Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Fabulous Oddities of Expat Life

The other night on the couch, Rob said, "I find myself thinking in British English sometimes." And it's true; I do too. One of the odd things about not just just expat life, but about moving in general as often as we do, is the way you can feel like an imposter as you integrate into your new life. After four years in Nashville, I was throwing out hearty "y'alls" like I was born and raised in the deep South. A neighbor even praised me for it, saying he was glad I didn't say "you guys" like the other Northerners he knew. It left me confused. When I would talk to family or my Midwestern friends on the phone, I was aware of the "Bless your hearts" and the "y'alls" that peppered my speech. I felt like a fake. So I self-edited and carefully enunciated, "How are you all" or yep, said the dreaded "you guys." But if you're correcting away from what feels natural, isn't that being a faker too? 

And now, here we are....Americans living in Luxembourg, learning French and hearing British English. Plasters for Band-aids, Maths for math, crisps for chips, torch for flashlight, brilliant for awesome. Communications from the school ask the kids to choose their "favourite colour" and to wear a Christmas jumper. In order to live in a foreign country and thrive, you force yourself to embrace the strangeness and daily discomfort of a completely new way of life. After 18 months, we're forever changed; the brain does funny things to help you adapt and assimilate.  I no longer break into a sweat speaking French on the phone, not because my language skills have necessarily improved, but because I'm totally comfortable -- even conditioned -- to sounding ridiculous. Like mixing up the word for monkey and blood when I'm speaking to the kids' pediatrician. Even at home, I offer the kids biscuits instead of cookies, and I take them to the piscine instead of the pool. The first time my British girlfriend told me she was shattered, I texted a mutual (American) friend and we planned a quasi-intervention. Then I found out she was just telling me she was particularly tired with a newborn at home. As a mother of four living in a foreign country, I too am shattered. Absolutely shattered.

Being an expat abroad means we've all unilaterally left our families behind. While we have emotional support from back home (wherever that may be) and the gift of technology to connect "face-to-face," tactical, on-the-ground support comes from friends, and that means our friends become like family. We lean harder, ask more of each other and change some of the rules. Girlfriends I had only known for eight weeks sat with me in my hospital room after I had our fourth baby; they brought my family meals, picked my kids up from school and stopped by the pharmacy to buy my nursing supplies. Nothing like having a brand new friend pick up your nipple cream. But some relationships have a temporary undercurrent -- expats are an itinerant population. Everyone's always coming and going, and traveling every weekend to get the most out of our collective European Experience. We all leave for the summer and come back right before school starts. It's kind of like we're on an extended college spring break. 

As a former expat kid now raising expat kids, my story may have seemed a little interesting when we were living in middle America. But over here, where Italians marry French, raise their kids in Belgium, summer in Majorca, and everyone speaks four languages by the time they reach high school...well, my story is not at all unique or even remotely interesting. I've moved 14 times since I was born, including 5 different countries and 6 states in the U.S. (that's not including a cute college study abroad or local moves from house to house). I hesitate internally when people ask me where I'm from while I make a snap decision between the quick answer or the real answer. I usually say, "Oh, I went to high school in Peoria, IL," which is where Caterpillar's world headquarters are (most of my family and my husband work for the company). Fast forward to the present, and by my youngest son's fourth birthday, he had already lived through four transfers. I was taken aback when my six year old's first grade teacher told me matter of factly that Charlie didn't know where he was from, and I felt sad last year when my daughter walked out of 2nd grade and expressed the same confusion while writing a school essay. When you picture giving your children roots "so they have wings to fly"....this wasn't quite what I imagined. So I googled "Raising expat kids" and gave them my best shot: Home is always going to be wherever our family is together. 


They wanted to know where we're really from. So I gave it another try. I told them that since we lived in Nashville the longest, that we're most likely moving back to Nashville one day (it's where Caterpillar's financial headquarters are located) and that two of four children in our family were born there, that's where we call home. The fact is they probably have a lifetime ahead of choosing between the quick answer or the real answer.

We're all a hodgepodge of our life experiences. Real roots come from my children's sense of security and trust in the world, which is established through our daily interactions from the moment they're born. It comes from their absolute confidence that they are loved and safe, and that our family is a ironclad unit. The experiences we're gaining from moving and traveling are teaching them to march into new classrooms, try something completely new, and appreciate new cultures and religions. I love watching them make friends in an airport or a playground -- when they can't understand each other, they just run around in circles and laugh. What a beautiful language. Last night, Madeline's entire horseback riding lesson was in Luxembourgish, of which we do not speak a single word. She observed the girls around her and followed suit. And if you can believe it, in her first-ever group lesson, she actually fell off her horse, brushed the dirt off her face, wiped her tears and was back on her horse by the time I made it to the ring. However cliché, there couldn't be a more apt or timely life metaphor. We're bumbling through our days, doing the best we can, laughing at our mistakes, ordering pommes de terres (potatoes) instead of jus de pommes (apple juice) when the waiter asks what we'd like to drink. And sometimes we throw out a "y'all" and a "voila" all in the same sentence.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Beautiful Barcelona for the Weekend

Though Rob and I each visited Barcelona during our college and post-college days, we were excited to go back with the kids and maybe even feel some Mediterranean sun on our faces (it's been gray in Luxembourg for quite a few months now.)
We took the kids out of school on Thursday. A quick flight later, and after checking into our 250 year old apartment in the heart of the stylish El Born neighborhood, we walked straight to the beach along the harbor with gelato in hand. It was only 50 degrees, but the kids peeled off their socks and shoes, playing in the sand and surf for an hour until the sun started to set -- we had to drag them away. I looked on with Rob and was overcome in the moment. This is it, I told him. This...right everything. Happy, healthy children; our family together, having fun and traveling the world.

All six of us in one small carry on. 
The street leading up to our door...
Fresh coconut on the beach blew young John's mind!
On our way home, we stopped in a tiny supermercado so we'd have some eggs for the morning. While the kids warmed up in hot showers, Rob brought home fresh pizza (an El Born specialty!); each slice had different toppings -- Iberian ham, corn, Spanish sausage. Even though we rented a four bedroom apartment, Madeline, Charlie and John slept together in the same room every night; they were so tired after our long days that they didn't even have enough energy to giggle before they passed out.
The next day we had exciting sense that the city of Barcelona was unfolding before us. The city workers scrubbed the streets, and the bells rang in the gorgeous Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar, which was 100 feet from our front door. There was so much to see and absorb! But with the kids so young, we really balance sightseeing with what their little legs can handle. Lots of resting. Lots of gelato.
We took a cab over to the Basilica de la Segrada Familia, Gaudi's unfinished masterpiece. Even though I'd seen it 20 years ago, I still gasped as we climbed out of the taxi. My guidebook said it looked like "a cake left out in the rain." As always, we got there early so there was no line to see the interior. After walking through so many European cathedrals, it's amazing that they're still actively building this one -- only four of the 16 spires are built, and there were construction workers scaling the sides of the church, mini excavators tearing into the Earth around it. I felt like a part of living history. However, four year old John didn't. He wanted mango. So we crossed the street, got him a smoothie, popped in a FC Barcelona soccer museum and took a cab over to La Boqueria, an open air food market that's been around since the 13th century. We bought John an overflowing cup of fresh mango and walked around, taking in the sights and smells -- octopus, eggs, fruit, vegetables and fresh empanadas, which we ate for lunch.
Chocolate-covered strawberry Light Sabers!
From there, Rob took the kids home for a rest and I went to the Picasso museum, which was so close we could have jumped to it from our apartment balcony. Bitsy was taking her afternoon nap in the carrier so I needed to stay on my feet.
Saturday was the perfect travel day. We tossed the guidebooks aside and explored with no agenda. Within minutes, we stumbled into what we thought was a train station and turned out to be El Born Cultural Center with excavated ruins from the 1700s.
One block further, and the kids were running in the sunshine though the Park le la Cuitadella. Orange trees, wide gravel paths, cultivated plants, a gorgeous fountain and balloon vendors. Rob took the kids out in a paddle boat while Bitsy napped on me in the carrier. We had a beautiful Argentinian lunch, then walked over the Palau de la Musica Catalana. Since the tour was an hour and the kids were getting tired, we crossed the street and let them spend their allowances in a store called Ale Hop -- a bit like Claire's, but strangely packed with elegant looking adults too. I only mention it because the kids loved it so much we went five times for alien pens, cheeseburger and oreo shaped pillows, and sunglasses. It was an easy concession for us since the kids were being so good as we explored Barcelona.
We stopped at a local farmers market and bought homemade carrot cake 
The kids took a seat at a public water fountain
Ways to guarantee people know we're tourist: Buy a 5 Euro balloon and tie it to the stroller. I couldn't stop laughing as I took this shot! 
The Catalan Music Palace
That night, we had an early Tapas dinner and it was a highlight of the trip! The restaurant was packed and convivial. They led us up to an alcove with low tables, a bench and four tiny stools. The kids lapped up mussels, meatballs, spinach with pine nuts, goat cheese over roasted red peppers, Iberian sausage. John flirted with two women on the other side of the window the entire meal. As we left, John's new best friend complimented the kids on their manners and the way they ate such interesting and different foods with gusto. These small moments mean so much to me.
We had to order John a second round of mussels.

The next morning we had just enough time for one last trip to the beach. Then we hopped on our plane, flew over the gorgeous Alps, and arrived home in Luxembourg to a yard full of snow! Barcelona the second time over was absolutely fabulous!
Pictures don't do this any justice.