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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.

*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.

Happy Holidays

Wherever you are, whoever you’re with, and whatever you’re doing, I wish you a happy and healthy New Year.   See you again in 2010.

I Can’t Disappoint My Fans: When People Actually Start Reading Your Blog

Cyber Space

One day, I had the idea of writing a series of personal essays about living, working, traveling, and just being abroad.  A year later, I finally created this blog.  Three months later, people found out about it.

Why did it take me so long to get started?  I didn’t forget about the project.  In fact, I had a folder on my desktop full of completed entries.  And it’s not as if signing up for a free blog requires a year of planning.

And why didn’t I bother to tell anyone about the blog?  I didn’t write the essays for me, I already have a journal.  I wanted to share my insights, opinions, and experiences with a larger audience.  I wanted people to learn from my mistakes, trials, and triumphs.  I wanted to create a virtual place where expats living all over the world could swap stories and exchange advice.  I wanted to give greater meaning to my time abroad so that I could stop feeling guilty about wasting my parent’s money on my college education. Sure a few people happened upon the blog, but mostly by accident while searching for essays about topics such as “befriending my ex.”  For a long time, I was the only person reading my writing.

The answer to both questions is obvious.  I was scared.  Not just embarrassed to have other people read my writing, scared. For me, this is more than just a personal project.  It is the first step on the path to becoming a writer, a career that I never considered in the past.  The blog was supposed to be a way to gain experience, and to start building a reputation.  Yet my name appeared nowhere.  I was dangling one toe over the edge, but I hadn’t yet committed to jumping.  Then my own mother pushed me into the deep end.

Yesterday, my mother sent an email about my blog to nearly every contact in her address book. Which prompted me to send an email to my friends and fellow expats, inviting them to visit the blog and to contribute as guest writers.  Overnight, I went from virtually unknown to having a small audience of family and friends.  My mother was suddenly talking about getting me published, and encouraging me to contact travel writer Bill Bryson.  Of course, she did casually mention that she wouldn’t mind it if I were to get a PhD in Economics as well.

Having people read my writing is wonderful, even more so when they send me positive feedback and encouragement.   A blog that no one reads is just a waste of cyber space.  But truthfully, there was comfort in the knowledge that I could delete the blog at any moment, and no one would be any wiser.  Now, thanks to all of you, there is no turning back.  Not from the blog, and not from writing.  Especially because, if I do try to disappear, most of you know where my family and I live.


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