Moving Overseas

Yesterday, I walked my dog Maya in Regent’s park and we ran into a black labrador and its owner. The woman asked me about my dog and I noticed she was an American. Well, that was enough invitation for me to start a conversation. It turned out that she had just moved to London with her family. I was able to share a lot of good tips with her about living in London. We exchanged e:mail addresses and mobile numbers. I always like making new friends but I especially like lending a helping hand to a new expat family.

The experience of living overseas may be one of the most rewarding and yet one of the most challenging experiences you will have in your life. After the initial bewilderment stage comes an opportunity to enjoy and learn. I am writing hoping to reach many of you who just moved to London with your families or even by yourselves. Perhaps you just moved to Brussels, Paris, or Tokyo. Some of my words may apply to you as well. I am here to tell you that it does get easier with each passing day and that before you know it, the strange new land you moved to, becomes your home.

When we were preparing to move to London from the US in 2011 we were very excited about the opportunity. The reason being that we had already been expats in Brussels, Belgium from 1997 – 2001. We were now seasoned expats like so many people you meet. Some families have spent their whole lives moving around the world and can only say positive things about their lifestyle. Our overall experience in Brussels was amazing. We loved it so much that we yearned to someday go abroad again. But I will admit moving to Brussels in July of 1997 was initially a very shocking experience and I can sympathize with some of you who are completely overwhelmed as you read this.

Let me share a story. When we moved to Brussels many life events converged into what seemed like a personal nuclear explosion at the time.  The first one was that I left my career. For someone who had been so career-driven this was a very difficult decision. However, I had been very willing to go on a “sabbatical” because, I was pregnant with our first child and I was presented with the opportunity to travel all over Europe, something I was passionate about.  Had I been in the states I probably would have taken a standard leave of absence and then returned to work. The advent of losing my salary and cutting our income in half was frightening. I also had to redefine who I was as a person since so much of my self-confidence and self-esteem was linked to my profession. But we were open to the life adventure ahead of us. However, during my 17thweek of pregnancy, while the movers were back at the house packing us, our lives were rattled when we received bad news about the pregnancy and baby. News that seemed so insurmountable that I questioned why were we were even moving overseas.  The baby would require surgeries after birth. At the time, I was still narrow-minded in thinking that I would only be able to receive excellent medical care for our baby in the US.  On top of that I was leaving my family and friends at a time when I needed them the most. But there was no turning back with the moving plans. Sometimes destiny does lead you in mysterious ways and Brussels was to be our next destination.

The Early Belgium Years 1998

Our  beautiful son was born on Christmas Eve 1997 in Brussels, Belgium. I would have at my disposal an amazing team of doctors who were so gifted and wonderful that even demigods would not compare. I still believe that it’s as if though we had to move to Brussels to have these incredible doctors take care of our son. What had started out as a tempest, with no calm in sight, had evolved into a clear horizon allowing my husband and I to successfully navigate our new lives in Brussels.

OK, I won’t kid you. Living in a country where they speak foreign languages, in our case French and Flemish, was difficult at times. Many Belgians spoke English which definitely helped but there were times that you had to be creative, like when the phone guy came over and we had to communicate with hand signals. Sometimes I would spend hours reading food labels in the supermarket trying to figure out if I was buying the correct item. A big help for me was joining The American Women’s Club of Brussels. They were an amazing resource of support and friendship. In August of 1999 our beautiful daughter was also born in Brussels. Our son was 19 months at that time. And now with two babies in tow we continued to explore Belgium and Europe. Our children learned to sleep in planes, trains, and automobiles.

By Chenonceaux Castle in the Loire Valley, France
2000

We got lucky because they were good babies/toddlers who allowed us to bring them everywhere, from châteaux in France to Champagne houses, from crystal shops in Prague to Michelin star restaurants.  After an amazing 4 years in Brussels we returned to the US in 2001.

Developing a Discriminating Taste for Champagne in Champagne, France
2001

Fast forward to 2011 as we prepared to return overseas…

We were now moving overseas with 13 and 12-year old children. The key was in selling them on the idea of moving very early on. It’s all in the marketing, isn’t it? What helped was that we had already moved within the US. When we returned from Brussels, we had first lived in Westport, CT for 5 years and then we had moved to West Chester, PA. The children were in 2nd and 3rd grade when we did this move, and yes it had been hard for them to leave friends, but they instantly made new ones. So when we announced we were moving to London they were absolutely fine with the idea. They were excited about living overseas and had the confidence that they would be able to make new friends. Before the move, they would ask us questions like:

“Do they have Wawa’s hoagies in London?” (For those of you not from PA/NJ area, Wawa’s is a Gasoline/Food/Convenience chain that makes delicious hoagies (heros/grinders/sandwiches))

Our answer would be, “No they don’t have Wawa’s hoagies in London but they will have different things that may be better ”.

Sure enough the children discovered that you can get some very amazing baguettes in London and the sandwiches made with these are delicious. We have opened ourselves up to new experiences with the thought that the outcomes will be positive. We keep saying to the children:

 “Things will be different, but different does not mean bad, different may mean better”.

My husband and the children exploring the streets of Bologna, Italy
July 2001

Exploring the streets of Bellagio, Italy
August 2012

I am not here to say that change is completely easy and without challenges. Change can be very difficult at times. It’s how we manage the process of change that allows us to move forward in a productive and healthy fashion. It is important to know how to manage the stresses that get thrown our way. How we behave is also critical. Our children are watching us every step of the way. Children are very intuitive and they can sense your attitudes and feelings immediately.  Sometimes we just have to laugh at ourselves and at the difficult situations. Like the time my friend in Brussels went to put her Thanksgiving turkey in her oven and it did not fit. She had to carve it up and roast it in pieces. Then there’s the time I tried to use my “French” language skills, and asked the waiter for a spoon,“ une cuillère”, and instead they brought out cheese, “le gruyere”.  That’s o.k., I’ll take some of that too. You may have already faced or are in the middle of facing daunting tasks like opening bank accounts, buying cell phones, getting a phone line connected, getting internet and cable, dealing with home repairs, figuring out how to get around, grocery shopping, unpacking, baby sitters, dog sitters, or where to buy something. We waited for 3 weeks for our Sky Internet modem to arrive and we were supposedly one of the lucky ones. Just know that with each passing day it will get easier and you’ll laugh at some of the missteps over a glass of wine or pint of beer.

Walking Over the Rhone Glacier in Switzerland

Know that this overseas experience will profoundly change you and your family members in so many positive ways. How you perceive the world and react to it will be different and better. This experience will test your and your family’s resolve, flexibility, and even relationships. For many it will bring you closer as a family. Open yourselves up to this new adventure with a positive attitude. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Reach out to organizations and support groups. Try new foods, make new friends, explore new places and hopefully you’ll look back at the expat years as some of the most amazing years of your life.

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Happy Mother’s Day

To all the women who have raised or help raise children, be they biological mothers or stepmothers, adoptive mothers, grandmothers, aunts, friends, or godmothers, my glass is lifted in a toast, to you unbelievable women who have been part of molding the next generation. May I remind you that no one ever gave us a manual on how to raise children. May I remind you that society does not place much value on raising kids or gives out awards for parenting. May I remind you of all the women out there that are raising our future leaders of the world on their own, our amazing single moms. May I remind you of all the moms that hold down full-time jobs and sometimes even multiple jobs and still have the patience and love to raise a small human being.

Allow me this moment of saluting you amazing mothers of the world, because sometimes I feel that parenting has been the hardest thing I’ve done in my life, harder than engineering school, a Harvard MBA, and rocket science. I have to admire those women who make parenting look so effortless. Some of you have hosted babies in your bodies, sometimes for nine months, and others for just a few heartbreaking days. Some of you have struggled with infertility and its emotional roller coaster. Some of you have been entrusted with suddenly caring for a child. We have had to care for, bath, feed, change this baby, and later teach this child the difference between right and wrong. May I praise the mothers who have children with special needs. I was left speechless, when one day at the supermarket I observed a mother with a cerebral palsy child in a huge wheel chair contraption, while she calmly picked her tomatoes in the vegetable aisle and included her child in her conversation. These women find the courage and strength to handle all kinds of challenging situations. Then there is all the worrying. Let’s not forget the nights you stayed up with a feverish child, or the nights you stayed up waiting for your teen to get home. And then there’s the moment when your “pollito”, little chick, must leave its nest. You have completed your mission to a degree and now you can only place your trust in them and send them on their way. You think the worrying ends when they get older and become adults but it seems that it never ends. There are those other difficult moments when nothing you say or do can fix the problem, no amount of holding or supporting can change destiny’s course and only guilt and helplessness consume you. You may not know it but you teach the rest of us so much about endurance, perseverance, and understanding.

I cannot deny the joy of the moment when your child laughs uncontrollably when you tickle them or when they give you a big kiss. These are the happy thoughts that sustain you through your child’s colicky nights or the moments when your annoying teen thinks they know more than you do. There are those amazing moments when a stranger admires your child’s manners or compliments their kindness or performance. You sigh and think to yourself that perhaps you are doing something right after all. Then there are those moments when you feel you are of some great use, when your child’s head wound is bursting with blood, and only your hugs and kisses, can make it feel better or when your child asks you for help in math homework and you can actually be of help.

I would not be the mother I am today if it were not for my role models. Among them, my own mother who deserves the title of saint, a mother who has always had patience and love to guide me through life, a mother who has been unselfish and giving in every aspect imaginable.  She is a mother who always has a solution, who always says, “yes, we can do this”, who is always ready to take on a task.  She is someone who only knows positivity and possibilities, who never gives up. She is the one who jokes, laughs, dances, and makes me laugh. She is the one who played with me as a child, plays with my children, and finds the playfulness in life. She is the one who practices mindfulness and meditation, and who is thoughtful and magical in her ways. She is a healer, a source of positive and universal energy. How lucky for me to have had this amazing role model.

And then there are all those other great women in my life who have shared with me their wisdom and ways.  Everyday I learn something new from the women who surround me, be they mothers or not. I feel blessed to be surrounded by such powerhouses, with amazing insight and experiences. I take all of this in to help me in my most challenging undertaking, that of raising my children.

To my dear fellow women raising children out there, around the world, a big salute to you because I know what a challenge it can be sometimes and I hope you recognize the value of your effort and your amazing contribution to the human race.

My friend wrote something to me in an email the other day, it was an ordinary email response but oh, so powerful. This is a friend who does not have children of her own.  She wrote me after I commented to her about my daughter being upset at my not letting her do something. She wrote back,

“Your daughter is fortunate to have you as a mom.  It’s not always easy – I say this from watching my sister and closest girlfriends raise children.  I admire all of you mothers for the gift you provide to our planet.  It’s great to set boundaries and also prioritize yourself!!!!  This is something not enough moms do even though everyone benefits! “

Wow, “the gift I provide to the planet”, that sounds very powerful when put that way. And in all of this we also need to follow my sage friend’s advice, to ”prioritize yourself”, find time for yourself too.  We must not lose ourselves in the everyday craziness of parenting. We must find time to learn and achieve new things, to better ourselves, and to reward ourselves. We must first take care of ourselves before we can take care of others. Aim for greatness as a person, and greatness is what you’ll hope to impart on your child.

What more can I say, wherever you are in the world, raise that glass of wine, beer, margarita, shot of aguardiente, detox juice, or just a beautiful crystal glass of sparkling water, and join me in this special Mother’s Day toast, in celebration of who we are and the special role we play,

I wish you all a Happy Mother’s Day, and a Happy Mother’s Life.

Brussels, Belgium
June 2000

Cordoba, Spain
December 2011