Posts in expat
Twelve Years

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Twelve years ago today, I got on a plane with the remaining 2 suitcases of my belongings and came to Britain.  It was only supposed to be a year at most before I headed back with Kevin to study midwifery at the University of Pennsylvania.

Plans changed. Laws changed. September 11th happend and the world changed. We stayed in a country I'd never intended of calling home.

Sometimes, being an expat is living an awesome adventure. It is finding a place (or a person) that you love so very much, you make it your home. It is immersing yourself in a culture. It is getting attention for the way you talk or the way you spell or the way you just are a little bit different.

Sometimes though, it is more like a direct blow to your chest that has been riddled with the holes of things that are lost. The ways in which you will always be outside and different. It is always being asked if we are going "home". It is Ellis, asking if my friend can be his mama because then he would be "really Scottish" or when I am going back to me "real family".  It is missing tomatoes and watermelons and warmth.

I love my life, but the bad days are hard. I retrace the path that brought us here over and over in my mind. The choices and decisions, all made with the best intentions, that have lead us to a place we didn't know existed. It is a good place - full of friends and mountains and sea, fufilling work and happy children. But on the bad days, I have to wonder if we had known what we were giving up. If we had known , I don't know if we would have made the same choices...

...but here we are 12 years on. And today, I am mostly grateful for my adopted home the single most beautiful place I have ever seen, let alone lived. For the way Ellis rolls his "rrrr"s, particularly when he says "Gruffalo". For friends who are like family. For European coffee and non-GM soy milk. For free health care. For custard creams, haggis and tattie scones. For an amazing career and business that is deeply rooted here in Britain.

Here is to 12 years!

 

And Then The Heavens Opened

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I love a thunderstorm.  The rain, the noise, the excitement.  It is so rare to have one here in Scotland, I find it even difficult to remember the last one.  But my heart sings with it all...the build up, the torrents, the thunderous booms, the way the air is so crisp and clear afterwards. This afternoon's storm was short, but powerful and perfect...

...and slightly heartbreaking. As the years go on, the things that I miss about the States peel back to the elemental level: my family, the storms, the sweet corn by the bushel. 

At least I have the storm. 

Family/Friends

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Anyone who lives far from family knows that friends are crucial.  They become surrogate aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters. The are the ones who come in an emergency and pop round at exactly the right moment for a cup of tea.

In this department, Kevin and I could not be luckier, as we have people who do wonderful things like:

- cook for tired parents who have been living for weeks on the catagory of meals that ends in "On Toast"

- give the small children sugar and deal with the consequences

- let those same small children trash her house AND then clean up after them.

And give a sewing mama a wonderful gift of beloved things, including this:

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I want to make dresses and pinafores and aprons and headcerchiefs out of it.

I want to redecorate my house to match.

I want to cut off a small square to carry around in my pocket like a comfort blanket, I love it that much.

And with 3 curtains measuring 5x2 meters each, I should be able to do all of that with some left over.

 

Fabric is good...

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...but friends are better.

 

A List and A Recipe

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Some things you may or may not like to know:

-Ellis has started at a new nursery, in the mornings.  He loves it and so far we have fallen into a nice rhythm with it. The bonus is that the school actually has kids from our neighbourhood in it, so we may get to know some people.

- I have decided that while schooling goes against my 'rage against the machine' nature, I am going to view it as a cross-cultural experience to embed my family in the culture here. It feels too imperialistic to live in a country and deign that its schooling system isn't good enough for my children. I want them to be rooted in the community we live in and it seems to me that school is the best way to do it. (If you are an expat that homeschools, do tell how you get over this issue, because I am stumped.)

- On  a school-related issue, I received an email a couple of days ago expressing concern over my poor use of punctuation and grammar.  I am sorry Mr N, I was too busy being failed by the system in 8th grade when we were learning about grammar ;)

- In other news, I have got my cooking mojo back. I just decided that it would be easier to just have us all give up gluten and have been slowly finding our way into a gluten free lifestyle, except for sandwich bread.  So far the biggest hits are this GF pizza dough and GF scones with sundried tomatoes and pesto (recipe below).

- As of this week, I have also given up sugar.  I realised that I was getting into a terrible cycle of sugar in everything - starting with my morning cup of coffee and ending with an enormous crash at about 3pm. Today is the first day since monday I don't feel sick or have a headache.  I do, however, reserve the right to each chocolate Guiness cake on special occasions ;)

- I have reopened the hat shop. I have just lion, owl and viking hats in there at the minute, but I have a few more designs in the pipeline, if I can get them made.

- Have I already bored you all with how much I love this new song by Laura Marling?  What about this one by Florence?

- OK, better go.  The sun is shining and I am going to drag my grumpy children out into it, wether they want to or not.

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GF and DF Sundried Tomato and Pesto 'Scones'

2 cups GF mix plain flour (I use Dove's Farms)

5T. dairy free 'butter'

1t Bicarb of soda (baking soda)

2t baking powder

1/2 cup finely chopped sundried tomatoes (the ones in oil work best)

4 T. Pesto (I use dairy free pesto)

1/4 cup 'milk'

 

So, I know its not the 'right' way to make scones, but what I do is throw all of the ingredients except the milk into the food processor and give it a quick whizz.  Then I add the milk in splashes until the dough just comes together. I pat it out into a large circle about 3/4in thick on a baking tray and cut it into triangles.  Bake at 180C for aprox 12 minutes or until cooked. 

Like many GF baked items, these are quite crumbly, so do not (as I just did) hand one to your 18 month old and let her wander around your just hoovered lounge.  

Notes on Expatriatism

 

An Out of Focus Me

 

It was his enthusiasm that gave him away.  His accent had pricked my ears minutes before and the wheels in my head started to click with recognition, but it was the jaunty way he ran to get a customer a pack of tissues that sealed the deal.

"You are American." I said with a knowing smile as I reached the checkout desk he manned.

"Um, yes." 

"Where are you from?" I replied. He started to run his fingers through his hair and look around.

"I'm from the Midwest. Its a state called Missouri.  You've probably never heard of it." He had the same look I am sure I get on my face as I wait for a Brit to tell me they'd been to Florida/Las Vegas/New York/California.

I laughed.  "I'm from Iowa."

"You are? I never would have guessed. You don't have much of an accent."

We chatted for a few minutes, each laying out the tangled map of what brought us to this small town in the Hillfoots of Scotland. He rang my soya milk and bread through the till. I paid.  We said our goodbyes and I walked back up the hill to my house and wondered...

Are you still American if other Americans don't recognise your accent? It has faded to a point where I am asked as often in Iowa as I am here, "Where are you from?" My accent may no longer be the clear American it used to be, it isn't of the Hillfoots either. Maybe its wrong to mourn the loss of something so small, but now when I speak, here or there, I am always the Other.

Are you still American if you no longer feel American?  I don't feel British, but I do feel like I belong here. I like things--trains and busses, butchers and haggis, strong coffee and rolled "rrrrrrrrrr"s. I feel at home here, even if its not "home".  When we found out I was pregnant with Theo and imagined some sort of terrible car crash of chaos that we assumed would follow the 2 children one year apart, we looked at moving back to Iowa.  We saw the things I love about the place:  sweet corn at the side of the road, red-winged blackbirds, fields that stretch on forever and my crazy family. But we ultimately dismissed it because, quite simply, we don't fit there...no matter how much I miss my family. I have been gone too long.  Something has altered in a way that means I can never be fully American in the same way again. 

My own confusion aside, by all governmental standards I am still American.  I don't have a British passport and until I get one, I only have permission to stay...a permission that could be revoked. The financial outlay for becoming British is one we can not make, so for now I remain a guest of the Queen. 

Of course, my children are both, entering each country on a different passport.  Ellis talks about his American family as much as his British one.  We are fortunate to be able to give them roots in both places and can only hope it will strengthen their identity. With all of my heart, I hope they never feel the sense of rootlessness that I do. 

As for me I guess I inhabit somewhere in the Mid-Atlantic, like my accent neither here nor there, but somewhere in between.  I will continue to take a greater interest in my local life and place, grounding us here.  But we will also continue to honor the American side...make and eat Pumpkin Pie, give thanks on the last Thursday in November and celebrate the 4th of July (though maybe not with the same enthusiasm as the previous 2 years ;).

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Just as I was about to post this, I saw this quote on a friend's facebook status:

‎"I think all people who migrate feel a sense of loss," she says. "It puts you in a vulnerable position; you don't know the language and you don't have a home. Migration is cruel - forever belonging nowhere."
(naema tahir)

yes, indeed. Maybe not as epic, but yes. 

 

You Can Take the Girl Out of Iowa
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My accent has shifted somewhere in the mid-Atlantic.  I have developed a taste for haggis, mince pies and Jaffa cakes. I use "trolley" instead of "cart", "boot" instead of "trunk" and "rubbish" instead of "garbage".

But there are still some things I can't understand...

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And so when the 3 inches of snow arrived and schools were cancelled, I had to laugh.  When neighbours complained about the cold, I was out and about in just a sweater. 

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My children, though, seem to take after their South African father and do not enjoy the cold without 17 layers and a lot of coaxing. We ventured to Edinburgh for the Christmas market on Sunday and poor Ellis was not happy to be out in the cold. It seems the South African genes are harder to shake...

These are the only pictures I've been able to take of the snow, as I have spent every spare moment trying to cheer up my southern hemisphere children in the cold...

Maybe the Iowan genes will be passed to number 3...

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I promise to pick the giveaway winner tonight!  Sorry, time is escaping me at the minute!

 

expatKat Goldin Comments
Expat Living :: Why Doesn't It Get Easier?

With almost everything else in my life, I become more adept with time and practice.  The more I knit, the better I get.  The more I cook, the richer, deeper, faster and more flavourful my meals become.  The more I write, the easier the words fly off my fingers.  The longer I work in my job, the better a resource I am for my organisation.  With each month of parenting, each milestone covered, I am a better mother.

Why then, does being an expat seem to get harder with each year?  I have lived outside of the US for all of my adult life.  I have been in the UK for 10 years.  I have gone for years without seeing my brothers, sisters and parents. I have a wonderful network of friends here who are like family.  I can count on one hand the things I truly miss from my American world.

But every time I have to say goodbye to my mother, when either of us get on a plane to go home, I find the whole experience gut-wrenching.  Each time I speak to or Skype with my dad, or connect in any way to my American family, I am reminded of what I am missing.

Of course, I understand that the time we do spend together is not a real picture of what day to day life would be like if we lived on the same continent.  International travel isn't something any of us take lightly and visits are rare and precious so we make more effort to really be together, to clear the decks and spend quality time being a family. 

However, while the quality over quantity argument goes a long way, in the lives of small children, quantity counts for a lot. They grow so very quickly and their memories are short. Popping round for a cup of tea, shared holidays, 'just happened to be in the neighbourhood' visits mean a lot in the transient world of childhood. Simply being present may not be everything, but it's importance can't be underestimated.

Over 10 years, I have said a lot of goodbyes. Some have been quiet and sad, some have been close to spectacle, complete with sobs and running back to give that one last hug. But with however much practice I have, it doesn't make any of it any easier or make me cry less when the time comes.

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I miss you already, Mama.

Take Me Out To The Ball Game
The crack of the bat. The smell of leather and popcorn.  Thechanting, the songs, the umpires....God, I hate baseball. 

For years, I was forced to participate in my school's team and I count it as one of  the greatest traumas of my life.  With no co-ordination, hand-eye skills or desire, I can safely say I was the worst player that ever stepped foot onto that field. Each year, I would beg to be cut from the line-up, but being in such a small school, they needed all of the players they could get.  So I stood in right-field and seethed. A life-long loathing of America's past-time was born on that grassy expanse in Lisbon, Iowa.

 
With all of this behind me, why then do I have fleeting moments of deep love for the American bat and ball game?  Why on earth is there a slight sadness about the fact my son will never play? Why do pictures of friends' children at their Little League games bring a tear to my eye?
 
I think it has something to do with nostalgia. While doing research in India, I remember reading a newspaper article about a study of Indian immigrants to the UK and US.  Researchers found that expats would frequently take on a stronger stereotypical cultural identity in their adopted country than at home.  For example, women would wear saris whereas in India they wore western dress.  Indian food was cooked and consumed more frequently and other cultural markers were adopted with more vigour than previously.
 
When asked why they did this, the common response was simply that they missed these aspects of their culture and wanted to preserve parts of their identity. In short, they were nostalgic.
 
I catch myself becoming intransigent about certain Americanisms.  I refuse to rhyme the words, "claw" and "war" or "plane" and "again" when we read stories.  I force everyone to eat s'mores when we camp, even though I don't really like them.  I made my husband stay up all night for the American elections.  I see other expats doing similar things.  Scots in America wearing kilts as day-to-day attire. A Japanese friend wears a kimono to all fancy events, even though she admits she hates the thing.  A Polish colleague who forces her girls to go to the Polish Language and Dancing classes in their town, even though she and her daughters are all terrible dancers and don't enjoy it very much.  
 
I can't help but think of the Owens Lee Pomeroy quote, "Nostalgia is like a grammar lesson.  You find the present tense, but the past perfect."  We distil the essence of our home culture (or our childhoods) into the iconic moments, tastes, sounds and experiences that are normally just pieces of the larger "way of life" soup we inhabit.  These things are easily transportable, easily assigned to a specific culture and blurred by the distance of time and space that we now look back upon them...even if we didn't particularly love them the first time 'round. 
 
Parenting in this environment is a fine balance.  On one hand, I want E-man to understand  and value his heritage, on another I want him to feel like he belongs to this place.   I can give him a taste of what an American childhood is like, but must remember to not make him suffer too much.
 

And so for the meantime, I will request a T-ball set from America, put on some rose-tinted glasses and yell, "Batter Up!"

This American Life

This life I live in America is so different from the one I lead in Scotland.

In this life, a collector's obsession is always on hand to act as a knitwear model.

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In this life, I borrow fabulous and impractical shoes.

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In this life, I am a daughter, a sister, an aunt and a life-long friend.
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In this life, I don't have to leave the car to get cash, throw things in the rubbish or order expensive, fancy coffee.
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In this life, small boys sometimes have chocolate for breakfast...and a bath straight after.

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In this life, my childhood sits next to my motherhood.
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Things that you lose that you can't get back

Nothing sends fear into the heart of an expat like a phone call.  Its not necessarily middle of the night, like the stereotype.  It can be any time of day.  But there is always something slightly wrong about it.  Its before work, or mid-afternoon and the voice on the other end of the phone is beloved, but out of place.  They shouldn't be phoning you, not now, not at this time. 

And then comes the news.  And the sadness, guilt and regret breaks out of the dam that has been built up for a long time. 

I have lived in many places.  3 continents.  4 countries.  I left the US at the tender age of 17 to see the world.  At the time, it seemed like a great adventure. It was.  I have seen things, met people and learned more than any book could teach me or film could show me.

I can't pin point the moment where it stopped being an adventure and started being life.  Probably when my son was born.  Shortly after, an uncle took me aside at a family reunion.  He told me I needed and "stop fooling around" asked me when I was going to put down roots. I realised that I had...there and here.

In the absence of my family on this small island, I have friends and my husband's family that are as dear.  When I see the hills or start chatting to random strangers in Glasgow, a bit of me feels at home. My village, my house, walking, public transport, vanilla flavoured Mueller Rice, National Health Insurance, hot cross buns and Jaffa cakes...just some of the things that I can not imagine living with out.

And then comes those phone calls from across the Atlantic and I am ripped apart.  So far away from the people I love and helpless.  All I can do is send a message in a bottle (or email, or phone call) and hope its received with some of the meaning it was intended to hold.

I have often said that I don't know if I would make the same choices again, knowing what I know now.  Knowing the things that you give up when you pack up and leave.  Things that you don't get back. 

And then I hear a wee boy say "Bird" with his crazy Scottish/American/South African accent. I see his delight at walking past the train station every day.  I smell his delicious scent coming out of the bath. I hold his small hand in mine when we cross the street and I take comfort in the fact that for everything I have lost. For every moment, I am not there pacing the floor with a brother or holding the hand of a sister. I have gained the companionship of a small boy. Who would not be here, but for a husband who lives on this island and the alchemy of time and place that created my beautiful boy.

The comfort is small, but it is a powerful one.  It forces me to stay present in my life and not wander too far into the "What ifs". And I can be nothing but grateful.

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