Spring cleaning and a couple of expat pills

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It’s been weeks since I last posted. And I am not proud of it. I’d like to have extravagant and adventurous reasons to tell you about but the truth is that I got caught in a little bit of traveling, a huge deal of spring cleaning, a new job assignment and a crashed computer. Reality has been taking its toll and as I haven’t been able to read anything longer than 2,000 words in this past month, I also haven’t been in condition to write anything meaningful. It’s a vicious circle: the more you write, the more you can keep doing it and viceversa. If you don’t take it out of your thoughts and put it on a keyboard straight away, it will just fade. While I keep emptying my cupboards and dreaming of a life not burdened by objects and clothes and stuff, I’ll simply try and put my thoughts into pills. Short posts. Till I have emptied a third of the house, wallpapered a room, weeded the garden and finished my new content provider job assignment (this one is a  real challenge. And another story. Deadline is in a month).

 

1. Airports and designer coffee.

 

My leave of absence started with a little trip to visit a close friend I might not be able to see again in the coming year. I was away for a mere 36 hours but getting up early, going to the airport and wandering the endless duty free shops felt exciting as the first time. I rarely travel alone since I had kids and as I might have mentioned somewhere in this blog, for most of my (previous) life airports were my favorite place in the world. Being in one, alone, still makes me happy. Airports are the no man’s land of life and time. Suspended between a before and after, a departure and an arrival, an origin and a destination, I always felt they sum up much of the human condition. Everything feels possible in an airport and even if one might never do it, buying a ticket for a random destination and starting over again seems real for a moment. Coming back to duty free shops and endless hallways, I became a victim of my usual weakness. Designer coffee. 

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I tried to find a rational reason to justify my spending 5 bucks for a very average latte in a paper cup with my name scribbled on it but I couldn’t find one. Nevertheless when I spot a Starbucks (and there are a few in Brussels only since a couple of years) I can’t resist. Good marketing, I guess. I suddenly need to get that fat, velvety, brown armchair and disappear in it with an unfair amount of dairy in my hands. I succumbed, as usual. Not without a pinch of uneasiness. I. am. a. victim. of. big. brands.

2. Uprooting, Selfishness and other expats’ misdemeanours.

 

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So I visited a very close friend. A former expat who is now very much rooted and settled in her reality. We had lunch with some of her own friends, all single-countried. I see single-countried people all the time in Brussels but I always attribute the sides of them I can’t really relate to to some sort of cultural crash. It’s when I deal with my own people that I realise many misunderstandings are actually related to the expat vs. single-countried reality. I am questioned. On matters I rarely think about. How often I go home and see my family. Why don’t I always spend Christmas with them. Who will take care of them if at some point they can’t look after themselves anymore? Don’t I ever feel guilty about living abroad? Do I envision the possibility of going back home to live there at some point? Shock ensued when I candidly said that Belgium isn’t my final destination and that I have been plotting to migrate in some other continent in the coming years. How could I be so selfish, never thinking of my ageing parents when planning my whereabouts? The truth is, I rarely do. I tend to live in the present (and sometimes in the past) but, no, I never plan about an uncertain future. So, yes, as a die-hard expat I might be the most selfish person alive. Aren’t we all?

According to well settled people, we expat are:

1. Uprooted. And we tend to impose the same destiny to our innocent children, who will never feel like they belong to something. (A country, a culture, a people). True, they won’t belong. But to a family. Doesn’t that count more than a pre-set package of single-countriedness?

2. Selfish. We keep hopping the world with little regard for those we left behind. Also true. But when we go back home, we’re really there. We could argue what makes more in terms of human proximity between a 5 minutes encounter every day or a 7-days, 24h/24 stay once a year.

3. Anti-social or anti-community. Normal, single-countried people grow attachments to a certain community and they involve themselves in its development. We tend to hang out with similarly uprooted individuals, privilege cynicism and a life made of ever changing alliances and passions. That’s because we can’t vote. Really.

4. Ungrateful towards our birth country which provided healthcare and education for us and just got harsh criticism in exchange. There is a lot of truth in this and some Freudian aspects. Pure expats (not simple tourists, abroad for a very limited time and homesick for the whole length of their stay) can be merciless when analysing their birth country failures. I am one of them. But making a life abroad is not different from leaving your home as a teenager: it takes time to deprogram yourself of all the notions and values your parents inculcated you with as a child. It’s a long and painful process, to judge with your own eyes and heart, letting go of cultural prejudices. As adults, we are tough critics of our own parents before “forgiving” them for not being perfect and loving them for what they are. In the same way, expats are profoundly irritated by everything their birth country is not, before letting all go and liking it again with all of its shortcomings.

Have you ever been criticised in your expatitude?

 

 

6 comments

  1. I can really related to this post and not only because I was about to take up residence in Vienna’s airport a few years back but also because I spent a lot of time elaborating the issues you mention under points 2.1 and 2.4

    2.1 After quite some time spent thinking about it I came to the conclusion that no, my “3rd country kids” will feel not uprooted (of course I cannot be sure but I very much doubt it). In my (probably idiotic) theory, this fear is linked to our fear of death and we should not project it onto their lives. The idea that we can pass onto our kids similar habits and memories and cultural references entails that these habits and memories etc will take a little longer to die after we have gone because they will keep them with themselves and hopefully pass them on…. I was thinking here about the lazy summer months I spent at my granmother’s seaside house, doing the same things that my mum was doing, year after year….. My kids will not have that (my mum will never have the time or the interest to take 3 months off!!!) but will have something different and if I do not mess it up the things they will do will give them the same stability I had….. In short: their roots are in more than one place, so what? why should it make said roots go any less deep? For them their situation is nothing special (all their friends are the same)….

    2.4 Been there – still there with my merciless criticisms of Italy – done that and somehow loving my country even more…..

    1. On 2.1: and beside all that you write there’s also the simple fact that we are not all born the same. A born expat can be raised in the same family of a faithful, stable, single-countried individual. I grew up in the most single-countried home you can think of yet I pictured myself as an uprooted globetrotter since early childhood…:)

  2. I adore your use of the term “single-countried” as a way of normalizing the “expats.”

    As for the questions posed by the “singled-countried,” I used to beat myself up over them three moves ago. But since then, my worries and guilt have largely faded away.

  3. I love the idea that ex-pat children will belong to a family rather than a single country – that really helps me overcome my guilt at moving them from their home country!

  4. Just one thought about aging parents: you will feel a little bit guilty when the time comes and there will be much shuttling in and out of the country at unexpected times. But you made choice when still young, and your parently possibly approved. Mine never made me feel bad about not being there in person – but the question from outsiders comes up often.
    On a different note, I share your passion for being alone in airports but not Starbucks – I am a coffee snob and Starbucks’ has a burnt finish I abhor. Intelligentsia, on the other hand….
    Glad you are back. There is something constructive and accomplished about organizing cupboards.

  5. Dear Ms Eleonora, there’d be a lot to say about this sort of criticism. To cut short a long story, I’m only remembering the Italian word “idiota” -not exactly a praise- comes from an Ancient Greek word meaning “locale”, in your charming lingo “single countried”. My homecountry: in fact, my small town in a small nation, in my spirit, “orbis non sufficit”.
    Spisani (smalltown man)

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