Tag Archives: living abroad

Lessons from 2013

It’s the last day of 2013 and I feel as if I should write a post reflecting upon the year: the places I went, the lessons I learned, the ways I grew. But quite honestly, to quote Sweet Brown, ain’t nobody got time for that. Plus, I already did one of those posts, way back in October. And all of the stuff I said in my earlier post still applies: I still like routine, I still like putting things away in drawers, I still hate getting rejected. So today, I’d like to add just a few additional (and surprising) things I’ve learned over this past year of living abroad, moving constantly, and trying new things.

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1. Writing takes perseverance.

I’ve said this one before, and I’ll keep saying it, if only to remind myself that this writing thing isn’t meant to be easy. When I started off on my professional writing endeavor last October, I knew, intellectually, that it would be challenging and would require a certain amount of stick-to-it-iveness. I didn’t realize, though, just how much stubborn, unflappable perseverance it would take. I’ve learned, after a year of trying, that to hack it as a professional writer, you must develop a skin of rhino-like thickness, constantly muddle through morasses of confusion and disappointment, and force yourself to continue to pursue a goal that might not actually be reachable. Because it’s worth it. (And I’m still not giving up.)

2. You don’t need that much stuff.

Since moving to London in July, Al and I have moved apartments (and/or hotels) eight or nine times (we lost track of the exact number after a while — I blame PTSD). And the main thing one learns very quickly after being forced to haul one’s stuff around London in a taxi cab at rush-hour is that one simply has too much stuff.

When we moved to South Africa last October, Al and I put most of our earthly possessions into storage in Virginia and brought only a fraction of our belongings with us to South Africa. Then, when we packed up for London, we took only a fraction of THAT. And now, after living in a series of one-room corporate apartments, that amount of stuff even feels like too much. At this point, we’ve each pared down to two suitcases of stuff, because we only have a month left in London, and traveling with more is just too hard.

When we move back to DC in a month, I’m really looking forward to getting all of our things in one place and doing a giant purge of our belongings. We did a purge once before, a few years ago, and man, it feels great (and it’s cheaper than therapy, a spa day, and/or buying more stuff). By the way, anyone interested in doing a purge, or even in just decluttering, should read the excellent book The Hoarder In You. (Don’t be put off by the title!) The book breaks down the emotional reasons why we hold on to stuff and gives the reader strategies for simplifying, decluttering, and lightening. Highly recommended!

3. However, some stuff enriches your life. Keep that stuff.

I could never get rid of ALL my stuff. What would I do without yarn, knitting needles, books, and my running shoes? What about my underwater MP3 player, my pink leather gloves, and my Le Creuset Dutch oven? Sure, I COULD get rid of that stuff — but it would negatively impact the quality of my life. I’ve learned that some stuff is not just necessary, but happy-making. My advice is to figure out what those things are for you and hold on to them. Get rid of the rest (or at least, a lot of the rest).

4. Coming home is still the sweetest part of travel.

I love to travel, and I wouldn’t trade our last year of adventures abroad for anything. But I’m really looking forward to coming back to the States and starting my life there, with Al. We’ve enjoyed being away, but we’re so excited to come back.

So, that’s it: just a few life lessons I’ve picked up during the past year. What have you learned this year? Was 2013 a good one for you or an absolute stinker? For me, it was one of my best years — but I’m optimistic that this next one will be even better. Happy New Year to all of my readers, whoever and wherever you are. I wish you success, peace, and joy in the new year. See you in 2014.

Flying

I’m writing this post from Boston Logan airport, where I have a six (!!) hour layover before my flight to San Francisco. Oh, and I took a seven-and-a-half hour flight from London to get here. So by the time I arrive in San Francisco, I will have been in an airport or plane (most likely without sleep) for a full twenty-four hours. Yippee.

The view from the airport window, Boston

The view from the airport window, Boston

 

When you live abroad for extended periods of time, you have to do this kind of travel fairly often, at least if you want to ever see your family or attend milestone events, which I do. Things get complicated when one’s family lives in San Francisco, which seems to be the furthest city on Earth from every other city I’ve ever lived in or have wanted to live in. (São Paulo-San Francisco was bad. Joburg-San Francisco was ridiculous. London-San Francisco, perhaps not surprisingly, is also not great). But sitting on long plane rides is one of the tradeoffs you make to live in cool, far-flung places. And, as I pointed out a while ago, living abroad does involve some tradeoffs.

My attitude on long-haul travel has shifted over the years. When I was a kid, I loved riding on planes and thought going to the airport was exciting and even a touch glamorous. Then 9-11 happened and I started to get really rattled by turbulence, which, I realize, is not logical, but there it is. (I guess my brain thought the terrorists were shaking the plane? I don’t know. Don’t question it). This new phobia meant that I no longer enjoyed the experience of being on a plane. Airports also no longer seemed glamorous, but instead seemed vaguely menacing. To make matters worse, over the years, my patience for sitting on my butt in a cramped plane seat has decreased as the hassle of air travel has increased. I mean, for the last twelve years or so, going to the airport has become such a colossal pain in the butt, you know? International travel is an even BIGGER pain in the butt, because of customs, and passport controls, and long lines, and time zones, and threat levels, and so on. Just the thought of it is exhausting. But you grit your teeth and you get through it. What’s the alternative? Don’t travel? Come on.

Of course, I miss the days when I looked forward to travel, but my attitude toward flying has improved a bit over the years. I no longer white-knuckle it through turbulence, unless it’s really bad. (This blog helped). Today’s travel, so far, has been really smooth, and even had a few moments of luck thrown in. The first bit of luck was that the guy in Heathrow decided not to charge me for my grossly overweight bag (which, oddly, never happens when I’m traveling with Al — hmm!). Then, I got an aisle seat on the plane (score!) and every single time I went to the bathroom (approximately 20 times), the lavatory was empty (double score!). That has NEVER happened to me on a flight before. Normally, I’m the small-bladdered lady standing in the aisle, impatiently waiting for someone to get out of the bathroom, already. But not today! My good luck sort of ran out in Boston when I couldn’t get on an earlier flight to San Francisco and I got charged $50 for my ginormous bag, but at least they let me check in for my flight six hours early. So things aren’t all bad.

Next time I write, I’ll be in San Francisco (and not on a plane OR in an airport). Can’t wait!

Expat Thanksgivings

I have celebrated many a Thanksgiving outside of the United States. My first foreign Thanksgiving was in 2003 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I was with some of my best friends from college and we were on a weeklong vacation from studying abroad in Santiago, Chile. We were all so caught up in the excitement of being in Rio for the first time (read: drunk), none of us remembered that it was Thanksgiving until close to midnight on Thursday, at which point we left whatever sweaty club we were patronizing and made our way to an open-air pizza parlor and ordered a bunch of pizzas, which we decided would have to substitute for turkey. In 2005, I celebrated Thanksgiving in Rio again, with my dear friend Julia. We met some Americans in a bar and hunted around until we found an Irish pub serving something that approximated turkey. Chicken, maybe? I don’t really remember. Alcohol may have been involved in the decision. (Are you seeing a pattern here?)

I also spent Thanksgiving 2010 in Brazil, this time in São Paulo. I got together with a bunch of friends — mostly Brazilian but with a few Canadian, English, and German people thrown into the mix, as well — and we cooked a proper Thanksgiving dinner with a real turkey, apple pie, and mashed potatoes. Pumpkin was nowhere to be found (seriously, Brazil?) so we did without, but I seem to recall that there were a lot of Brazilian goodies to be had, like brigadeiros, which make up for a lot.

And last year, Al and I celebrated Thanksgiving in Cape Town, to which I transported my labor of love, my from-SCRATCH pumpkin pie. This year, I’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving in London, with Al and my cousin John and a bunch of John’s friends. It’ll be the first non-US Thanksgiving I’ve had with any of my extended family in attendance, so that’ll be a nice change.

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving - always a classic!

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving – always a classic!

Expat Thanksgiving is always an odd experience — especially if you’re in a place where it’s hot in November and essential Thanksgiving food supplies are scarce, a la Brazil — but it can also be a really unique, wonderful way to celebrate the holiday. The thing is, when you celebrate Thanksgiving  outside of America, odds are, you’ll be spending it with at least some non-Americans who are interested in the holiday and think it’s a cool idea. And that’s kind of awesome, isn’t it? It’s cool to be able to share Thanksgiving dinner with people who aren’t gathering just for the turkey or pie or football or because that’s just what you do on the fourth Thursday in November, but because they value and admire the spirit behind the holiday: the idea of getting together with people you love to express gratitude. I love Thanksgiving because even though it’s a very American holiday (and yes, Canadian, too, but Canadians will readily agree that it’s a much bigger deal in America), the concept behind it translates universally: giving thanks for what we have. I love that non-Americans can get into the spirit of Thanksgiving just as easily and authentically as Americans. It’s just a lovely holiday all around.

Speaking of gratitude, I saw this video a while ago. Take the seven minutes and watch it, if you haven’t seen it already. It’s about the huge happiness boost we experience from expressing gratitude to the people in our lives who we love. I think Thanksgiving is the perfect, non-cheesy opportunity to grab your own happiness boost by letting your loved one(s) know that you appreciate them, don’t you? This year, as always, I’m really grateful for my husband, my parents, my cousins, and my friends, who, in my completely unbiased opinion, are all the absolute best. I’m also exceedingly grateful to still be plugging away at making my dream of becoming a professional writer come true. (Fittingly, today I completed 50,000 words in the third manuscript I’ve written since quitting my lawyer job a little over a year ago, so things are coming up Stephanie over here). So, all in all, I’m feeling good and grateful today. Happy Thanksgiving to one and all!

 

One year later

It’s been a whole year since I wrote my first post on this blog, in which I fretted about moving to South Africa while recovering from a bout of typhoid fever and an über-traumatic last week at the law firm. In the intervening year, as with most years, a lot has happened. We’ve moved from the US to South Africa to the UK. We’ve traveled to a bunch of new countries. I’ve launched a fledgling writing career. We’ve made new friends. I’ve discovered sewing and rediscovered knitting. Overall, my life is a lot better than it used to be, and I wake up most days looking forward to the day to come.

But when I stop and think about it, it actually doesn’t feel like a whole year has passed. Perhaps this is because all of the big life changes over the past year — quitting my job, moving abroad, starting a new career — happened in rapid succession, and I’ve just spent the rest of the year adjusting to a new routine. The year marker also feels a bit arbitrary, because we’re still in the midst of our big International Adventure, and it doesn’t seem appropriate to do any real retrospective thinking until I’m back in the US and can look at my time abroad with some remove.

A year in, though, here are a few things I can say that I have learned so far:

  1. I like routine. And I like feeling like I have a home. I wrote about this here and my feelings on the matter have only become more acute, because Al and I have had to pick up and move within London several times since then. We’ve been in our current apartment for less than a week and we’re moving again tomorrow. It’s a giant pain. When you move so frequently, and with such short notice, it’s not even worth unpacking your suitcases. I hate that. As much as I love seeing different parts of London, I long for a settled place in the city, somewhere I can use the drawers and closets and get into a comfortable routine. I guess there’s nothing like living like a (reasonably well-to-do) vagabond for an extended period of time that makes one appreciate the comforts of home. Also, it teaches you flexibility. And flexibility is good, right?
  2. South Africa was a mix of good and bad, and that’s okay. Just the other night, I was telling Al that there are certain things I miss about South Africa. The weather, for one. The intense, clear blue of the sky. The vivid sunsets. That wintry wood-smoke smell. Our big, roomy apartment with the little balcony and barbecue. Our car, as unreliable and beat-up as it was. The cost of living. The steak. The wine. But, I realized, it’s possible for me to miss all of that and still never want to live in Joburg again. It’s also possible to say that I disliked Joburg as a city but liked our life there. Life is tricky like that.
  3. Rejections are tough. Enough said.
  4. Having a support network is important. Duh.
  5. I miss the US, but I’m not desperate to go back. I think maybe in the spring, or even after New Year’s, I’ll feel really ready to go back to the States. But right now, I’m content to stay in London a bit longer; I really like it here. (It would just help if we could nail down the housing situation.)
  6. I wouldn’t want to do this with anyone but Al. The thing that no one tells you about having an international adventure is that it’s full of annoyances. Living abroad, it turns out, requires juggling an immense amount of logistics. And logistics are a pain in the ass. It helps to have a partner who you like when you’re trying to figure out how to not go bat-poop insane when you have to move for the fourth time in a month, or when your power goes out, or when you get not one but two flat tires in a foreign country, or what have you. Living abroad, even in a cushy, convenient place like London, is always a challenge. If you and your partner come out  of it still liking each other and wanting to travel together, so much the better. Being here with Al has reinforced what I already knew about him: he’s patient, adventurous, and flexible. He also listens to me when I whine about having to pack up my knitting stuff. He gets it. Getting it is important.  IMG_4334
  7. Being abroad makes me more aware of my Americanness. There are two sides to this coin, of course. Occasionally, I’ll see something that will make me feel smug and superior because I know my country has its s**t figured out on that issue. Walking on one side of the sidewalk, for instance. America has that DOWN. England? Not so much. Another example: Chinese food. England, please take notes on this. And don’t even get me started on Mexican food. But then, there are other things that make me realize how a**-backwards certain things are in my beloved country. There are the obvious examples (healthcare! education! Miley Cyrus!) but there are also subtle things. Like, in London, MOST movie theaters that I’ve been to serve booze. In DC, I can only think of one movie theater off the top of my head (The E Street Cinema) that does that. What gives, America? Also, London’s public transportation system is great, the post office is quick and efficient (which, as an American, is mind-blowing), and they have double-decker buses. Makes me think America needs to get on the ball, and fast. But then I’ll watch an episode of Hens Behaving Badly or see a drunk girl peeing in the street at ten o’clock at night and I’ll go right back to feeling smug and superior. So, it’s a mixed bag.
  8. I am officially too old to stay in hostels with shared bathrooms. There, I said it.

I’ve probably learned other things along the way but those are the big ones. So, I’m just going to continue enjoying my time abroad and figuring things out. Maybe I’ll check back in a year from now and tell you what else I’ve learned.

Traveling v. settling in

For almost a year now, Al and I have been lucky enough to live abroad: first in South Africa and now in the United Kingdom. When we signed up to do this international stint, we wanted an adventure: namely, the opportunity to live in and travel to new places. And we’ve certainly gotten that. When we were in Joburg, we got to travel all around Southern Africa, and now that we’re here in London, we’ve gotten to go to Scotland (twice!), Denmark, and Corsica, and hopefully we’ll get to do a bit more traveling before we leave. It’s pretty awesome. Al and I look at each other sometimes and reflect on how lucky we are to be able to do this.

BUT. (You knew there was a “but” coming, right?)

The truth is that the price of being mobile (or, to put it differently, being hobos) for a year and a half is that there is a crap ton (i.e., a lot) of uncertainty about where we’re going next, and when. The way we’ve chosen to do this within Al’s company has meant that we must go where Al gets staffed, with little notice ahead of time. So, although we’ve been in the UK for three months now, we don’t know how much longer we’ll be here, or even where we’ll go next if we don’t stay here. There’s always a cloud of uncertainty hanging over our heads in the short term, which means that we have to be really flexible. And being flexible is hard.

Have international driver's license; will travel.

Have international driver’s license; will travel.

The other day, for example, we had to move out of our corporate apartment and check into a hotel for one night and then move back into the corporate apartment. In preparing to do this, we realized how much stuff we had accumulated (and I will take credit for a lot of it: my sewing and knitting habit adds up to a lot of crafty detritus) and how annoying it is to have to haul all of it around London. We resolved to do a purge of our stuff when we get back to DC, and in the meantime, to put a lot of it in storage so that we can move more easily on short notice, if we need to. This is the sensible solution; it’s always better to have less stuff.

BUT.

The stuff I’ve accumulated — sewing books, knitting needles, yarn, cloth, thread, scissors, the handmade products of my labors, and so on — represents, to me, a life in one place. And, despite my love of travel, I really like living life in one place. Don’t get me wrong, traveling is great! But I enjoy having a home to come back to afterwards. And home, to me, means a place where I have bags of yarn and needles, books on shelves, tea and edibles well-stocked, and clothes put away in closets and drawers. When you’re living out of suitcases for extended periods of time, it just doesn’t feel like home. I’ve realized that the main tradeoff to being wild and crazy guys/gals who travel around the world on a moment’s notice is that you must leave behind the stuff that makes a place feel lived-in. Al and I have always differed a bit on this front: he relishes the thrill of traveling to new places. I do, too, but I’ve always preferred settling into a place. I like traveling somewhere and then putting down roots, getting to know the place, pretending to be a local. This is what I did when I moved to Brazil, for example. And to be honest, I’ve really started to settle into London, which means, if we have to leave, it’ll be hard.

I’ve been trying to adjust my attitude about uncertainty. I remind myself how lucky we are to be doing this and how exciting it will be to see new things. If the trade-off for traveling to marvelous new places and having adventures is that I have to put away the cozy trappings of home and shake up my comfortable routine, so be it. That’s what we’ve chosen to do. But it’s nice to know that when this adventure is over, we’ll be staying in one place for a while.

Until then, I’m going to take my knitting bag with me.

What I like about DC

We’re back in DC after more than eight months away (holy moly!) and being here after so long is throwing this city into sharp relief for me. Suddenly, I’m remembering all the things that drive me bat-poop bonkers about this place (see, e.g., the Red Line), but also all the wonderful stuff that makes DC the place I want to live permanently.

I have a love-hate relationship with this.

I have a love-hate relationship with this.

Last night, after a great dinner with some of our best DC friends, Al and I walked back to our hotel and talked about what we miss about this place. We both agreed that we’re glad we’re doing this stint abroad (with more international adventures still to come over the next year!) but that we’ll be very glad to head back to Our Nation’s Capital when the time comes. There’s just a lot of things to love about this place.

So here, without further ado, is a short list of things I like about DC:

  1. Weather. Yes, summers tend to be muggy and, one might fairly argue, swampy. Literally. Like, the city was built on a swamp. But you know what? It’s temperate! There are seasons. And Shorts Weather lasts for a long time, which is really all you can ask for from a place.
  2. Monuments. I’m talking huge, in-yo’-face, impressive monuments. Every time I come back to DC after being away, I marvel at much the city looks like a movie set, with all of these big, famous monuments just crammed together. It looks fake — but it’s not. Although, contrary to what TV would have us believe, people don’t actually conduct business meetings at the feet of the Lincoln Memorial or while dipping their feet in the reflecting pool. Sorry.
  3. Walkability. After being cooped up at home in Joburg for so long, there’s something deliciously liberating about being able to walk places, by myself, when I please. You know what I’ve really missed? Sidewalks.
  4. Food. Over the last few years, DC has evolved into a great food city, and it feels like there are still new restaurants and new chefs popping up all the time. And dang, this city does a good lunch salad. I missed you, Chop’t.
  5. Friends. Al and I have a great group of friends here and we miss them. Can’t wait until we can hang out with them again on the regular.
  6. Location. DC is so convenient. You can get anywhere on the East Coast easily, either by flying or driving, and it’s midway between Europe and California. After having lived for the past eight months in a country that feels impossibly remote from everything and everyone, I now really appreciate DC’s accessibility.
  7. Happy hour. This city runs on happy hours. It’s basically like one of those Brazilian cars that runs on alcohol. And now that I’m no longer chained to a desk at a law firm, I may even be able to enjoy the DC tradition of meeting for early drinks, often on a rooftop somewhere.
  8. Culture. Gotta love a city that has the Smithsonian museums, the National Zoo, theater, and live music. You never have an excuse to be bored here.
  9. International influence. DC has to be one of the most international cities in the world. Period, the end.
  10. NPR. I’m a public radio junkie and I love that NPR is based right here. It also makes me think my ultimate life goal of becoming best friends with all of the hosts of Pop Culture Happy Hour may eventually become a reality. Here’s hoping.
  11. Family. DC seems like one of the rare big cities in the US where you could theoretically raise children without them automatically becoming entitled, privileged monsters. Just my impression, although I’m not ruling anything out at this point.
DC Metro. Sure, the occasional person dies on the escalator. But at least there's public transportation.

DC Metro. Sure, the occasional person dies on the escalator. But at least there’s public transportation here.

Of course, there are things about DC, as I mentioned above, that make me want to wring its figurative neck. But that’s going to be the case for any city, anywhere in the world. Nowhere’s perfect. But DC is a pretty good match for me, and I’m looking forward to living here again, after our international sojourn. See you next spring, DC!