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

Photo: Les Anderson on Unsplash

by Allison Ochs, M.S.W
Edit Change Management


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
Edit Change Management

"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.

The Complaint Club

by Allison Ochs, Social Worker (M.S.W.), Coach
When I put my kids in the local schools in Europe, there was one thing looming over me that I loved to complain about: lunch! My mom used to joke, "I do dinner and breakfast, but I don't do lunch." I grew up hearing this and took on her mantra. I remember my meals at school, the smell of the overfilled cafeteria, the peanut butter finger desserts, giggling with my friends, running to recess, exchanging food, learning to be social. I was just horrified that my kids would not have this experience.

I spent years whining and complaining to family and with friends about having to pick them up, cook for them and drop them back at school. I stood with other foreign mothers in the parking lot complaining at pick-up and drop-off. We dreamed of a cafeteria. Then one eventually opened in our village. I just about threw a party, but was promptly told, "You can only sign your kids up two days of the week; those are our rules."  I threw another little fit. Oh, how I wanted to have the day to myself.

A few years ago we put our two youngest into an international school. Do you know what I miss most about their old school? The lunches at home! The crazy thing is I spent all this time fighting against the culture, complaining about it I didn't even realize I was loving it. During the lunch break, we talked, cuddled, worked on homework and had downtime. Sometimes the kids invited friends over, and I got to know their friends.

Sometimes you don't realize how good something is until you don't have it. Complaining in a foreign country just becomes second nature — something we do. I hear it all the time and am guilty of hanging out with girlfriends and doing just that. I try not to complain, to embrace the moment and I think I have gotten better over all the years. But I am human, and living in a foreign country has its moments — both the good and the bad. Just think, the thing you hate the most might just become the thing you'll miss when you leave. On a side note, I think the complaint club exists all over the world; it's best to identify it and realize when you are taking part.

Should You Raise Your Kids the Dutch Way?

by Allison Ochs, M.S.W. 

Edit Change Management 

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?”