Stories and insights into life as an expat

I am an Embarrassing American Mom

by Allison Ochs, M.S.W.
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When my daughter was eight, I went to pick her up from sailing on a Wednesday afternoon. I merrily walked through the harbor in my cute summer dress, very pleased with my life abroad. There I was on the shores of Lake Geneva, and my adorable daughter was sailing and speaking French to other children. As I approached, she smiled and looked up as I introduced myself to her new trainer with my very pronounced accent, "Bonjour, je suis la maman de Carli" (Hi, I'm Carli's mom). He looked me up and down as if I was some weird creature from Mars, not the cute mom of this adorable little French-speaking girl. He then he looked at Carli; everyone was staring at us and I realized how much Carli wanted me to be like all the other moms, without the accent, the bold personality and overly excited approach to life. I explained I was American, mentally shrugged and the two of us started chattering in English as we walked away with everyone's eyes glued to us.

This scenario has replayed itself over and over. My daughter told me she was at a storytelling event and a young Irish man was speaking. She spoke to him creating small talk, "So where are you from?" She meant where in Ireland but when he answered, "I am Dutch," she about fell over. I am sure that young man had this scenario play out as well with his parents when he was a child in Ireland.

Going local or sending your children to a school in a language that isn't your mother tongue means you will embarrass your kids with your accent and strange ways, you won't be able to help them with their homework all the time, you will misunderstand things, and they will feel at a disadvantage.

I thought we would grow out of this, but at 22 my daughter still complains that even though she is fluent and did all of her schooling in French, others tell her she isn't a "true" native speaker. Actually, she isn't a native anywhere and just has to live with comments about how her vocabulary isn't the best in every language.

Is it my fault? Am I to blame? Maybe. I sure tried to fit in everywhere, but regardless of my efforts, this happens. Even if I change passports,  I will forever remain the crazy American mom; I might as well drape a flag over my shoulders. It's the life of an expat child: no matter how much you try to improve your vocabulary and be perfect, someone will make a comment. This is just something you will have to grin and bear.

 

Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash

Trapped in My Accent

by Allison Ochs, MSW
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When I moved to Europe as a 19-year-old, I knew one thing – I was American. I have since spent 29 years living abroad: my entire adult life. I am American, but I have changed. I'm feeling more European, specifically Swiss.

Recently, I was working with a group of teens. One of them made the remark, "I don't mean to be disrespectful but we are in Europe, and this might not be relevant to us." I smiled, "I understand. The thing is, my entire professional career has been in Europe, so I guess I would say it is relevant. This is about you." The kid was being a provocative teen and looked stumped. A while later in the presentation, it came out that I spoke German and French and the same teen slumped further. He was Spanish and must have thought, "Hey lady, I am European. We are more progressive than you Americans when it comes to sex and sexting."

A few weeks ago it happened again. This time an adult was the culprit, saying I was "too American" without even knowing me. I complained to my husband, "Will I ever free myself from this? What can I do?" He laughed, "Aside from faking another accent, no. You are who you are and people who don't know you will just assume based on your accent that you are a typical American." He is right of course, and I guess I will just have to continue living with people misunderstanding me. I think we all do.

When You Quit Your Job to Follow Your Partner’s

by Allison Ochs, MSW
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The first time I quit my job to move abroad I was 28. I was working and lecturing as a social worker at a University Hospital. Even though I wasn't a hotshot career woman, a VP or earning a lot, I felt like I was on top of the world.

When my husband asked me to quit my job to move to Bordeaux, I answered, "Yes, absolutely. It is now or never." I thought this would be a fun adventure and it would be easy to jump back in. Very naive of me.

In Bordeaux, I excelled at this expat thing. I learned French, had two babies, put my eldest in a French school and thoroughly enjoyed understanding their culture. I took it upon myself to grasp everything from the school system to their relationships. It was marvelous.

The moves continued, my kids grew, and I started working again. As this happened, I became more and more reluctant to move yet again.

I remember saying, "It's not fair. I want recognition too. I can't keep on starting from zero. Don't do this to me again."

I don't think enough credit is given to the partners that quit their jobs to follow. I am still recovering from the position I left last, and sometimes I just want people to thank me — not only my husband but others. I don't want someone to see me as a woman who just drinks coffee and has lunch. "What a great life you have! You've lived all over." I hear that, and I think, "Yes, it's great, but I've left friends behind, been lonely, and gave up on a lot — and no one sees that."

How did I manage? Not always well. I complained for a while, was angry and then decided to create something of my own. I don't think there is a single piece of advice to give anyone who feels this frustration. The only thing I can say is — you are not alone. I haven't met a single veteran expat who hasn't, after years of this, felt some exhaustion and well... a lack of recognition.

Here's to us... the ones who quit our jobs to support our partners and families.

 

A Modest American in Europe

woman in American flag wrapped around her sitting on beach

Photo by veeterzy on Unsplash

by Allison Ochs, M.S.W.
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My first year in Europe was a real shocker. I was so naive and so unprepared for what I was doing. I could write 10 stories just on the topic of nudity (and maybe I will one day), but today let us focus on the basics. The fact is if you are not used to taking public showers, changing in public or having people change in front of you, life in Europe can be a bit challenging at first.

Our first apartment was about two blocks from a lovely park in Kiel, Germany. We had an apartment with no balcony, and when the sun came out, we headed to that park. The first visits to there were not enjoyable for me. Alright, I’ll be honest: the whole first year I felt uncomfortable every time it was hot and we went out.

Germans are very comfortable with their bodies and nudity. This park was close to banks, offices and businesses and I would sit there in shock as women and men would strip down to their underwear, the women would fling their bras off and just stretch out with a sandwich for an hour soaking up the sun. After their hour break, they would just stand up, stretch and slowly put bra, business shirt, skirt and heels back on and stroll off, briefcase in hand. I honestly did not know where to look. My husband (who is German) was a student as well. We meet at the park a lot. He thought watching me be uncomfortable was funny but also surprising. He didn't think stripping to your underwear at lunch was strange and I did. We had many lengthy discussions about nudity.

Just this week, in chatting with another expat mom, we talked about how hard it is to deal with this. I have progressed after 28 years in Europe and can now change on a beach, and I am very free but still not entirely. That little girl from Farmington, Utah still lives in me. I will only go topless at a private pool with my family and I still don’t like being on nude beaches.

Some cultural traits are rooted. This one seems to be a big one for everyone. If you have trouble with it, you are not alone!

Time Travel? No, Just a Book Club in France.

Photo: Les Anderson on Unsplash

by Allison Ochs, M.S.W
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As I sat at the Jardin Publique in Bordeaux, I overheard a mom talking about a book club. A month later another mom at a ballet class spoke about the same book club. My French was getting better, and I decided what better way to improve my French than to join a book club? I did what any American would do, "Hi, I just heard you talking. I am Carli's mom, and I am trying to improve my French. Would you have room for one more at your book club?"

The look on their faces was of utter shock. "This is an exclusive group. I am not sure we could accept you. I will ask." Gwendoline didn't get back to me. I didn't give up. "What about that book club? What book are you reading?"

A few weeks later I heard I could come if I promised not to take the discussion outside of the group. They decided having an American perspective could bring an exciting twist to their club.Their focus was classic French literature... Balzac, Camus, Gide, Victor Hugo and much more. I had four weeks to prepare for my evening and inhale one of these classics. In French of course.

I was nervous on that first night. I arrived and was told not to ring the bell but rather to tap on a window. It opened, and I was told to climb in. Not waking the children was a priority, so in I climbed with the rest of the women. Once in the kitchen, the wine started flowing. Six women were putting the last touches on the dinner, always a four-course meal with a beautifully set table. We then sat, discussed and ate. Within about one hour the first personal links to the book came out; struggles, illness, affairs, missed chances. These ladies were not best friends, they were well educated and from wealthy backgrounds, and once a month they let their guard down in this group. Everything was shared. When the cigarettes came out of the Louis Vuitton bags, you knew it was going to get even more serious. I felt like I had been transported back to an era long gone.

At first, I worried I was spying on the French bourgeoisie as if I were an intruder, but then I realized they had included me, they wanted me there, they trusted me. I won't share their stories, but I will say I was educated on just how different and yet beautiful cultures can be. It was one of my great successes in France. Thank you, ladies, I will never forget you, your lovely homes and lavish dinners and your sometimes scandalous stories.

Dating A Man From Another Country

Photo by Everton Vila on Unsplash

by Allison Ochs, M.S.W
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"Should we go get some dinner?" My heart was pounding when he said this.  I was an 18-year-old freshman at university, and this charming, handsome German man was asking me on a date — or so I thought.

He had told me he wanted to go to a real burger joint, better yet a drive-in. "I can show you," I chirped, and so it was planned. He was 25 and had been in the States for three months at the time; his English was still sketchy and I don't think he realized he was asking me out.

The diner was bustling with people, we talked, flirted (or at least I thought so) and had an amazing deep conversation about life. I was mesmerized.

A waitress chewing gum plopped the bill in front of him, "Here's your bill, tell me when you're ready." He picked it up slowly, looked and it and then at me. I just smiled without moving, thinking nothing of the bill.

He then proceeded to pay with a scowl. I couldn't figure out why as thoughts were racing through my head, "What was wrong? Had I offended him? Was it the waitress?" It didn't take long for me to find out. "Where I am from the bill is split. You obviously think I should pay for you, but I don't think so. I cannot afford this, and I don't want you to think you owe me something."

I felt awkward as another long conversation unfolded; it was to be one of many. Now 30 years later, we still have these discussions from time to time. Yes, he is now my husband, and I guess it was a date after all. Sometimes he says with his adorable accent, "You know I am not from Mars." He isn't, but it can feel like we’re from different planets, especially as we have moved and had to navigate other cultures together. It's no wonder I love the song “Fly Me to the Moon;” I feel like he has.

Bad Days Abroad

 

by Allison Ochs, M.S.W
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When I first moved to Europe some 28 years ago, I struggled. I was young, hip, and daring and chose this step myself.  Yet I found myself making cultural faux-pas, struggling with the language and being ultimately homesick.

On a great day, I would sit in a café with a friend, sipping my drink, feeling intrepid — I owned the world and was proud of all of my adventures. Then, out of the blue, I would stumble on a silly challenge that would throw me:

  • a postal worker who scolded me
  • a shop owner who asks me, "How can you stand being American with your President?" (As if I have a personal impact on Washington D.C.)
  • a doctor who lectures me on how his health care system is the best, and I should be happy he is not giving me the medicine I am begging him for to relieve my symptoms

Any of these things could and have sent me into a fury. Whenever this happens, all I want to do is go home.

My trick all of these years is: I do just that; I go home. Okay, so my home is down the block, but I shut the curtains, call a girlfriend or my Mom and just pretend I am in my bedroom somewhere else. I find a good book and take the day or evening off from my life abroad. It’s my own little virtual reality.

The saying “my home is my castle” has taken on a new meaning. My home is not only my castle — it is my haven.

Bored in Amsterdam

by Allison Ochs, M.S.W
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After the excitement of moving to Amsterdam fades and visits to museums and trips begin to dwindle, boredom may set in and your days here might get long. I know exactly how you feel.

Why not use your time abroad to work part-time in a new field, get involved in a project or venture, learn something new, or even reinvent yourself? Here are a few pointers to get you going:

  • Find something you are passionate about and create your job. That way you can make it part-time and be in power of what you do.
  • If you don't know what your passion is, start a project with someone; it may lead to another project or job.
  • Volunteer. It's a great way to try new things and possibly discover a talent or passion. The AWCA and schools have a lot of opportunities for volunteering.
  • Take a class or workshop in something you've never had time for, such as painting, photography, art history, language (see Learn Dutch, below), cooking, dancing — whatever!
  • Look for a part-time job. There are plenty out there. If you don't know what you want to do, start attending professional workshops and seminars, dabbling in new things.
  • Start talking about it, so people know you are looking. Ask advice and invite others who have re-invented themselves for a coffee. Ask them how they are doing and how they did it.
  • Learn Dutch. Practice everywhere you go and don't give up. Once you speak Dutch, other possibilities will open up and finding a job might be easier. It will always look good on your CV.

When you hear yourself thinking, "Hey, I could do that," you know you're getting warm. Start exploring the possibilities. Remember that failing is part of reinventing. You might have to try a few things along the way before you find the right fit. Believe me, I know; I have reinvented myself more than once.

Try not to worry about the money. If you've been out of the workforce for awhile, or you are starting in a new field, you'll need to ease back in. If you're thinking, "I'm not getting paid what I'm worth," stop. It's never a waste to try new things. Eventually, you may earn money, but if not, ask yourself if it matters. The real reward during your time here is growth. And that always looks good on your CV.

It's never too late to learn something or start a new career. Just get going. You are not alone.

Old and New Friends: Finding Time

by Allison Ochs, M.S.W

New expats often ask, "How can I find the time to keep my old friends back home and also find new friends here?"

Unfortunately, this is part of being an expat. When I went home for the very first time, I remember not having fun with my friends. These were my high school girlfriends; I loved them, but I became bored. As I walked into my parent's house, the door slammed behind me, "Ali, how was it?" I slumped onto the couch. "They've changed!" My mom sighed, "No, they are the same; you've changed."  I follow them on Facebook and every five years or so I take the time to see one of them and realize: we will always have high school.

True friends will love you even after you've taken a leave of absence. They will get your stories, care, laugh and cry with you. I saw one friend after an eight-year break. It was as if we had never separated. I know I can go to her anytime, I am always welcome, and she will love me even if I don't call. Now that is a friend. Ask yourself: how many friends you do have time for?  Let go of thinking you need to hang on to all of your friends. If you have to work to remain friends, they aren't friends. Real friends love you and will let you soar while they wait for you to come back, loving you the entire time. Those are the only friends you should care about losing, and here's the best part: you won't lose them.

Two other pieces of advice:

— Don't spend all your time here playing tour guide or hotel for your friends. If you are in the mood for them to come and it’s convenient, that’s great. If not, just say “no,” or tell them, "Sure, you can come, but this is when I have time." If your free time here is taken up seeing the same sights over and over, you will never have the opportunity to make new friends: to make new friends, you need to experience life where you live.

— Don't spend your entire time Stateside just visiting people. Do whatever you want to do. Don't feel obliged. If they care about you, they will make an effort to come to you. If they don’t, either they don't care or they are just caught up in their professions and kids, and it will sort itself out in due time.

Should You Raise Your Kids the Dutch Way?

by Allison Ochs, M.S.W. 

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Good morning, Amsterdam!

Of all the cities I've lived in, Amsterdam is the most expat-friendly. Therefore, I understand why so many expats want to follow the “Dutch way” of raising kids without thinking about what that means.

I was asked this week as a social worker and parent coach what I noticed and what my advice would be…

1. If you're coming from the U.S., your kids will not be used to the freedom the Dutch teens have. Don't rush into thinking you understand what it involves to be a “Dutch” teen because your kids have not had years of training walking and biking to school, going out, and learning their limits in this culture. Take care to talk to locals and take it step by step, giving freedom slowly; otherwise, your kids might spin out of control, be lost in what is right or wrong or get into trouble.

2. Although this experience might have moments that seem like the most fabulous party for you and your husband — almost as if you were revisiting your youth or on your second honeymoon — your kids need you. Staying in with them on a weekend evening, doing activities together, experiencing it with them is part of it. I know I sound boring but believe me: they do.

3. You and your kids will change through this adventure; it is unavoidable. Talk to them about what you are feeling, how your opinions are changing, what's shocking you and listen to their stories. It’s important to be on this journey with them, not parallel to them. Don't be shocked if they start changing their views on bigger issues such as politics, homosexuality, sexuality, drinking, and drugs.

Every family will have their own variation of norms, and there is a vast spectrum of right. You must find the and rules that fit best for your family. If you're in this together as a family, it will be a fuller expat experience. The stories you'll have, the laughs, the struggles, the friends you'll make will stay with you for life. Your family will become stronger and closer than you can imagine. So wake up every morning and embrace the day with a stretch and a loud, "Good morning, Amsterdam! What surprises and adventures will you bring me today?”

A Postcard from Back Home

by June Vine

Three weeks ago, hard to believe, we marked four years back home after five years in the Netherlands. Expat life, as brilliant and intoxicating as it was, has begun to recede further into the corners of my memory, like when you can no longer remember the name of that college boyfriend who seemed so right for you at the time but just a tad not enough to walk the path of life with. So, I began to wander mentally back through those years a bit tentatively, like Little Red Riding Hood through the woods in search of Grandma's house: what might I rediscover along the way?

Back in those days when we were expats, days that seem farther and farther away with each passing day, on an August evening like tonight I would have been doing one of the following: 1) Sitting alone downstairs back in our dreary Amstelveen rental, wide awake from jet lag at 2 a.m., thinking of what needed to be done before school started and listening to the snoring from above, pouty that my husband could sleep so soundly when I couldn't; 2) at Logan Airport, about to board that 9 p.m. overnight non-stop back that would set us down at Schiphol at 6:30 a.m. in time to pick up some milk and bread from Albert Heijn, make some toast and coffee, and then hit the sack even though we said we wouldn't until night, and missing my parents already; or 3) in some department or grocery store buying the last few American items we believed we couldn't live without for the next year and wondering how many suitcases we'd need.

Those last days of August, years ago, were our routine, but only fun in hindsight: carrying home bags and bags containing every last package of Oreos on the shelf or trying to fit 12 pairs of variously sized extra-wide light-up Sketchers into a suitcase without breaking the 50-pound limit. But there was a feeling of anticipation and eagerness then, because those last hours of August were spent in preparation for the next year of expat life, which, for us, spanned the beginning of school when everyone from everywhere reunited to drop our kids off and then drink coffee, until the next set of goodbyes and departure for home visit, and all the newness that awaited us when we would again return. Every fall, a "new" life coping with the pesky emotion-monopolizing absence of the dear friends who had moved away and around whom routines had formed, meeting new people — some of whom might become even more dear eventually, but not immediately — and the steady unconscious process of metamorphosing into an even more different person from the one who had left home at the beginning of the assignment, as well as the reunions with others who were similarly metamorphosing without realizing it. Those last few days of August seemed to me to feel like what I imagine a locust might feel every time it sheds the current shell and emerges anew. Exhausting, but stimulating at the same time. It was a giddy feeling.

Today, I’m four years into what is a different sort of metamorphosis from expat to ... what? A regular American Joe? (No, just kidding. There is no such thing and, if there were, it would be unattainable for many of us.) Anyway, I haven't figured out that part quite yet as I've yet to break out of my locust shell. As I mentally journey back in time, I now feel, perhaps for the first time, that sense of relief when one can look back and no longer yearn so longingly for the past, but rather look back and enjoy the good memories from the comfort, groundedness, and forward movement of the present. It is kind of like that feeling you get the first time you walk right past the diaper aisle in Target and realize not only do you NOT have to go down that aisle, but you see, for the first time, an aisle you never noticed before. Surprise, at first. Liberating. Exhilarating. Haha! Not only will my red plastic buggy NOT contain a single package of Pampers, it will instead contain a bunch of stuff I never knew I needed but now desperately do because it is so darned cute! Haha! Not only am I NOT buying twelve pairs of Sketchers, I'm not the least bit sad about it. Sounds nuts. Who waxes nostalgic about buying twelve pairs of extra-wide light-up Sketchers? Repats. The first Target-sans-diaper experience. The first re-pat-sans-wistfulness experience. Rites of passage.

We human beings are plastic. I don't mean artificial. I mean we adapt, we change shape. On the outside from too much sneaking of those Oreos that were supposed to be for the kids. On the inside from experiences and relationships. But, not all of us adapt as fast as we might expect. Meanwhile, just like viruses have left behind little bits of their DNA littered among the DNA of all of our ancestors until we ended up with some soup of it all, so do our own experiences leave little bits of their DNA that remain and travel with us. No matter how hard we try, we can't shake that stuff. We can rearrange it. We can try to push it down to the bottom of the drawer under the sweaters like a teenager does her birth control pills Mom doesn't know about, which every now and then annoyingly migrate back up to the surface. Over five years, while this American was an expat in the Netherlands, inside became some amalgamation of bits of experience-DNA from relationships and experiences and impressions. It's all there, hidden somewhere in the sweater drawer.

When I began to write tonight, I wondered. Of course, I miss it. Of course, I'm nostalgic. Of course, I envy you ... you with your fietspads and your lunch concerts at the Concertgebouw and your idyllic afternoons in the Amstelpark. But, it makes me happy to think of you enjoying these things. I hope you enjoy these and much much more as thoroughly as we did.

As for me, this late August evening the sensory receptors in my skin luxuriate in the 100°F soft convection-oven breeze (yes, I know you know it's °F and not °C, but these days I am habituated to this clarification thanks to my huisarts’s assistant who is also responsible for my body of Dutch medical vocabulary), the nearly scalding breeze of the strikingly beautiful American Mojave Desert. The vistas take my breath away the same way the sunlight glinting on the Amstel did years ago. I feel the coldness of an American-style icy Stella slide down my throat, parched from an afternoon of indoor skydiving (where else?), while listening to the sound of my kids splashing in the fountains of the pool. The shiny strip lights up into a carnival rainbow beyond the palm trees. I know that I will be going back from these scrubby Joshua trees silhouetted against the dusky sky and the sculptural rock formations and this gaudy city in my country — where I am not an expat — to the other vastly different end of the very same country that is gradually, at long last, just beginning to feel somewhat like home. To the same house: my own house. To my garden in progress. To our neighborhood shops. To the same townspeople and neighbors and one or two friends. As the same person I was before I got here. Continuity.

What could I say, from this far out, that would be relatable or at the very least mildly interesting to you? But, American women in Amsterdam, we share some of that experience-DNA, something from here, something from the Netherlands, something from the changes, the jet lag, the icy-cold beer or the room-temperature beer, the herring (you have eaten it, haven't you?). If you've never indoor-skydived, I recommend you get some of that experience-DNA, too! Some of you are new to the Netherlands. Some of you are longtimers over there. And, for me, the Netherlands is now part of my history. I'm on this side of that experience, adapting to a new-old home in an old-but-different country.

When we go on vacation, we write postcards about what we see and experience. This is a postcard from the land of repatriation, four years out. I hope whatever experience-DNA we share makes it relatable or at least interesting. Wishing all of you a wonderful year ahead!