centre where Suzanne worked.

Happy Day Off!

Canada Day 2013

Wikipedia Creative Commons

Today is Canada Day and so we have a long weekend here in Canada.  It’s another thing I enjoy about repatriating, knowing exactly when the holidays will be and that we will get time off from work (actually that’s 2 things).

We spent 8 years in the Middle East where many of the public holidays are religious ones.  Because the Islamic calendar is lunar, each year the holidays move forward about 11 or 12 days.  Many Muslim countries rely on their scientists to tell them when the holidays will fall and the dates are fixed well in advance, but the UAE still relies on a “Moon Sighting Committee” to go out into the desert (to get away from the bright city lights) and literally look for the new moon before these important events are proclaimed.  It’s a charming tradition, but not only does it mean the dates are often different in the UAE than elsewhere, it also means they’re unknown until the night before the holiday starts.

For expats this creates a bit of a problem if you’re planning a short getaway.  When you’re booking time off work you have to play Russian roulette with your vacation days, as they may or may not get used depending on when exactly the holiday falls.

To make things even more complicated there is no requirement for companies to give you a day off in lieu if the holiday falls on a weekend, and many choose not to do so, even western ones.  With Eid holidays lasting 2 or 3 days twice a year, it seemed you’d always ‘lose’ at least a day or two.

And on the topic of weekends, that too can cause problems.  When we first moved to Dubai the local weekend was Thursday and Friday.  All government offices were closed, and because the Ministry of Education was closed, all schools, even international ones, had to close too.  Many companies that did business outside of the Middle East chose to take a Friday-Saturday weekend, to avoid being out of touch for 4 days of the week.

As a result expat families with children ended up with a Thursday-Friday-Saturday weekend-ish, which was really neither one thing nor the other.  It worked well for those who liked a day exclusively with the children and a day exclusively with their spouse (with Friday as the true family day sandwiched in between), but I found it a difficult adjustment to make.

Fortunately by the time we returned to Dubai for our second stint, they had switched to a Friday-Saturday weekend, but it still took me many years to get my head around Sunday being a workday.

Here in Canada our holidays are either firm dates on the calendar (like July 1) or tied to a long weekend (like Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October).  In the years we were away they even added a new holiday – Family Day  – on the 3rd Monday in February.  In a country with a long cold winter it’s a welcome respite during the long slog between Christmas and Easter.  But enough words, it’s sunny and warm outside and the barbeque is calling . . .