These are the good old days

St Johns churchyard, York Mills, Toronto, Ontario

When we lived in Baku, on days when life proved particularly challenging, such as the water or power being off for longer than usual, when loneliness and culture shock overwhelmed us or we pined for foods from home (broccoli, lettuce, Kraft Dinner), we would end our moaning with a wry smile and say “One day, these will be the good old days.” We laughed then, but over time memory is kind, and sooner than expected we looked back fondly at our life there, even the things we struggled with the most.

By the time we got to Egypt I was getting wise to this, particularly as I had realized that these assignments were very unpredictable in duration. I knew I had to make the best of every day there. So like a squirrel gathering nuts for winter I started consciously storing up memories, both good and bad. While bemoaning the dusty, broken and often totally absent sidewalks in what must be one of the least pedestrian-friendly cities, I took time to notice the beauty of the jacaranda trees and take pleasure in exchanging a “sabah el nour” with the taxi drivers at the end of my street.

Later in Dubai, life was much more comfortable, but I still took care to pause and consciously note a special memory. Sometimes it would be something beautiful, like Tai Chi practice on the breakwater, under a new moon with the waves gently lapping below us, and sometimes it would be something mundane, like my daily trip to the grocery store in the late afternoon just as the heat was abating. Either way, I knew that at some point in the future I would look back on that moment and say, those were the good old days.

I’m aware that what I’m extolling is called seizing the day (carpe diem), living in the moment, and is something that we all should be doing, no matter where we are. But for expats it’s important, particularly for those who are highly mobile and know their days in that particularly place are limited. Many of us try to pack our time full of exotic trips and special experiences, but it’s also important to soak up the everyday events, the little things that piece by piece make up the jigsaw of our lives.

Right now I go out to work 4 days a week. Each morning I walk to the subway through a pleasant, leafy residential area and pass this very English looking churchyard pictured above. It’s a beautiful walk, made all the better by the changing seasons, something I missed very much while living in the Middle East. I’m very happy in my job and have no plans to leave, but I also know that nothing lasts forever and neither will this daily ritual. So each morning as I walk, think and listen to the birds sing, I remind myself that these too are the good old days. Some things don’t change, even for repatriates.

4 Things I’ve learned about repatriating well

Peeling back the layers on expat repatriation

Courtesy Stock Xchng

Maybe Steve Jobs was right and we can only connect the dots looking backwards.  At one point I would have said that I had no advice for anyone repatriating other than to simply hang on and get through it.  But now, looking back, I can see that there were at least 4 things that I probably did right, even though it didn’t necessarily feel like that at the time.



Leave well

We had more notice of this last repatriation than we’d ever had before, several months in fact.  This meant there was time both to say our farewells to people and places and start thinking about life back home.  Two essential elements of the RAFT model for transition.

Although I’ve never heard it recommended, I also found it helpful that we stopped off on the way back to visit with family in the UK.  That mini-break created a bit of a buffer between the two realities and landing in Canada didn’t seem like such a jolt.

Choose your destination wisely

We were fortunate that we were repatriating to a very multicultural and diverse city, our home in Toronto.  I’ve often said that I don’t need to travel anymore, because the world now comes to me.  Rubbing shoulders (quite literally on my subway ride to work each day) with people from all around the world makes me still feel connected to a much wider world. Anecdotal evidence from friends and acquaintances who have repatriated to small-town anywhere suggests that the cultural adjustment is much more difficult.  Something to think about if you’re planning to retire to a rural utopia.

Look inward

Bizarre though it sounds, signing up for Twitter and LinkedIn, when I first returned was a really valuable exercise.  At the time, my intention was simply to learn about this new social media phenomenon and find myself a job, but in hindsight coming up with the required summary/brief description of myself, compelled me to think long and hard about who I had become while living overseas and what I wanted for my life going forward.

Don’t sever the expat cord

I believe that one of the reasons there is so little written about repatriation is that many repats feel they must close the book on being an expatriate.  Even though I claim that I’m a ‘forever expat’ I admit to feeling occasionally that maybe I’m just a sad ex-expat to still be writing about my experiences.  But I know that it’s been helpful to my adjustment to acknowledge and celebrate my expat life rather than pretend it never happened.   A life lived in many countries is part of who I am and that’s never going to go away.

Even though I’ve talked about how little my international experience was valued when I was interviewing for jobs, it was someone in my international network who referred me to my previous position and on several occasions I’ve been able to connect people across the globe.  Staying connected on social media with those you met overseas can have valuable practical benefits as well as social ones (subject to the usual caveats).

It seems we only become wise after an event.  Four years have passed since we returned to Canada and every year I’ve blogged an annual “state of the nation” about my adjustment, each one peeling back yet another layer of the onion.  I wonder when, or even if, the adjustment will be complete?

Families in Global Transition Conference 2013: Day 2

IMG_0423Day 2 of the conference I decided on a slower start which unfortunately meant missing out on that day’s Early Bird discussions over breakfast.  I arrived just in time to grab a coffee and something to eat during the announcements before heading off to my first session.

As I chose Eva Lazslo-Herbert’s presentation entitled “Living Whilst Surviving.”  I wasn’t sure quite what to expect, but I’d heard rave reviews of her keynote speech at the 2012 conference.  Born in Transylvania she has lived and worked her way across Europe acquiring languages, in the way most of us gather stamps in our passport.  Using her own family history, she spoke to us about their resilience (both emotional and moral) in living through wars, forced relocations and even prison camps.  It was very personal and very moving.  Just some of her wise words:

  • The only thing that defines you, is who you think you are
  • Live in the moment
  • Don’t forget, but do forgive
  • Be independent, think what can *I* do?
  • Give back
  • Love the child you have, not the child you want
  • Stop the glorification of busy

From there I moved on to a very hands-on session with Rachel Yates, entitled “Family Focused Assessment in Relocation Planning.”  I’m not a visual or artistic person and was at first a bit skeptical of her approach to needs assessment,  using posters, images, glue and scissors.  Divided into groups at large round tables, we quickly got over our inhibitions as we imagined ourselves as a family moving to Kenya.  As we put together our poster vision of what our lives would be like, we quickly realized we were having meaningful discussions over not just housing (would we live in a glamorous villa or a cramped high rise?) schooling but also what would day-to-day life look like and how much time would we really spend on safaris and lying on tropical beaches?  It was a useful and instructive exercise and a great tool for getting the whole family involved.

My last session of the day was with Elizabeth Liang, a TCK actress and actor on the creative process for writing memoirs.  She took us through a series of writing exercises, which I know worked for many in the room, but if I finding writing hard here on my own at home, doing it in a room full of strangers is totally impossible.  But she did provide is with a detailed hand out and one of these days (yes, really) I will try it all again.

All too soon we reassembled in the main hall for the closing of the Conference.  Ruth Van Reken introduced the closing keynote speaker Leila Buck, who was to speak on the topic of goodbyes.  She gave us an amazing performance, combining suspense, tragedy and humour, describing her hasty departure from Lebanon in 2006 when fighting broke out with Israel.

Having made my own goodbyes I reluctantly headed by metro to the airport.  Unlike many who attend, I don’t make my living working with expat families, but this organization feeds my soul, and I know I will keep returning.

Out of my comfort zone

Scan 11When I tell my friends that I’ve battled shyness most of my life, many of them laugh in disbelief.

I was the toddler who cried when the bus driver said hello to her and I earned the nickname of “Noddy” when I went the entire first semester of school not speaking to the teacher (I would just nod my head).  My mother often recounted the day I finally rushed home “Mummy, mummy, I SPOKE to Miss Dixon!”  “That’s nice, what did you say?”  “Yes, Miss Dixon” I said with pride.

Making friends for me was always a slow and painful exercise but was made much easier once I married a sociable extrovert.  However when we moved overseas, I suddenly found myself alone and friendless while he was at work.  My shy inner-child re-emerged.  Fortunately in most of the places we lived I found friendly fellow expats who reached out and drew me into tight and friendly expat communities.  In time, I felt comfortable enough to extend my own hand of friendship to newcomers and locals alike.

In Dubai I started hosting a weekly coffee morning for expatriate women.  For the first one there were 5 of us (all friends I had coerced to attend) but soon the group grew to 20 or more.  From time to time I had announcements to make, gulp, I was public speaking!

Looking for a portable career, I enrolled in the CELTA course to learn how to teach English as second language.  It was very intense, very hands-on, involving a lot of teaching practice.  To say I was petrified to stand in front of class of 20 Emirati college students is an understatement.  But I did it and I survived.

As a volunteer I got involved organizing the Terry Fox Run for cancer research. When I  took over as Committee Chair one of my responsibilities was to take the microphone at the starting line to thank all the volunteers.  As I looked out over a crowd of 12,000 people, my relief that we had a record turnout helped overcome my wobbly knees.

Each of these experiences was a valuable step along the road to overcoming my shyness and none would have happened if we hadn’t moved overseas.

This year I’ve been strong-armed asked to moderate a panel discussion on expat blogging at the Families in Global Transition Conference in March. Fortunately the panelists are well known to me, as (I hope) will many of the audience. Inside that little girl is quaking at the prospect, I just hope I can shut her up with cookies. :)

There’s a special place in hell for expats …

… who don’t help other expats.*

When I first moved to Azerbaijan in 1996, the online world was in its infancy, and although the company provided us with practical help (housing, school, shipping, etc) there was no orientation or cultural training. I was on my own. The first expat women I met were wives of my husband’s colleagues working for his company. Another mother of two of the western children at my son’s school was working at her embassy. I frequented the handful of stores catering to westerners and never saw another western woman. In the end I assumed there probably weren’t many non-working expat women like me. Many afternoons were spent staring out of my apartment window, happy my husband had a good job, happy my son was settling in school, happy to be having the adventure of a lifetime, but desperately lonely.

When I learned that an expat neighbour (also working) belonged to an international women’s club I asked her how to join. She said she’d enquire but came back and told me they weren’t accepting new members at that time. I was devastated. Later I learned that the club had a byelaw about maintaining a balance between local vs expatriate members  and that for a while they suspended taking new members. To this day I don’t know which is worse, that a club for expats should ever close its doors to new members, or that my neighbour didn’t at least offer to introduce me to some of the women outside of club meetings.

Five years and two countries later, I found myself in Egypt. By then, I was a much more experienced and self-confident expat wife.  I thought I knew the ropes.  I joined a thriving expat community centre, took language classes, joined craft and bridge groups, volunteered at my son’s school, did everything to put myself out there and meet people. And while I certainly met lots of people and had a busy life, in the year I was there I never found a group I really wanted to hang out with, or someone I could truthfully call a friend.

Four months after arriving in Azerbaijan a new child arrived at the tiny international school. His mom, a veteran expat wife, quickly sussed out where the other women were getting together and soon I had a circle of not just expat but also local friends, some of whom remain friends to this day.

After a year in Egypt we were transferred to the UAE and a kind company wife immediately phoned and invited me to join a craft group, which became a springboard to all kinds of friendships and opportunities. I never looked back.

These experiences, good and bad have left me forever aware of the importance of support for expat spouses. It needn’t be complex or expensive and sometimes it’s best left to the spouses themselves.  Back home now in Canada and working, I have less time to devote to real-world expat groups and yet I’m finding new ways to connect online. Next example of successful online support groups, coming up ….

*Adapted from Madeleine K. Albright’s quote “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

Home at last

My friend Maria over at iwasanexpatwife.com has inspired me to write my own retrospective of 2011.  It may have been a train wreck for her, but for me the train finally arrived in the station in terms of my repatriation.  What made it happen?

Finding a purpose.  For me that meant finding a job I truly enjoy, but it could easily have been a hobby, a sport or a volunteer activity.  Having a reason to get up in the morning, doing something that’s fun and being valued for it are things we all need and yet they often get blown out of the water when we relocate.  This is my third job in 2 years, so it has been a bumpy road.

Making friends.  This past year I’ve acquired a few more new friends and acquaintances.  I don’t think it’s coincidence that they too had (or still have) international lives.  I’ve also reconnected more deeply with old friends and I suspect that’s partly due to the fact that I, and they, no longer feel I’m about to pack my bags and head out again any time soon.

My family’s settled.  I guess this is very much an expat wife thing, because we’re notorious for getting our families settled before looking after ourselves.  Although we all repatriated at different times, I now feel both my husband and son are happy and settled, or at least as much as TKCs are likely to be.

This is the same list you’d make for adjusting to any new location, but there’s no doubt that repatriation adds a huge extra layer of complexity.  For us, a period of unemployment during a particularly difficult economic period created additional stress, but the emotional baggage of who we are now vs who we were before expatriation was the killer and affected every aspect of our lives.  Having said that, like many of life’s major challenges, it has been a time of learning and growth.  Perhaps every dark cloud does have a silver lining.

Many expatriates don’t have a home to come back to, either because they’ve been global nomads all their lives or have permanently cut the ties to what was home.  But for us knowing we had not only a country, but a house to call home, was an important touchstone during those inevitable down days of life overseas, so I don’t regret it.  However, during the early days of culture shock when you repatriate and find home doesn’t feel comfortable, safe or even pleasant anymore, it’s like having the rug pulled completely out from under you.  No wonder it takes so long to re-establish a sense of security and comfort.

So what now, going forward?  I’m really not sure and, given past experience, I’m not sure I want to know, LOL!  But one thing I do know is that I am a forever-expat.  I continue to rejoice in my expat friendships, my volunteer work with Families in Global Transition and the Toronto Newcomers Club, so please continue to watch this space.

No more goodbyes

As August draws to a close it’s a time of year when many goodbyes are being said. Vacations are over and expats are heading back “home.” It’s also a time when many expat teenagers are packing up and leaving for university, an exciting and scary time for them, and for parents a time of anxiety mixed with pride over their soon-to-be independent offspring. But all involve goodbyes.

Our repatriation two years ago wasn’t planned. As I tried to get my head around it and find the positives in the situation, one of them was that there would be far fewer goodbyes in my life. I had always hated saying goodbye to expat friends as they moved on and goodbyes to my son and friends in Canada after our annual visits. The life of a global nomad is full of goodbyes.

When we set off on our last expat assignment we left our then 18 year old son behind in Canada at university. That was probably the most difficult goodbye of all. As we waited in the front hallway for the airport taxi to arrive, he said wryly “Isn’t it the kid who’s supposed to leave home to start university?” I cried all the way to the airport and the birthday card he sent me, just a few weeks later, didn’t help any either. But the excitement and activity of setting up a new home soon distracted me. At least I was spared the heartache of walking past his empty bedroom every morning.

He has a knack for always choosing great cards. He also calls me “Chief,” reflecting my true status in our family ;-)

We soon fell into a routine of emails and Skype calls, he came to visit us for Christmas, we visited him during the summer. If I count the hours we spent together, we probably had as much time in each other’s company as many non-expat families and yet the goodbyes each time we parted never got easier and the next visit seemed aeons away. I believe expat life brought us closer together as a family. We three were close before we started living overseas and perhaps that helped us to deal with the transitions.  But I also think the shared adversity, dealing with the initial strangeness and loneliness each time we moved, made us more reliant on each other and brought us closer than before. It’s a good thing, except when you have to part.

So my heart goes out to those who are currently saying goodbye and I’m relieved I’m not amongst you. I know it may not always be this way. One day no doubt my son will move away, or who knows, maybe we’ll move away again. But until then I’m happy not to have to say goodbye.

Repatriation – Two Years On

It’s time for my annual report on the state of my repatriation.  Last year I optimistically wrote “I’m gradually putting my life back together again.”  Looking back I think I was trying to convince myself that was the case.  After all, things SHOULD have been going well.  I had found a job which OUGHT to be have been perfect for a trailing spouse and my husband had started a new job in Canada, after spending most of the first year of our repatriation working overseas again.  In theory all the pieces of the jigsaw were finally coming together.

But of course life never runs as smoothly as you would wish and that’s certainly very true with repatriation.  Just when you think you’re finally getting over it, there’s a setback; three steps forward and two steps back.  I found my new “perfect” job to be isolating and as my husband dealt with his reverse culture shock upon repatriating, I relived it all again through him.

So by the beginning of 2011 I resolved to find a new job and eventually in April started working for a couple of Toronto’s top real estate agents.  It involves many of the skills I’ve acquired along the way and enjoy using – administration (I started life as a secretary, back in the day when that was a job title to be proud of), real estate (I worked for 15 years as a real estate appraiser), social media (my newfound interest since repatriating) and relocation (my last gig).  It’s busy, interesting and the people I work with love what they do, which makes for a very positive atmosphere.

This last year I’ve also, FINALLY, made some new friends right here in Toronto who understand my expat experience.  Not that my long-distance friends aren’t important, but I need to have people I can talk to face-to-face sometimes and it’s got me out of my internet cocoon.  For that I also have to thank my last job in Destination Services, because that did at least get me exploring and reconnecting with Toronto again.  As an admitted computerholic, I’ve been very bad at taking my own advice about getting out and meeting people.

So now, two years on, I can truly say that I’m glad to be here, and when my husband, who is still struggling with his reverse culture shock, muses about the possibility of going overseas again, I’m not instantly exhilarated and ready to pack my suitcase again.  Which is not to say it won’t ever happen, just that it’s good to feel good about where I am now.  It’s taken a long time and I will enjoy it while it lasts.

Frederick Moments

Expat life gives us lots of magical memories that you cherish always.  In our family we call them Frederick moments.  “Frederick” is the title of a classic children’s book by Leo Lionni, one of those books that children think is funny, but make parents reach for the Kleenex.  I can’t explain the story better than the summary on Amazon.ca:

While the other field mice work to gather grain and nuts for winter, Frederick sits on a sunny rock by himself. “I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days,” he tells them. Another day he gathers “colors,” and then “words.” And when the food runs out, it is Frederick, the dreamer and poet, whose endless store of supplies warms the hearts of his fellow mice, and feeds their spirits during the darkest winter days.

Frederick moments are times like these:-

A picnic on the beach in Azerbaijan with my ESL student friends.  Typical western woman, I’d spent hours making salads and sandwiches which they looked at in amazement. For them a picnic meant everyone piling in a ramshackle car, a quick stop at the bazaar to pick up fresh fruit, cheese, bread and some soft drinks, and then a day spent alternately swimming, playing and chatting.  So relaxed and easy.


Telegraph Island, Oman.  On a weekend trip from Dubai, we took a Dhow (traditional wooden boat) trip off the coast of the Mussandam Peninsula, where the Arabian Gulf narrows down to the Straits of Hormuz.  It’s the site of an old telegraph station (hence the name) and supposedly sparking the phrase “going round the bend” for the poor souls posted to this desolate spot in 1865.

My friend, Helga (pictured here), seems to attract Frederick moments with her inquisitive nature and disarmingly simple charm.  Here we were exploring the summer Majilis of the old ruler of Dubai.  Cool and calm, it was an oasis in the hustle and bustle of that modern metropolis.

I now make a mental note of Frederick moments, bookmark and file them in a special place in my mental hard drive.  There are many which I don’t have photos for, and yet they are just as clear, if not clearer in my mind than those shown here. Everyone has these “stop and smell the roses” moments, but some of my expatriate ones are the sweetest.

A postscript on commuting

Since mentioning Commuting: An Option for Empty Next or Midlife Accompanying Spouses and Partners as a topic to be discussed at the upcoming Families in Global Transition Conference I’ve heard news of 3 expat girlfriends currently living apart from their husbands.  All are repatriated,  have husbands working away and have been married for many years.  Their reasons for living apart are varied – children in need of support, elderly parents, spending time with grandchildren – but all are struggling with marital conflict to a greater or lesser degree.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had friends in this situation and the commuting assignments may not be entirely to blame, but there’s no doubt that living apart puts a huge strain on any relationship, even a long term one.  After the conference I’ll report back on what I learned and add to my original post on this topic.

There are huge implications for accompanying partners when marriages fail, particularly if they’ve been out of the workforce for many years.  It’s a fictional account, but Robin Pascoe’s blogella about a divorced expat woman will ring painfully true for many.