Thank You. Good-bye.

Ann Arbor, Michigan

Seeing as how I no longer live abroad, it hardly seems fair to continue writing for a blog entitled “Expat Essays.”  Thus, unfortunately, it is time to bring this blog to an end.  While it saddens me to no longer be an expat, I am ready to move on to the next phase of my life, and to explore new literary mediums and themes.  While I won’t be posting any new content to “Expat Essays”, the blog and all currently published content will remain public.

Thank you to everyone who read or commented on “Expat Essays.”  I appreciate your interest, support, and feedback.

Travel, make mistakes, and then tell someone else your story.

Cheers,

Amy

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Writer-In-Residence: Risking Failure

Ann Arbor, MI USA

Chess in Christchurch

On Wednesday, May 12, I didn’t fly to Sydney.  Instead, I had an informational interview with the owners of a local publishing company and went to a yoga class.  In between the two, I scraped the side of my mother’s newly leased car against a cement pillar in a parking structure.  Spatial visualization is not my forte; that’s why I don’t play chess.

“What kind of mood are you in?” I asked my mother when I picked her up from work that afternoon.

“Why, what did you do?”  How do they always know when you’ve messed up? Amazingly, she took the news like a champ.  I, on the other hand, took it like a complete loser.

That scratch was a sign from the universe – I had made a mistake; I had missed my plane.   Except that I no longer believe in a universe that conspires against you or sends you messages disguised as minor car accidents that are clearly your fault.  I do, however, believe in irrational fears.

The incident was an indication of one thing only: I am not a very good driver.  (In my defense, it’s been five years since I owned a car.)  My reaction to it was an indication that I’m still afraid of the same thing: failing.

To most people, my proposal to live in Australia seemed brave.  Truthfully, it wasn’t.  It was gutless, because there was no risk involved.  I could have lain in the grass in a park for a year, staring at the sky through the leaves of the trees and I would have accomplished that goal.  It was a guaranteed win, bought for the price of a one-way airline ticket and an electronic work-holiday visa.

Coming home is the truly risky endeavor, because it means that I am finally going to try to realize my life dreams; and inherent in trying is the possibility of failure.   Many people want to write, very few actually become writers.  In Australia, I may have been lonely, unfulfilled, and bankrupt, but my fantasies would have remained safely enshrined in my mind.

My homecoming was supposed to have been strategic, to have set a plan in motion. But things haven’t fallen neatly into place and I seem to be in a state of stasis.  There have been some steps in the right direction – that meeting with the publishers, an all-day writer’s conference, and an interview for the position of Editorial Assistant for an academic journal.  I even wrote a short fiction story, coincidentally about a plane crash.

However, every step seemed to bring with it a warning to turn back.  The publishers reminded me that most writers don’t earn their living writing; at the conference, successful authors revealed that every day is a struggle against literary agents, book critics, and their own insecurities; and “Editorial Assistant” turned out to be a fancy title for Receptionist.  Compounding my frustration, disappointment, and regret was the fact that I miss New Zealand and Argentina far more than I anticipated, and that after six weeks, I still don’t feel adjusted to life in the States.

A few years ago, while I was still living in Argentina, I visited a friend in New York during a trip to the States.  When I finished moaning about how hard life was abroad, she smiled and asked, “Is having an easy life something you truly aspire to?”

“No, of course not,” I replied.  I lied.  My secret fantasy is that someday life will be ridiculously easy.  Oh, and that there will be world peace.

I thought the path ahead would be paved with gold.  Now I realize that I’ll have to bushwhack my way through a dense forest of stiff competition and self-doubt if I’m to get what I want. Faced with the truth – the overwhelming odds against me, and the undeniably hard work ahead – I didn’t recalibrate my game plan and strengthen my resolve.  I lost faith.  I lost the plot.

What if I don’t have what it takes?  What if I’m not good enough?  What if I can’t be it just because I dream it?  What if anything is not possible?  These questions, whether valid or absurd, made me question the point of even trying.

Fortunately, my parents don’t share these concerns, or at least they don’t state them aloud.  Instead, my parents, those perennial patrons of the arts, have agreed to sponsor a summer fellowship – they will cover my living expenses so that I can dedicate the majority of my time and energy to writing.  Being selected as the recipient of this generous award is an honor, but I’ve been having trouble rising to the challenge.

Frightened as I am that following my dreams will lead me to vocational school, a condo in the suburbs, and a mini-van, I am more concerned that my parents will evict me if I don’t get my act together.  Apparently, I’m no longer allowed to whine or cry or remain in my pajamas until bedtime.  Either I go for it or I get out of their house, hence this long overdue blog entry.  Thus, I am happy to announce that I, along with all the obnoxious, self-defeating voices in my head, am the new Writer-in-Residence at my parents’ house in Michigan.

Quit Messin’ With Me, Texas: Ending the Odyssey, For Now

Dallas, Texas/Ann Arbor, Michigan

Fall Colors, Michigan

On April 12, my grandmother turned ninety-five. I have no scientific evidence to corroborate this theory, but I suspect her longevity is positively correlated to the distance she has traveled.  She has visited all seven continents. She was the one who took me to Greece when I was thirteen.  Granted, I spent most of the cruise through the Greek Isles plotting to throw her overboard; but my grandmother remains a major source of inspiration and encouragement for my globetrotting.

She is one of the most worldly, independent, and intelligent women I know; yet she insists on living in Dallas.  A few weeks ago, my liberal, Yankee family descended upon my grandmother’s retirement home in Texas to celebrate the momentous occasion with an ice cream social.  On our first day in Dallas, which also happened to be my first day back in the United States in over a year and a half, we went for lunch at a popular Tex-Mex restaurant.

As soon as we stepped inside, we were enveloped in a din as thick as the hot, humid Texan air.  Cacti and lizards decorated the walls; a black and white, life-size, cardboard replica of the owners stood above the fireplace.  Christmas lights twinkled while frenzied waiters served refills of salsa from oversized syrup jars.  The stimuli so deadened my senses that I couldn’t read the menu, let alone order or eat anything.  While my family ate chips and salsas, I had a giant helping of culture shock.

Of course, Michigan is quite different from Texas, and I assumed I would feel more at ease in Ann Arbor.  However, all alone in the house, I am shocked by the silence.  Birds chirping and the low rumble of a train in the distance are the only noises I hear.  Occasionally, I clear my throat to confirm that I have not lost my hearing.

Like aspic, everything appears suspended in a transparent gelatin.  The only thing that moves, other than me, is the sun.  I drift from room to room, staring at objects as if they were artifacts in an American Suburbia Museum.  I wonder if, when no one is home, the household objects come to life, make themselves a sandwich and have a smoke on the patio.  Maybe that’s why I find them in such ungainly positions – they froze mid-movement to avoid being caught.  They’re probably all waiting for me to leave.

When the phone rings, I am startled, as if the curator caught me mishandling a priceless relic or the homeowners walked in on me rifling through their medicine cabinet.  I hear a woman’s voice, but I can’t discern where it’s coming from or what it’s saying.  Fearing for my sanity, I run upstairs and search for flights to Malaysia.

I gave up the idea of moving abroad again, but not the idea of backpacking long-term.  I could travel between October and May, escaping the winter and returning in time for my brother’s wedding.  Perfect, right?  Except for one nagging question: then what?  In all likelihood, I would come back from traveling to and with absolutely nothing, other than a stack of notebooks full of anecdotes, and no one to publish or read them.

When I look at an atlas, I feel like a contestant on Temptation Island.  I want to be loyal to my literary aspirations, but it’s hard with all those countries trying to seduce me. At this point, going abroad seems more like a diversion than a step in the right direction. That is why I’ve decided to return to the States, work on my portfolio, and apply to MFA programs.  Unfortunately, this means renouncing one of the most valuable things to me: my identity as an expat.

I don’t know who I am without my passport.  Now that I am just another American living in America, I am nobody special. Maybe I wasn’t anything special in Argentina or New Zealand, but in those places I belonged to something – the expat community.  Fellow travelers are my true countrymen; can I achieve that same sense of belonging at home? Until I do, my mind and spirit will continue to roam the globe.  With all my strength, I am resisting the urge to chase after them, because staying here is for the best.

Does this mean the odyssey is over? Not entirely.  I’m not under house arrest or anything, and if I do become a student, I plan on writing lots of essays about “what I did on my summer vacation.” But effectively, the answer is yes.  I’m back in the States indefinitely.

So, old friends, great opportunities and cute boys, please take note – I have a cell phone and a permanent address and expect to hear from you all very soon.  Oh, and that voice I heard?  It wasn’t coming from inside my head.  It was the call waiting.

*Itinerary Subject to Change: Temporarily Suspending a Trip Abroad

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Montmartre, Paris at nightfall.

A young American woman sits alone at a café, studying Sartre’s L’âge de raison in its original French.

In front of her sidewalk table the glorious Basilique du Sacré-Coeur glows like an angel that finally got his wings.  It’s spring, but the air is still cold.  The waiter, more homme than garçon, helps a middle-aged woman with the zipper of her fur coat.

Totally engrossed in existential philosophy, the young woman looks up only once and briefly, to acknowledge receipt of her café au lait and croissant aux amandes, and to ponder the meaning of life.

And scene.

That is an excerpt from Me in Paris, a screenplay I wrote nearly two years ago before my family’s one-week vacation to France.  Nevermind the impossibility of that fantasy – it was fall, I’m nowhere near that proficient in French, and coffee makes me jittery – even if it had come true, it would have represented just a few hours of one evening, not the entire trip.  Honestly, I probably would have spent the rest of the time worrying that the almond croissant would transform itself into a muffin top.

Daydreaming with wild abandon is as integral a part of any pre-overseas ritual as getting vaccinated and renewing your passport.  If I remember correctly, my visions for Argentina involved dulce de leche and tango dancers, while those for New Zealand featured bungy jumping and one of the guys from Flight of the Conchords.

Sadly, those snapshots tend to spontaneously combust upon arrival, when you realize that neither you nor your destination at all resembles the picture in your head.  You then construct a new image of yourself from the rubble, only to have it destroyed again.  This creation-destruction cycle continues until finally your idea of who you are in a given place matches reality.  In my case, I started out a peacock and arose from the ashes a hummingbird.

Faced with the promise of Australia, my imagination began painting the walls of my mind as if it were a hyperactive child with finger paints and an innate appreciation of the works of Jackson Pollock.  Prominent subjects of the fantastically colorful mural were surfing, koalas, and the stage of the Sydney Opera House.

However, at some point imagination gave way to realism.  In a flash of lucidity, I prophesized myself living in a backpacker’s hostel and temping at a telecommunications company, friendless, penniless, and with too much stuff.

Not two months ago, I was camping on the beach in New Zealand with my boyfriend.  Today, I am sitting on the couch of a close friend in Buenos Aires.  The idea that I traded all that for the opportunity to be lonely, frustrated, and uncomfortable in Australia made me queasy.  Of all the things I’m good at, bargaining is not one of them.

On two separate occasions, I have moved abroad alone, with no job or contacts, and minimal savings and language skills.  I did this for a reason – to free myself of familial, societal, and peer pressure, and to find out who I was when there was no one there to tell me who I was supposed to be.

The last five years were phenomenal, propitious, and absolutely necessary for my personal development; but now that I have a clear idea of who I am, what I want to do, and how I want to live my life, I can’t justify subjecting myself yet again to the solitude, insecurity and anxiety inherent in going overseas on your own.  It’s not that I no longer want to be abroad; it’s that I can’t stomach the thought of starting over from scratch a third time.

As with all good nervous breakdowns, this one turned out to be a revelation: after so many years of ego-tourism, I am done with journeys of self-discovery, for now. The next time I travel, it will be with one backpack and a budget, I will leave from and return to the same place, and I will not worry about working, making friends, or paying rent.  Unfortunately, I am broke and burnt out, and in desperate need of a break before I can manage such a trip.

When I called my parents from Buenos Aires to ask if I could stay with them for a few months (instead of through mid-May as originally planned) they were both shockingly sympathetic, supportive, and delighted.  I’m uneasy about the prospect of returning to Michigan, but excited to have two summers in a row.

Postponing my trip to Australia was not an insignificant, easy, or expected decision. But of all the lessons I’ve learned from my time abroad, perhaps the most important are: trust your instincts, drop your pride, and all itineraries are subject to change without prior notice.

Haciendo Ecología: Being Green in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires, Argentina

When I left New Zealand, I donated old clothes to the Salvation Army, threw away toiletries, and gifted my oil pastels and blue plastic bucket to my boyfriend.  One item that did make it into my suitcase was a bright green cloth grocery bag.  Available for $1.50 at most major supermarkets in New Zealand, the bag shamelessly implores you to “help us create a better environment”.   Girl scout cookies I can resist, but I never could deny the exigency in the eyes of the clip-art raindrop.

In Buenos Aires supermarkets, produce is weighed before you reach the cash register. Shoppers place fruits and vegetables into plastic bags and present them to a store employee, who affixes them with a price sticker.  The first time I went produce shopping after returning to Argentina, I selected my items, set them on the counter, and tried to explain in rusty Spanish that I didn’t want plastic bags.  The man behind the scale stared at me as if I were a talking orange cat.

“Because of the environment” I explained, brandishing my hideous, slightly self-righteous tote bag.

Ah. Ok,” he smiled after a brief pause, “estás haciendo ecología.”

“Yes, exactly, I’m doing ecology.”   After a few minutes of brainstorming, he agreed to weigh and sticker each item individually.  I walked out of the store with a clear conscience, albeit slightly self-conscious.

Unfortunately, the bags aren’t the only thing here made of plastic.  I recently invented a game called “spot the boob job.”  It’s easy – you just look for a tiny woman with a disproportionately large chest and no bra.  Ironically, women who get implants no longer want to appear as though they are wearing a corset, and so are requesting natural-looking fake breasts.  The result is girls with the body of an adolescent and the chest of a senior citizen.

In Buenos Aires, there is overwhelming pressure to conform to an ideal image of beauty.  According to a CNN article, an estimated 1 in 30 Argentines has gone under the knife.  OSDE, a leading health insurance provider, covers the entire cost of aesthetic plastic surgery if you hold their plan 410 or higher.  The concept of healthy is totally distorted. A popular brand of yogurt, known for promoting regularity, launched an ad campaign encouraging women to eat their yogurt because of its slimming effect.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it contains a mild laxative.

The moral of the story is that it’s not easy being green in Buenos Aires, and the struggle extends beyond being a vegetarian in a carnivorous country.  Buenos Aires is a city obsessed with physical appearance but utterly negligent of the physical environment.  The other day, I encountered a group of young Argentines on the terrace, drinking mate, rubbing tanning oil on their skin, and flicking their cigarettes into the pool.

I’m no sociologist or psychotherapist, but I speculate that this combination of personal vanity and environmental apathy stems from a lack of control.  Inflation and corruption are rampant, university classes are cancelled due to protests, public transportation is interrupted by strikes, and noise and air pollution are palpable.  I can hardly blame porteños for preferring to invest in their looks rather than their city.  Their bodies are one thing they can still take ownership and pride in.  Perhaps it’s unfair to expect people to care for a city that doesn’t take care of them.  Still, even if individuals can’t fix the broken sidewalks, would it hurt them to clean up after their dogs?

When I moved to Buenos Aires over four years ago, I didn’t care about or notice these things.  Instead, I was enthralled by the city’s sense of urgency, arrogance, and glamour.  But live in New Zealand (and date someone doing a master’s thesis on water conservation) long enough, and you start sprouting your own lentils and growing your own herbs.  I used to make fun of people for shopping at Whole Foods.  Now, I say things like, “I’ll just carry my tofu and flaxseed.  Why do I need a bag when I have two hands?”

Leading a healthy and natural life in Buenos Aires is not impossible.  There are vegetarian restaurants and organic cafes, gorgeous yoga studios, meditative breathing courses, and lovely parks and plazas.  However, even if you surround yourself with like-minded individuals and create a micro-community, fighting against the zeitgeist is like driving the wrong way on 9 de Julio.

Obviously, there are many things I adore about Buenos Aires; I wouldn’t have made a pilgrimage back here otherwise.  Unfortunately, the pervasive culture is not one of them. If you move to a new city or country where neither you nor the native residents hold you to the local standards, you can observe your surroundings without being personally impacted by them.  But if you and the local culture take each other on, as was my case in Buenos Aires, the prevailing atmosphere directly affects you, making it harder to accept.

Luckily, as a traveler, I have the freedom to move on if the lifestyle doesn’t suit.  As of now, I am a voluntary and temporary guest in Buenos Aires.  For the short time I’m here, I can overlook the city’s shortcomings and focus on the great things it has to offer.

On my next visit to the supermarket, the staff member in charge of the produce section informed me that plastic bags were an obligatory store policy.

“Why?” I challenged.

“To prevent theft.  We seal your bags so you don’t take more items between here and the register.”  I considered proposing another solution – to weigh fruits and vegetables at checkout, but that would result in slower lines, and put him out of work.

“If it’s one item, fine,” he continued, “but if you’ve got multiple items, like your bananas, I have to bag them.”

“But it’s one bunch of bananas,” I argued. “I can’t possibly add another banana to the bunch.”

“Look,” he said, agitated and annoyed, “I’m just trying to do my job.”

I realized then that he didn’t make the rules, nor was he in a position to challenge or break them.  Neither of us can change this city; but unlike him, I have the luxury of leaving in a few weeks for a place where the grass (and the people) are greener.

“Ok.  Bag them,” I conceded.  At that moment, his job seemed more important than my convictions.

The Others

Interesting article from The Economist about Being Foreign.

Pedestrians Do Not Have the Right of Way: Returning Home After An Overseas Experience

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Near-hit, Traffic in Buenos Aires

Crossing the street in Rome could be the final exam for a 500-level course on “How to Avoid Getting Hit By a Car.”  It requires advanced preparation and specialized knowledge.  While studying abroad in Barcelona, I traveled with a friend to Rome.  We took a bus into town from the airport, hoisted on our backpacks, and began walking to our pensione.  At the edge of the grassy median separating the bus station from the main road we stopped abruptly, paralyzed by fear.  A group of travelers stood cowering like a family of pioneers about to ford a river.  In terror-stricken silence, we watched as multiple lanes of Italian sports cars raced past.  It wasn’t oncoming traffic; it was the Running of the Bulls.

Frantically, we searched for an intersection, crosswalk, or animal whisperer.  With none in sight, we resigned ourselves to spending the afternoon on the curb.  Suddenly, I remembered an obscure fact I had read in a guidebook: the key to crossing the street in Rome is eye contact.  I waited for a lull in the traffic, took a deep breath, stepped into the road, and with feigned confidence shot the Italian drivers an intense look that said, “Hey! I’m walking here.”  Magically, the vehicles slowed, kneeling graciously as we sauntered to the other side.

Fortunately, in New Zealand you don’t need wits to cross the street, just patience. You simply congregate on the corner and wait for the neon crossing guard to give you the green light.  It’s all very civilized, albeit boring.  The biggest risk is that it might be ten minutes before the light changes.  (Jaywalking was completely out of the question for me since I never could work out which direction the traffic was coming from.)  However, when pedestrians are finally given their turn, they have the opportunity to cross diagonally, thus getting two crossings in one.

The best part about being a pedestrian in New Zealand is the zebra crossings.  Alternating dark and light patches of pavement, and black and white poles indicate places where pedestrians always have the right of way.  Because the friendly, law-abiding Kiwis actually respect the road code, you can walk into the street while reading a book without fearing for your safety.

When I finally landed in Buenos Aires after a seventeen-hour delay, an eleven-hour flight, and traveling backwards in time, all I wanted to do was shower.  Before I could so, I had to walk a few blocks to the store to buy toiletries.  At the first intersection, I spotted the familiar black and white bands of paint, and mindlessly continued into the street. A gang of taxis fought each other for the chance to commit vehicular manslaughter.  I jumped back onto the sidewalk, barely avoiding an accident. Between the pharmacy and my friend’s apartment, I had three near-hits.  It seems I was a little unclear about what city I was in.

There are no pedestrian walkways in Buenos Aires; there is only target practice. Although Argentines are essentially displaced Italians, you can forget about the eye-contact strategy.  Staring at an Argentine motorist only helps him perfect his aim. Even where there are pedestrian lights, turning traffic has the self-appointed right of way. The best strategy for crossing the street in Buenos Aires is to run for your life.

Other than a few close calls at the beginning, the transition back into life in Buenos Aires has been relatively smooth.   The weirdest part is that it’s hardly weird at all. There are no suggestions of my time in New Zealand, save a few photos on Facebook, and many remnants of my former life in Argentina remain.  Most of my close friends are still around, I have an active social life, and I know where things are. It’s comfortable.  It’s home.

With everything so deceptively normal, I predicted that I would only need a few days to recover and establish a daily routine involving cooking, meditating, exercising, reading and writing.  After ten days, my biggest accomplishment was watching an entire season of America’s Next Top Model in one afternoon.  Apparently, you don’t get over an abroad experience overnight.

For more than a week, I did little more than sleep and sit on the couch in my pajamas. I felt like a character in a Jane Austen novel sent to the coast to convalesce.  Except that instead of taking a carriage to the seaside to breath in the salty air, I rode the elevator to the rooftop terrace to lie by the pool. At first, I was confused by my exhaustion and frustrated by my apathy.  After a difficult year abroad, I had been looking forward to going somewhere easy.  Now, I appreciate that reentry is harder than I expected, especially because I am so hard on myself.

Recoleta Cemetery

Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires

Returning to a city where you’ve already lived is certainly less challenging than, say, starting anew in Lithuania.  But, it’s still a process and it definitely takes longer than a long weekend. Even if mentally it’s as though I never left Argentina, emotionally, I’m still tied to Auckland.  I may not need to meet new people, but I do have to catch up with old friends and make sure no damage was done to the foundation of our relationship in my absence.  There is the work of creating and adhering to a new schedule, acclimating to local sounds and smells, and seeking out the raw materials needed to facilitate my lifestyle and hobbies, both of which have changed considerably since I last lived here. Thankfully, I don’t have to worry about a job or a place to live.

Rather than reprimand myself for being lazy (or blame Argentine drivers for my reluctance to leave the apartment), I lowered my ambitions.  I set smaller, attainable goals for myself, such as getting dressed before noon or reading in the Recoleta Cemetery instead of on the couch.  Slowly and naturally, life is regaining a sense of order and purpose, and I am becoming more active and motivated.  More importantly, given that I am only in Buenos Aires for six weeks, I have reassessed my priorities.  I didn’t come here to be responsible; I came here to spend time with friends and decompress before starting a new adventure. Staying out until 6am on a Wednesday may decrease my productivity, but I am supposed to be on sabbatical. With no one to answer to but myself, maybe, for a little while anyway, I can stop being so demanding and unreasonable.


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