Finding Home

House with a sold sign

We sold our house this week. No, we’re not moving overseas again, not even across the country, in fact we may well end up living within walking distance of where we live now. We simply decided, for a number of reasons, that now is time to move from a house to condominium apartment.

Deciding to sell the house was probably one of the most difficult decisions we’ve made. But why? We’ve owned this house 26 years, but almost half that time we were overseas. We owned 4 other houses before it, and have rented 7 other homes since. And yet this house held a special place in our hearts, which made selling it seem akin to selling a family member.

The rational side of me knew that we’d been perfectly happy in all the homes we’ve lived in. The shabby post-soviet apartment in Baku, the gleaming 5* luxury apartment in Dubai, a villa the size of an aircraft hangar and the tiny apartment where everything had to be stowed away like on a submarine, had all been “home” for a while. We cooked, entertained, pursued hobbies and had fulfilling and fun lives no matter where or what we’d lived in. So why did the thought of moving here in Canada break my heart?

A lot of soul searching later, I’ve come to the conclusion that, for us, it’s the years we weren’t there that made this house so special. It became a psychological safe harbor, an anchor, the place we knew we could always return to when culture shock, loneliness, or the stress of not knowing if or when we’d move again overwhelmed us. David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken in their book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds talk about “sacred objects” which help connect one part of a global nomad’s life with the next. Perhaps this house had become our sacred object. A place we knew we could always go back to, “home.” It would welcome us, we’d brew a steaming cup of tea and all would be well.

During the decision-making process, and even after the house was listed, tears were shed, although we knew our decision was the right one. But surprisingly, now the house is sold, we’re at peace. Perhaps because it’s been bought by a lovely retired couple who are moving to be close to their children and grandchildren who live a few doors away. Knowing we are passing the torch to immigrants (expats) like ourselves has helped.  The house will be in safe hands.

Living overseas taught us that brick and mortar (or concrete and steel) don’t make a home. It’s the people within it and the life you build for yourself that matters. Home can be anywhere you are and is what you choose to make it.

Perhaps it’s fitting that the theme of the next Families in Global Transition Conference is “Finding Home.” It’ll be just in time for me as I transition yet again from one home to another.

Book Review: The Ruby: A re-entry survival story by Suzanne Johnson

Book review: The Ruby: A repatriation survival storyThere’s something compelling about personal stories.  It’s not just the guilty pleasure of vicariously living someone else’s life, it’s also revealing as to what really works and what doesn’t when it comes to facing life’s challenges.

There are  few books written on the subject of repatriation and reverse culture shock, and the ones I’ve found most useful have been written as personal stories rather than the earnest “how to manual’ approach.

The first half of Suzanne Johnson’s The Ruby: A re-entry survival story is devoted to describing her family’s expatriate experience working at a missionary-run orphanage in Mozambique.  Having been paid substantial sums of money to live in locations far less challenging, I have the utmost admiration for those who do so on their own nickel.  She certainly makes it sound rewarding, and even fun in places, although that doesn’t include the episode when a nearby exploding arms depot literally rained shells on top of them.

Although half the book is NOT about repatriation, this section is an entirely enjoyable and interesting read and of course sets us up for a deeper understanding of the profound re-entry shock Suzanne faced upon returning to life in the UK.

Her biggest challenge was re-integrating into her church community, perhaps a more tight-knit community than many of us come from, but the issues she faced are common to all repatriates – grief and loss for the friends and life left behind, identity crisis, values which no longer align with friends and family and no one who understands the pain you’re experiencing.  I found I related strongly to the emotions she describes, although I have to admit I was left wondering whether her faith was as much a hindrance as a help in her gradual readjustment.

Repatriation is still a topic most expatriates don’t talk about much.  It’s almost like death; in fact many would describe it as the death of a way of life.  But it is a transition you get through eventually.  Books like The Ruby are valuable for anyone in the midst of this difficult and often lengthy process.  Knowing that your feelings are not unique, that others have struggled with similar issues and resolved them, one way or another, is sustaining.

This book is well written and definitely worth a read.  All proceeds from sales are donated to the Zimpeto Children’s Centre where Suzanne worked.

Happy Day Off!

Canada Day 2013

Wikipedia Creative Commons

Today is Canada Day and so we have a long weekend here in Canada.  It’s another thing I enjoy about repatriating, knowing exactly when the holidays will be and that we will get time off from work (actually that’s 2 things).

We spent 8 years in the Middle East where many of the public holidays are religious ones.  Because the Islamic calendar is lunar, each year the holidays move forward about 11 or 12 days.  Many Muslim countries rely on their scientists to tell them when the holidays will fall and the dates are fixed well in advance, but the UAE still relies on a “Moon Sighting Committee” to go out into the desert (to get away from the bright city lights) and literally look for the new moon before these important events are proclaimed.  It’s a charming tradition, but not only does it mean the dates are often different in the UAE than elsewhere, it also means they’re unknown until the night before the holiday starts.

For expats this creates a bit of a problem if you’re planning a short getaway.  When you’re booking time off work you have to play Russian roulette with your vacation days, as they may or may not get used depending on when exactly the holiday falls.

To make things even more complicated there is no requirement for companies to give you a day off in lieu if the holiday falls on a weekend, and many choose not to do so, even western ones.  With Eid holidays lasting 2 or 3 days twice a year, it seemed you’d always ‘lose’ at least a day or two.

And on the topic of weekends, that too can cause problems.  When we first moved to Dubai the local weekend was Thursday and Friday.  All government offices were closed, and because the Ministry of Education was closed, all schools, even international ones, had to close too.  Many companies that did business outside of the Middle East chose to take a Friday-Saturday weekend, to avoid being out of touch for 4 days of the week.

As a result expat families with children ended up with a Thursday-Friday-Saturday weekend-ish, which was really neither one thing nor the other.  It worked well for those who liked a day exclusively with the children and a day exclusively with their spouse (with Friday as the true family day sandwiched in between), but I found it a difficult adjustment to make.

Fortunately by the time we returned to Dubai for our second stint, they had switched to a Friday-Saturday weekend, but it still took me many years to get my head around Sunday being a workday.

Here in Canada our holidays are either firm dates on the calendar (like July 1) or tied to a long weekend (like Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October).  In the years we were away they even added a new holiday – Family Day  – on the 3rd Monday in February.  In a country with a long cold winter it’s a welcome respite during the long slog between Christmas and Easter.  But enough words, it’s sunny and warm outside and the barbeque is calling . . .

4 Things I’ve learned about repatriating well

Peeling back the layers on expat repatriation

Courtesy Stock Xchng

Maybe Steve Jobs was right and we can only connect the dots looking backwards.  At one point I would have said that I had no advice for anyone repatriating other than to simply hang on and get through it.  But now, looking back, I can see that there were at least 4 things that I probably did right, even though it didn’t necessarily feel like that at the time.

Leave well

We had more notice of this last repatriation than we’d ever had before, several months in fact.  This meant there was time both to say our farewells to people and places and start thinking about life back home.  Two essential elements of the RAFT model for transition.

Although I’ve never heard it recommended, I also found it helpful that we stopped off on the way back to visit with family in the UK.  That mini-break created a bit of a buffer between the two realities and landing in Canada didn’t seem like such a jolt.

Choose your destination wisely

We were fortunate that we were repatriating to a very multicultural and diverse city, our home in Toronto.  I’ve often said that I don’t need to travel anymore, because the world now comes to me.  Rubbing shoulders (quite literally on my subway ride to work each day) with people from all around the world makes me still feel connected to a much wider world. Anecdotal evidence from friends and acquaintances who have repatriated to small-town anywhere suggests that the cultural adjustment is much more difficult.  Something to think about if you’re planning to retire to a rural utopia.

Look inward

Bizarre though it sounds, signing up for Twitter and LinkedIn, when I first returned was a really valuable exercise.  At the time, my intention was simply to learn about this new social media phenomenon and find myself a job, but in hindsight coming up with the required summary/brief description of myself, compelled me to think long and hard about who I had become while living overseas and what I wanted for my life going forward.

Don’t sever the expat cord

I believe that one of the reasons there is so little written about repatriation is that many repats feel they must close the book on being an expatriate.  Even though I claim that I’m a ‘forever expat’ I admit to feeling occasionally that maybe I’m just a sad ex-expat to still be writing about my experiences.  But I know that it’s been helpful to my adjustment to acknowledge and celebrate my expat life rather than pretend it never happened.   A life lived in many countries is part of who I am and that’s never going to go away.

Even though I’ve talked about how little my international experience was valued when I was interviewing for jobs, it was someone in my international network who referred me to my previous position and on several occasions I’ve been able to connect people across the globe.  Staying connected on social media with those you met overseas can have valuable practical benefits as well as social ones (subject to the usual caveats).

It seems we only become wise after an event.  Four years have passed since we returned to Canada and every year I’ve blogged an annual “state of the nation” about my adjustment, each one peeling back yet another layer of the onion.  I wonder when, or even if, the adjustment will be complete?

A Middle Eastern Christmas

IMG_0345They say the grass is greener on the other side of the fence and that certainly seems to be true in our household this Christmas.

Christmases overseas were spent pursuing the British traditions of my childhood – a decorated tree with gifts piled beneath it and dinner of turkey with stuffing, brussel sprouts, roasted potatoes and of course mince pies and Christmas cake in abundance.  None of which was an easy achievement when living in Muslim countries and often involved shopping for vital ingredients and supplies while on summer vacation (Christmas crackers and mincemeat in August?  Hmmm).  It also involved learning to cook a lot of things from scratch, as there were no microwave stuffing mixes or pre-basted turkeys in Baku in 1998.

When we first returned to Canada I enjoyed the convenience of having everything to hand just when I needed it, but this year, having cooked a turkey dinner at Thanksgiving, the thought of doing it all again so soon seemed, well, blah.  A foodie friend (who will also be my guest on Christmas Day) suggested a lamb tagine and the idea caught my imagination.  Why not a Middle Eastern themed Christmas Dinner?  After all, Mary & Joseph wouldn’t have been tucking into turkey and cranberry sauce all those years ago, more like hummus and tabouleh.

So now here I am again tracking down elusive ingredients like tahini paste, sumach and rose water as I prepare for the big day next week.  I’ve pulled out the cook book which friends in Dubai gave me as a leaving present and I’m chopping and blending as I cook from scratch, just as I did in my days in Baku.

Seems no matter where I am, I’m thinking of someplace else.

An Insider’s Guide to the FIGT Conference

A recent blog post by Rachel Yates about her fear of attending an Families in Global Transition Conference got me thinking about the first one I went to in 2010.  Like Rachel I was daunted by my fellow FIGTers.  They all seemed so well qualified and successful and there was I, recently repatriated, unemployed and feeling pretty useless.  I’d never attended a professional conference before and had no idea what to expect.  So I have every sympathy for Rachel’s nerves and would like to share what I’ve learned since then.

It’s far friendlier than you’d expect.  At the last conference, Anne Copeland conducted an informal poll to determine our expatriate and intercultural experiences.  Everyone in the room stood up for something and one thing was clear, we all knew what it means to feel you don’t belong.  David Pollock described FIGT as the “biggest reunion of strangers”  and no matter who I sat next to, striking up a conversation was easy.   One tip, if you arrive the night before the conference begins, the early arrivals get together for dinner in the hotel restaurant.  Join us, it’s fun and by the time the conference starts you’ll already know a few people.

What the hell are Kitchen Table Conversations?  They’re a nod to the genesis of FIGT around the kitchen table of Ruth Van Reken.  For two one-hour periods a couple of rooms are set up with large round tables seating 8-12 people.  Each one is labelled with a topic and led by a presenter.  You pick one, and for 15 minutes listen to a short presentation and discuss the topic.  It’s then time to move to another table (and another topic) for the next 15 minutes.  Allowing time for all the moving around, you attend 3 Kitchen Table conversations in an hour.  They are fast, noisy and not everyone likes them for these reasons, but they’re a great way to get a quick overview of a topic, meet and hear a lot of presenters.  For those who’d rather not, there are Kitchen Table Alternatives – 2 one hour sessions – usually something creative and/or hands-on.

Dine-Around happens on the Friday night.  This is a free evening, not included in the conference program, but if you don’t know anyone well and don’t want to eat alone, sign up early in the day at the registration area.  There will be a selection of restaurants to choose from and at the appointed time each group with gather at the hotel and leave together, often on foot.  If the restaurant is willing, we ask for separate checks.

Early Bird Sessions are informal conversations over breakfast.  As you come downstairs in search of coffee you’ll see that the breakfast tables are labelled by topic.  The food is buffet style, so grab a plate, take a seat and join the discussion.  There is no formal presentation, but each table is moderated by a volunteer to ensure everyone stays on topic and gets a chance to speak.  There’s no need to stay at one table, so feel free to dip your toes into several conversations if you wish.

By now you’ve probably realized the schedule is VERY intense.  I’m usually flagging by the afternoon of the second day and by the end of the conference I’m exhausted.  It’s my own fault because I can’t bear to miss anything, but if you’re someone who needs quiet time to reflect, take some time out to be on your own and don’t feel you have to attend everything.  Browse the bookstore, take a walk or collapse in your room.

This year, I’m presenting for the first time – just a Kitchen Table conversation – so nothing too scary but already I’ve got butterflies.  It’s amazing to realize how far I’ve come in just two years, thanks in large part to support and knowledge I’ve gained by attending this unique conference.  And all because I replied to a tweet …

Home at last

My friend Maria over at has inspired me to write my own retrospective of 2011.  It may have been a train wreck for her, but for me the train finally arrived in the station in terms of my repatriation.  What made it happen?

Finding a purpose.  For me that meant finding a job I truly enjoy, but it could easily have been a hobby, a sport or a volunteer activity.  Having a reason to get up in the morning, doing something that’s fun and being valued for it are things we all need and yet they often get blown out of the water when we relocate.  This is my third job in 2 years, so it has been a bumpy road.

Making friends.  This past year I’ve acquired a few more new friends and acquaintances.  I don’t think it’s coincidence that they too had (or still have) international lives.  I’ve also reconnected more deeply with old friends and I suspect that’s partly due to the fact that I, and they, no longer feel I’m about to pack my bags and head out again any time soon.

My family’s settled.  I guess this is very much an expat wife thing, because we’re notorious for getting our families settled before looking after ourselves.  Although we all repatriated at different times, I now feel both my husband and son are happy and settled, or at least as much as TKCs are likely to be.

This is the same list you’d make for adjusting to any new location, but there’s no doubt that repatriation adds a huge extra layer of complexity.  For us, a period of unemployment during a particularly difficult economic period created additional stress, but the emotional baggage of who we are now vs who we were before expatriation was the killer and affected every aspect of our lives.  Having said that, like many of life’s major challenges, it has been a time of learning and growth.  Perhaps every dark cloud does have a silver lining.

Many expatriates don’t have a home to come back to, either because they’ve been global nomads all their lives or have permanently cut the ties to what was home.  But for us knowing we had not only a country, but a house to call home, was an important touchstone during those inevitable down days of life overseas, so I don’t regret it.  However, during the early days of culture shock when you repatriate and find home doesn’t feel comfortable, safe or even pleasant anymore, it’s like having the rug pulled completely out from under you.  No wonder it takes so long to re-establish a sense of security and comfort.

So what now, going forward?  I’m really not sure and, given past experience, I’m not sure I want to know, LOL!  But one thing I do know is that I am a forever-expat.  I continue to rejoice in my expat friendships, my volunteer work with Families in Global Transition and the Toronto Newcomers Club, so please continue to watch this space.