Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Moving out - How to Compress Five years of your Life in a Container Box - Part 1

Four closet boxes, check… Boys winter clothes, check… Shoes, check… China and silverware, check… Camping gear, check…….

Why does it look like the more I pack, the more clutter spills and takes over my floor space?

The system is quite clear in my head. In fact, I have fleeting moments of sheer pride in my planning and organization skills. But if you pop in for a stroll around my house, you’ll probably think, poor Laila, what a mess she has to deal with. No one seems to be able to read the system behind the Labyrinth of cardboard and plastic I have created. At times, I think I can’t navigate it either. Put I quickly push any doubts aside. The one secret to a smooth move is CONTROL.

This is my sixth move and by far the most chaotic. My last was five years ago and the eldest of my children was only four. All I had to do to make him happy was make sure his Blue Lightning McQueen would make it safe to the other side of the ocean. It never did, but by the time our container was opened, He had lost all consciousness of the 15$ toy. The lure of a trip to Target to replenish the toy closet in his new room had all but wiped away all shreds of memory he carried along from his previous life. That simple!

Now,11, 8 and 6; my kids are very conscious of the move and have been yo-yoing between dumping their fears and insecurities on me, and shooting three pointers filled with anger and frustration straight at my head. They always score!

Generally speaking, they are handling the process much better than I thought. But they are THREE, and I am ONE. It doesn’t take a genius to quickly do the math and conclude that I’m officially outnumbered!

If there are any skills I have gained from this move, here is a list I have been using as my default setting to smoothly ride this avalanche of emotions, logistics and details.

1-    Be Positive. The UN alone employs thousands of internationally designated staff. Add the private sector, foreign ministries across the globe and I immediately feel less alone.

2-    Investigate the new destination. Many roamers have to deal with pit of the earth destinations. That alone can be cause of serious mental stress, and in many cases, a separation of the family for more child-friendly shores. But if like me, you have been blessed with a destination you are actually looking forward to explore, do just that. Virtually explore and plan your first series of adventures ahead of time. I already have a list of Tree House hotels I want to take the kids to. Silly, yes.. Trivial, definitely yes.. Crucial for my mental health.. YES YES YES

3-    Engage the kids in the process. New beginnings always bring new toys and new spaces in tow. My boys helped choose the car. We debated for days the merits of another 7-seater versus a sporty looking Sedan. My eldest two are boys, talking cars with them is always surprisingly very enlightening.

4-    Be flexible. Two weeks before departure, I was boxing my house up, planning the dates for the container to ship when Walid zoomed in on a great house very close to school – my one and only big condition. The house is furnished! My mind went into loops and hoops.. What do I unpack? How do I separate what goes into storage and what I have to absolutely take along? Do I really have to take anything along? I need to create three separate spaces: stuff that goes to storage, stuff that we take along and the packing for our summer in Egypt. I have two weeks to go. I CAN DO IT! The house is worth it.. Keep repeating that.. The house is worth it. Even if has no kitchen per say and non-existent closet space… the house is worth it.

- -  You are a Butterfly in the making.. It seems that my kids have made a secret pact to keep me on my toes. We are one family, they are all the offspring of one drained body, we are moving together to the same destination and YET.. they can't seem to agree on how to collectively deal. Accordingly, their needs and expectations from me are just as incoherently varied. As I said, I find myself constantly morphing in response to each of them. I can't remember how I personally feel anymore because my mind has been overtaken by three young but oh-so-capable armies of sorrow, eagerness, sadness, can't-wait-to-go excitement and then some.. I'm expected to embrace and understand. I do, at least I think I do. And every time I stop to think: where am I in all this? I pull hard on my mental brakes. It Matters naught... For I'm in a Morphing stage and soon I'll emerge more beautiful and free. (Unrealistic and totally untrue, and you're probably lollll-ing right now. But hey.. it works)

5-    If you absolutely have to whine about the misery of it all, make sure you do it with an energizing spin. I chose to whine and hike. Poor Hanan, a dear friend who has been quite accommodating. As we tread unchartered trails and gasp at every wild animal sighting failing miserably to capture the moment with an IPhone Selfie, she listens patiently and offers what I need the most, JOKES! We laugh so hard as we share the various anecdotes that have marked each and every move we both endured as career Roamers. Believe , we all go through it and we have loads to tell.

6-    Stay in CONTROL.. That’s key.. Boxes are cluttering your home… Kids are testing your ability to morph into mood soother,., anger bouncing ball, beacon of hope, anxiety catcher net, all in one afternoon… cooking, cleaning and driving to activities remains unchanged despite the added cardboard load… Stay in CONTROL.. Please don’t ask me how, I’m still figuring that one out!

7-    Don’t ignore your own personal sadness. If you are too eager to leave then you haven’t really lived this last post. The more you live a destination, the deeper and more intricately twined your root system becomes. Letting go isn’t easy. Better deal with it while you are still at it. Because if you are like me, you bottle up and compress till the moment is gone; it will be so hard on the other side, you won’t know what has suddenly gripped and crushed your essence. But newly established and still rootless in your new destination, you won’t have the support system to lift you up when you whither and fall. I know that’s exactly what I should be doing. But I’m still stupidly bottling up.

I’d like and keep this list flowing, but I’m running out of excusable time off of boxes. More purging awaits in the kitchen.. By the end of today, I intend to claim victory with seven more Checks next to my to-pack list. But before all, Taymour forgot his homework at home and I need to rush to school to save the day.. aka shield myself from the torrents of emotions should I decide to let it go.

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!