Sunday, May 10, 2015

Shout Out to the Expat Moms

I just wanted to take a moment on this (American) Mother's Day to give a shout out to my fellow expat moms.

You are awesome!

You potty train your kids.  Then you teach them how to use a latrine, how to pee in the bush, and what that "little teapot" next to the toilet is really for.

You spend the entire time your kids are in school searching for a functional ATM just to pay their teacher.

You go to parent teacher conferences in your second, third or even forth language.

You go all in for whatever after school activity you can get your child into near your current home.  Ballet?  Drumming?  Mosaics?  We've got this.

You spend countless hours on the internet figuring out how to make something that resembles mac and cheese using local ingredients.

You make Thanksgiving dinner, cheer for the local team during the world cup, buy a goat for the Tabaski feast of your neighborhood and remember to wish your veggie salesman's wife Happy International Women's Day.

You teach your kids your favorite family recipes, and teach yourself how to butcher a chicken using YouTube videos.

You juggle your own dentist appointments, weeks when your spouse is traveling for work, children's illnesses, and work stress without the luxury of a family member to lean on, your best friend to baby sit, or even your favorite beer to pop open after a particularly hard day.

You are your family's rock when a loved one back home is sick or has passed away, even when all you want is to be able to break down and get a hug from your own mom.

You aren't only responsible for passing on your own culture, religion and traditions to your children, but for teaching them how to navigate and be respectful of those of your host country, which may change every two years.

So on this Mother's Day, after a great afternoon with my husband and kids, I am so thankful for my mom, grandma, aunts, and the other amazing women who helped raised me.  I am thankful for my two wild children who keep me laughing, keep my heart full, and have changed me in more ways than I could have ever imagined.  I am also thankful that Bean and Sprout passed out after an afternoon of swimming and that the German managed to get their car seats into the house without waking them, giving me an hour of quiet.  And I am thankful for you, fellow expat mom.  Thank you for sharing my struggles, commiserating with me, being my friend, and bringing up some amazing, culturally sensitive and well rounded kids who, thanks to the experiences and guidance you have provided, will make a huge difference in the place they eventually call home.  To you, I raise my bottle of cheap, local beer and say cheers!  And thanks for keeping the show on the road.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Outdoor Kitchen, An Exposé

The other day, the German was telling me about our friends who are expecting a baby this summer and just rented a new apartment in Germany.  When describing the great deal they got, he included that "the kitchen is in".

"Oh wow!  That is awesome!  That is going to make things so much easier for them when the baby is here.  They can be cooking while the baby naps, and get snacks after dark without getting eaten up by mosquitoes."  The German stopped me and clarified that he meant the appliances were included.  It was Germany.  Of course the kitchen is INSIDE.  Oh yeah.  Duh.  I forget this.

Because my kitchen is in my yard.

Anyone who knows me has heard me say this phrase... A LOT.  It is like my special forces badge I mentally tack on to my credentials.  "Ecologist and creative mother of two wild, free range toddlers, raising her children to speak three languages in Africa...and her kitchen is in her yard."

In my less gracious moments, it is phrase I use to one up my woe is me complaints.

"I know what you mean, it is so hard to make a dinner everyone will eat when the kids are hungry and crying and asking to be held but you are trying not to take shortcuts so the food is as healthy as possible...and plus my kitchen is in my yard."

"Bleh, rainy season, when you track mud everywhere and have to walk through calf deep water to get to you car...or your kitchen.  Because my kitchen is in my yard!"

"Hot season.  Man I miss America with it's central air where I didn't sweat the whole time I cooked.  And I wasn't outside.  Because now my kitchen is in my f-ing yard!"

It works it's way into most arguments between the German and I, and to be honest most of our arguments tend to be about whether or not we should move.  He loves our house and doesn't see a need to move, which makes sense because he doesn't cook.  In the yard.  But I even sneak it in places where it doesn't belong.  It is my equivalent of dropping the mic and walking off stage at the end of any disagreement.  "Baby, I'm sorry you had a rough day and spent hours in traffic and got puked on by our kid and stepped in dog (you hope) shit on the part of the street that should be a sidewalk if we lived in a country with sidewalks.  I did all that today too.  Then I came home and made us dinner.  In the yard. BECAUSE THE KITCHEN IS IN THE YARD."

But if I'm being honest, truly honest, there are days when I love my kitchen.  Usually these are days when Bean and Sprout are on my last nerve and I can pass the reins to the German, and retreat to my kitchen in the yard.  Sometimes I play the music my mom always played while cooking (The italian hippy mix including Rod Stewart, Janis Joplin and Frank Sinatra) , my phone propped on the window sill to pick up the neighbor's wifi, and dance around with a glass of wine while cooking an old family recipe.  And sometimes I make something that only takes 10 minutes, and I spend the rest of the time sitting on the floor, reading the news and drinking my wine from a measuring cup because there is no way in hell I'm risking going back into the house of crazy to fetch a real glass.  Like a good friend of equally wild toddlers, sometimes that kitchen keeps me sane.

If the German ever asks you, yes, it does take over an hour to make a quiche.

Baal ma

"Mama, look, another little boy at my window! 'Hi boy! Hi!'  Mama, what does he say?"

"He is asking us for money, sweetie."

"Do we have money, Mama?"

"Yes sweetie, we do."

"Let's give him money, Mama."

"We can't honey, because we don't want to support a system that facilitates child abuse."

One of the most amazing parts of parenting an almost four year old is watching Bean become more aware of her world and begin asking questions.  It makes me see things from an innocent perspective, it drives me near crazy some days ("Why? Why? But why?"), and then some days it breaks my heart.  Because sometimes she asks the tough questions and the answers are full of big words and bigger concepts and depressing truths.

Talibe of West Africa have hit the news this week as a new human rights watch report has outlined the continued failure to stop the abuse of young boys sent to Quranic schools Senegal: Decade of Abuse in Quranic Schools.  Every day, as I drive Bean and Sprout to school, dozens of talibe tap our car windows whenever traffic is slow enough.  When you arrive in West Africa, most people will tell you that when sales people or beggars come to your car, just to look straight ahead so they know you aren't interested or aren't going to give them anything.  This doesn't settle well with me, so for better or worse, when a talibe comes to me I have chosen to make eye contact, smile and wave and say "baal ma", a phrase my friend taught me which is roughly "forgive me".

Baal ma

I SEE you.

Baal ma

I won't give you money, but you have my respect.

Baal ma

I'm sorry your parents chose this fate for you, regardless of if they thought this was the only option, or if they think this is acceptable.

Baal ma

I would love to take a picture of your beautiful face, and show the world who we should be protecting, but I refuse to be another person who exploits you without your consent.

Baal ma

I feel so guilty that my well fed babies are filling a bucket with sand and laughter, while you, near naked, fill an old tomato paste can with coins and sugar cubes to give to the person who mistreats you.

Baal ma

I'm so angry that the people with the power don't put your well being above their wallets.

Baal ma

Maybe my spare change could keep you from being beaten tonight or put food in your belly, but I tell myself it is better to give it to a charity working as your true advocate.

Baal ma

I'm ashamed I don't do more for you.

I hope these boys forgive us for not saving them from this life.  I hope my children forgive me for not doing more to protect those who need protecting, and that growing up here will make them better defenders of those in need.  I hope I forgive myself for not doing more.  If anyone knows of reputable charities working for the talibe, please share them.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

On excess and old underwear

Of all the changes that moving to a developing country brings, one of the hardest for me personally has been dealing with suddenly joining the ranks of the most wealthy in a society.  When first moving to West Africa, I had all kinds of questions, and luckily met some sympathetic and experienced expats to guide me through some of the basics.  How do you respectfully handle children begging?  How do you have someone over for dinner, or give a birthday gift and not feel like you are showing off?

And then, there are some unexpected questions that aren't as easy to ask.  Such as, how do you throw away your old underwear in a country where everyone goes through your trash?

After six years here, I thought I finally had this last one figured out. Our first day in the States on our most recent vacation, the German and I were unpacking at my grandma's house when I removed a grocery bag from my suitcase and successfully threw it away. "What was that?", the German asked.  I matter of factly replied that it was my old underwear, feeling a little bit caught.

"What do you mean, your old underwear?"

"Exactly what it sounds like, my old underwear."

"But...what's wrong with them?" (he sounded a little horrified and grossed out at this point)

"Well...the elastic is shot in those, and those I have had since high school, and then there are the huge ones from right after I had Bean which had better never fit me again, and the leopard print ones my mom gave me that are just...wrong."

"And you didn't throw these away at home because...?"

"Because I know someone is going to check it out to see if it is still useful.  I can't explain it.  It just makes me uncomfortable."

"Wait a minute.  You just spent a month in Germany.  Why didn't you throw it away there?  You seriously carried your old underwear across three continents just to throw it away?"

"Because you guys have 20 different recycling divisions and I didn't want to ask your dad which bag was for old underwear and have this exact awkward conversation we are having right now, with him."

So how do you deal with the feelings that come with having so much excess when surrounded by people who have so little?  Because really, no matter how much I downsize and purge, I still have so much.  And just the act of purging becomes uncomfortable.  Gone is the ease of anonymously dropping off boxes at Salvation Army.  Most people just give the things they want to give away to their house helper or guard, but even then, what do you say?  "I have so much stuff that it is messing up the flow of my house, so here is the stuff I like the least?"

My first time in West Africa was a bit easier.  I moved there single, with two suitcases.  But still, my first day I was hit with how much I have, and how much value there is in what I throw away.  I walked down to the local boutique, a shack the size of a small closet, and bought a potato and a can of peas and carrots for dinner.  After my meal, I brought my potato peels and empty can out to the shared trash can, and not two minutes later watched out my window as a neighbor ran out to grab my empty vegetable can.

This time, we are here with two kids and a house full of stuff.  And man, do we have a lot of stuff.  From talking with my friends, it seems like a lot of us have these feelings of, well, I'm not sure how to label it.  Guilt?  Privilege?  One mentioned that when she asks her house helper to cook with her, she makes sure to pull the meat out of the freezer before her house helper gets there, because she feels bad about how full her freezer is.  Another turned down the consumable shipment they are allowed through her husband's job, because having two years worth of dry goods laying around just didn't feel right when surrounded by people living day to day.

It's like it multiplies while we sleep.

I'm not sure what the answer to it all is.  For now, when I give things away, I have settled on "We no longer need these things.  If you know someone who does, could you please pass them along".  Life in West Africa has definitely made me appreciate our good fortune.  Even our old socks and kids clothes covered in stains that I wouldn't dream of donating back home are needed and wanted by someone here. And living here has definitely opened up my imagination to the dozens of second uses for things I used to thoughtlessly throw away.  I'm not quite up to German recycling standards yet, but I'm working on it.

Friday, January 16, 2015


It was my first day back in West Africa after 5 months away, and my first car drive to run some essential errands.  I greeted my neighbors, successfully explained my plan to our guard, checked the seat and mirror settings on the car, and set off on my own. My confidence was pretty high. I pushed my way into the first two traffic circles, swerving around the taxi trying to play chicken with me with a smile and thought, "I've got this".  My first mission, get some phone credit.  I saw a phone card salesman and rolled my window down, pulling over to the side.  "Bonjour!  Une carte de credit pour cinq mille, se il vous plait!" I said as I put my SUV into park and promptly squirted the guy in the face with wiper fluid, the car jolting forward and almost running over his feet.

"OH MY GOD!  I'm so sorry!  You see, I have been driving my mom's Dodge Caravan for the past few months and forgot where the gear shift was!  I mean, Entschuldigung.  Shit.  Pardon!  Excusez-moi!  Shit."

I purchased my card completely embarrassed, and headed to the next stop, officially reminded that I am a bit out of my element and thrown off balance just about everywhere I am.

We've been home for two weeks now.  Home.  It is a difficult concept to pin down at this stage in our lives.  Is home in the States, where my mom and I spend afternoons full of laughter hitting all the thrift shops?  Where my grandma patiently prepares for our visit all year, and we arrive to a fridge full of all our favorite foods and Bean and Sprout spend calms weeks cuddled up with her reading books, baking cookies, playing cars and dolls with her on the carpet (carpet!  wall to wall carpet!), and rushing off to their baths so they are out in time to watch Wheel of Fortune before bed?  I have this perfect image of Bean running naked from my grandma's bathroom, where the big tub is, yelling to me over her shoulder, "Hurry up mama!  Let's see what Vanna is wearing tonight!"  Or is it in Germany, where Opa is in the middle of his jam making season but still takes the kids on daily three hour walks into the next village and they come home exhausted and flushed, rattling off all the animals they saw in cute, if imperfect German?   Where our Christmas was full of snowmen, warm fires and mulled wine?  Or is it here in West Africa, where we have, for the time being at least, built a life of our own?  This crazy, cross-cultural smorgasbord life where we have friends we've missed and a routine that makes sense for us and our own pictures on the wall.

I keep getting the same question from everyone, "How does it feel to be back?", which I answer with as much enthusiasm and honesty as "How is your dissertation coming?".  I always say, with a halfhearted smile, "I am adjusting.  We are getting there.  Only one bag left to unpack!" because the truth is as complicated as my graduate school career.  I have zero inspiration and motivation to finish my dissertation, but am excited by the prospects and fleeting ideas I get about it.  I miss my family so much I can't look at a picture of my grandma yet, but I like being able to make a cup of coffee in my underwear.  I miss every day life being easy, but I like it being just the four of us, together.

I always have a period of adjustment coming home, where I muddle through language and learn to fall in love with the culture again.  I try to focus on the not so perfect things back at our other home(s), like that horrible jet lag when traveling to and from the States, and the lamp in my father in law's guest room.  Oh that f-ing lamp.

This lamp.  Oh this lamp.  Fifteen years ago it hung over a 
coffee table.  Now it hangs, at brow height, over the outside 
corner of the guest bed.I have hit my head on it, at least once, every 
time we have visited for eight consecutive years.

And then, I do what I always do when I return after a long absence.  I tear up a room in our house and completely redo it.  I think it is a kind of renewal for me, making this my home again.  I give away things with a frenzy, move everything around, sell furniture just to buy something different.  It drives the German nuts.  This time, I'm moving my office back down to the guest room in case professional inspiration strikes.  I'm choosing optimistic return to nomal.  One day, I will finish my dissertation and live the perfect balance of work, family, friends and place.  Home.  I am adjusting.  Anyone want to buy a full sized bed?

Renewal.  New nail polish, a new tattoo, and a new 
coffee cup from a sweet friend.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Expat Girlfriend

It was the end of the first week of Bean and Sprout's swim lessons.  We are on vacation back home in the States, and I had been casually greeting the mom of the little girl whose lesson is before ours all week.  Today she hung back and we made small talk for ten minutes or so.  I mentioned that we were here on vacation, that we come back a few times a year to stay with my grandma, what our jobs and educations are, that we were planning a few days at Disney, etc.  As the lesson ended, I started gathering up our things and dressing Bean and Sprout when she suddenly blurted,

"Well, let me give you my number, because maybe we can get coffee.  Do you have a car here?  It doesn't matter if you don't, because I can come pick you up!  And you know, maybe when you are gone I can check on your grandma for you, or take her to lunch sometimes.  And let me get your email address too, because then you can let me know the next time you are going to come to town and we can all go to Disney together!  Let's just rent a vacation house in Orlando for a week!"

I'm sure this poor woman has scared off one or two potential friends with a similar speech, but luckily, I speak expat.  And I get it.  That desperation that comes from going too long without peer conversation.  I get it.  It turns out, she is from Central America and her husband is from Europe.  They met in California in medical school, and now she finds herself out east with no friends or family.  Her husband works long hours and she stays home with their daughter worrying about how and when to restart her career.  Is she "wasting" her education like her in-laws say?  Will the job market forgive her for taking time off for family, for letting her spouse's career take the front seat for a while?  Are these tantrums normal?  And is there anywhere to get some decent ethnic food around here?  Yeah, I get it.

In fact, I have made the scary speech before myself.  It usually starts innocently enough.  I spy someone I have never seen before at the grocery store looking for cheddar, therefore she must be new here. What plays out in my head is like that scene from 101 Dalmations where Pongo is looking for a mate for his owner.  She looks to be in her 30's.  Native English speakers!  Oh look, her kids are around the same age as mine.  Crap, Bean just gave him stink eye and yelled, "I don't like you".  Wait, wait a minute! He hit her on the head with a baguette and they worked it out!  He can hold his own!  Now if only her he comes now.  He looks normal!  And he just made a joke!  It wasn't funny, but it wasn't sexist or racist either!  The German could definitely tolerate him!  Then I walk over, way too skippy and say much too quickly and loudly,

"HI!  My name is Awa!  Are you new?  What neighborhood do you live in?  Do you have a playgroup yet?  Are you busy Thursdays?  Because I know some people, and we have coffee on Thursdays!  Have you been to the coast yet?  We are going for New Years Eve.  You should come too!  And then you can meet my mom!"

I made just this spiel to a perfectly pleasant blond woman with a three year old son and 8 month old daughter not too long ago.  I gave her my number, but she didn't call us.  The German warned me as we walked to the parking lot and I rambled on about how nice she seemed and which car do you think is theirs?  "Baby, I know you are excited, but you need to take it down a notch or people are going to think we are swingers trying to pick them up".

Luckily, along the way, a few women I have met have gotten it. These expat girlfriends of mine are irreplaceable and the "what I miss the most" on vacation.  It is such a different type of friendship.  It seems like it forms faster than the regular variety.  I have no idea what their college mascot is, what the color scheme was at their wedding, or what the dynamic is like between them and their siblings.  I do know that one word they always forget in French, the wax print that reminds them of their last post, and the edge that comes into their voice when they need a malaria test for their child in the middle of the night.

Souvenirs for expats:  favorite candies, party supplies, and 
prescription glasses.  Totally normal.

So even though I am back home right now with my "old" friends who I miss terribly the rest of the year, the best friends who helped me fix my hair for prom and held my hand through first heartbreaks, my "new" friends are also on my mind as I collect some of their favorite things to bring them back, and heavy on my heart as I think that, for the second time now, a friend will be moving on to her next post before we return from vacation.  So, to her, thank you for getting it.  Thank you for the friendship, the laughs, commiserating about the frustrating parts, sharing the fun parts, and inspiring me wear more cute dresses.  You will be very missed, but Vienna is going to be amazing.  And to the rest of my expat girlfriends, can't wait to see you soon!  Thank you all for being my sanity, for telling me my kids are normal, for helping me to appreciate life abroad.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Time for a break

It happened yesterday.  I was at the boutique down the street from our house, buying a few last minute things for dinner.  The owner was adding up my purchases on her calculator, I was seconds from being on my way, and her cell phone rang.  A cousin from Guinea.  I was waved over to the steps to sit and wait for her to finish her call, and I almost cried in frustration.  That's how you know as an expat that it is time for vacation.  When the parts of culture you actually appreciate most days, like the appreciation for the moment, can drive you close to tears, and when the mildly annoying can push you right over the edge.  The traffic jams where everyone gets out of their car to discuss whose fault it is instead of just moving out of the way.  The paint falling off the ceiling because, like every other house in this city, the roof wasn't sealed right.  The dairy and vegetable delivery that shows up a day and a half late, and the delivery driver yells at YOU for not being home waiting.  The "express line" at the grocery store that is never enforced, until one day, you are so fed up, you ask for the manager and he explains that the sign just came free with the register, so he hung it up.  When, despite the insane humidity and the fact that rainy season officially started a month ago, it just wont start raining.  I need a break.

Luckily for me (and sorry for my friends who have to suffer through the rest of hot season), it is time for our annual vacation!  And that means it is time to pack.  Sigh.  Balancing what I will need with saving room for what I want to bring back...and, the added expat variable, what I may need should there be an evacuation while we are gone and I can't access anything for who knows how long.  Birth certificates?  Translations and apostilles?  Hard drives? The blanket I am making Bean for Christmas?  And what if I don't get to go shopping here again?  Do I have enough baskets?  Wax print?  I can never have enough baskets or wax print.  Gah, I should have bought more last week!  And what about those cute shoes that don't quite fit Sprout yet.  Think he will grow into and out of them while we are gone?

Clothes. U.S. summer and German fall.  Flip flops and boots, shorts and jeans.  How much wax am I really going to wear in the U.S. and Europe?  Is this too much?  Not enough?  Mother/daughter matching wax?  No, that is definitely too much.  But what if we don't wear it at the same time?  Better bring it.  I need all new shirts.  These are so worn out.  I'm not bringing any of them.  Well, I guess I better bring one to wear to the mall in case someone pukes on me on the plane.

What we don't bring, toys.  On vacation we are trading piles of construction rubble lining the sand streets and dodging honking taxis the second we step out our front door for neighborhood playgrounds we can walk to from each grandparent's house, orchards where Bean and Sprout run with the other village kids, stealing apples and pears, and family walks on paved, safe, tree lined paths.  If it is anything like the previous trips, they won't touch a toy for weeks (this parent's dream come true), so they each get a makeup bag to fill with their favorite treasures to bring.  Chances are they will forget about them the second we step off the plane.

What we do bring, milk.  Ten kilos of powdered milk spread through all our suitcases.  Because my kids spit out the fresh stuff in disgust.

Friend goodbyes.  Do you need me to bring you any cream of tartar?  A can of green chilies?  I'll see you in a couple of weeks!  Unless, ya know, we get evacuated because the ebola outbreak spreads.  If so, I'll meet you in Berlin or Istanbul.  Maybe Tennessee?

Two kids?  Check.  An entire purse dedicated to various passports, divers licenses and resident IDs?  Check.  The rest doesn't really matter.  Despite years of experience in attempting to pack light and still bring everything necessary, there is definitely something I forgot. But, it doesn't matter, because we are going to the land of Target, where I can replace almost anything.  The land of public libraries with story time, traffic lights, and a culture that waits their turn in line.  And what I also know from experience is that after all the fun at amusement parks, picnics in lush green grass, time spent with family and friends we miss terribly the rest of the year, ten weeks from now (inschalla), when we land back in West Africa, we will take our first deep breath of exhaust and burning trash, and it will feel nice to be "home".