Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Repatriation Act II

(This essay was originally published as a guest post on my friend Lana's blog Spare Change in January.)

Repatriation 4 months back in the states: Two months back in our Borough…

I slipped from the confines of my neighborhood early this morning, positioning the minivan at the bus stop to make a clean get away, keen on avoiding the chatting social cliques I'm no longer a member of in good standing. I wave to my kindergartener as the bus pulls away, extending maternal love, strength, and confidence with the steadiness my children illicit, secure in my knowledge that my most important role right now is to be their anchor until their transition is complete. It's where I focus my energy, and the one way I refuse to fail due to lack of effort.

This morning, however, she was already deeply engaged in excited conversation with her new friends as the bus pulled away. The reassurance of the routine was mostly for me, a feigned slice of normalcy, a brief victory in my repatriation related angst--one I gratefully acknowledge to myself before I depart the scene. Quick beeline to the suburban mom-mobile and I head to a cyber cafe a couple towns away where I can sink into the safety of anonymity and refuel for a while.

In the parking lot, near the café, I sit in the van rummaging through my wallet for change for the parking meter. I look up. Across the street is a bakery with a bright blue awning in large white letters, the words: 'Viking Pastries'.  I wonder if they even know what kind of pastries modern day Vikings eat?  Kanelbullar, semla, cardamom infused twists of bread, or colorful gluten-free macarons. In the US there is nothing for a gluten-free girl like me in that bakery, which inadvertently goes against its name.  In Sweden, special effort is made in most establishments so that everyone had a little something to eat when friends met for fika. This bakery doesn't even have tables or chairs...another mockery of its name. In Sweden, we rarely took our pastries to go. We enjoyed them in a civilized manner with friends or colleagues, engaged in conversations wrapped in candlelight and warmth.  As the memory melts away I return to the scene around me--suburban parking lot, behind a strip of stores, definitely no candlelit cafes here. Dissonance…another square peg I try to force into a round whole in my mind.

I turn my attention away from my mental discord and back to the wallet in my lap.  These moments are not uncommon in my readjustment. It is my mind trying to wrap itself around the end of my Swedish adventure and return to my “before life” in a sleepy little Borough outside Philadelphia. Most days, traces of my Swedish life feel more real to me than what I have returned to, like spirits of lost loved ones I cling to them in my melancholy.

Lingering signs of my life in Sweden:

-48 kronor in my wallet.
-My sensible sleek German designed messenger bag, purchased in Amsterdam.  Understated and designed to blend in on packed morning tunnelbanan rides. Quiet and small compared its garish American counterparts.
-Up-dressing:dressing myself nicer than I need to by American standards because dressing down ignites fashion insecurities unknown to me prior to my time spent in Stockholm.
-Swedish words falling out of my mouth when I’m relaxed and comfortably speaking to my children
-Eating American pancakes with butter and jelly
-Still calling them 'American' Pancakes
-Loud pulsing Techno pop playing on my car radio...with no desire to flip the dial
-Reluctance to get in my car to travel, and upon arrival to destination feeling life experience has been diminished because there was no bus, train, walk through nature, or other human beings involved in my journey.
-Recurring phrase being uttered in my head and under my breath...sigh, 'I want to go home'.
-Irritating longing to sip tea surrounded by the smell of coffee, flakey pastries and the laughter of friends aka:fika.

Most days, it feels like my life in Sweden is slipping off me too fast…

But then…the Scavenger Hunt.

Rewind: Two years ago we were four months into our adjustment to our expat life in Sweden. I was exhausted and home sick for America, spending inordinate amounts of time on Facebook trying to stay connected. When a friend added a new event--a scavenger hunt of townspeople in our borough, the proceeds going to a local charity--I watched from 4000 miles away wishing I could be there too. They posted photos of the smiling faces, bottles and cups raised, fifty or so townsfolk wearing cheesy Viking helmets whose horns lit up. They looked so happy, innocuously connected to each other and our old community. I was unhappy and isolated, surrounded by a fabulous foreign adventure, but zero community. I promised myself there and then, if the opportunity ever presented itself I would be one of those crazy, happy people running around the streets of our Borough.

Fast forward: Four months into our repatriation, the call went out for teams for the Third Annual Scavenger Hunt and Finance Guy (my husband) and I, wanted in. We knew that finding fun was essential to our readjustment, even if it served no purpose other than distraction. But after being gone those two years in Sweden, we no longer had the social resources to pull together a team. The night before the hunt my friend, knowing how much we wanted to participate, made a last minute match, introducing us to one of the team captains via Facebook. This captain, it turns out, was born and raised in Stockholm and lived just one street over from me in our little borough. When she heard we just returned from living in Stockholm she didn't hesitate to welcome us aboard, her team, the 'Mostly Swedes'.

We enthusiastically joined, gathering the night of the event in my friend’s back yard. The mood was festive--trees strung with white bulb lights, coolers full of beers standing at the ready. We signed in and we were handed plastic Viking helmets, like we’d seen in the Facebook photos. Meanwhile, Finance Guy and I tried to piece together familiar faces and how we knew them, it was a little disorienting.
Luckily, our teams had agreed on Facebook the night before, to wear Swedish Blue and Gold or Tre Kronors Hockey jerseys. As members of ‘Mostly Swedes’ team arrived we immediately recognized them. Our team consisted of: our Swedish captain and her native Borough born husband, two Swedish expats from Göteburg and ourselves. Each team was given a manila folder along with instructions for clues of places to video. We had two hours before we had to meet at the pizzeria. Our captain had come in second place the year before…she was in it to win!

When the signal was given, we hurriedly looked at the clues inside our folder. There were five pages! We’d have to run to get everything we needed. As teams exited the yard, Finance Guy shot off a couple good-natured insults to the teams we left behind. I cringed. So much for keeping to the Swedish norm of quietly blending in. 
We hit the streets in full stride and it occurred to me, half our team was not native English speakers. Which led to some odd things getting lost in translation. Like the “Water Fountain.” To my knowledge my town had never had a water fountain. But when we stopped to ask two little old ladies walking their dogs, they told us there were multiple fountains down by the park. I thought they’d been hitting the peach schnapps till I realized the clue meant DRINKING fountains! Oh!
Then there was the thing about the “Garden Gnome.” My Swedish friend had never heard of a, “ga-nome?” I told her it was a little bearded man with a tall hat, usually in red, blue or green,” and she shouted, “Oh! A tomton!! Well why didn’t you just say that!?” Why indeed?

We finished out our scramble for points then met up with the other teams, kicking back at the pizzeria, as points were totaled. By dumb luck, Finance Guy’s perseverance, and a rubber chicken our captain sprinted for (don’t ask), we won first place!

Our motley crew of foreigners, transplants, repats and one native had won the whole stinking thing! The night was like swimming in some surreal synergistic soup where two worlds, Swedish and American, merged. Maybe it wasn’t the best of both my worlds, but they were, my worlds. For me the win wasn’t in the points, or the gift basket, or even in the bragging rights, although those are pretty sweet. It was in experiencing one crazy night where my life made sense again. Maybe I won’t ever fit the same way with the other parents at the bus stop. Maybe I won’t ever stop missing my Friday Fikas and the multi-national friends I shared them with. But like the Scavenger Hunt, repatriating has given me pages of odd challenges for my brain to prioritize and sort. Merging two existences into a new one in an old place that comes with its own baggage, many days feels impossible. I’m still not certain how it will all work out, but for one night I had a sweet affirmation of hope that little by little, point-by-point, with enthusiasm and a healthy sense of fun it just might be possible.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Repatriation Act I

(This is a post I wrote in September 2013 but neglected to post.  I guess I wasn't satisfied with some aspect of it. Can't remember what it was, so here you go.  Happy New Year ~K)

When you make the decision to become an expat, you are signing on to altering yourself, your life, and your perspective of the world forever.  Often these changes occur in ways you can't even conceive prior to the experience.  You also sign on,  at some point in the future to face the challenges of Repatriating to your own country.  You don't give much thought to this early on, because when offered the opportunity to live in another country you blindly jump at it.  You don't give much thought or consideration about reentry, because it is in the future and you will cross that bridge, if and when you come to it.  Which is EXACTLY the adventurous attitude one must embrace to be an expat! Eventually though, in most cases, repatriation happens.  That is where I am now.

As most of you know, I usually approach most major life changes with research.  In my searches, I have limited research, data, and essays on repatriation outside the context of corporate culture.  Most writers have little knowledge about repatriation and its effects on the family.  Most of the information that I have been able to track down seems to echo the similar themes.  Firstly, repatriation is more difficult than people realize, often being as hard as if not harder that the acclimation to the foreign country.  Second, it is usually easier to repatriate to a new location than attempting to return to the exact location or home that you left.  Third individual's experience of negative after effects of repatriating can be challenging them for 9 months to 2 years after they return to their home country.

Hmmm.  Helpful, but also annoyingly ubiquitous.  I thought I might attempt, for the sake of others who may someday be facing repatriation to expand based on my experience thus far on the above points.  

'Repatriation is as difficult if not more difficult than adjusting to an expat assignment.'  We are still in the early stages of our reentry, but so far we have found this statement true....and not true. Many aspect of repatriating are easier, with a shadow side of difficulty. For example, when we went to Sweden we were suddenly in a world where English was no longer spoken or written around us.  We abruptly lost our ability to communicate and gather information in our usual, familiar ways.  We suddenly had no way to understand what was going on around us, follow news of the world, or even directions given on signs or announcements.

We have returned to a country where English the mother tongue, and are now submerged in information.  Maybe too much. The sensory overload of suddenly understanding ALL the conversations around me has caused me to withdraw from social situations a bit. I just can't process all the information like I used to.  While it has become easier to communicate with others, I have found that my patterns of communication are altered. For instance, even though I never effectively learned Swedish, I still seem to have lost the quick neural pathways in my mind that easily access my english vocabulary.  Idioms, slang phrases, and the subtle nuances of intellectual and witty communication in American English are bogged down in the sticky molasses of my remote memory, so I have to think harder and longer when engaging in social interaction. Also after two years outside the country my knowledge of current events, pop culture, and local community issues is minimal.  This puts me at a disadvantage once the conversation moves beyond the weather, and the novelty of  "I lived in Sweden for the last two years."

The fact that we speak the language, there is an assumption by those we interact with that we are just like everyone else.  In Sweden as soon as we opened our mouths, everyone around us knew we were foreigners.  While this did set us up for being an uncomfortable curiosity to strangers, it allowed us some slack when we made social snafus and suffered from adjustment fatigue. When we don't understand cultural nuances here we can't say, "Sorry we aren't from around here."  Because we are.  Well...we were.  Shrug.  I can't say that it's harder than when we moved to Sweden, it just presents different the challenges.

Second theme; "Repatriation is easier if you move to a new location than if you attempt to return to the exact spot you came from."  Well, I guess I am the poster child for expats attempting to return to the exact spot they came from.  Four weeks post ocean shipment I can offer a little insight to this one.  We did explore the option of starting fresh in a new location, but based on a number of factors we decided moving back to Surely Manor was the best choice for now.  Some things have been easier than starting new.   We know the school system, (although this one cuts both ways.)  We didn't have to research and establish new cable, cell phones, gas or electric companies, medical professionals etc.  We didn't have to adjust to a brand new living space.  I think this definitely helped us resettled faster.

However there is a caveat.  Moving back to my old life is a lot like trying to wear my pre-pregnancy clothes three months postpartum.  Nothing quite fits the same way.  Like the pre-pregnancy jeans I managed to squeeze into, they just aren't comfortable like they used to be.  Even if they are passible in appearance, (because I managed to get them zipped,)  I ended up walking around feeling awkward and self conscious.  I can hope all I want, but  the reality is, things aren't what they used to be and it is going to take mental discipline and emotional endurance to fit the new me into the old mold.  However if fitting in again means I have to loose the weight of the fabulous experiences I had while being an expat, well...I think I'll pass.

Would moving somewhere else have eased this dissonance?  I can't say for sure.  I can speculate that a new place would have given me the opportunity to live without the constraints of my former life, and possibly made continued personal growth and evolution easier, but I think the reality is there are changes I would have to make to reacclimate to life in the United States regardless of where we settled. There is also much to be said for the benefit of being surrounded by a community of people who are happy to see me and welcome my return.  The kids in our old neighborhood have been very welcoming of my girls and I believe this has been huge in how well they have adjusted so far.  Here,  I have friends who even when I am feeling out of place and sad, recognize that it's something I'm going through not who I am, based on their past experiences with me.  It would have taken a number of months to make new acquaintances if we settled somewhere new.  While I acknowledge the merits of a fresh start, when choosing a location to repatriate to, the best choice is the one that makes the most sense for your family.

The final point about experiencing challenges related to the repatriation for 9 months to 2 years after returning to your home country...hmmm.  Clearly I can't speak from direct experience here, but I can pull from my clinical experience for some help.  We have been back in the US for about 12 weeks and in our home with our furniture for 4.  As of this week, our three girls are back in school and we are starting our first week of what will become our normal routine.  Now that the rush of getting everyone registered and initial culture shock has passed, I find myself settling in to an emotional state that is much akin to grief.  I miss my expat life.  I miss the beauty and simplicity of Sweden and the support of weekly fika with other expats.  I think what I miss is having a community of individuals who are dealing with and understand the challenges of living the life that we have chosen.  Expats are remarkably resilient people with a depth of endurance and optimism that you typically don't encounter in average daily life.  Even though most of us were struggling, we had each other and accepted one another with little or no judgment.  I miss that community, and feel very privledged to have been a part of it.

So while the jury is still our on the long term implications repatriation, the immediate effects of repatriation are definitely fully impacting my life.  Regardless of if and when you choose to repatriate, I think there is one thing that is certain.   Being an expat, you already know that no matter what the situation, you are experienced in building and rebuilding your life and networks.  Just don't assume that it is going to be easy.  So far I haven't found it to be more difficult than what I faced, and survived in my move to Sweden…however time will tell.

Friday, September 20, 2013


In the chilly air and outside my window summer has begun her slow surrender. Acorns litter the street and gray squirrels seem to be everywhere, running along the fences, shaking the branches of the dogwoods, darting across streets in almost perpetual movement as their pineal glands, alerting them that change, shift them into overdrive.  Frenetic activity triggered to ensure survival.  Unpacking this morning, I found a CD that we bought in Sweden.  The band is Stormsteg, a folk trio that Beanie's violin teacher at the International School was a member of.  Their music is created with two violins, a guitar, and a remarkable level of artistry.   I pop the CD into my laptop checking the title of the first track. Hösthast, (Autumn Rush).  I stare out my window as the melody resonate through me. The gray moody skies are so like Autumn in Stockholm.  I need a moment to absorb them and orient myself.  External realities, and strings of memories drawn out by the melody begin to tangle my mind.  I stare out the window absently watching my yard's fluffy tailed inhabitants, with unease as I tease through the disonnence. 

I have spent the last 4 weeks rushing to get the basic structure of our life in place so the kids could start school.  Setting up the kitchen so we could begin our cross contamination detox from 9 weeks of dining out and road food.  Setting up bedrooms to support sleep rituals and find matching socks and clean underwear efficiently when busy mornings return.  We have received and unpacked three shipments of goods, two from Sweden, the other from storage.  Our stuffed suitcases that sustained us during our nomad summer have been emptied and stowed in a closet till adventure calls us again. Each room has at least one pile of objects or clothes waiting to be stored, or donated.

Aside from unpacking and setting up a functioning house, my days have been busy seeing doctors and dentist so that the appropriate forms could be submitted to register the girls for their schools.  Then quickly sorting through children's desires and getting them registered at the neighborhood dance school and soccer league for their extra curricular activities.  Placements test and meeting with school counselors to create class schedules, each teacher providing a list of supplies to be bought and ready for the first day.  Remarkably I got it all done and as I write this, they have completed two full weeks at their new schools. 

My behavior has been a lot like the squirrels. Rushing, not thinking spurred only by maternal instincts, with a tick list of pieces that needed to be in place. Expending energy to focus on my family's needs to ensure happiness and survival as we repatriate.  I have been been driven by an abstract desire, to experience the sigh of relief, that occurs after arriving home after an extended journey, when the rest of the world falls away because you are finally home. But the sigh is not coming.  The unspoken promise I made to myself that once I find a place for everything and put everything in its place my longing for home will subside.  The closer I get to being settled the more unsettled I become.  

If I were still in Sweden, I would be sharing a fika with friends celebrating all that I have accomplished in such a short time.  Then listening as they retell stories from their summer travels and discuss which cities they may be visiting in the up coming year.  Me, percolating with happiness at my good fortune to be among such a remarkable group of individuals who have negotiated cultures, countries, parenting and still maintained a sense of personal wellbeing.  After staying well into the lunch rush at our favorite cafe, I might return home to my Swedish Dream House do some quick chores, dinner prep then work on finishing the latest read for my upcoming book club meeting or maybe write at my leisure. 


I guess my 'sigh' is holding out for the return of my Swedish life.

I will be the first to admit, my life in Sweden wasn't all roses and sunshine, but there was something about it that fit.  There was a rhythm to my life that I haven't experienced since my childhood growing up in Westchester, before the Martha Stewarts and Ralph Laurens bought the houses up the street.  A more simple rhythm I imagine that doesn't even exist there anymore.  The harmony of water, woods, horses and trails where human impact and contact are fewer and far between.   I even came to appreciate the social coolness of Swedes and how it provided freedom to be around people but still enjoy a bubble of privacy without social judgement or being labeled unfriendly or snobby. This created a peaceful existence where it was easy to hear my thoughts and regain my equilibrium.

I return now to the life I knew before, but in the two years that I have been absent it has been altered, just like me.  My comfortable place in social circles has been filled by new faces. Neighborhood dynamics feel a little foreign.  Activities that I engaged in before I left, have been discontinued, or no longer match my interests.  Even though I am back in my old territory, and so happy to see so many friends and relations that I missed, I am not sure where I belong anymore.  It is all a bit awkward.  On top of that, as much as I try to ignore it, I am terribly homesick for Sweden.  I miss it as much as I missed my life in America when I left two years ago. Two homes. Two loves. My heart currently caught between.

While I was still in Sweden seeking thoughts on whether to move back to Surely Manor or make a fresh start somewhere new, a very wise expat (a diplomat partner) told me,  'You already know how to build your life from scratch, you've proven that your whole family can survive starting over in a new place and flourish'.   This particular woman possesses wisdom and optimism that is infectious. She also has a blog, Lana in Sweden that I visit when I am missing her positive energy.  She was right of course, my friend, but instead of starting somewhere new, I am starting over in my old house and my old 'hood.  It is a slightly daunting balancing act.  Building a new life in the shell of the old.

The first track of the CD has long been over, as I focus attention back to the task at hand.  I will keep pushing forward in my personal Hösthast.  Unpacking, organizing, donating unwanted items, setting up our house.   I will focus on the life I want and the essential elements I need for happiness, one piece at a time.  I will work diligently collecting the fattest sweetest bits, holding them close, while clearing out the old and outdated.  It isn't time to think, it's time to do.  Keep moving forward till I find the illusive sigh of my spirit. The moment I feel home again.    

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Where is Home?

It has been a while, and there have been many changes since my last entry.  At the time of my last post, I knew that the changes were coming. I knew in April that we wouldn't have a third year in Sweden.  So, ironically my grief induced musings of 'where home is' upon our return to the states were more timely than I realized.  Here I am.  Back in the States.  Repatriation.

We are in an unusual situation, the job in Pennsylvania no longer holds us there. Even though we still own a house there, we are considering a change. A fresh start in a new place to ease the feeling of being foreigners somewhere that should feel familiar.  Great affection still exists, but because we, and our neighborhood have changed in the two years we have been gone, there is uncertainty of how, and indeed if we will feel at home there again.  

We have departed from our life in Sweden.  A life that had a rocky start, but grew to be one that we loved.  Leaving Sweden was emotionally equivalent to ending a passionate, adolescent love affair.  During much of my time there, I wandered around like a giddy school girl who had the good fortune to be seated next to her very popular, handsome, and muscularly developed beyond his years, middle school crush.  Maybe that crush would never notice me over the pretty blond cheerleader types, but his beauty was intoxicatingly undeniable. Each day I could sit in his presence, close enough to breath in his exotic scents, entranced with my inner musings of the day he would affectionately acknowledge my existence.

"How mysterious it is to be in love. For you can be in  love with one who knows nothing of you. Perhaps our greatest happiness springs from such longings -being in love with someone who is oblivious to you."       Joyce Carol Oates~Little Birds of Heaven

That is how Sweden was for me.

Even now absently sit at my computer  clicking through the images I captured there, trying to recreate the emotions that have been lost.  It has been 4 weeks since we have been back in the states.  We have 2-3 more before our furniture and belongings arrive by boat to the port in Norfolk Virginia, 5-6 weeks before the school year starts.  Those are the deadlines that loom.  The time that we have to recreate our American life.  Find our new home, establish a residence, register for schools, and begin again.  We have spent the last weeks based out of a hotel room, and a minivan scouting potential locations in cities that are geographically closer to family.

Everything is going according to the plan we laid out while still living on Swedish soil.  Taking time to visit places to see where we feet most at home.  A place with positive energy, and possibilities.  We didn't however anticipate, how out of whack our bearings would be upon reentry.  Repatriating, much like moving abroad is disorienting.  My brain is taking in all the subtle details that have changed, the landscape, the wildlife, the language, the taste of the food, the cars and how they are driven, the humidity in the air, the strangers speaking to me and my children like friends, the sheer saturation of color.  It is in my face. It bombards my senses. The familiar that is now foreign. Just like when we arrived in Sweden, staying centered and grounded is consuming a large percentage of energy. 

In our searches we have found no ideal situations.  We are hitting the rental markets late in the season, and the available options all require a fair amount of compromise.  Nothing is a slam dunk, and the start of the school year keeps creeping forward. The easiest option would be to return to our previous home, Surely Manor. It is a great house, in a great neighborhood, but when I think about going back to it I feel an unpleasant weight settle on my chest.  There is great community, exceptional schools, but little room to breath in the congested suburbs of Philadelphia.

Here's the thing, we just need to make a decision, but our logical and emotional compasses that usually guide us are spinning, and it isn't clear how long it will be till they realign.  So we try to take some weight off the decision, we can start school late, we can sign a short term lease, we can leave our domestic possessions in storage for another year and just live with what we had in Sweden.  All reasonable and doable, but these options conflict with out desire to be settled.  For me America has become the land of too many choices, and I am missing the simplicity of Sweden.

It is important to remind myself that we are incredibly lucky.  Lucky to have lived abroad.  Lucky to have a choice of where we live.  While life in a hotel suite, and uncertainty of our next step has put a strain on our family relations,  we are lucky most of all to be facing our future together.  Experience has proven that no matter where we reside we have the ability to create our home. 

Here is an author who much more eloquently tackles the topic of global living, and the impact on sense of self, and home. Pico Iyer in a 2013 TED Talk.