Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Suburban Navy Blues - the Westchester Expat Chronicles

Funny how the type of my car totally commands how I go about my day: How I dress, how I walk/jump/hop/strut in & out of it, and how I communicate with fellow drivers on the street. My car dictates how I behave. It frames my state of mind. My car drives me even though I seem to be the one steering and shifting gear.

My car, for the past 5 years, designated me as a typical soccer mom. A heavy and “safe” 7-seater minivan that drives like a school bus, my Routan has faithfully driven my kids to school, soccer practice, karate, ballet, tennis, and everything in between. Naturally my work clothes were already boxed and out came my Lulu Lemons in all their galore. At least I did insist on style even though in the end, yoga pants and sneakers have become my wardrobe staples and in all honesty, they all looked and felt the same.

With three kids and a suburban lifestyle, a minivan is not just a car. It’s a mobile kitchen, a children’s closet, a laundry basket and in most cases a composting dump. When I calculate the average time I spend in my car per day, over 5 years, it amounts to 5 to 6 hours PER DAY! Yeah, ask the twitch in my right knee. It’s screaming MERCYYYYY…

Even when I do try to rise to a rare occasion and feel that urge to dress up, the glory of the moment only lasts till I reach my destination: be it a fancy dinner, a show or just a night in the MPD. The minute I step out of my Navy Blue Routan I get that feeling that people see through my mini skirt and high heels. Oblivious to my shadowy eyes and glossed up lips, all they see is a flashy blue Nike Fusion and thermal tights. I sigh inwardly and resign to the fact that this is what I am: a soccer mom who should be doing laundry and cleaning up my boys’ mess in their bathroom right now.

Five years of that vicious cycle till I went one day to my VW serve and they offered me a loaner car till mine was fixed. As I stepped outside the center, a shiny red CC was waiting for me, brand new in all its blue plastic.  You wouldn’t believe but in my loaner CC, I rushed home and unconsciously changed in skinny jeans and fancy booties and headed back out, ready to face the world as a Foxy suburban mom… whatever that means.

I’ve had my CC for a month. YES MY CC! and I’ve changed so much since. I even watch what I eat because a dew extra pounds simply won’t do with my new self image. I still did my errands and gazillion activities but with some drastic measures: No food allowed within the premises, No shoes off, Clothes changed should and must be neatly taken out before your feet touch solid ground, and if you absolutely have to ride my car, you’d better act like a sophisticated suburban kid too!

Surprisingly, I never had to drill any of these into their young rebellious minds. The CC had gotten to them too.

Every morning Walid would nudge me to call the service center: Have they forgotten about us? He’d ask.. every morning I would calmly promise to call and follow-up, knowing well that I don’t even have their number and won’t bother to look it up!

Yeah, my car does govern my life and I can’t wait to ditch the yoga pants and let my hair catch the wind in a uhummm not-a-routan-mobile J  

Saturday, February 8, 2014

10 Ways to Break Sad News to third Culture Kids – Expat Families

Before I took on the prestigious job of ummm … a trailing spouse, I was drilled with wise and no-so-wise advice on how to raise my future expat kids.

Make sure to speak to them only in Arabic. That one proved difficult but really vital.

They have to have daily contact with their family back home. Skype, photos, virtual dialogues, and visits helped with that. Long uninterrupted summer vacations in Egypt have also anchored my kids to my homeland.

Cook Egyptian food, Show pride in your homeland, Remind them of our traditions…..

Eleven years later and a myriad of school international fairs later, I take pride!

BRAVO... I have managed to raise at least one very Egyptian kid, one semi-Egyptian, and one oblivious to what that really means but still happy to be called Egyptian.

Tarek, 11 speaks Egyptian as good as I do. Taymour, 8 has an accent and funny translated vocabulary but the character of a true Egyptian street kid J, Tamara, 5 is struggling with Arabic but has no problem swaying her little figure to the drum beat and proudly wears her costumes at culture days.  It does help that Egyptian dresses have lots of bling and bright colors.

Molokheya is a staple on our table and Foul is our favorite Sunday brunch dish. But my biggest achievement is their sense of belonging!

When my kids speak about family, they don’t just mean the nuclear, immediate, uni-cell family that most expat families identify with. They mean their grandparents, aunt and uncles, cousins despite the wide age gap and a few best friends (although friendship has a very different meaning to them, but that’s another blog altogether).

And that’s when it backfires.. I’ve had the misfortune to deal with a strong family tie that has to be severed from afar twice in less than 3 years.. or is it more?

First, with the passing of my dad... One day he was there.. The next the kids had to go back to New York with their father because BiBi (my dad) was in hospital. Ten days later, they were told they would never see him again.

I don’ think they quite understood back then, but they kept true to their identity and they have consistently kept his memory alive; even Tamara, who was only 3 at the time.

But now, I had to break yet another sad news. Their grandfather, Walid’s dad had passed. I was aware of two new facts: 1- They are much older now. 2- Walid is not with us and won’t be for a while, which means I have to break the news, absorb all aftershocks and do it alone!

And when you do a job too well, sometimes all you reap is … Heartache!

As I go through a week of shock, mourning, blocking, pretending, denial and anger with them, I learn a few lessons no one 11 years ago has prepped me for.

11-   Expat kids have a deeper emotional attachment to extended family. They simply don’t take such ties for granted. Never under-estimate the impact of such loss, especially if it’s so sudden.

22-    When in mourning, Expat kids resent the isolation this lifestyle imposes on them. They want to be there, feel what everyone is feeling and see how things are done.

33-    Blocking comes handy when you live so far away. What you don’t see, you simply don’t miss as much. That however, makes it so much harder when summer comes, kids go back home, they start dealing with the apparent loss but everyone around them has already moved on.

44-    It is wrong to push the news to a later “more convenient time”.  I was tempted to do so, but I was wrong! An eleven year old sometimes needs to reach out and share, not in retrospect.

55-    Kids are more resilient and bounce back much faster. So any attempt, no matter how tempting, to dig deeper and probe with emotionally charged questionings is simply unnecessary torture. Don’t fool yourself into believing you are doing this to make sure they don’t bottle it all in.

66-    Engage third party helpers.. Nothing helped my son more than his conversations with his peers in school. He came back one day and told me: “it seems that everyone of my friends has lost at least one grandparent already”.

77-   Stop the urge to lure your kids into your own web of chagrin. If they see that you are fine and can live passed this horrible experience, they believe they can too. SO suck it up! My bathroom floor can attest to the millions of stifled tears it has witnessed in the past three years.

88-    Some kids, one of mine included, can’t quite cope with the concept of imminent death. Their fear becomes so exaggerated that they start questioning, when your turn will come, or worse, when theirs will. I still remember Tarek’s first knee-jerk question when I told him that my dad was gone. “What if it happens to you?” I told him I was confident it wouldn’t. I lied and hoped to God, he won’t fail me on that one, at least for now.

99-    Pray.. Kids need to believe in the afterlife; that their beloved didn’t simply cease to exist; hat they are out there somewhere receiving all our positive thoughts. It really helps during those first few days. It doesn’t matter how you chose to pray, just allocate that time everyday to channel some positive thoughts and send them straight to heaven.

110- Follow their lead. Don’t impose your grief or the way you chose to express it on them. Give them space to mull, roll and chew on the concept. They will come to you when they decide to share and they will impose how they wish to do just that!

I don’t wish this upon any trailing wife, especially one like me, who feels stranded out here in snowy Westchester while my whole family and friends are all gathered in mourning, seeking comfort from and around each other.

Rest in Peace Oncle Abdel Halim and may this be the last of our family sorrows for some time to come.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

God Rest Your Soul ya Oztaz Tohamy! Arabic lessons blues in Westchester

Fight # 1

If you don’t make some effort, you’ll never make it up to the next level

Fight # 2

How did you write that word again? Show me the paper! NOW! Do you realize this is the hundredth time you write that same word, and you still can’t get it write?

Fight # 3

Did you do your Arabic?
An hour later… Did you do your Arabic?
Days later… Did you do your Arabic?

The answer remains the same no matter how repeatedly I ask… I C.A.N.T.D.O.I.T.A.L.O.N.E…
Yes by now he’s as angry as I am

Fight # 4

This is it, I’m done, I can’t hold your hand forever.. we’ve been stuck on this level for years now and I see no improvement. Worse, there is no will to improve.
I’m telling your teacher right NOW that you are not doing lessons anymore. I AM DONE.

Tears are starting to flow … on both sides

And you know what?? Don’t you dare come in the future and blame me for not writing and reading in your own native language. It’s your problem; you deal with your own regrets. BAM!!! that hammers the last nail in.

It’s only December, and I think I’ve been through this cycle at least three times already.
As I write this, my son and I are not on speaking terms. Thank God I can use my other two to communicate to him through.  He on the other hand is tripping on guilt wires, knee deep in frustration and drowning fast!

This can’t be it: A life long struggle to teach my kids their language. I had to endure daily hours of torture at school to reach the level I’m at. And it was nothing to be proud of to begin with. Only through my work in later years did my written Arabic so improve. So why am I torturing my kids?

The answer is clear and simple.. Egyptian is who they are, partially at least.  Ten years of their cumulative lives in New York have stretched that thread to their native background real thin. They speak Arabic (at least the first two Ts), they eat Egyptian food, they have some Egyptian summer friends. By some obviously I mean my friends’ kids who see them for a few days every year.

We started lessons at the age of 4. We had weekly private tutoring and homework dispersed in the days between. This year, I came to the conclusion that it was simply not enough. So we upped it to twice a week and twice the homework. That also translated, to my greatest “chagrin”, to twice the fights, twice the time spent spelling the same words over and over, and over and over, and again……

There will come a moment when I will just give up. T1 has had his shot.  Languages were never T2’s stronghold anyway.. and T3, well as usual, she gets the shortest end of the stick simply because I’m just too tired by the time I get to her. The curse of a third child!

Funny, how my dreams of pushing my kids to take the state exams no matter where we lived, just washed themselves away. I always dreaded the day I’ll have to face the truth that my kids are not Egyptian. At least not in the same way I am. Surprisingly, raising global children becomes a much easier task once we give up the notion of a motherland, a native origin. The day has come, and to my relief, it’s not so bad J yet!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Roamer: Expat on the move - Packing lists

Roamer: Expat on the move - Packing lists: Relocating to a new country has a very unique effect on our dialogues.  I can’t claim that our conversations lately were as fre...

Roamer: Expat on the move - Packing lists

Roamer: Expat on the move - Packing lists: Relocating to a new country has a very unique effect on our dialogues.  I can’t claim that our conversations lately were as fre...

Expat on the move - Packing lists

Relocating to a new country has a very unique effect on our dialogues.  I can’t claim that our conversations lately were as free flowing and fluid as they’ve always been. As we grow older and our positions in life become so vastly different, the common threads that usually weave themselves into interesting conversations begin to thin out. 

He talks mostly about work and I listen only when he mentions the kids, my friends or my workout routine.  I talk primarily Yoga, Soul Spinning and Swim classes and he listens only when the words “lucrative” or “paid consultancy” permeate my free flowing monologues.  Otherwise, we communicate great! (Smirk)

So when I started telling him about my plans for packing up the house, I didn’t expect much. I was proud with my decision to designate all the Thomas tracks and trains as family heirloom, his silent appraisal of the car roofing came as no surprise.  At least he wasn’t rolling his eyes… yet.  I kept talking anyway.

-      -  I don’t think I want to give the kids’ Thomas stuff away.
-      -  Maybe just the train table but not the tracks
More silence
-      -  I mean those tracks represent years of our boys’ early childhood
Silence .. I’m thinking: eventually he has to give in and engage, or else, his neck will go stiff on him for staring at the car roof for so long.. and we still have five more traffic lights to cross before I drop him off..
-      -  You know what? I’ll put it all in a big box.. Maybe I’ll send it with you on your first visit

There is a sudden neck movement. Yes, I finally got his attention. I keep staring ahead, focused on the road
-      -  Why would I take a box full of train tracks on my first visit?
-       - I don’t know, you’re going anyway, you might as well take some stuff with you
-       - Yeah, but after that first visit, I will go and settle for 6 months. So I’m thinking: I need to carry as much of my personal stuff as I can. Otherwise I’m stuck for months till the container arrives.. You know, essential things like suits, shirts, shoes….
-       Really?? You want to take your clothes? But a single box of Thomas tracks is too much for you? That’s just silly!

Oohhh, did I just say that? Did I actually just say that?
Blessedly, I only had one traffic light left and he was kind enough to laugh, just laugh!

He did do the Choo Choo signal as he left the car however, and I think I heard him sing: they’re 2, they’re 4 they’re 6 they’re 8.. Shunting trucks and hauling freight………..♬♩♬♩

I have to concede to the fact that... when overwhelmed I tend to panic about the ridiculous stuff, start packing the trivial "heirloom" items, spend hours making to do lists with all the things I should have done in the past 5 years, never bothered, but now must, absolutely must do before I go!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Expat ont the Move - Count Down Diaries

I’m 40 this year.. So I had a list of 40 things to do before I turn 40.. A list to do while I’m 40.. A list to do the decade of 40.. I’m cheesy.. I know! But I am an expat housewife living in Westchester. That is enough to justify Cheesy!

I thought I had my lists all under control. Until a new one just unfolded before me: 40 things to do before I leave Westchester..

I’m leaving.. and I’m loving my next hub.. We couldn’t have landed a better destination.. a dream post.. Why then?

Why am I bargaining for a few months more? A few extra moments to do all the 40 things I set out to do the minute I heard we’re moving.

The expat mind is a very unique one. We spend a lifetime carving a life that keeps changing on us. We take every move as an opportunity to reinvent ourselves, to leave behind all the things we DON”t like about the place we just left., to say goodbye to people we didn’t necessarily click with, houses we couldn’t grow fond of, environments that stifled our desire to thrive.

And yet!

Somehow, everything we DON”T like about that place seems to vanish. We are equipped with memories that can only retain the good stuff.  It kicks in, not when we leave, but when we first hear the words: “Honey, I got the job!”  (side note: Honey is not in our vernacular, I just like the cliché)

He looks at me and all I see is raw frustration. But you said you would jump at it if this job comes, he says to me. Why do you want to separate the family and prolong your stay here? It took you over three years to even like this place and now you want to stay???????

He’s right on all counts: I did hate it here when I first move. Not because it’s New York, but because in and out, I’m no suburban wife. I had to lock my professional ambitions up for 5 years. Did all the housework I hate to do. Became the soccer housewife I swore I’d never be. One would think I’d take any opportunity to jump ship even if it was half as good as the one we have.

But that’s not how the expat mind works!

I did hate it when I first came. But I did manage to turn my life around. I surrounded myself with the best friends Westchester can offer: Hip, positive, strong and colorful people who kept adding and adding to my life. I pursued passions I never had time to explore: hiking, skiing (not so much a passion, rather a terrifying challenge), dance classes, movie nights and infinite good food.

I survived 4 farewells and watched most of my friends go year after year, wondering when it would be my turn.  With every girls night out I realized how incredible those friendships were and still are to my life. It boils down to this: I had no job, little help, zero support system but I had sooo much fun! And that’s what my mind chooses to hold on to.

It’s a flip coin, I tell him, If I chose to resist, to stay who I am, to hold on to a previous life and count the days till the new post is over, I give you 3-4-5 years of misery and in return I’m the happiest partner when it’s time to go. Bring on the bubble wrap! Your house will be chopped up in tiny numbered boxes in no time. I’ll meet you at the airport.
But when I jump right into it, push my limits, explore the options and cherish the gifts that every new post provides, I inadvertently build a life, a good one!

Every hike with a friend is a new root that inches deeper in the ground. Every breakfast with the girls is a day that just started right. Every dance class is a bad moment chased away and replaced with a rush that colors my outlook on the days ahead.
So when I’m asked to go, I’m actually wrapping up years of sincere friendships, fun moments and seriously good food. That doesn’t usually happen with a happy face!

So the count down begins….
40 more things to do before I go……