Friendship and the Serial Expat


funny-facebook-friends-funeral

Thirty years into this mobile life I can truly say I have friends all over the world.  Not international Facebook buddies I’ve never met, but real friends who I’ve known for a while, or in some cases, forever.  Of course with advent of Facebook, it so much easier to stay in touch.   I remember the pre-internet days of typing, faxing or snail mailing letters – or worse –  writing the dreaded Christmas letter, trying to summarize  the major events of the year into one boring laundry list of milestones that were of little or no interest to anyone who receives it.

Or even worse –  participating in the annual Christmas card ritual that become increasingly meaningless to me, much to the annoyance of my husband.  I don’t think I’m alone in dropping the ritual of sending Christmas cards to distant friends, even when its the only method of communication left.  I think its been slowly dying a death independent of my negligence.  I have only contributed to their demise, and others aren’t writing them either, although some might argue that friends aren’t mailing them to us anymore as they’ve  just given up trying to figure out our address!  But I am suspicious that I’m not the only one that feels the drudgery of repetitively handwriting masses of envelopes outweighs the connectivity that they are supposed to bring,  especially when weighed against the personal connection of a Skype call or even an email.

Despite all the meaningless  white noise of Facebook, it does bring me everyday nuggets of trivia that I care about.  Photos of my nephews and nieces growing up, my friend’s new house, details about places and faces where I have lived but may never see again.  These are the kind of everyday minor details that we’d share if we lived across town or even in the same country.  Its trivia, but its meaningful because of the person sharing it.   And with real friends,  we switch to Skype to share real news, to hear each other’s voices,  or to explain important things privately.  Being an expat was much, much harder before the internet.

Yes, real friends are people that you can reconnect with after a long time apart, and that accept you for who you are.  (And, in our case, people who forgive us for completely wrecking the “w” pages in their address book!)  But they are also the people who remember all the crazy small things you’ve shared, and the little things that are important to you.

Sometimes I envy people who live in the same place all their lives, and have a real sense of place.  But that isn’t really who I am or what would really make me happy.  So I’m grateful that, for at least some of the time,  the internet – almost – makes me feel like I live in a global village.

This post participated in the Daily Prompt: Something So Strong.

Daily Prompt: A Leap of Faith


airplane

Daily Prompt: What giant step did you take where you hoped your leg wouldn’t break? Was it worth it, were you successful in walking on the moon, or did your leg break?

When my husband was offered a job in the Foreign Service, everything happened so quickly that I had barely time to think about the size of the leap we were taking.  In a few short months he went from “conditional offer” to an actual placement, and I had a further span of about twelve weeks to sell the house, pack everything, move our son out of school, close down my business and figure out what I needed to know once we arrived at the other end….which was the Philippines by the way…and may have been the moon for all I knew about it.   The days were filled from 6am to 11pm with multiple check lists, developing problems, twists and turns.. feeding the cat and making dinner.  In the middle of it all, my son broke his elbow, and I sat until evening in the hospital’s recovery room,taking calls from our realtor, my husband in Washington and the health insurance people, until I fell asleep in my coat and boots, waiting for the doctor to release him.  Sometimes I felt excited, curious or anxious about our new future, but mostly I just lived in the moments created by our big exit plan and trying to make it all work in time.

Somehow it all came together.  Our house sold…despite having the worst possible buyers.  Our stuff got packed out…despite a massive Nor’Easter.  And, that night I walked out of our NJ home for the last time.  We arrived in DC just our few suitcases despite Amtrak’s enormous power failure, where we sat stranded for most of the night on the track somewhere outside of Baltimore.   And somehow we made it out to The Philippines, where we made it our life for two and half years.

Now we live  in Nepal on our second assignment,  having repeated the madness of exit and entry all over again, and we are now working at making another alien new world feel normal.  There are days when I wonder if its worth it, when friends and family feel far away and I can’t stand the dust, dirt and noise of Kathmandu for a minute longer.  But most of the time I’m profoundly grateful for the amazing opportunities that this crazy life brings and keeping my blog has become a way to focus on the spectacular opportunities of our life here.  It would be faithless not to.

Happy Blogging Birthday to me!


test3Most days , WordPress puts up a little orange symbol on the top right-hand side of my dashboard. It usually means someone (or even a number of people) have liked something I’ve posted, or people have subscribed to my blog. Occasionally I even get a little reward for having reached some kind of landmark event. Its fun to get, but not a big focus…I like getting comments the most. However, I just got a “Happy Anniversary 5 Year Award” and suddenly that feels like a big deal. I can hardly believe that I’ve had a blog for that long. Really?!

Of course, in the spirit of full disclosure, its not really five years of solid writing.  My first blog, Caroline and Carla’s Great Adventure, was started in February 2009, but not much happened until Carla and I set off to walk across England in the Summer.  We tried to post on the go, but the internet connectivity and lack of computer access got the better of us many days.  However we did manage a couple of dozen posts, which I moved over to this blog in 2010.  I blogged sporadically from the Philippines, almost losing it altogether in 2011.  But somehow here in Nepal, at least recently, I’ve been on a posting streak and blogging has become a regular activity.

Its been an amazing last few years, and there’s been so many new adventures that sometimes I have to pinch myself that I am able to see and do so many interesting new things.  The blog has been a wonderful way to record and remember the adventures, and to chart my discovery of new countries that eventually become home.

I blog to remember and to share.  I prefer to keep it mostly positive and perhaps sometimes that makes my life seems like one long resort visit.  It isn’t, of course.  Living outside your own culture perpetually is difficult, but I try not to lose sight of the fact that it is also a privilege. ..at least to me.  And although its sort of weird at times to put your experiences out there and not know who is reading them, it also is wonderful to hear from people that they love reading the blog.  That really keeps me going.

I’m in awe of bloggers with thousands of followers and comments.  Although my following has grown in recent years, its still very modest and that’s probably a good thing.  (A crowd of readers always has its trolls, and so far I’ve managed to avoid those.)

So to the few that read this regularly, thanks for the feedback and keep it coming.  Now what shall I write about next?

Coming Home


DSC_0272

We get around more than most people, I know.  Last summer was pretty intense with travel.  This summer even more so.   My travels started in June and will continue until the end of September thus:  Manila – Washington DC – New York – Washington DC – Greece – Kathmandu – London – Kathmandu….with enough side trips at the various locations to keep us permanently living out of suitcases for a long while yet.  When we got to Greece a couple of weeks ago, I posted “Home, finally!” on Facebook and someone asked me to explain what that meant.  It  made me wonder about the definition of the word, and what feels most like home to me.  I certainly would have defined home as Manila at different points in the last two years, but our Greek home is Home in so many ways.  For others, working overseas for a while and planning to return to the place where you grew up is pretty straightforward classification:  permanent home and temporary home.   We however have been moving around for so many years that I have lots of definitions.  There’s:

Original Home:  London.  Where I grew up and where I visit almost every year.  That’s where my family is and so many familiar things.  Many unimportant, trivial, yet comfortingly familiar things like chocolate bars, tv shows, bus stops or familiar streets.  Going to London is like a grounding in who I am and where I came from.  But as the years go by there are very little concrete remains of the old memories, and very little real “home” except for the care that my family gives me.  Out on London streets there are very few doors left that I can knock on any more, but I still consider myself a Londoner.

Adopted Home:  New Jersey. There’s the NJ town where I lived for lots of years (one of my favourite places) and American friends and family and the cultural connection I have built over the last 25 years of being married to an American.  Its less about the place and more about the culture.  I don’t miss NJ.  I do miss the town where I lived.  Now I am an American but I’ ll don’t think I’ll ever consider myself a New Jerseyite.

Assigned Home:  Wherever we are posted.  It was Manila, its about to be Kathmandu.  I’m sure I will learn to love (and dislike) many thing about Nepal and, like the Philippines, it will become part of my world “home” places as all the crazy new stuff becomes normal and navigable.  But in an assigned home for a predetermined period of time works very well to deter you from the kind of attachment formed in other places.  Its really just the people that stick with you.

Permanent Home:  Greece.  Home of our house, our things, and friends we see every year. The place where we raised our son for his preschool years, a place of consistency…sort of.  Every year is different and this year more so than most.  But there’s something about returning to a place where your clothes are already in the closet and your favourite sheets are on the bed that makes it a Home with a capital H.  I’m sure we are classified by many locals as one of the temporary summer families that are around for a short while and then are gone through the majority of the island’s year.  But, unlike other Summer families, we ain’t got no other home to go to!  (You’d have to be a Londoner at chucking out time to get that one.)

Walking NYC


20130723_174331

A quick snap from the back of a taxi. I sort of love the weird poses of the walkers!

Aside from our Central Park adventures, there was lots to see and explore in the Upper West Side.  Interesting architecture, cafes, stores and restaurants made the area very walkable and it wasn’t nearly as crowded as midtown.  We were there during a spate of extreme heat which made exploring a little challenging at times.  Having been in a deep sweat for 2.5 years in Manila, I really had to push through my fear of being boiled alive as I walked around.  After 2.5 years of non-stop heat, there are days when I look up at a clear, sapphire blue sky and pray for clouds.  The heatwave in NYC didn’t help with that!

Fortunately, towards the end of our stay we got a break in the weather.  It was blissfully coolish in the upper 70s and the perfect time to get outside for the day.  It even threatened to rain a little.  Carla was visiting for an overnight stay and the next morning we decided to do another of our destination walks down to the High Line in Lower Manhattan.  From W 87th it took about 1.5hrs, walking straight down Columbus and 10th St, through midtown and down to 23rd where it currently begins.  If you’re not familiar with the High Line, it is a park, recently developed from an abandoned raised railway line and an excellent, imaginative use of space in crowded New York.  However, it seems to be the “undiscovered” trendy thing to do, and everyone is doing it.  Undiscovered it is not.   Especially on the first cool morning for weeks. Seems like everyone else had the same idea.  It was packed! Maybe this would have been a better experience off season on a Monday morning? We decided to leave the trail at the first exit and grab some lunch, after which Carla took the train home and I decided to walk alone back up to the Upper West Side. By now we were on 34th near Penn Station and I snapped a couple of typical New York scenarios:  iconic yellow cabs,  walk/ don’t walk, traffic, people, non stop everything…

20130725_115920

Walking the narrow Hi Line from W 23rd St

20130725_120208 (1)

A quiet walk in the park? I don’t think so. Too many people for me.

20130725_125854

A glimpse down 34th and 8th

20130725_125923


My route back was up 8th, taking me through Times Square at an hour approaching the end of the work day.  Big mistake….I cut back over to 10th, weaving through the throngs of people to a much more tolerable walk home.

I was so glad for the break in the weather which allowed me to see New York on a grander walking scale than before, piecing together the different neighborhoods on foot.  Had we been blessed with more cooler weather and a little more time, I would have done the same North, West and East, but time had run out.  At the end of the week we were heading back up to Washington DC for one more week, and then on to the vacation part of our trip:  Greece!

20130714_192551

The wonderful Upper West Side garden where we stayed, caught up with family, and got a little respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.

A Peek in the Park


20130726_135740

Joggers and walkers on Central Park’s Running Track

Our first three weeks in Washington had been a lot about crossing “to dos” from our list of responsibilities.  Most days involved taking care of something essential in order to keep the wheels of our transit turning, if only for an hour, and also there was a great deal of shopping to accumulate the vast amount of supplies we needed for the next two years in Nepal.  However, between obligations and purchasing, we walked – alot – exploring blocks and blocks of DC’s many shaded, wide pavements.  I really missed that kind of freedom to walk and explore in Manila.

Once we got to New York City our most of our shopping was done, the packers had come and gone, and Latham had departed, so it was just the two of us and the streets of New York to explore.

I had lived ten years previously in New Jersey and yet rarely took the hour train ride into New York, staying overnight only once in all those years.  Now I was looking forward to getting to know the city better and our new two-week home on the Upper West Side, close to Central Park, was a great area to start.

20130720_114526

Central Park is big and there is so much to see and do. It really is the heart of the city and there’s always something going on. We visited frequently and yet I feel I only saw a few corners of it.

After all these years, I had never explored Central Park and was really surprised at how many buildings, monuments, bridges, ponds and attractions there were.  It was crowded some times more than others, of course, but never so crowded that I wanted to leave.

20130720_104856

Sunday morning was a continuous stream of cyclists, skateboarders, rollerbladers…if it had wheels, it was part of the morning Central Park exercise parade

20130720_111527

Strolling around in the Park.  Always something unexpected would pop up…

Central Park Pond

Central Park Pond

20130720_110256

We particularly liked this gnarly old tree!

squirrel

This squirrel was actually posing for pictures. Lots of other wildlife too…birds, turtles, frogs…

20130720_111628
I couldn’t help imagining what it would be like to live in New York City without this oasis of green.  It would certainly be a very different city.  I’m so glad I finally got to know it.

Mrs Wilson Goes to Washington


kitchen2

Cooking with Carla. Whatever were we fixin’ ?…..I can’t even remember…but we had fun!

After almost three years overseas, returning to DC felt like closing the loop on our Manila experience.  I have visited on and off over the years or to see Robert when he was in training but not more than a couple of weeks at a time.  Our last stay was the longest and I l learnt to find my way around the city and the metro a little.

Washington DC Metro

The Washington DC Metro is clean, safe and efficient but a little like a science fiction movie too. Someone turn on the lights!

So when Carla came to visit at the beginning of our stay I was able to act as tour guide — at least a little.  I happily planned three loosey goosey days of activities starting with the sales.  After almost three years in Manila I needed new stuff – I couldn’t buy clothes to fit there — and Carla very kindly helped me tackle Ann Taylor to stock up.  Its so hard clothes shopping only every couple of years or so for a different place that you’ve never visited.  If you’re too hesitant then you end up wishing you’d bought more…too gungho and the credit card takes a hammering and you end up with stuff you don’t need.  What to buy…what to buy?

tshirt3

What about this one?

The next day we spent some time at the American History museum checking out 1950’s transportation, Julia Childs and the history of American food…all one floor I might add. That place is big!  Then did one of our walks through downtown DC, past the White House and all the way back to Dupont Circle where we were staying.  We both like seeing cities on foot!

Day three was at the wonderful Washington zoo.  Latham had his new camera and took loads of pictures testing out his new equipment.  We went early on a rainy day and avoided the summer crowds.  Free admission makes it so easy to go for a short casual trip and go back more times.

dc6

This sign was just made for tourist pics!

dc4

Having an early evening dinner on the deck. When the sun went down, we also got a floor show. Ugly Naked Guy … as we dubbed him… would parade around bare-arsed naked in front of the window next to our table. He did this every night, displaying everything except his face. We did wonder….?!

The house and location really made our stay and it was great having Carla come and enjoy it with us.  We especially enjoyed basil-laced gin and tonics on the deck and watching the darkening evening sky….despite Ugly Naked Guy….a dip or two in the hot tub. Next stop….New York City!

dc3

DSC_0147

dc2

How Much?!


shopping

Its sort of overwhelming returning to the States after almost 3 years.  I expected the vast choices and the higher prices.  I expected to be shocked at how much everything cost, and I was.  It was like blow to the gut paying $4.50/lb for something that I used to pay       99 c/lb three years ago.  Between the recession, normal inflation, center city prices and my newly acquired (but skewed) Filipino sense of cost, shopping stateside seems filled with crazy store owners making up prices to see how high they could push me me before I said no!  A short shopping trip around the wonderful Dupont Circle farmers market cost $60 for the week’s vegetables for two people.  That’s about half my totally weekly shopping allowance in NJ three years ago.  For carrots, peaches and lettuce, really?!  But then again I took them home and stored them well in the fridge and they stayed fresh and beautiful all week.  Dewy fresh, beautiful and tasty.  Goodness knows how much money I wasted in Manila on “cheap” fruits and vegetables that started to rot within 24 hours no matter how carefully I stored them. I often threw away more than half of the produce that I bought because we didn’t use it immediately.  A real crime anywhere, but especially in a developing country where people don’t have enough to eat.

Restaurant portion sizes are huge here and so is the tab.  But again…if the cheapest lunch item on the menu is $15 and it fills you up or you can share it between two… and the quality is there… that’s pretty good value.  In Manila we often order a “family size” pizza just for Latham or ordered him two dinners.  At that rate the prices were the same as DC but for lower quality.  It often wasn’t truly “cheaper” to eat out in the Philippines.   What was a real deal were the drinks.  Local beer was $2 a glass in a fancy restaurant.  Here we’re paying $6-9 for a bottle in a neighborhood place.  Then there’s that weird flip on the meaning of local.  In Manila local meant cheap.  Here in the states it means artisan and expensive.  Managing my financial expectations is taking some resolve and the occasional deep breathing exercise.

I’ve found that value for money changes meaning for me all the time.  Cheap and value for money are not the same thing, but sometime its cheap that gets you what you want and other times it’s something expensive (that lasts) that you really need.  Here on home leave pivoting back and forth, on the road, on the run, shopping is not for the faint of heart!

 

Sign Language: You Know You’re Back in America When….


…you see signs like this.

20130626_105315

Really, I can have ice cold wine in 7 minutes?  Welcome back to the land of innovation and new ideas.  You’ve gotta give that to the States.  And I was just getting to a state of reluctant acceptance that the red wine is always chilled in Manila.

I know.  I probably the only person you know that hasn’t seen one of these things.  But, then that’s the point.  I’ve been away.

OK Kids. Time to Put Everything Back in the Box….


20130617_112616

Men at Work

Its surprising just how noisy 8 guys with tape guns can be.   The clunking, scraping and stretching sounds rip across the room like fervent roadscrapers, manically shoveling paths through snow.  A kind of Stockhausen-esque aleatoric composition with its own cacophonic melody.  Concerto for Tape Dispenser in G minor.    I could barely hear myself think above the din.

Drowning in stuff!

Drowning in stuff!

The more soft furnishings that disappeared, the more it echoed.  It took two days to put everything we own “back in the box”…some of it literally and some of it figuratively… and a third day to get it out of the apartment and out of our lives.  At least for a while.

20130617_112642

As if enough wasn’t going on already, the window cleaning platform showed up. For the first time in two years they cleaned the windows properly. Great timing!

20130617_095743

And then the boxes started to disappear

We are packed out and sort of back to square one with our home space, except now we aren’t  expectantly looking around imagining how the space with develop around us, we are remembering our lives in that space and in all of the things we did in the Philippines.

20130617_162037

Going…going….

GONE!

GONE!

I never in my life thought of living in the Philippines.  Its just not on most people’s maps or bucket lists (unless they’re Filipino of course).  It has been both surprising, fascinating, frustrating, ugly and beautiful.  Its hard to even remember my impressions and expectations when I first arrived, and yet when I glance back at my own blog from the first few days, I really feel the extent of 2.5 years here, everything we explored, loved and hated about living here.  Despite the frustrations with traffic and food quality, it has been largely a very positive experience that I am so glad to have had the opportunity to experience.  It my own small way I feel ownership for the land, people and language.  Made in The Philippines will forever mean something more to me.

I doubt we will have the opportunity to return.  We have so many competing places and relationships elsewhere and only limited time to visit, but who knows?  Maybe one day?  I know that even five years from now it will be a very different place.

 

This post participated in the Daily Prompt’s Weekly Photo Challenge: On The Move