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Posts Tagged ‘moving’

Stepping — or being dragged — beyond your comfort zone

In art, behavior, blogging, books, culture, film, journalism on April 9, 2014 at 12:07 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I gave this pin to Jose on our wedding day

I gave this pin to Jose on our wedding day

I enjoyed this recent book review, which the blogger Victoria Best, a former lecturer at Cambridge, admits she found both challenging and beyond her normal taste. Her blog, Tales From the Reading Room is always smart and thoughtful:

(author Susan) Nussbaum was a drama student in her twenties when she was knocked down by a car. Now nearing sixty, she has spent her adult life in a wheelchair with partial function in her arms, working as a playwright and a disability activist. Good Kings, Bad Kings is her first novel and it achieves the wholly admirable feat of giving a memorable voice to some forgotten members of society.

Good Kings, Bad Kings takes place in a nursing home for adolescents with disabilities, a grim institution…

So much fiction is for comfort or escapism, so much is created with pleasing and appeasing the reader in mind, that you have to love a book that has the courage to tackle a really difficult subject…

Books should raise our awareness of the vulnerable and forgotten, we ought to be jolted out of our comfort zones sometimes. It’s one of the things we rely on writers to do, when most of us lack the courage.

Having recently visited a country of head-spinning poverty — average annual income is $1,080 — working for a week in Nicaragua, I’ve been thinking a lot about when, why and how any of us choose to leave or stretch our comfort zones.

The poverty there was stunning; in Bilwi, where we stayed, only 20 percent of people have access to running water. Most houses are made of wood and corrugated metal. Many people do not go beyond a primary school education as it’s not available in their village or they need the income.

It is profoundly — and usefully — unsettling to see how differently others live.

We often choose to create a cozy and familiar world for ourselves and then begin to think everywhere is like that or should be like that.

Just because we know and like it doesn’t mean it’s the best or only way to live, just the one we know and are used to. The one all our friends and family know and are used to.

Our apartment building in Cuernavaca, where I lived at 14

Our apartment building in Cuernavaca, where I lived at 14

I moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico with my mother when I was 14. I had lived my life in comfort in Toronto and didn’t especially want to go.

There, we lived in a simple apartment building with an empty field next door with cows in it. We had no telephone, only a pay phone on the street corner below. We got hot water by lighting a burner in the heater in the kitchen. We had no bathtub, only a shower. The floors were tile, cool and smooth beneath our feet — but not carpet or hardwood, which I was used to.

I walked up a short, steep hill to attend school and sat at a desk with two tall narrow windows facing south. One contained Popocatapetl, an extinct volcano and the other Iztaccihuatl, another. One of my school pals had a brother named Willie, who was suffering from intestinal worms. That, too, was new to me.

I only stayed there for four months before returning to Toronto.

But that experience changed me, for good, in many ways. Living, even briefly, within a wholly different culture — whether literally, or through art or music or design or a great book — will do that to you, if you let it.

My photo, from 1986, of the late Philippe Viannay, who founded Journalistes en Europe

My photo, from 1986, of the late Philippe Viannay, who founded Journalistes en Europe

Just before my 25th birthday, I received word that I’d been chosen, with 28 other journalists from 19 nations, to spend eight months in Paris and traveling through Europe reporting. I would leave behind all my dear friends, a thriving writing career, my dog, my apartment, my live-in boyfriend who wanted to get married. My identities.

I shrieked with excitement when I opened that acceptance letter, but the day my plane left I was weeping in a corner, unable to do anything but toss a few things into my suitcase. I knew, (as it did), that year would indelibly change and mark me.

I dedicated my first book to M. Viannay, shown in the photo above that I took of him on the balcony on Rue du Louvre, in gratitude for this extraordinary experience he created — one that shoved me abruptly out of my comfort zone and into an entirely new set of competences and friendships.

What a gift!

I wish I’d been there when Nijinksy first danced to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, on May 29, 1913, when Paris’ bourgeoisie were well and truly epatee. From The Telegraph:

the Rite is the most over-documented premiere in history, and yet so many things are obscure. Was it the choreography that annoyed people, or the music? Were the police really called? Was it true that missiles were thrown, and challenges to a duel offered? Were the creators booed at the end, or cheered?

There were certainly plenty of good reasons for outrage, starting with the high, almost strangled bassoon melody that begins the work, soon draped with fluttering, twittering woodwind sounds.

It’s often said that the pulsating rhythms of the Rite of Spring are what caused the outrage, but pulsating rhythms at least have an appeal at a visceral level (an appeal certainly felt at the Rite’s premiere, where according to one eye witness one excited onlooker beat out the rhythms on the bald pate of the man in front). It’s more likely that the audience was appalled and disbelieving at the level of dissonance, which seemed to many like sheer perversity. “The music always goes to the note next to the one you expect,” wrote one exasperated critic.

The trick is being open, being emotionally porous enough to allow something new — and possibly frightening — to enter.

Here’s a blog post from Rewireme.com, a website I’ll be writing an essay for soon about my experiences in Nicaragua, about making a major life change.

Nancy wrote Jump as “one massive attempt to help you disengage from your inner stalemate and make the best decision you can.” She helps you do this by breaking the process of change into ten steps:

  1. Admit to yourself what you already know.
  2. Tell the truth to someone safe.
  3. Imagine yourself free.
  4. Make one different choice.
  5. Set your new boundaries.
  6. Ask for help.
  7. Honor your resistance.
  8. Jump!
  9. The graceful exit.
  10. Say yes…and then say it again…and again.

- See more at: http://www.rewireme.com/journeys/learning-jump-nancy-levin/#sthash.Wd1QKsAf.dpuf

Nancy wrote Jump as “one massive attempt to help you disengage from your inner stalemate and make the best decision you can.” She helps you do this by breaking the process of change into ten steps:

  1. Admit to yourself what you already know.
  2. Tell the truth to someone safe.
  3. Imagine yourself free.
  4. Make one different choice.
  5. Set your new boundaries.
  6. Ask for help.
  7. Honor your resistance.
  8. Jump!
  9. The graceful exit.
  10. Say yes…and then say it again…and again.

- See more at: http://www.rewireme.com/journeys/learning-jump-nancy-levin/#sthash.Wd1QKsAf.dpuf

I recently watched Australian film director Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 version of The Great Gatsby. Much to my surprise — as I love the 1970s version with Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan, (much better cast than Carey Mulligan) — I really enjoyed it, even though it’s crazily over the top, as he usually is; my friends’ reactions on Facebook were interesting.

Some were appalled by the film and shocked that I liked it. Because, harrumphed some, it wasn’t true to the book. He had thoroughly messed with their expectations.

When did you last leave your comfort zone?

What happened — and what happened after that?

 

What do you remember of your childhood home(s)?

In aging, beauty, behavior, children, culture, domestic life, family, life on October 26, 2013 at 1:10 am

By Caitlin Kelly

English: Carl Nielsen outside his childhood ho...

English: Carl Nielsen outside his childhood house at Nørre Lyndelse, Funen, Denmark in 1927 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This writer, a columnist for the weekend Financial Times, Harry Eyres, is one of my favorite writers. He recently wrote a poignant piece about emptying his childhood home and finally leaving it for the last time:

Strangely, I dreaded the loss of the house from a very early age. I had nightmares about it.

Leaving a
house you love is hard. Relinquishing a house where you grew up from
your earliest childhood, where you spent your first springs, summers,
autumns, winters, every one of whose corners, cupboards, creaking
staircases, floorboards and smells became almost like an extension of
your being, is harder still…

We bade farewell to the house on a perfect golden September day,
which started misty and hazy and rather mysterious before the sun broke
through. Some people had told me that it would be easier to leave the
house when it was empty, as it would have lost many of its most personal
connotations, pieces of furniture, even curtains. But I did not find it
so.

The house seemed just as beautiful as ever to me on the day of our
departure. In some ways even more beautiful, as being emptied of
furniture can restore a certain youthfulness and sense of possibility to
a dwelling. The upstairs spare room, which had become a sort of dump
before I cleared it out, hadn’t looked so inviting for decades.

We, three generations and a stalwart family friend, had a sunny
picnic on the raised terrace outside the front door, sitting on the low
wall rising up from the hydrangea beds, as there were no longer any
chairs.

I’ve only lived in a few houses with my parents, at least those I can recall.

There was one in London, when I was very small, then one in Toronto, a big brick house with a deep backyard and my bedroom at the very top, where I lay in bed and listened to the radio. I knew my mother was climbing the stairs when I heard her ankles popping. There were brilliant yellow forsythia bushes outside the kitchen window I used to call “for cynthia” — my mother’s name.

When my parents split up, and I was about seven, that was the end of that house. I miss it still.

I didn’t live in another house until eleventh grade, when I moved in with my father into a white brick house on a Toronto corner. There was a lilac tree just outside the kitchen door and a huge park behind our yard where our dog would get out and run in circles really fast, usually whenever I was having a party and it was the last thing I wanted to deal with.

Since then, after leaving that house when I was in university, I’ve never owned one nor have my parents stayed very long in any of theirs, usually only for a few years, scooping up a healthy profit, and moving into yet another. I watch the houses come and go, envious they’ve even owned a house, let alone several. I wonder if I ever will.

My father had a 200+ year-old house in Athenry, just outside Galway City, for a few years, that’s now a nursing home. I loved my few brief visits there, scything the lawn and staring out through its ancient, rippled glass panes.

When I return to visit Toronto, I often drive past that white brick house. It doesn’t look much different, even all these years later.

Jose’s childhood home was torn down and is now the Georgia O’Keefe museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The only remainder of his life there is a tiny courtyard and the apricot tree from whose fruit his late mother once made jam.

Do you remember your childhood home?

Is it still there?

Re-visiting your past

In aging, behavior, cities, domestic life, History, immigration, life, travel, urban life, US, world on September 8, 2013 at 1:52 am

By Caitlin Kelly

One of the challenges of becoming an expatriate — which I did, leaving Canada in 1988 for the U.S. — is leaving behind much of your personal history: the schools you attended, the playgrounds where you skinned your knees, the parks and ravines you walked through with your family, favorite shops, restaurants, libraries or street corners.

I lived in Toronto ages five to 30, so most of my formative and defining memories lie there: first boyfriend, newspaper job,  apartment.

Toronto viewed south from Bloor

Toronto viewed south from Bloor (Photo credit: Small)

It happens when you live far away, even across the country.

Re-visiting my past remains, however silly or nostalgic, important to me. Some of the memories are painful, and I want to re-make them with a happier overlay, while others are pure joy, like once more taking the ferry across Toronto’s harbor, to the islands there, the sun glittering off the water and the gulls circling overhead.

Bliss!

Another well-traveled path I take, and will do so on our current visit north, is down the terrazzo hallways of my old high school.

I’ve been going back there for years as a guest lecturer on writing, speaking to senior students. I was badly bullied there for a few years when I was a student, so it’s a sweet vengeance to be welcomed back as a successful alum.

It’s odd to be there as an adult, not as the eager, excited, nervous young woman I was then, dying to start university and get on with my writing career.

My name is on a wall, lettered in gold in elegant Gothic script, with all the others who won Ontario scholarships, awarded to those with the highest averages in their graduating year. It’s comforting to see my name there, to feel remembered — even if my classmates’ children have already graduated from those same classrooms.

In May 2013, I returned to the Grand Canyon for a four-day trip, camping alone in a tent. I was excited beyond measure to get back there — my last time was June 1994, and I hiked 12 hours in a day, climbing out exhausted and crusted with the salt of my evaporated sweat.

English: view into Grand Canyon from South Rim...

English: view into Grand Canyon from South Rim, Arizona, USA Deutsch: Blick in den Grand Canyon vom Südrand, Arizona, USA Français : vue dans le Grand Canyon du bord sud, Arizona, États-Unis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But I wanted to return for another reason, to make that 90-minute drive back to Flagstaff knowing I was coming home to a loving spouse; when I returned from my previous trip, my then-husband walked out for good.

For decades, I’d associated one of the best journeys of my life with one of its most unexpectedly painful moments.

In May 2008, Jose and I traveled to Mexico, back to Cuernavaca, to the apartment building where my mother and I lived when I was 14. I used to walk up the hill to my school, where two tall, narrow windows offered an extraordinary view — one of Popocatapetl, the other Iztaccihuatl, two volcanoes far in the distance.

I used to look out my second-floor window into a field, and assumed it was long since built up and paved over. But it was still a field and our building, at the corner of Copales and Naranjos, appeared unchanged as well.

I wanted to wave to my 14-year-old self, with her waist-length blond hair, listening to Creedence on her record player, and say: “It’s going to be OK. Really.”

My mother suffered a breakdown while we were there; the details too arcane for this blog, but it abruptly and permanently ended my time in her custody, making that apartment and the field and the hill the last place that I lived in her care.

Down the road is a small waterfall, its cul-de-sac filled with plant nurseries. I bought three small pottery palomitas there — unglazed doves — that hang on our balcony in the summer, small, happy memories re-created.

20130905123318

And, when Jose and I went to visit his hometown, Santa Fe, New Mexico, we visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. It has a small courtyard with an apricot tree — the one his late mother used to make jam from.

The museum now stands on the land where his late father’s Baptist church, and their home, once stood.

“This used to be my bedroom,” he said, standing before some exquisite and priceless canvas.

I didn’t know quite what to say.

How sad to never be able see your old haunts.

English: A Areal map of Santa Fe, New Mexico d...

English: A Areal map of Santa Fe, New Mexico during the Railroad era in 1882. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s blogger Dara Clear, eloquent as always — who traded his native Ireland for Australia:

Each one of of us is Homer’s Odysseus, journeying, probing, questing but perhaps ultimately compelled to return to Penelope, to that place of safety, familiarity and love. I am not being literal here, I am not saying we are all the male hero archetype who dutifully returns home to the stoic wife after his manly adventures. My suggestion is that on a profound, primal, ancient level, we are all borne on the same unstated dynamic that is best described as the journey and the return.

We set out on our voyages understanding, or maybe just suspecting, that the journey and its concomitant adventures and challenges, will not be indefinite. There will be an end. There will be a settling. And there will be a return. The return becomes whatever the traveler determines to be home. And home is the place of belonging.

Home can also be the opposite of that, highlighting the sense of not belonging, the sense of otherness. Home then, embodies a strange paradox in that it can be understood as both happy assimilation into place and tribe as well as being one’s concept of defiance, individuality and difference.

From this interpretation we can see how identity is closely connected to home. Are we a product of, or a reaction to where we are from? And what happens if you are dispossessed of a birthright as indelible as belonging? How do you keep your identity if you have no place to which you can return?

And here is Chris Colin’s story from Afar, (a terrific American travel magazine), about going back to West Texas:

There is—I don’t think this would offend anyone—nothing here. The main drag runs past the county courthouse, the old jail, Silverton’s two eateries, and the gas station, which holds a freezer that doubles as the town’s grocery store. The rest of Silverton is shuttered businesses and silent residential streets. The edges of town bleed into the farms and wastelands of Briscoe County…

Silverton may be thimble-size, but the thimble contains multitudes. Nearly every human is kin, for starters. On Main Street one afternoon, Tom waved to an old lady sitting on a front porch, then decided to circle back around and park. It was his mother. We stood on the porch and discussed the tornado that ripped down the street years ago, 21 people killed…

During my week in Texas, my days were spent roaming 21st-century Silverton with my great-uncles. By night I lost myself in its late 19th- and early 20th-century history. I grew up hearing of this microscopic town as a mythically happy and industrious place. My great-grandmother Bethel lived to 98 and told us stories about weekend-long dances, epic horseback rides to school, and the joy of putting on her Sunday best just to stroll Main Street.

Do you ever re-visit places from your childhood or past?

How does it feel when you go back?

Moving across borders for love

In behavior, domestic life, family, immigration, life, love, travel, urban life, US on August 18, 2013 at 3:22 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I fell in love in September 1986 when I opened my downtown Montreal apartment door to a tall, bearded, blue-eyed medical student from New Jersey, whose name, (which I won’t reveal) is shared with a cocktail. (No, not Tom Collins!)

But the week before we met, and we were soon seriously discussing marriage — a first, for me — he had accepted a four-year residency position in New Hampshire, a 3.5 drive south.

Statue of Liberty National Monument, Ellis Isl...

Statue of Liberty National Monument, Ellis Island and Liberty Island, Manhattan, in New York County (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Oh, and in another country.

I was extremely lucky. As the unmarried child of an American citizen, my mother, I was able to get a green card quickly and easily and move to the United States legally to join him. Even more unlikely, I found a three-month, well-paid journalism job in the  same small town as his program.

English: the forests in new hampshire in autumn

English: the forests in new hampshire in autumn (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But after it ended, reality hit. Hard.

I had no friends, family, income, history or job prospects. He was rarely home, and when he was home was exhausted and grouchy. The huge gang of lovely friends he’d made in Montreal? Gone and not replaced with anyone new.

Instead, homesick and bored, I commuted those 3.5 hours north every Monday for three months to teach journalism back in Montreal.

After 18 months of miserable, lonely, broke, isolated and career-threatening rural life, we moved to suburban New York.

We married three years later — and he walked out two years after that.

Anyone who moves to a foreign country for love takes an incredible leap into the unknown.

I know that several Broadside readers have, or are about to, done this. I also know it’s worked out well for two of them, and I have my fingers tightly crossed for Ashana.

But good Lord it’s scary!

Maybe not for other people.

It was for me. I remember, as if it was yesterday, feeling like a raindrop falling into the ocean. At 30, I was leaving a country in which I’d built a good national reputation as a journalist. I was leaving behind dear friends, a culture I knew intimately and liberal social and political values I mostly shared.

I was leaving behind a country whose entire population is that of New York State, barely 10 percent of the United States. How could I ever re-establish an identity or a career?

Seal of New York.

Seal of New York. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before I married the first time, (worried on several counts), I consulted a local lawyer — $350/hour in 1992 — to ask what, if anything, I would get in alimony or support if we divorced. Zip! Nada! Rien!

Wow. Since I was very far from home and wasn’t working and didn’t have a place to run back to in case…

Good thing I asked, and demanded a pre-nuptial agreement that allowed me to stay in my home and re-establish myself financially after two years of not working.

Had I not made that scary cross-border leap, I would not have published two books on complex national American issues, written 100+ stories for The New York Times, met my lovely second husband or enjoyed my river-view apartment.

But…it’s been quite a bumpy ride. I’m lucky I still have dear friends back in Toronto and other parts of Canada I’m in close touch with, and visit a few times a year. I am rarely homesick, but I do miss some cultural touchstones and a shared history.

I also still struggle mightily with the power here of the religious right, their relentless assault on women’s reproductive freedoms and laissez-faire American capitalism, which enriches so many so effectively — and buries millions more in low-wage jobs and medical fear and debt.

Have you changed countries for love?

Would you?

How has it turned out?

Decisions, decisions — what if I’m wrong?!

In behavior, business, domestic life, immigration, journalism, life, work on April 12, 2013 at 12:04 am
Crayfish Brain May Offer Rare Insight into Hum...

Crayfish Brain May Offer Rare Insight into Human Decision Making (Photo credit: University of Maryland Press Releases)

A dear friend recently told me she’s having headaches and stomachaches as she contemplates a huge, life-changing decision, one that’s increasingly facing people in my industry, journalism — to stay or go. Should she accept a buyout (worth a year or more’s salary), or stay working? (She’s 62, and married.)

We’ve faced the same question a few times here as well, as my husband has also worked decades for a major newspaper shedding staff. But journalism doesn’t pay well. Not to mention, there are very few employers in my industry who’ll take on someone older than 40, so taking a buyout probably means your career is over.

I’ve made a few life-changing decisions, from accepting a fellowship in Paris for eight months, (leaving behind friends, family, career, dog, boyfriend, apartment) to leaving Canada to follow a then-beau to the U.S., a man I hoped I’d marry, (he bailed after two years of marriage.)

The problem with decisions is…every one you make, (and the ones you avoid), have consequences. And we simply can’t know, in advance, what those will be.

So how to make them and not freak out?

Decision Making Chart

Decision Making Chart (Photo credit: West Virginia Blue)

Mitigate your risks

If you’re moving “for love” (risky as hell for many people), certainly leaving behind a great job, family, friends and a place you like a lot — what else is there besides your sweetie? What if it doesn’t work out romantically? Can you afford the rent? Can you easily find work? Can you re-locate again, and how soon and where to?

Consult those affected

If you have children old enough to participate in the decision intelligently, include them. But some moves are going to be stressful and disruptive, even if they’re necessary. The times I’ve felt most betrayed, and it’s happened repeatedly, was when my life has been up-ended by others with no notice or discussion of how it would affect me as well.

Do your due diligence

If you’re thinking of working for X, do your homework! Check out glassdoor.com to read others’ opinions of what it’s really like to work there. If you’re considering a college or course, ask others what they think. There is a lot of data out there and ignoring it is silly.

What’s the absolute worst that might happen if you’re wrong?

If you choose the wrong partner/job/city/university, getting out will have a cost, financial, emotional, intellectual. It’s usually better to get out quickly (or not get in) than stick to something not at all what you hoped for or expected.

Strengthen your safety net

Good friends, good health and some cash in the bank are all smart ways to give yourself back-up if something doesn’t work out as planned.

Make a list of pro’s and con’s

If one side is a lot longer than the other, that’s a clue. If you’re still stymied, put every item in order of priority. I wouldn’t ever want to live, for example, in a place with very little racial or economic diversity, or one that is relentlessly religious and/or politically conservative. Nor one with high heat/humidity, tornadoes or hurricanes. (That cuts out entire portions of the U.S.)

Have Plans B-K

Smart people always have a Plan B, just in case. I try to have Plans B-E, at least. Give yourself multiple options or escape routes and you’ll find decision-making less terrifying. How quickly or easily can you put the next plan into action? What obstacles would slow or prevent it?

No decision is perfect or risk-free!

The perfect is the enemy of the good; i.e. at some point, you simply have to get on with it! No decision is perfect and every choice means not choosing something else, whether the style of your wedding dress, your college or grad school or deciding to have children. Don’t make yourself insane asking everyone else for their opinions. You probably really know what makes you happiest, (or most miserable.) Go with that.

If a bunch of other people line up to second-guess your decision, whose life is it anyway?

Here are a few major decisions I’ve made and how they turned out:

Accept eight-month Paris fellowship, age 25.

Paris Sunset from the Louvre window

Paris Sunset from the Louvre window (Photo credit: Dimitry B)

Upside: best year of my life, great new job when I got back.

Downside: Broke up with boyfriend (secretly relieved.)

Move to Montreal at 28 to work for the Gazette, leaving friends, family, city I know well.

Montreal Old Port

Montreal Old Port (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Upside: fantastic, cheap, huge apartment; great new boyfriend who later becomes my husband; some adventures in Quebec reporting, big-ass salary and low cost of living.

Downside: miserable, long, bitter winter; horrible newspaper with nutty management; taxes through the wazoo eat up most of my big raise. High crime rate, crappy public services.

Move to New York suburbs with fiance.

Upside: score a gorgeous apartment, he gets a good job fast.

Downside: don’t know a soul, people hard to meet or make friends with, cost of living is high, he bails on the marriage and finding work in New York journalism is, initially, really hard.

Marry him, despite doubts

Upside: fun wedding, honeymoon in France, decent alimony post-divorce.

Downside: humiliation and stress of brief, miserable marriage. Having to re-invent alone in a place with few friends and no job.

The greatest challenge of decision-making is forgiving yourself when things go south, as they sometimes just will. We can only use our very best intelligence and all the facts at hand. We are who we are!

Here’s a poignant post from C. at Small Dog Syndrome about many of the decisions she’s made in her early 20s.

This is an extraordinary radio interview with a 91-year-old man, Sid Rittenberg, who is the only American to join the Chinese Communist party — a decision that cost him 16 years in solitary confinement.

An amazing account, from Vanity Fair, of Malala, the rural Pakistani girl shot in the head for speaking out in favor of girls’ education there — and the journalists who later deeply regretted having pushed her into the spotlight. Their decisions clearly put her life in danger.

Here’s a sad/funny tale of a man who bought and renovated a house in L.A. — despite the dire warning not to from a tarot card reader. His house is gorgeous, but his wife left him.

English: An original card from the tarot deck ...

English: An original card from the tarot deck of Jean Dodal of Lyon, a classic “Marseilles” deck. The deck dates from 1701-1715. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How do you make decisions?

Do you find it difficult?

Why changing countries can be such a challenge

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, domestic life, education, immigration, life, travel, urban life, US on March 19, 2013 at 6:53 pm
English: Montage of 15 Canadians from 14 diffe...

English: Montage of 15 Canadians from 14 different ethnic backgrounds (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s an excellent, helpful blog post recently chosen for Freshly Pressed, written by one of my favorite bloggers, a Canadian woman who has since re-patriated:

I made the same mistake a lot of people make: assuming that moving to a “similar” culture is a cakewalk. Blaine is the first to admit he thought the same thing, and we’re not alone. A study published in the International Journal of Human Resource Management found that

“in the absence of complete information, expatriates may be creating stereotypes on the basis of language similarity. In particular, those expatriates who spoke the language of the host country expected an ‘easier’ experience…. In fact, these expatriates may need additional CCT [cross-cultural training] to help overcome their stereotypes or their inappropriate expectations.”

I know that several Broadside readers — like Conor in Korea, Katharina in Germany, Rian in Canada, Holly in Australia, Wanderlust Gene in Sri Lanka – are living far away from your homelands (Ireland, Ireland, the U.S., Canada and Australia.)

It demands a real re-boot of your notions of identity and belonging.

It’s not surprising to me that two of my closer friends here in New York, where I moved from Canada in 1989, are people who have moved around globally, like an American-born woman who met her French husband when they were both working in Tokyo. It helps to share international references with them — only about one-third of Americans even own a passport and many have no idea, (or interest in), how the rest of the world functions.

I left Canada in January 1988 to move to a small town in New Hampshire, (double culture shock after living in Toronto, Paris, London and Montreal).  I moved in June 1989 to a small suburban New York town, 25 miles from Manhattan — whose towers I can see, glimmering like Oz, in the distance.

I lived in Mexico at 14 and France at 25. But my adjustment to life in the United States has been tougher for me in some ways than either of those, for the reasons Maria so wisely analyzes:

People tend to fixate on language differences, but of course it goes much deeper than that — we often come up against values, attitudes, and behaviours that we mistakenly assume will be the same as ours. For Blaine, one of the biggest issues was the famous British reserve. “It’s true,” he says. “The stiff upper lip really does exist.”

“That’s funny,” says Aisha. “I find the Canadian veneer of politeness very difficult to penetrate. I find the British more direct — but maybe that’s just because I’m more familiar with the non-verbal cues.”

Canadians live, as many Europeans do, in a “nanny state”, a country where it’s normal to pay a lot of tax — income, sales tax, tax on gasoline and wine and beer, even stamps — and expect a lot in return: free health care and heavily subsidized secondary education, to name two most important. You can apply for government grants for all sorts of things.

Map of Toronto

Map of Toronto (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a small country in population — 34.5 million — but enormous in size. Canadians tend not to move around nearly as often as Americans, for a variety of reasons. There are only a few major cities: Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary; if you don’t speak excellent French, Montreal and Ottawa can present difficulties.

One of the major  behavioral differences to adjust to between Canadians and Americans is their differing appetite for risk…Canadians hate it. They hate conflict. They hate confrontation. They’d rather simply ignore your calls and emails than say” “No, we’re not interested.”

Move to the United States and you’re in for some serious culture shock and some significantly different attitudes.

Standing up and speaking out carry risks. But in the States, people go to prison, (like entrepreneur Martha Stewart), and come right back into successful business, which still leaves me somewhat open-mouthed. But the good news is that if someone here thinks you can be professionally useful to them — i.e. make them some cash — they’ll take your call or email and might meet you. In Canada you need personal introductions through mutual friends to even get someone to take your call and even then they ignore you…

As a freelancer, that’s been a big — and happy — adjustment. But I’ve also learned, after decades in the States, to be both much warier and more persistent. Wary of huge initial enthusiasm, (professional and personal), which is very American, and too often quickly disappears, and being willing to make the 3rd or 5th or 10th email or phone call because so many people are busy and overwhelmed.

Martha Stewart

Martha Stewart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another difference is bare-knuckled American capitalism. We’re all simply units of labor. Employers can fire you for any reason at any time. One editor I know just left a job after four years, after being one of the founders of a thriving website. She got one month’s severance.

(Many Americans would consider her lucky to have gotten even that much. For a country that yammers on about liberty, American workers seem shockingly cowed and powerless to me.)

Instead of unions, Americans rely on the court system, (which operates by quite different rules than other nations), to try and obtain redress, if not justice. I routinely send — and pay for — lawyer’s letters to deadbeat, cheats and late payers, who abound in the world of publishing and journalism.

You fight for your rights here, and people expect it. It sometimes feels like a wearying game of “who’ll draw first” like cowboys reaching for their pistols in some 1860s saloon.

Many New Yorkers speak to you as if they’ve known you for years — strangers on the street or train (!) have complimented me on my hair color, legs, shoes and other items in ways I still find forward and impertinent, if charming. I’ve started referring to people as “you guys”, sounding more Mafioso than elegant.

My husband is both American and Hispanic, a double cultural difference that plays out in all sorts of ways. There are days he hisses: “This not the time to be Canadian!”

Then I quote a Brit, (and a TV character at that), the Dowager Countess Grantham: “Why does every day involve a fight with an American?”

What adjustments have you made as an ex-pat?

How did you feel about it?

Back again, 24 years later

In aging, behavior, books, business, culture, domestic life, immigration, journalism, life, urban life, US, women, work on June 18, 2012 at 12:06 am

The women are still lean, in Tevas and cargo pants. The men wear beards and drive pick-up trucks. The kids are plentiful.

I used to live up here, far from a big city. Muddy Subarus everywhere. Ads at the local cinema for a tattoo parlor. I knew Route 89 like the back of my hand.

I came to live in New Hampshire, in a small town, in the summer of 1988, with no prior experience of rural or small town life. I’d always lived in large cities: London, Paris, Montreal, Toronto. The absolute silence of our street was astonishing.

I followed the American man I would marry in 1992 — and who would walk out of our apartment, and our marriage, barely two years later.

The woman who lived here 24 years ago was terrified.

She — I — had left behind her country, friends, family, a thriving career. My whole identity. Anyone who moves to a new country “for love” better have a Teflon soul, a full bank account of her own and the stamina for re-invention.

I remember exactly how I felt as I crossed the border into the U.S. from Canada to move here — like a raindrop falling into an ocean. The United States has a population 10 times that of Canada. Surely I would simply disappear, never to be heard from, or of, again.

How would I ever re-build my career? New friendships? A sense of belonging? Who would I be(c0me)?

And so I used to look at all the women here — almost every one of them mothers or pregnant — apparently so secure in their identity and their marriages, roaming in packs.

I didn’t want children, and everyone here did, eagerly. I’ve never, anywhere — not even far, far away in foreign countries — felt so alien, isolated and disconnected. There were no jobs for which I was qualified. I knew not a soul. My boyfriend, then a medical resident, was always gone, returning home exhausted and grouchy.

That we were unmarried, even then un-affianced, seemed to make everyone deeply nervous. What was it, 1933?

It was the loneliest I’ve ever been.

I did love our apartment, the entire ground floor of a big old house. I did a lot of sailing. I spent every Friday at the local auction house and learned a lot about antiques.  Eager for more, I drove 90 minutes each way to Massachusetts to take a class in it there. For amusement, alone, I drove the back roads of Vermont and New Hampshire. I drew. I even drove every Monday back to Montreal to teach journalism.

But, after 18 months of my best efforts, I was desperate to flee, to re-claim a life that made some sense to me, socially, professionally and intellectually. So we moved to New York, just in time for the (then) worst recession in journalism in decades. After six relentless months of job-hunting and with no contacts to help me, I found a magazine editing job that required my French and Spanish skills. I’d never edited a magazine before.

Coming back now, I sat in the sunshine at the farmer’s market, listening to a band play bluegrass and eating a slice of wood-fired- oven-made pizza. I stared at all those mothers with their babies and their swollen bellies — and felt at ease.

I’d gone to New York. I’d achieved my dreams, surviving three recessions; in 2008, 24,000 fellow journalists lost their jobs nationwide.

Achieving my dreams would have been impossible here, then. There was, in practical terms, no Internet or cellphones. Social media barely existed. And no one had ever heard of me or read my by-line.

Nor had I yet paid my American dues — attending all those meetings and panels and conferences, getting to know editors, serving on volunteer boards, showing up, landing a few good jobs, getting fired, getting other jobs, getting laid off. Finding an agent, and then another one, and then another. Selling two well-reviewed books. Mentoring other writers.

It felt sweet to sit in the sunshine here, now, content in having done what I’d hoped to and which looked impossible, here, nestled deep within these green hills.

I no longer have to prove myself to anyone here.

Especially myself.

The Ex-Pat’s Dilemma: Where’s Home?

In behavior, blogging, children, cities, culture, domestic life, education, family, food, immigration, life, parenting, the military, travel, urban life, women, work, world on March 8, 2011 at 4:21 pm
A New And Accvrat Map Of The World.

Where in the world are you? Where is home? For now or for good? Image via Wikipedia

If you’ve ever left your home country behind to live abroad — as many of us do for work, study, a partner’s job or your parents’ profession — you’ve felt the visceral punch of cultural dislocation.

You’ve become an ex-patriate.

(Not, as some think, an ex-patriot!)

The money/food/temperature/humidity/foliage/animals/language/flag/national anthem/what they eat for breakfast is all different, new, disorienting, unfamiliar.

What do you mean X is considered normal behavior? Are you kidding?

You might not be able to read road signs or communicate clearly with your physician, grocer, hairdresser, dentist or your kids’ friends.

If you stay long enough, and remain open to the culture of your new country (and there may be several along the way), you change, likely forever. Then, when you go “home” to the country you initially left behind, it now feels weird and alien.

I’ve worked as a cross-cultural counselor for Berlitz and loved it. I counseled senior American executives moving to (my native) Canada and Canadians moving to (my adopted land of 22 years) the United States. I love being the middleman, explaining the minutiae of daily life and social cues and faux pas.

Language skills are barely half the battle if you fail to understand the most fundamental attitudes underlying local choices, whether what to bring to a dinner when you’re an invited guest to knowing which local colleges are truly worth the time and money for you or your loved ones.

The learning curve is vertical.

I’ve just spent three weeks back in Canada, a mix of caring for my mother and vacation time, and it’s the longest I’ve been back since 1998, when I also spent three weeks here. But the culture shock this time, for a variety of reasons, has proven by far the hardest ever, partly because — surprise! — I have now truly adopted many of the behaviors and attitudes and expectations of my home just outside New York City.

In Canada, let alone Western Canada, many of these are deemed downright rude. Like:

Directness. In New York, where people rush about at warp speed all the time, few people waste time. It’s too valuable. So we often say exactly what we think, for better or worse, and get on with things. But being direct can lead to openly expressed differences of opinion which, in some cultures is a toxic choice…

Confrontation. In Canadian culture, about as popular as belching. Just. Not. Done. Those who do it or seek it are seen as boors and best ignored, no matter how urgent or pressing the underlying issue.

Expecting answers to my questions, promptly — if at all. Hah! I am appalled and frustrated beyond measure at the number of unreturned phone calls and emails, from banks, physicians, health care workers, academia. Everyone. I have an assistant, a woman my age who is very polite, tactful, calm, hired to help me promote my new book, a necessity for every author.

She is burned out, fed up and deeply shocked at the profound indifference she encounters from everyone she contacts. I had forgotten — and it’s one powerful reason I chose to leave Canada in the first place — that Canadians hate fame, fortune, celebrating success and those who achieve it. They sneer at it and deride it and make fun of it. Americans live, eat and breathe it. Talk about a cultural divide!

Expecting excellent customer service from the medical system. As if. In the U.S., where MRIs are as common and easily gettable (if you have insurance) as M & Ms (a popular candy, for the non-Americans among you), doctors are usually pretty responsive and respectful. Because Americans, who expect great service everywhere, can and will sue at the drop of a scalpel. Canadian physicians play a totally different role and they retain tremendous power as a result. There are so few of them and they are so busy. They expect deference. They don’t seem to use email. They may take a while to return a phone call. They are essentially paid government employees, and seem to have less accountability to patients or their families. A friend, with a chronic health problem, told me; “Doctors don’t return phone calls.”

But, after that plane takes off from YVR today, I will miss:

Civility. Essential to the Canadian character. It’s assumed and expected. I have retained the habit, which I heard a lot here, of saying “Take care” at the end of even the briefest conversations with bus drivers or bank clerks.

Compassion. In a nation where everyone has access to cradle-to-grave healthcare and $10,000 university educations (or less, per year), caring for strangers is how Canadian public policy enacts larger cultural values. In the mememememememe culture of America, where there is almost no social safety net and growing income ineqality, I miss this a great deal.

I’m aware that it’s perhaps a lot easier and simpler in a nation of 30 million (Canada) than in one with 300 million people, and one with a history of racial brutality.

Shared cultural references. I really enjoy being able to talk about almost anything with people who know exactly what I’m referring to, whether its Air Canada, Big Turks (a fab candy bar) or the NDP (the leftist political party.) Fewer Americans seem to know or care much about life beyond their borders.

Here’s a terrific post by a former expat wife and mother, who lists 10 ways to be (come) an ugly expat.

And for those seeking practical advice and face-to-face help, there’s a conference March 17-19 in Washington, DC, held by Families in Global Transition.

Have you been an ex-pat? How did you like it?

And how was it when you re-patriated?

Are You Mobile Enough To Find Work? Rent, Don't Own, Argues Pundit

In behavior, business on June 13, 2010 at 12:58 pm
Delano House (San Francisco, CA)

Image via Wikipedia

I didn’t study economics until I was 30, and wish I’d done it at 18. Only at that point did I realize what cogs we are in the machinery of capitalism — which relies, as a fundamental element — on the “mobility of labor.”

Moving.

For every corporate warrior who loves to call up Allied Van Lines and head out for their next assignment, I bet others are sufficiently burned by serial job loss they’re staying put. And not just because their house is worth less than it would sell for, i.e. “under water.”

Those working for corporately paternal employers offering job security — remember those? — were once happy that BM stood for I’ve Been Moved; as long as you were also moving up the ladder of career, income and promotions, it was all good.

Today? Not so much.

Moving is disruptive. Disruption destroys communities and emotional ties, no matter how many times a day you tweet or natter on Facebook. Community relies on enduring face-to-face connection, trust and history. When older workers are fired, especially, it affects their mental and physical health. Severing yourself, by moving away, from long-standing emotional and spiritual ties, from a house of worship to friendships or volunteer work or neighbors — in addition to losing your professional status, income and colleagues — doesn’t seem like such a great idea to me.

From The Wall Street Journal and beloved pundit Richard Florida:

Owning a home may actually be a drawback given the economic flexibility required to power long-lasting recovery. My colleagues and I tracked homeownership levels across U.S. cities and regions to see how they correlate to other measurable demographic and economic factors. As we expected, the rates of homeownership are greatest where housing prices are lowest. But cities with high levels of homeownership—in the range of 75%, like Detroit, St. Louis and Pittsburgh—had on average considerably lower levels of economic activity and much lower wages and incomes. Far too many people in economically distressed communities are trapped in homes they can’t sell, unable to move on to new centers of opportunity.

The cities and regions with the lowest levels of homeownership—in the range of 55% to 60% like L.A., N.Y., San Francisco and Boulder—had healthier economies and higher incomes. They also had more highly skilled and professional work forces, more high-tech industry, and according to Gallup surveys, higher levels of happiness and well-being.

A greater percentage of their residents are younger and more transient; many of them prefer to rent. Higher income levels drive up housing prices, putting homeownership beyond others’ means. But with fewer residents locked into mortgage payments, there is a greater degree of flexibility and resilience in the face of economic shocks and downturns. Workers can downshift as needed or move to take advantage of new opportunities. When the economy rebounds, it’s easier to attract new workers to the area if there is an abundance of high-quality, affordable rental housing.

One runs a fool’s errand reading the Journal for anything that defends the rights or needs of workers. But this archaic insistence on abstract language that neatly avoids any of the attendant emotional fallout of job loss and relocation — often with new job loss in a place you don’t know a soul and have not yet built any networks — is deceptive and callous.

I was once flown out to San Francisco to interview for a really cool job with a company so hot it had been lauded by Newsweek (the magazine no one now wants to buy.) It was a website covering sports, quokka.com. I was interviewed by six people and awed by their enormous, airy, gorgeous offices. But, since we were were working virtually anyway, why did I have to move across the country from one brutally expensive city to another?

Asking the question scotched the deal. Of course, the company is long gone. I’ve never regretted not putting all my eggs into a basket so far from where I’d worked hard to establish a base.

Maybe I’ve destroyed my career my buying a home near New York City, and stubbornly staying in it for 20 years. I’ve weathered three recessions, at times so financially imperiled I wondered how I would hang on.

But selling and renting — certainly anywhere where I now live — was no better. I’d have moved to a room in a home somewhere in a distant borough to find anything much less affordable than my low maintenance and 30-year mortgage payments. A husband came and went. So did boyfriends. My dog died. I lost a few jobs. I got through three orthopedic surgeries and recovery.

My beloved and familiar home, and my friends, neighbors who also stick around, and my church and my weekly softball game of nine years, gave me the stability and support to help me through it all. The thought of re-creating all of this? Sigh.

I moved from Toronto to Paris to Montreal to rural New Hampshire to New York, all within six years. That permanently destroyed any appetite for more upheaval.

It would have to be an amazing job, and a mighty golden parachute, to get me to move.

We often choose where we’ll live from a complex matrix of factors: climate, geography, job or educational or recreational opportunities, religious or political or ethnic or racial diversity. We’re not simply extension cords to unplug and re-attach somewhere more (temporarily) useful to an employer.

Have you moved (a lot) for work? How has that turned out for you?

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