Category Archives: Transition

The gift of mangos and colour…the beautiful spirt of a people

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Charles and Mary have helped restore me – helped soothe the some-time ‘abrasiveness’ of living in a populous Indian city. The couple’s three-wheeler is tucked against a wall in a quiet leafy street, five or so blocks away from our apartment. After a long Sunday morning walk, we find them sizzling masala omelettes and fluffy dosas on their cast irons. When they reveal they’ve been setting up here for twenty-seven years, I suggest that they must have been the original ‘food truck’. They’re happy to have the attention and we spend some time together.

The tools of their trade are neatly stacked and at the ready: variants of stainless steel, gas burners and tanks, prepped veggies. Charles dips his hand into the bucket of chopped chilies and onions, giving it a further blend. Mary shyly reveals that June 14th is their anniversary. “Thirty-one years together and this,” she gestures with a sweep of the hand across their thriving business.

They are in perfect sync as they prepare their street food. Motioning to a photo gazing magisterially down at them, Charles wants me to notice the small shrine. “We’re Christians, Mother Mary and Jesus.” He nods at his Mary as if counting his many blessings. As workers from a nearby high-rise construction site make a beeline for Mary’s dosas, we take our leave – a few dosas and omelettes in hand.

A young lady floats past on the street, her sari matching the stunning blooms of a Scarlet Cordia. It’s been an inspiring corner: the vibrance of colour and the personal, genuine encounters. I pause to reflect…yes, it’s almost always about the people isn’t it?

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Allow me to back up…

After more than two months away, it’s been wonderful to be back in my modern Bangalore apartment with its soft hues of greens, blues and whites – its cool marble floors and lush ‘mural’ of trees and coconut palms beyond. It’s been a relief to sit at my desk and write in one spot. For much of the first week I cocooned myself; to transition, to slow down and yield to jet lag, to finally unpack.

The weather is cooling as summer passes and the monsoon rains are upon us. I gazed down to the profuse flowers and to the Headmaster’s garden, my adopted backyard. It’s pleasant, as are the charming interruptions. I heard the thwack, thwack of a coconut harvester’s knife, coconuts tumbling to the red-clay earth below. “Would Madam like coconuts?” a harvester asked as I stood a few wide meters away on my terrace. Minutes later the phone rang, Kajul’s voice informing me, “Madam coconuts here, I bring.”

I welcomed the cry of Raj, my dependable vegetable wallah. “Madam, long time since,” he said, whacking open a coconut, chiselling out its delicious contents. “Good for coconut chutney,” he suggested, as if to answer my ‘what to do with the gifts from next door?’ As I chose my vegetables, I received the usual reprimand from the villa ladies for being away so long. They have also gathered around the neighbourhood ‘water cooler.’

“How lovely, your homes have been repainted,” I commented, noticing the lemony wash on the aging villas. Now somewhat restored to their former glory, their statuesque mango tree is now framed more prettily. “Mangos are soon ready,” Anu said, pointing to the masses of plumping fruit.

The next day a hefty bag of mangos was presented by our landlord. “Welcome back,” Nando said in his affable manner, “the gift of mangos.” He has also recently returned after time in his other home in Belize. He and his wife will now spend six months enjoying the downtown view from their perch on the top floor – from their terrace that floats amongst the tree tops. “Come up for a drink sometime,” Nando adds.

“We will,” I agreed, “you’ll have to meet our Matt.” And as is the Indian way, drinks will start about 9, dinner not served until at least 11 pm.

On my second week home, I became absorbed with my book and also with another writing project. One which demands honesty and vulnerability, and so I’ll continue along that vein.

Matt is here with us in Bangalore, it’s been some years since he was last in Asia. He’s embraced the neighbourhood, the food (especially Preya’s) and he’s also opened our eyes. Seeing a place anew through someone else’s perspective is always thought-provoking.

Not long after arriving, Matt returned from the nearby five-star hotel that is also our club. “They treat you like royalty, almost over the top. Does it get tiring?” he asked. My mind paused…it struck me that I take this completely in my stride. Yet this is my present reality.

“It feels like I’m in a tropical rainforest,” he contunued roaming his eyes around the apartment. “It’s all beautiful Mom.”

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“I love it too. And I never tire of this view, it’s my solace,” I told him.

And in saying that, the question was…solace from what exactly?

Allow me to back up, yet again…

While I was away, I was interviewed from afar by the Economic Times of Bangalore. The article featured me as a writer and as an expat living in this booming city. What did I think of the city? Why was I here? How much did you know before you arrived?

I mentioned how Bangalore’s people and history inspired me to write. How I could relate equally to security guards who leave their villages to work and to altruistic entrepreneurs who give up careers to care for children in need. I’m fortunate to hear their voices and write their stories.

I was pressed to compare Bangalore with other former homes – Osaka, Amsterdam, Aberdeen, Doha, Muscat, Stavanger, Aktau and Houston. Encouraged to give anecdotes, even as a writer I asked myself…how honest should I be? Too many answers, where do I start?

I related that I love the unexpected. What’s around the corner. I adore the tropical greens, the vivid saris and sumptuous fabrics, the spicy curries, the moveable feasts of fruit and vegetables carts and the cool roof-top bars. And wonderfully, I am always made to feel at home. But I was also honest.

I admitted that Bangalore’s congestion, waste management and lack of green space is a cause for concern. I lamented. “They must stop chopping down these magnificent trees for the sake of continued growth. This city would be so much more livable if the sidewalks were not as hazardous. If city ‘fathers’ recognized pedestrians were as important as vehicles.”

But there is an unwritten rule in an expat life; one shouldn’t offend their host country. I try to live by this. Yet just once, I’d love for someone to allow me to cross a street safely. Could traffic yield to me while I’m on a cross-walk. Perhaps education from the government educate. Elevated pedestrian bridges to avoid the senseless monthly death-toll. Should this not be a basic human right in a city that attracts investment from companies worldwide?

“Mom has anyone ever stopped for you?” Matt asked one day, alarmed by the craziness. “Yes”, I answered, “Twice.” He was amused that I actually had an exact number for him.

“I know,” I told him, “it would be funny it it weren’t so sad.”

I also could have elaborated about the pitiful waste management. Trash defiles many of the streets, though we are more fortunate in the heart of the city, and at least here we don’t have open fires burning garbage and further polluting the air. Thankfully, we are remote from the many toxic city lakes that froth and foam, that catch on fire due to volatile chemicals . The papers report this, people protest, promises are made, on and on it goes…

DSCF0464These are a few negatives that I might have mentioned in the article, had I been more candid. After time in pedestrian and cycle-friendly Holland and the beautiful mountains and cityscapes of Canada, there is the inevitable adjustment to India. This coming and going in an expat life takes one across the full spectrum of experiences and emotions, there are many of them.

When adjusting back into this other world, exploring is often my antidote. This past weekend we headed to Bangalore Fort with its gate ‘tall enough for an elephant plus howdah‘ and its robust Islamic-styled granite walls. It stands testament to the struggle of the Mysore Empire against the British. I had been here before but again I’m captivated by its imposing elegance.

Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace is close by, beautifully adorned teakwood pillars, arches and balconies, evoking scenes of the great Sultan holding court, planning his strategy to hold back the British.

Now, the fanned traveller’s palms and nearby temples evoke peace, not war. Serenity, not plunder. I soaked it up, breathed it in, not wanting to leave the hushed walls and enter back into the fray of the frenetic streets.

These landmarks of Bangalore’s history stand in one of the older pets, those neighbourhoods where many people barely scrape by…day by day, rupee to rupee. After taking photos of the fort and the palace, I put my camera away. That day I didn’t feel comfortable taking photos of vendors who line the streets. The wallahs for whom I have great respect and often empathy for…the back-bone of this country of 1.3 billion people. Many do well, like our Raj, but many sit under the baking sun; maybe just a few limes to sell, some shrivelled brinjal that no one is going to buy. And simply, many are too young.

“Let’s go home,’ Matt said, “I feel like I’m intruding.” That sentiment has crossed my mind many times. The wallahs are hard working and a contrast to those who beg for alms; but then I can’t judge their circumstances. It remains disconcerting for me, the inequity never making sense either to ‘seasoned veterans’ or ‘fresh eyes’.

DSCF0520The following Sunday morning we walk through nearby Cubbon Park. It’s not exactly manicured, but lush and peaceful nevertheless. There are glimpses of the city’s past as a British cantonment, military legacy of the final Mysore war. A reminder of when residents strolled through this once glorious ‘garden city’.

We come upon the Government Museum, a 19th century neoclassical. A troop of gardeners and one security guard, are digging ragweed from the lawn. “Good Morning sir, you’re working early. And you’re making progress,” I offer, spying a pile of weeds.

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The guard introduces himself and adds, ‘Yes too many weeds are there, much work.” Motioning to Matt to give it a try, he hands him the weeding tool. He watches as his new apprentice-gardner up-roots a few pesky weeds, encouraging me to take a photo. A brief but sincere encounter…the geniality of Southern India.

We meander to another neighbourhood, the small houses making rainbows of colours. Without hesitation, the children run to me, “Auntie, auntie, where from?” They are playing happily in the street, pestering at the local corner store and as always, pleading for their photo to be taken.

It seems that households have been busy. Reams of laundry dry in the warm June morning, dishes await scrubbing, garlands decorate doorways and a young mother poses eagerly with her toddler. The colours and images are vivid and again I reflect that this is when I’m most content in India. On peaceful streets with daily activities like anywhere else – without the reminders of perpetual toil and poverty.

As we make our way out of the neighbourhood, a pack of mangy dogs mark us as interlopers. They snarl and yap until a kindly lady steps away from her heaped cart of pots and pans. Offering her apologies, she escorts us around the corner, swiping and scolding the mutts. The chickens let us pass.

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So I come full circle to Charles and Mary at the end of that second outing. It was as if they greeted us back to our own bustling, yet reassuring neighbourhood, more privileged than most yet still typical. Vibrant colours, chaotic traffic, life lived on the streets – lives of difficulty and of prosperity. Simply, it is India.

Above all what I’ve come to love here is its people. I respect their industriousness and for many their perseverance. So yes, I could have added more to that article. I would have implored the government to do more: fix the sidewalks, protect the trees and greens spaces, combat the pollution, ensure the water supply for farmers and for all, try to eradicate the vast inequities. People like Charles and Mary, Raj, Kajul, Preya, the children who welcomed me as ‘auntie’, they all deserve a voice. I advocate for them, not myself, my time here will be only another year.

One last quote from that article, “Bangalore has become like the other cities I’ve lived, I cannot imagine not having been here.”

I embrace India for the complex layered story that it is and I’ll continue to cherish the beautiful spirit of the people.

And so I await the next playful unpredictability, the next enchanting exploration and naturally more sincere encounters to come.

It seems that will happen this coming weekend. It’s time to initiate Matt into Indian train travel, a passage to the bewitching ruins of Hampi has been booked. Another chapter in our Indian story.

 

 

Travels and touchstones…fifteen roses in memoriam

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I write this on my flight from Frankfurt to Bangalore. The sun streams in as we fly over Budapest. We pass Munich, cross the Danube, Rome is off south. It’s time to return to Asia, time to be ‘home’. There’s much to reflect on these past few months, much joyful, but regrettably not all.

A Bollywood Masala serenades me as a pre-diner drink is served. The music is intoxicating and strangely in sync with my melancholy. It never fails to feel somewhat surreal, Gosh I’m on my way to India…and I live there. And this time especially, I just want to be there, in one place for more than a few weeks at a time.

I play one track over and over again. It is evocative and comforting. First I write, then simply sit and be. I reflect on this past week of a farewell to a loved, my brother-in-law, who passed away.

I glance at the book I’m reading and a quote from Rabindranath Tagore, India’s dearest writer, jumps off the page and resonates.

”If you cry because the sun has gone out of your life, your tears will prevent you from seeing the stars.”

I left India just over two months ago to attend a conference in The Hague, then onward to Canada, meeting up with my husband in Vancouver. On idyllic spring days there and in Victoria, and in the company of two of our sons and their girlfriends, we strolled beaches, soaked up the sun on wind-swept piers and walked drizzly streets under cherry blossomed canopies. We drank in the beauty and the calm, the sublime balances of city life surrounded by mountain vistas, forested coastlines and the endless Pacific Ocean.

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Staying just a stone’s throw away from ‘the kids’, we took pleasure from sharing everyday things; signing a new lease, early morning rock-climbing, late night games and long chats. As for many of us, time with our grown children is painfully finite. Each visit is treasured.

DSCF0160Back at our home base, we got down to practicalities. The lawn cried out for raking to usher spring growth, layers of dust counted the months since our last visit and the deck beckoned us to sit and luxuriate. During respites in a favourite chair, I looked longingly at my deserted flower pots, begging for summer blooms. But in vain; we won’t return until August.

There was time with good neighbours and friends; hiking, walking and conversation. Yet it wasn’t long before it was time to close up the house and I did what I do each time I leave, what I’ve done for the past eight years. I sign my own guest book. Here from such and such a place, date, did this and that…chronicling those everyday moments that comprise life.

Having delayed my return to India I made my way with our middle son, Matt, to my parents for Mother’s day. We spent a weekend of games, seeing family and friends, lazed around an outdoor fire on a Sunday afternoon. We strolled through the garden picking tulips and the first of the asparagus – the apple tree is in abundant bloom, a heavenly canopy over the graves of family dogs. A tranquil weekend – simple joys of being home.

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And as if preparing and steeling me for the week before us, my final few days in Calgary were also comforting.

“Are you back in the city?” Carol asked not long after I’d arrived. “I’ve been thinking about you, can I see you before you leave?”

“Carol I’m glad you called, though I have sad news. Rod has passed away, I meet Bruce in London in a few days.”

“I’m on my way,” she said, “be right over.”

Carol is the sister I didn’t have and we rather like that we’re often mistaken for siblings. She is my touchstone. Same high school, same hometown, same cultural references. When I finished college our mothers arranged for us to live together. With a job secured, I packed up my ’77 Camaro and headed to the big city. We’ve been soulmates ever since– connected through life’s milestones. We know each other’s history like a well-read book.

DSCF0217When Carol walked half an hour later into our small condo in Calgary, suitcases lined the hallway. She offered her condolences and with a hug reminded me, “You get to leave again.” Tales of my global life are music to her ears.

Carol is also a traveller but now spends most of her time in Calgary, with a yearly buying trip to Asia for her importing business. I flit in and out of her life…if I’m honest, everyone’s life.

I commented on the scene outside as dusk approached on that warm spring evening – the emerging twinkling skyline, the milky turquoise river, the flow of walkers, cyclists and skateboarders, the couples nestled on park benches.

“But Carol you get to be here, in one place, see spring turn to summer, then autumn. I skip whole seasons and then plunk myself into life for a month or so. Always unpacking and packing, always on the move.” We have this conversation often, yet would either of us truly give up the life we have for the other?

The evening turned late, as is usual each time we’re together. There’s never enough time for the stories, the meanders, the laughter and this time the tears. Carol recently lost her mother and her pain is still at the surface and my heart breaks for her. “You can never know what it is to lose your mom until it happens.”

We meet again late the next afternoon and stroll until the evening turns dim. Sunnyside/Kensington is quirky, a mix of older homes and new. A pleasant sedate neighbourhood going about its business of life.

DSCF0233“It’s almost the end of May. How strange most homes still have a snow shovel on the front porch,” I remarked after yet another shovel belied the gorgeous weather.

“You know the saying,” Carol looked at me with a wry smile.

“I have no idea.”

Never put snow shovels away until the end of May,” she rhymed. “It tempts the weather to snow”. I had never heard this before and noted that many of the shovels seem to compliment the house perfectly, adding a splash of colour, almost completing the image of home.

Unlike my children who were raised globally, Carol and I have a hometown with the anecdotes and recollections to go with it. This is now more poignant than ever for her as sadly she was recently faced with dismantling her mother’s life. Having to go through the meaningful and the ‘just stuff’, the heartbreak of not only saying farewell to your loved one, but also to your family home. As we strolled in the evening hues over Calgary, I felt a certain calm in offering some solace and for her love and understanding of what was on the horizon for me and my husband.

Having only returned to India a week previously, my husband headed back west and met me in London. Our long embrace at Heathrow Airport was the calm before the storm, the balm for the soul. The four hour drive to Wales seemed unusually long, but we were together. We had no choice but to start brainstorming, start planning…

Rod had made his way south as a young man, following his profession from Scotland to Welsh Wales (as he lovingly referred to it). He never left. With his untimely death came the painful realization that it was up to the two of us to plan and host his funeral, and clear his home.

Arriving at the house for the first time was wrenching, signs of Rod’s interrupted life were stark reminders of the fragility of time. The new bags of potting soil and gardening tools, a carefully chosen cherry tree and parsley already abundant were particularly poignant. Not knowing what to do, we did what we felt was right. We lit a candle, chose a good bottle of wine and pulled out one of Rod’s many c.d’s. We’re sure he would have been pleased and with tears welling, we offered up a toast to him and to the house – the last time it would be a home. The next day everything would change.

All those things he valued, collected or just ‘stuff’ had to be dispersed. It is somber and admittedly tedious, and I suspect it isn’t often when one only has six days from start to finish. Perhaps that somehow made it easier.

We only managed with the help of family and good friends. In the midst of it, there was the paper work, meeting the pastor, arranging the funeral, writing the order of service and the eulogy. We secured a bagpiper, we ordered flowers.

“We’d like white roses, some thistle to represent Scotland, something for Wales, but a natural, wild look.”

“I think I understand what you’d like, a scruffy look,” the florist reassured calmly.

“Yes, perfect.” I was relieved, then chose a ribbon that best matched the family tartan.

The two scruffy bouquets were simply perfect.

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And finally we were able to honour our Roderick Wilson. The bagpiper welcomed and moved many to tears – the haunting, rousing strains reached into souls, touching innermost emotions. My husband delivered an eulogy that was eloquent and powerful, honouring a man that despite blindness and ill health, had poured his heart into his church community and friends.

An after service ‘tea’ at the church with an array of baked goods spoke of community and the indelible connection of life. “Ah my nephew is out in Canada.” “I work with the church in India, come see us when you get to Calcutta.” “We’ll miss our Rod,” we heard over and over again. Rod’s trusty and beloved guide dog, Neena, was with us throughout. She will officially retire on June 1st and is with a loving family; a celebration is planned for her.

The beautiful day was infused with the comfort of my husband’s cousins from Scotland. “It wasn’t a question of coming or not, of course we’d be here,’ they said without hesitation. Jean and Christine grew up five doors down from my husband’s family home. The lush bluebell woods behind their homes was their playground. An idyllic place where the trees had names like Thunderbird and Big Ben.

“We were always together it was the perfect childhood, pet,” Jean told me in her warm Scottish accent that placed me back with my late mother-in-law.

“That’s what Isa used to call the boys,” I remembered fondly. Along with the comfort of family and their unreserved love, Jean and Christine brought a piece of Scotland to Wales.

The day of the funeral culminated with an intimate gathering of close friends and family. At one of his favourite restaurants, we toasted our dear Rod and when his ashes arrived we toasted again. We’re quite sure his off-beat sense of humour would have enjoyed the scene. We strolled in the early evening down to the water, hand in hand, arm in arm. Past the comfort of an aged stone wall, past spring flowers and the promise of new beginnings.

The tartan ribbon was unfastened and the scruffy bouquet was our solace, one most perfect of white roses for each of us. “Please say a few words as the ashes and your rose meet the water’, my husband asked.

And we did. “Thank you for your love and help raising me,” Thank you for your humour and friendship.” “I’ll miss you.” “You have three nephews who love you and the Wilson name lives on, dear brother-in-law.’  There was grief and sadness, there was laughter, new friendships and rekindled family bonds. It was a soulful, fitting farewell.

IMG_3746 (1)Fifteen roses, a loved one’s ashes, and a few Scottish thistles drifted peacefully out to sea. In remembrance of a life and good deeds done. And that seems all we can ask for; to live, to love, to have loved ones remember and speak well of us when our time comes. To be there for those who need comforting.

It isn’t often that you truly contemplate how you’d like to be honoured when the time comes, but I know I would chose a day like we had in Wales. Despite the loss, it was a time of family, friends and tenderness. One of poignancy and meaning, one of gladness for what was.

And perhaps for those of us who live globally, time seems ever more precious as our parents age, as we miss our worldwide friendships, as our children live their own lives. Visits home are never long enough, yet we look forward to returning to that other life, that other ‘home’. It’s a fine balance of sacrifices and abundance, of memories and goodbyes; never does it strike you more than after losing a loved one.

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As I finish writing, the captain announces that it will soon be time to land. I feel a tap on my shoulder. “How has the flight been Mom?”

It’s one of Rod’s nephews, our dear son Matt. He’s on his way with me, his new journey to spend some time with us and do some travelling. I’m looking forward to being ‘home’ again and I’m thankful it will be with one more family member…

Family, friendships, home, journeys, farewells and time spent with loved ones…really just life. Embrace it.

Finding Your Passion…a pecha-kucha

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These past few months found me preparing for the Families in Global Transition Conference. I was to deliver a short speech – set to twenty slides that shift every twenty seconds. It’s been described as, “Say it in six minutes and forty seconds with exquisitely matched words and images, then sit the heck down!”

This concept is a complete departure for someone like me who, as a former tour guide, is given to elaborating, meandering and drawing out a story like a languorously painted mural. Challenged not only by brevity but by the need to memorize my impactful six minutes and forty seconds, I was in new territory.

Two Tokyo based architects are credited with this mode of communication which endeavours to convey a message not just succinctly, but also poignantly. Their innovation, dubbed pecha-kucha ペチャクチャ, means ‘chatter’ or ‘chit-chat’ in Japanese. However this translation is rather misleading. Chit chat usually implies an unrehearsed and natural exchange, but as I’ve recently discovered, pecha-kucha is anything but this.

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I was one of six delegates at the recent FIGT Conference tasked with delivering this precise format. Before traveling to The Hague from our various parts of the world, we each embarked upon days of preparation – writing the narrative, selecting slides, rehearsing tone, rhythm, injecting meaning and emotion, honing and memorizing. I hadn’t appreciated that something so brief could have demanded such commitment.

I recall sitting in a coffee shop in my hometown of Kimberley, the ski hill my backdrop, the deadline looming. My thoughts were crystal clear as the idea had percolated for months, yet I had no idea how to combine eloquence with economy to finesse everything into just under seven minutes.

IMG_2964For me, opportunities such as the FIGT Conference are a cause for pause and for celebration. The four day gathering is a meeting of people discussing, disseminating, listening, learning and sharing – then taking these ideas back to our global community.

Those of us who move from county to country settling our families with seeming ease and confidence, in reality face myriad complex issues. The conference is a yearly gathering, our forum to revisit and resolve those challenges in the embrace of friends – old and new.

We discuss essential matters such as Third Culture Kids (children raised in cultures different from their parents) and their transitions, identity and professional challenges. We talk of dealing with family issues from afar, educational challenges and a host of other topics. Yet along with these weighty matters, I wanted to celebrate the joy and abundance this life on distant shores offers.

And so the stage was set in The Hague. We had rehearsed, cued our slides – even selected our preferred microphone – the time had come to translate hours of preparation into an impactful six minutes and forty seconds. We had become our own little tribe of support and encouragement. “The audience is great, you’ll be fine once you’re on the stage”, each speaker rallied as they came ‘backstage’ to the sound of applause, a look of pride and elation etched on relieved faces.

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The Ignite Speakers after rehearsal with Lisa, our mentor

Maryam Afnan Ahmad enlightened and inspired on the experiences and the ‘why and how of Muslim
expatriates’. Lisa Travella-Murawsky spoke to ‘the power of team sports to create a diverse tribe’. The audience heard of how a vibrant TCK English teacher, Megan Norton, ‘created a globally local network in a Hungarian village’. Maria Lombart’s poignant ‘perspective of childhood losses, TCK’s and identity development’ was a reminder of the strength and resilience it takes to transition from an upbringing in a distant land. Janneke Muyselaar-Jellema spoke of her heartfelt journey from a life in Africa to home in the Netherlands; ‘how to find your voice, your tribe and other voices through blogging’.

For myself? I shared my journey from self-doubt and longing for meaning, to this abundant and fulfilled time in my life. And I was humbled by the reactions. My presentation seemed to trigger thoughts of creativity, provide catharsis and forgiveness for times in one’s life which might have been more productive. To my great joy, I’m told that it inspired.

FIGT has that impact on people; it elicits conversations and narratives, inspires and questions, heals and reassures. It fosters connections and communities, forges friendships and kindredness. I hope you’ll think of joining us at next year’s conference – you’ll be welcomed into the warmth and wisdom of this global community.

But for now, may I offer just a bit of ‘chit chat’…

Finding Joy and Abundance as an Expat – Planning your Fulfilled Life Abroad and Building Your Tribe. 

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It is just one story…of self doubt and longing, of joy and passion, of fulfilment and possibilities. It is my journey.

How I dreaded hearing it, “find your passion” you have all the time in the world. Find something that will bring you joy. And except for raising three busy sons…I had time.

A stamp in my passport while living in the U.S. for 6 years reminded me…not allowed to work. I volunteered, I took some courses, I even worked ‘under the table’ in interior design.

I did what we expats know how to do. I settled my family in yet another country and got on with it. Yet by year 5, I questioned my identity, my purpose, and yearned for fulfillment.

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I had taught English in Japan, Qatar and Oman. I had made a difference in people’s lives.

I now had an overwhelming sense of under achievement and felt that time was slipping away. And then I heard…our next posting is Norway. I was overjoyed.

But before I could move forward, I had to forgive myself for lost time, for what I hadn’t done. And I vowed to treat the next country as an opportunity for growth, a place perhaps to find that elusive passion.
IMG_3086As the endless rain and the autumn winds welcomed us to Norway, our lively
household dwindled from five to three. And for months, I surrendered to the adjustment and the heartache, of two children an ocean away.

The sad reality was, only I could rescue myself. It was time for resolve, time to move forward. Time to embrace new opportunities and weave a different path which is often easier in a new country. Time to re-set, to re-create, to move out of my comfort zone.

I took stock of my strengths and my shortcomings…hopeless with numbers and technology. Yet intensely curious about cultures, research and passionate about history.

IMG_0606As important as it had been to me, I declined to teach as I had in other countries. I believed there would be a new opportunity and if I reverted to what I knew, I would not be in a position for this new country to infuse and inspire with its beauty and uniqueness.

And it did! I studied and became a tour guide and admittedly a bit of a crazed Viking expert. Weaving historical narratives that entertained and enlightened, I met and worked with from people from around the world; I simply loved it.

Yet the narratives were ephemeral and sailed away with passengers that had heard them. But now without a doubt, I knew history and culture were my passion.

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Travel diaries lined my shelves and hinted at the future. A borrowed book led me to a writer’s retreat, in Tuscany, led by Jo Parfitt.

Serendipity is not luck, it is the art of placing oneself in new situations which might just bear fruit, revealing something new about yourself. For me that was Tuscany.

Was it frightening and challenging…yes

Instructive and inspiring…yes again

Life Changing…absolutely

I had taken a chance, found my voice and the belief that just perhaps, I could share my passions through my writing.

But the path wouldn’t be quite that easy.
IMG_2943We departed my beloved Norway and soon called the soviet-style streets of Kazakhstan home. And we became empty-nesters.

Without a school network to ground you and with a yearning for your children to completely unsettle you, you must learn to live with the new reality.

And I believe to be what is truly important….it is essential to ready yourself for daily life without your children. Embrace your uniqueness, your talents and  thrive.

And I did…I became a writer! My passions now conveyed in my blog, endeavouring to inform, entertain, inspire and make the world a smaller place.
In Kazakhstan we found ourselves living in a hotel suite, the Caspian my backdrop, a world of time before me.

My writing flourished, I travelled more, I jaunted off to another writer’s retreat, FIGT was now marked on my calendar. Take advantage of what more time allows…

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As a fellow empty nester recently mused at a cafe in Singapore, “What is there not to like? I have a beautifully structured day with endless possibilities. And I can have a gin tonic at 5:00 o’clock with impunity!”

She is in my ‘tribe’, we were writers at FIGT 3 years ago. A reminder that your tribe will grow effortlessly and beautifully, as you journey on a path with like-minded people.

I now live in India, country number nine. A place easy to succumb to the travails of expat life….the pollution, the chaos of the roads, the distance from family in Canada.

IMG_2258Yet on most days I choose to be joyful; to embrace the colour, the culture, the mysteries of India.

These are the joys: of discovery, of evolving, of fulfillment in whatever that may be for you. Happily for me, it is having collaborated on a book this past year…it seems I’m an author.

I recall something my husband said, on one of those despairing days in Houston. “Imagine how great it will be when you’re part of a group who shares the same interests and dreams..”

He didn’t use the word tribe…but that is indeed what has transpired.
Perhaps my most read blog… a ‘trailing spouse’ sums it up best.

Checking in at the airport to return to Kazakhstan, an agent said, ”That’s a fine set of luggage Ms. Wilson.”

I chuckled a thank you, what was I really thinking? There’s more in there than you’ll ever know. My resilience, my wanderlust, my talents, my joy.

Photos of my precious family and my partner that I’m more than willing to accompany anywhere in this beautiful world.

My tribe, I’ll find them scattered here and there.
IMG_2406So there is never truly ‘wasted time’ if we grow from it.

I would not change those six years in Houston, I realize now it was a crucial part of my path. And the abundance in my life now is that much more meaningful.

A lesson perhaps, it is not just the destination that should bring us joy…it is indeed the entire journey.

 

  • Now you know how it’s done. I challenge educators to encourage their students to explore this format. They’ll walk away having delivered a message in a structured, engaging method and I believe they’ll feel as I now do…of enrichment, growth and immense satisfaction from the experience.

Of Magical Mysore…of farewells and re-attachments…

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img_0771Time with family and friends recently in Canada was wonderful – home in the true sense. However my other life in India called.

The world may be my oyster, yet there is a downside to living on different continents. Once back in Bangalore, reality quickly set in.

After four months of a ‘monastic’ existence whilst consumed by a book project and another few months away, I returned to Bangalore feeling a stranger and out of touch. I needed to fit back into a social life.

As in the past with other adopted countries, I trust a time will come when it feels more effortless…

Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that my first reaction was not to yield to my surroundings, but rather to explore. “Let’s see more of India,” I implored my husband. “I need to take advantage of actually being here.”

The next morning we pack our bags and head to ‘Majestic’, the city railway station. A little more than two hours later, the train delivers us to the city of Mysore. The saying goes that you haven’t truly experienced South India unless you’ve journeyed here. Our first hours in the city hint that this might be so. The streets feel different from Bangalore, but in a way that was strikingly familiar. I am transported back to those enchantingly simpler times we had experienced backpacking in India, over a quarter of a century ago.

img_0819-1Mysore’s streets and broad tree-line boulevards, are lively but less urgent than Bangalore’s. Stately buildings exude charm and a sense of place and history. All reminiscent of our India of old – a fondly re-discovered treasure.

The city is redolent with history, defined by the regal Maharajahs of the Wodeyar dynasty and by the infamous Tipu Sultan. Known as the Tiger of Mysore, Tipu was India’s freedom fighter and revered for resisting the onslaught of British imperialists. His state succumbed only after their fourth campaign. The Sultan is also celebrated as the pioneer of rocket warfare…but more of Tipu Sultan later.

We stay at a former residence built by the Maharajah of Mysore himself, a cozy retreat for his European guests. The Royal Orchid Metrople is that touch of old world charm with its tiled verandahs of potted palms, intricate lattice work and inviting wicker chairs. I enquire who the lady is, proper in a lacy Victorian collar and hairstyle of the 1920’s. Her portrait is handsomely framed at the foot of the lobby’s spiral staircase. With a hint of reverence, the concierge confirms, “We’re quite certain she was our first guest.”img_0765

I conjour a day in the life of this European visitor. I imagine her penning a letter at the writing desk in the Maharani suite – the very one we were staying in – carefully folding the parchment before sliding it into an envelope. Perhaps the correspondence describes a social gathering of visiting dignitaries, the unexpected thrill of an elephant ride or the purchase of fine Mysorean silk. Perhaps the letter addresses the paradox of the writer’s privileged colonial lifestyle, in contrast to the struggles and injustices of many locals. I would tell the writer that as foreigners in India, we try still today to reconcile the inequalities that surround us. We embrace the culture and the heritage, but often grapple with the poverty of the underprivileged.

img_0768Our guest from the 1920’s makes her way down the spiral staircase to the porticoed entrance. She dons a sun hat and the doorman, splendidly attired in the Mysore fashion of the day, bids her ‘Good afternoon’. He summons a carriage and the visitor is conveyed to the Maharaja’s Palace. As the palace draws into view, she is instantly captivated.

As it was then, so is it now. Mysore Palace remains one of India’s grandest royal buildings. The most visited tourist attraction in India after the Taj Mahal, six million visitors a year are transported back to an era of unparalleled grandeur. This is the seat of the Mysore royal family, where the most beloved of Maharajahs, Krishna Raja Wodeyar IV was installed in 1902.

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The extensive palace grounds are lush, shadowed with rain trees and dotted with sacred temples. I’m asked to join groups for photographs and willingly oblige. It is clear we are much more of a curiosity here than in Bangalore. Small children greet me with smiles and a, “Hi Auntie, where are you from?”

We join the multitudes and deposit our footwear before entering the inner palace. Photos inside are not allowed, but then they could not do it justice.

The ‘Indo-Saracenic’ architecture of the Mysore Palace is a mix of Hindu, Muslim, Rajput and Gothic…and it is breathtaking. With soaring rooflines, mosaic floors, doors of inlaid ivory and displays of gold such as the elephant howdahs, the palace is designed to inspire awe. The durbar (the ceremonial meeting hall of the royal court) is magnificent in both scale and opulence, emphatically projecting the power of the Wodeyars who ruled for almost six centuries.

The much beloved Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV was the 24th Maharaja, ruling from 1895 to 1940. Focused on education, hospitals and religious sites, he worked to alleviate poverty and improve public health and industry. The forward-thinking Raja also built Asia’s first hydro electro project. Nearby Bangalore benefited and was the first city in India to have electric street lights in 1905.

Indeed the strides made during the Raja’s reign, inclined the revered Mahatma Gandhi to remark that the Maharaja was truly a Raja Rishi, a saintly king. His princely state of Mysore was acknowledged to be ‘the best administered state in the world’. But of course the Maharajahs of Mysore (as with other princely states) were also known for their excesses. Doing a Mysore was a phrase coined by Rolls-Royce executives in the 1920’s, code for the purchase of ‘Rollers’ in batches of seven…as the Maharaja Krishna was inclined to do!

The palace is a trove of treasures. Finely detailed wall paintings portray scenes from the Wodeyar’s stately processions and lavish lifestyle. Depicted in intricate detail, the Maharajahs are adorned in the finest Mysore silk and richly bejewelled. They sit atop caparisoned elephants, under the shade of a howdah or upon golden thrones. And they are rich beyond compare. At the time of his death in 1940 at his summer palace in Bangalore, Krishna Raja Wodeyar was one of the world’s wealthiest men.

We emerge from the palace into the expansive grounds. Hawkers gently tickle drums to entice. Cheap bangles, sandalwood carvings, incense and oils are offered – Mysore’s reputation for sandalwood and the finest of silks is undisputed. Brightly painted carriages and their listless ponies invite; more modest echoes of the elaborate carriages that once graced the the streets of Mysore.

img_0918-1The next morning a ‘carriage’ of a different kind awaits us. The environs of Mysore beg to be explored and we jump into a classic ’66 Mahindra Jeep. It’s rugged and basic, it’s a beauty.

Faizan from Royal Mysore Walks greets us affably and promises we’ll enjoy the tour. “You can ask me anything at all,” he says, “but just call me Fez, it’s easier.” As a former tour guide myself, I easily identify with him.

Fez is knowledgeable, engaging and gently puts us through the odd history quiz…perfect!

The drive takes us to the ramparts of Tipu Sultan’s fort in Sriangapatnam, an island formed between two channels of the Cauvery River. Hyder Ali, Tipu Sultan’s father, had usurped the throne, then expanded the Mysore kingdom but would be forced, with his son, to defend it in four Anglo Mysorean wars. Fought over three decades, the final and decisive campaign by the British East India Company was in 1799. Even now more than 200 years later, the battlements seem impenetrable and might have remained that way but for one man.

I envision the battle as Fez paints the scene with a wave of his hand. “There was a traitor” he tells us. “His name was Mir Sadiq and so despised is he even today that people throw stones at his tomb.” The general betrayed the Sultan by colluding with the British, opening a breach in the walls that lead to the defeat of the Mysorean troops and to the death of Tipu Sultan, the only Indian king to die on a battlefield.  At a nearby palace, we see the face of Mir Sadiq actually smudged out in paintings, more evidence of the contempt with which he is still held. On the other hand, Tipu Sultan is a national hero; his reputation for brutality is a story for another time.

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That British victory yielded the richest haul of war-spoils from any battle they ever fought. I’m fascinated by this remarkable period, indeed of all Indian history…the Moguls, Maharajahs and the British rule which is both maligned and embraced here. As we leave the ramparts, a simple wooden bullock cart trundles past. Two beasts of burden pull the sturdy cart along a time-worn trail at the river’s edge – a scene unchanged for centuries.

Our Jeep rolls past sugar cane fields, silk worm farms and stands of eucalyptus trees, the sights and smells rushing through the open vehicle are colourful, raw and exhilarating. We turn off the highway and thread across an ancient narrow bridge over a gently flowing river. The Raja Ghat extends either side of us, scenes of ritual bathing and high-spirited play combine; scenes that evoke moments of clarity…I am in India!

img_0860On the side of the stepped ghat, under an ancient stone pavilion, a ceremony unfolds. A young man, bereaved of his father, is in the midst of a solemn ritual. Guided by a brahmin priest, he recites prayers as water is rhythmically dabbed on his wrist. His head is shaved as tradition demands. We listen to the priest’s intonation, a soothing, flowing mantra. We offer condolences to the women witnessing the ceremony, sensing that we have intruded on their grief. Yet they acknowledge us with a nod as we quietly take our leave. On the upper ghat another brahmin priest invites us into his vividly painted temple to witness the ritual about to commence. Inside, the centuries-old place of worship is cool and somber. We sit cross-legged on the stone floor opposite a priest flanked by two men, one an assistant, the other the supplicant.

img_0862The priest leads them in prayer for the well-being of the family. The father takes his cues from the brahmin as his adult son and wife look on. Sanskrit mantras mix with camphor wafting through the still air. Rice and turmeric are sprinkled, offerings in a timeless ritual.

Hands pressed together, and mouthing a ‘namaskara’ to the mother, we again take leave. She returns my gaze, her eyes confirming that our glimpse into this sacred family tradition was welcomed. I am moved by the openness of Hindus, their joy of sharing the living traditions.

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In the mid-afternoon sun, more scenes of communal prayer and family togetherness play out on the ghats. As children splash in shallow pools, the rhythmic slap of laundry beats out a languid tempo on the rocks. Ever-present, sacred cows luxuriate as they munch vegetables in the shade of a mango tree.

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On our return to Mysore, Fez points out stops that we will have to plan for our next visit; sandalwood incense makers, silk farms and even traditional painters of those iconic bullock carts that seem the very essence of rural India. The jeep tour with Fez has offered us insights we would not have had the privilege of seeing.

img_0913South India lives up to its reputation of friendliness, of mystic sights and ancient traditions. This is why, I remind myself. Why this peripatetic life with its farewells and re-attachments, its solitudes and contemplative transition, is worth it. These are the moments to treasure.

I get my bearings back over the next few days and resolve to be contented. I attend a number of social events through the week and feel a little more connected. “Are you free this weekend?” I’m asked.

“I’m afraid not,” I say, “I’m off again.”

As I pen this, my suitcases await at the door for this evening’s flight; it is Singapore and  Australia for the next ten days. Without any children here, I can freely accompany my husband on a business trip. It’s true…I have nothing to complain about…

A vibrant Indian neighbourhood…under the shade of a rain tree

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The neighbourhood fruit vendor

The lyrical calls of the wallah echo through our tiny street…fruit, vegetables, papers, knife sharpening, and the call for tea…chai! These vendors, with well-stocked wooden carts and bicycles, are still part of the fabric in this traditional neighbourhood.

Our move was only days old when I first heard this chant. As I lingered with my Sunday morning coffee, I heard the rising pitch of a female voice. The words were unclear yet the entreaty to ‘come buy’ unmistakeable.

“That must be a wallah!,” I said expectantly, rushing to gaze down to the leafy street.

The vendor was wearing a vivid red sari, contrasting her laden, deep green cart. Hurrying to the street, I meet my new fruit seller, Munglora. She greets me by removing the tiny red dot, a bindi, from her forehead and placing it just between my eyes, “welcome,” she says with an engaging laugh. Despite the language barrier, I can tell she’s a character.

I gather strawberries, melons and pomegranates for ‘a song’, yet discover that like an excited child, I had only rushed down with a few rupees in my hand. “Ok, ok,” says Munglora and jots down the amount owing in a faithful ledger. She’ll be sure to see me next Sunday this way.

A few of the neighbours make their way from their aging villas. Their friendliness is matched by their curiosity about this new couple on the street, “Where are you from and do you have children,” they want to know. It seems a little more acceptable that we’re so far away from our sons when I tell them they are studying and that by co-incidence, our landlord’s son went to the same university/college as I had in Canada. “What a small world,” we all agree pleasantly.

Munglora has parked her cart near the tall school gate at the end of the street and the impeccably uniformed school guard soon introduces himself. It’s obvious he takes pride in his long service to the Bishop Cotton Boy’s School. Built in the 1860’s, it’s one of the oldest institutions in Bengaluru and I gaze beyond the gate towards the Colonial style buildings with their terracotta tiled roofs. Oh how I hope I’m offered a tour of the grounds one day!

These authentic encounters validate our decision to not live in the confines of a walled compound. After much deliberation, we chose a beautiful apartment in the heart of the city. It’s unexpectedly modern with cooling marble floors and generously spacious for this urban location. Best of all, our terrace is shaded by a canopy of massive rain trees, impossibly tall coconuts, mango and bamboo.

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Under the shade of a rain tree

They shelter the headmaster’s garden below, its calm interrupted twice daily by the  passing flow of students. The morning security guard motions to school children in starched white uniforms to hurry, hurry, as they jump out of a car or auto- rickshaw and rush the gate, late for class. Mothers wave their student goodbye as they disappear into the lush grounds…phew, made it just in time! I hear cricket games in the distance, the national anthem and school announcements…all a pleasant ‘commotion.’

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The rush of school pick up

We soon discover the school has also given us a music studio…serenades drift up to our terrace, strains of Adele, jazz and snippets of Indian folk. It blends with the headmaster’s menagerie of ducks, honking geese and a very plump turkey who fans his plumage and makes his presence known with long, squeaky honks. Thankfully, pleasant birdsong and chatter of hawks, pigeons and parakeets soften the soundtrack.

“Monkeys pass through about twice a year,” my landlord tells me as we appreciate the vista from the terrace on the first day. He laughs as I recoil, my lifelong fear of monkeys revealed. We’ve had a comfortable rapport since I first viewed the apartment and he’s obliged us with window treatments of our choice and painting in a shade complimenting my Indian inspired decor of lanterns and silk cushions in gorgeous hues of duck egg green and soft blues.

I feel further spoiled when I realize that an iron wallah sets-up in the shade of the doctor’s garden across the street. The first day, I take over five shirts to be ironed “50 rupees,” Laurence says, shyly glancing up from his coal-powered iron. I ask how long the coal stays warm in the hefty contraption. “Two hours,” I’m told and when I attempt to tip an extra 20 rupees, Laurence returns it to me. Five beautifully pressed shirts for about $1, his rate the same for all. There is help of every nature in the neighbourhood and I understand that it is both our pleasure and an obligation to avail ourselves of these services…it’s expected.

“Anything, anything at all you need, you go to Anand,” the landlord insists. Part of the small ‘family’ we seem to have adopted is this young man with a ready smile and his finger on the pulse of it all; cleaners, internet hookup, pest control, repairmen. Anand is the acting boss of the other ‘family’ members of this five apartment complex including the maintenance and sweeper fellow, the drivers and the security guard who is never far from his post at the gatehouse.

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Villas standing their ground against modernity

Every time my husband passes our guard, Rajesh Kumar, he is given a quick salute. Our Rajesh isn’t as well turned-out as most of the guards, but he is always gentlemanly, insisting on carrying my shopping up the short flight of stairs to our wide, welcoming front door.

 

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A welcome tilak and a vase of ‘eight-hundred roses’

At one end of our short street stands the Bishop Cotton gate, the other intersects with a tree-lined road dotted with bars, restaurants and older villas that stand defiant against the onslaught of development. They contrast a handful of nearby hotels where one can disappear into storied luxury; where doors are opened by resplendently attired doormen and vases of eight-hundred roses welcome in sparkling lobbies. Where one is welcomed with a Namaskar and approached with a tray for the tilak.

This is the welcoming ceremony of dotting a small dab of vermillion or sandalwood on the forehead, just between the brows. This is believed to be where the spiritual eye resides…the place of latent wisdom. And unlike Munglora’s self-adhering bindi, these are more ‘permanent.’

Close to all of this is the ‘lung’ of the city, Cubbon Park with ample walkways, jogging paths and bike trails shaded by silver oaks and Cook pines from Australia. “If they were to ever diminish this park, there would be riots in the streets,” a fellow park enthusiast tells me. I believe I’d join in – it’s imperative that Bengaluru safeguards its dwindling greenery.

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Architecture contrast, looking out from Cubbon Park

We visit the Bangalore Club built during the British Raj for the pleasure of ranking officers and officials stationed in this former cantonment area of barracks and regimental head quarters. This club is redolent with history and after a swim or game of tennis, one can quench one’s thirst with a sundowner in the ‘Men’s Lounge’ (women now allowed) where Winston Churchill still has an unpaid bar bill and a stuffed leopard recalls the pursuits of hunting and gaming…it’s as if you have stumbled upon a movie set.

We continue to explore this past weekend and just a short auto-rickshaw ride away, we find ourselves a little further into the cantonment area. Whether you agree, or not, with this period of history, iconic vestiges of it remain. From 1806 to 1881, this area comprised the largest British Raj cantonment in southern India. We seem to find the old residential area. We peek behind crumbling stone walls where once stately bungalows are strangled by overgrown gardens and telling shop signs cling to redundant buildings.

We’re welcomed into the superbly maintained St. Andrew’s Church and our eyes are drawn to wall plaques that reveal the history of church members in the late 1800’s. People from England, Scotland and Wales, either stationed or chose to make their life here. Some having met their demise from malaria, dengue fever, leopard and tiger attacks…sad reminders of the perils of life in tropical climates.

With that thought in mind, we make our way to Commercial Street to buy mosquito coils and see this lively shopping district first hand. Other than the odd modern shop planted in the maze of crisscrossed streets, we’re transported back to the India of our backpacking days. It is still here; the intoxicating blend of colour, aromas and noise…the stamp of an authentic Indian street. Holy cows hold up traffic, vendors offer an array of goods and artisans inhabit impossibly small spaces creating stunning craft pieces.

We chat with rice and salt merchants, their archaic sign and ‘ancient’ scale an indication of their long standing business. The sellers willingly pose for a photo as does a nearby vendor of saris, an artisan stitching delicate mirror triangles onto brilliant pink silk, a lime juice vendor, a rice grinder, an antique dealer who details the merits of a brass Hindu collectible to me; all friendly and proud of their wares and talents.

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A proud artisan

We are lucky enough to meet Deepa as she sits with other women on the steps of a Marathi community hall, a long way from their traditional Mumbai origins. They’re celebrating a Hindu festival and after a friendly introduction, Deepa insists on taking us to the neighbourhood temple. Once there, yet more women are sitting quietly in the cool of a small temple and smile a welcome as we enter. A private puja, (prayer alcove) is opened for us to peer at the garlanded God and once again, a touch of vermillion is dabbed on my forehead.

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Deepa with her daughter…gathered with friends

“Come back with me,” Deepa insists, “it’s time for the festival lunch, you’ll eat with us.”

We stroll back through the congenial neighbourhood…circumventing cows recumbent on the cracked sidewalks and nodding ‘hello’ when Deepa is greeted by yet more people she knows. Once we’ve returned to the hall, we find ourselves seated cross-legged on the floor, a hand-stitched banana leaf plate before all two-hundred or so of us.

Deepa’s young daughter sits just behind me and practices her English. Her brother-in-law gives helpful instructions on eating with one’s fingers and the young lady next to me plies me with questions. We are the only foreigners, yet made to feel welcome and I sense they are honoured (and a little bemused) that we are enjoying this festival lunch with them.

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Guests at a community festival

Suddenly, it’s all hands on deck as barefoot young men in sleeveless t-shirts and longhis serve from slender metal buckets. One after another, a plop of rice, masala, vada, raita,dosa, more rice…all eaten with only your right hand. I ask for another popadom as the rice is too hot for these uninitiated fingers.

“Your husband has finished everything,” Deepa tells me as I look over and see his plate wiped clean. Not surprising, it’s the best food we’ve had in the first six weeks in India!

“Did you like it?” our hostess asks as we bid farewell and exchange numbers. “Anything you need at all, you call me and we’ll get together.” We thank Deepa and tell her how much we’ve enjoyed the experience.

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A break on Commercial Street

It has been that way, so many welcoming people from expats, to locals, to transplants from other parts of India; we couldn’t feel more embraced these first weeks.

After the busy weekend, I meet a new friend and neighbour for coffee and I’m pleased with yet more unexpected ‘luck.’

“You know there’s a roof-top yoga studio I practice at. It’s just on the other side of your apartment,” Camilla says, knowing that I’ll be pleased.

It’s too good to be true, literally next door…yet another wonderful discovery of this neighbourhood.

And there will be much to experience and discover once we’re fully moved in, when our shipment arrives from Canada; it seems to be on a world-wide adventure all of its own.

We’ll then wander and embark on trips outside of Bengaluru, into this enchanting land of India.

First, however, I have a book project in another magical country, Malaysia. You’ll find me in Penang the next few weeks..wish me luck!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Dispatch from India…life amongst coconut groves, drishtis and leopards

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A coconut vendor in Bengaluru

“Is it possible to wander through the coconut grove,” I ask, gazing out to the enticing greenery that unfolds from my vantage point in the residence lobby, nine stories up.

“Ma’am no, remember the leopard,” I’m gently rebuked. The staff seem mildly amused by this newly arrived resident of Bangalore, or rather Bengaluru to use its traditional name.

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Coconuts, a staple of Karnataka

Yes of course, I chide myself, recalling the front page news on this morning’s Times of India; a leopard attack with two other ‘cats’ prowling this suburb known as Whitefield. Perhaps it isn’t surprising as we’re in Karnataka, a southern state of India known for its jungles, coffee plantations and rainforests…its ancient temples and forts. I gaze longingly at the coconut palms and eucalyptus dotting the open spaces between housing compounds, new apartment buildings and haphazard streets. I’m already yearning for clean, fresh air.

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A warm welcome from Kasturika

Even as a seasoned traveller, I find myself wavering between my usual curiosity and the less familiar sense of disorientation. This city of 10 million might well have become the ‘Silicon Valley’ of India, but the infrastructure hasn’t kept pace with its relentless growth. The roads are chaotic; no lane discipline, precious few lights, cows strolling at will, a jostle of auto rickshaws, cars, hand-painted haulage trucks and motorbikes all vying for space…edging forward, inch by inch with toots and beeps and throaty horns merging into a dissonant musical score. The moment you encounter the streets of India, all senses are engaged.

On day one, we’re welcomed by Kasturika our relocations expert, one of the millions of young professionals who have relocated to Bengaluru. Over the next three days, her insight and sensitivity help us transition as we traverse the city to view houses in various compounds. Some locals choose to reside in these walled oases, as well as expats who find the communities safe, orderly, social and if I’m honest…insulated.

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An ‘army of gardeners’

There’s isn’t any doubt as to the privileged life within these protected enclaves. Small armies of workers sweep the streets, tend gardens and guard the premises. Lush landscapes of palms, bougainvillea and fragrant frangipani contrast the street scenes just beyond… where bullock carts amble amidst the traffic mayhem and stray, bone-thin dogs pick at mounds of garbage. Where sari-clad women beg with desperate eyes, precious babies in their arms. Where so many women labour in the sun; digging, carrying, sweeping, and selling, hour after hour after hour.

But ‘out there’ is also where shop vendors smile widely when I pause to buy flowers or fruit. Where a man hefting a coal-warmed iron, working his way through mounds of laundry, greets me with a proud gaze. Where ‘an army of gardeners’ are bewildered when I ask to take their photo, but chuckle and tidy their hair as they pose. Where life unfolds in riots of colour, hierarchies of castes and prayers to a multitude of Hindu gods.

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Hefty coal-warmed irons

I try to marshall my senses, heightened by extreme emotional swings and sympathies.

Memories flood back of the two months we spent backpacking in India years ago and the contrast is surreal. Where once ours was a carefree adventure, we are now in an orchestrated search for a home, enclaved from tumultuous streets…yet part of me resists the notion.

 

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Colourful ladies sweep in a walled enclave

I flood Kasturika with questions as we crawl through traffic. I sit in the back of the vehicle feeling choked from the poor air quality. I put on my sunglasses and quickly learn to peer straight ahead when there’s yet another knock on my window from a hand outstretched and a plea.

Recalling my ‘First Dispatch from Kazakhstan‘ I know that these initial days are trying and I trust that I’ll settle as I always have in a new country. Yet I admit… I’m in culture shock.

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The daily palm frond collector

It’s a relief that I fall in love with the first house we’re shown. It’s new, with an open floor plan that communicates with the palm treed garden where parakeets flit and papayas thrive. There’s a sparkling pool in the compound and a small shop for basics.

But I’ll have to come to terms with summoning the driver to do any major shopping. It’s uncommon here for foreigners to drive as the roads are too challenging to navigate. I speak with other women about the loss of independence…they say you get used to it.

At the end of the first day, we’re gathered around the residence pool for a cocktail party and we meet young professionals from Denmark, Hungary and Poland, all here on short-term assignments. There is a genuine bewilderment as to why so many international companies have chosen to set up shop in this ill-prepared city; yet the brisk pace of investment continues.

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Flowers on a busy street.

On day two I peruse The Times at breakfast for news of the leopard…still on the loose. A headline jumps out at me that an elephant has run riot in a forest town damaging forty houses during a seven hour rampage.

I note the overt sexual overtones in countless articles and marvel at the detailed ads for arranged marriages, categorized by castes and religions. And it seems most parents have very attractive children…

I’m somewhat charmed when an Indian gentleman approaches my table and asks quietly,

“Have I seen you before? Perhaps in Bollywood, such a sweet and pleasing face.” I’ve already fallen for the charming rhythmic and slightly archaic pattern of speech that is heard here; it sounded lovely of course. I tell him that it’s unlikely as I’ve only just arrived, but thank him in any case.

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A Hindu Temple

“I told myself to let me have the courage and come say hello,” he adds gallantly and politely takes his leave. I chuckle at the Bollywood reference and as I gaze over the dining area I notice a striking young Indian couple that certainly look as if they’ve just stepped from a movie set. A group of ladies chat animatedly, their vivid saris colouring the room. The children of a young Canadian family fill the room with excited chatter, the young Euros are in deep conversation beside me. The cross-section of nationalities is emblematic of modern day Bengaluru.

That afternoon we travel north, viewing compounds removed from the city and the crush of urban traffic. I begin to notice that many of the houses are decorated with a somewhat malevolent looking mask near the front entrance.

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Nazar battu

“Those are nazar battu,” Kasturika tells me, “they fight evil with evil and protect your home or business. It’s an evil eye, a drishti.”  And they’re everywhere, as are temples painted in pretty pastel shades and an inordinate number of roadside fortune tellers. Also in abundance are coconuts; laden on bikes and wheeled carts, neatly stacked with guavas, grapes and more. Caged chickens cluck for sale in shoddy storefronts. I see little meat for sale as it’s very much a vegetarian based diet here. And everywhere, absolutely everywhere are the bright green and yellow three-wheeled auto rickshaws that transport passengers for a mere few rupees.

These scenes unfold alongside IT business parks and modern hospitals, timeless counterpoints to the boom. Late afternoon we make our way back through simple country villages, past fields of marigolds, cows grazing near haystacks and goods balanced on the heads of villagers. The narrow road is busy with bulky, garishly painted trucks that pass dangerously as they dodge cyclists, autos, and bullock carts. I feel the danger factor intensify.

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An abundance of fruit and vegetables

 

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The Parliament Building

Eventually we find ourselves near our temporary residence and I’m uncharacteristically panicky. Yet another beggar knocks on my window, a one-armed monkey hops along the roadside wall; I know that’s all I can take for one day and we cancel an evening engagement. As someone who has transitioned to nine different countries, I temporarily surrender and finally find peace by envisioning my pending walled refuge…perhaps I’ll hang a drishti at the entrance as well!

Making our way into Bengaluru proper on the third day, I finally get a sense of how the city looked in the days of the British Raj and why it’s called the Garden City. There are wide boulevards where trees meet overhead; this is where Cantonments were built and where Winston Churchill lived for a time basking in the colonial life of polo, elegant parties and hunts. Old colonial buildings recall the past, massive cricket stadiums fill for the national sport and stately government institutions proclaim India’s status as the largest democracy in the world.

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Weathered old buildings

A succession of South Indian dynasties once ruled this region. In 1537, Kempé Gowdā – a feudal ruler, established a mud fort considered to be the foundation of the city. It eventually developed within the dominion of the Maharaja of Mysore and became the capital of the Princely State of Mysore, existing as a sovereign entity of the British Raj.

In 1809, the British shifted their cantonment to outside the old city and a town grew up around it, governed as part of British India. Remnants from this period dot Mahatma Gandhi Road, or MG as it’s known.

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Krishna with a ‘Maharaja of Mysore hat’

On MG road we wander into an old bazaar where chits are still used for payments, carbon copies are given to complete the sale and a security guard thumps it with a rubber stamp on the way out; one can’t help but be transported back in time.

A street seller flanks the entrance and is down to his last guava. In a kind gesture, a group of young millennials insist I have theirs to taste. It’s piquant and delicious, sprinkled with an unknown spice. The friendly professionals are also new to this burgeoning city, the capital of Karnataka and pass on some local tips.

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The gift of guava

Our day finishes amongst modern sights of gleaming shopping malls with high-end showrooms and terraced restaurants. Part of me…no all of me…is relieved that this part of the city exists. Where I know I can escape to ‘Western modernity’, yet I know I’ll embrace the rich culture and the mysticism of India.

 

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A family in their auto

As we completed our three days with Kasturika, I tell her how much I’ve appreciated her openess to my endless questions.

“Every question is important when you’re thrust into a new environment, especially one such as India,” she responds. And so very true, India’s disparities can overshadow the beauty of its ancient stories echoed in everyday life…they beg to be appreciated for what they are.

We finish the day with a wander along a vibrant street where young people are enjoying a stroll or a drink, as at it would be in any major city. Yet in this atmosphere on a  balmy Saturday evening, a cow saunters past and suddenly there’s a ramshackle mess of a building next to a sari shop that offers valet parking…quintessential India.

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A small auto souvenir

We celebrate the completion of our orientation with the comfort that we’ve perhaps found a home. In probably the coolest Hard Rock Cafe we’ve been in anywhere in the world, we enjoy a glass of the local wine and I pull out a whimsical purchase from the day, that ‘ubiquitous form of transportation’ that will grace my desk and remind me of the trials of transitioning to this fascinating country.

For now, our transportation is in the hands of Shivu, our assigned driver. He collects us and manoeuvres through the gridlocked traffic. I ask him if he has children and when he tells me her name I note that it’s the same name as the compound I hope to live in…surely it’s a good omen!

 

Post script…At the time of writing, the leopard had been captured but has escaped. It is once again on the loose.

 

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A Snowy Winter Collection…an antique fur & the new year that awaits

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‘Doll-like’ buildings in Lubeck, Germany

My winter collection isn’t one of lavish coats and fur-lined boots that protect from the frozen air; it’s more a collection of memories. ‘Doll-like’ European buildings dusted with powder-fine snow, simple wreaths bidding welcome to candle-lit homes, snowshoeing through fairy-tale pines.

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Wreaths bidding welcome

It’s usual for me to be home this time of year, in the mountains of British Columbia. I’m mindful that many of my favourite places, my most cherished memories, are of cold countries where a chilled climate quickens the pulse and deepens the senses. Even as the dream-like scenery fills me with wonderment and exhilaration, I yield to the serenity of wintery landscapes.

In a month or so we depart for warmer climes, to our next overseas posting. With endearing memories of the holiday season, these first weeks in January find me calm and peaceful as I’m surrounded by feathery snow, bluebird skies and stately stands of larch and pines.

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Old Stavanger, resplendent after a snowfall

At the turning of the year, WordPress has reminded me of the year passed, of the one-hundred and some countries where my blog was read and of those places that I wandered to in 2015; Kazakhstan, Spain, Malta, Thailand, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Malaysia. Most of those destinations are in fact warmer climates, yet Kazakhstan and Canada indulged my penchant for snow.

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An antique fur to warm

In Kazakhstan my recycled fur coat from the ’50’s was donned once or twice, melding with the local fashion to combat deep-freeze temperatures. The coat embraced me as we lingered alongside frozen inlets of the Caspian and trudged through snow-hushed Soviet-style streets. Ironically, that coat is packed in a shipment awaiting the next posting, one in which fur will be as useless as cozy mittens and hefty snow shovels.

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Powder-fine snow in Stavanger, Norway

I find a photo of myself snug in the antique fur in another country that I associate with glorious winter days…Norway.

Old Stavanger was resplendent after a snowfall, its wooden buildings a serene backdrop for shades of ethereal whites, contrasted with sprigs of heather and fresh pine on door stoops.

And of that old Winnipeg fur, ideally it should be here in Canada as I enjoy these last winter days before we transition yet again. Instead, I’m gathering my wardrobe of summery clothes to be shipped along with the things we need to build a new nest; collectibles, furniture and books. All that is important…except for our three sons. At this stage in our lives we live in different countries for much of the year; we’re proud of them and supportive, we’ll miss them dearly.

Our family has been happily ensconced under one roof over the holiday season, the first occasion since this time last year. We’ve seen each other throughout the year at various times and places, but to all gather around our table to dine and linger over conversation that we’ve waited a year to enjoy…well, it’s very cherished.

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Tranquility in British Columbia

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Fairy-tale pines

The season has seen us skiing and snowshoeing, playing games, making merry…being a family. We’ve regaled each other with stories and shared plans for the upcoming year. For me the next four months will be busy and challenging; a mentoring role in Amsterdam at the FIGT Conference and shortly thereafter, a trip to Malaysia to collaborate on a book project.

And not forgetting, the move in February to the ninth country that we will call ‘home’. So it seems my new year is to be filled with inspiring ventures and challenges, and most certainly some interesting travels. I wish my readers near and far, a fulfilling year in all the ways you wish yours to be.

But for now, for a few more precious weeks, amidst the planning and preparations, visas and packing, I’ll embrace the treasure that is winter. My crackling fire will warm me and these comforting walls that have welcomed us safely home, will give strength to embrace the endeavours ahead.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the destination of the impending move…it’s Bangalore. It’s India!

 

I’ll most certainly keep you posted,

Warm regards and a very fulfilling New Year, Terry Anne

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A ‘trailing spouse’…an accompanying partner with ‘a fine set of luggage’

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IMG_1086I unwrapped it expectantly. It had been awaiting my return to Canada, top of the mail pile. I’ve had magazine articles published before, but this is the first time to have articles in a book…Insights and Interviews from the 2014 Families in Global Transition, (FIGT).

In fact my first blog post, written about a year ago, was penned after returning from that conference in Washington. I had been one of the eight writers, tasked with documenting the insightful lectures and talks. Many long hours of writing and editing later, I submitted my work, only now seeing the finished compilation. Of course, it’s a grand feeling.

And it’s timely, as next month we come to the end of our posting in Kazakhstan. This is exactly what FIGT concerns itself with; transitions, culture shock, ‘third culture kids’ (TCK’s), identity loss, and the many issues that families face as we relocate worldwide or even within one’s own country. I feel the usual trepidation, yet excitement as the next move looms. In just over a month or so, I will live in another country, likely a different continent. I will pick up and follow my husband…I am a ‘trailing spouse’.

And yet ‘trailing spouse’ is a term I don’t embrace. It suggests a lack of purpose, identity, lack of choice, which are all true to some extent. This post is dedicated to those of you who, like us, live an international lifestyle or for those contemplating setting off across the seas to explore. For those of you who don’t live the expatriate life, I beg your indulgence to take a little glimpse ‘under the hood’ of the whole thrilling enterprise, yet also into the more mundane and sometimes alarming aspects of this life we hold dear.

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Bitten early by the travel bug

I was bitten early by the travel bug; trips to Europe and then to Thailand confirmed my love of exotic places and an urge to wander. I met a Scottish guy who shared my passion. He rolled into Calgary just before the ’88 Winter Olympics. Our first date was to a travel show about Africa and a year later we were backpacking through Thailand, India, Nepal and China before settling in Japan, and why not? It was a magical time.

We taught English and reveled in the young western ‘Gaijin’ crowd that occupied Osaka and Kyoto. We embraced this lifestyle with open arms just as we embraced each other, got married and started a family…and ventured onto an unknown path.

Our first home was in The Netherlands and we kept going from there; mostly, it’s been an exciting adventure, a privilege all these countries later. Yet the seemingly effortless mechanism that allows us to glide between borders has on many occasions been exposed to reveal a trying and more complex reality. And then you add raising kids to the equation.

This expat life is a lifestyle choice that only works well if it’s a partnership, if the spouse that ‘trails’ is happy, or at least content. An acquaintance of mine asks me..Does hubby know where he’s going yet? Well it really isn’t just hubby (who works for an energy company), it’s both of us that will once again adjust to a new life.

True, it doesn’t seem as complicated these days. No need to arrange schooling in the next country, worry whether the move coincides with junior or senior high. No need to feel guilty for taking the kids away from friends, yet again. Won’t have to say goodbye to countless families that we camped and boated with, traveled to hockey tournaments with, dined and danced with at villa parties until the wee hours of the morning. These friends became family because we were all without our own, raising our young children and teens together. Oh those were glorious years.

UnknownYet with that phase behind us, the pending location still impacts our life and even those of our now adult children. Will it be somewhere we can see them more often and other family as well? Is it a place they could come visit, Kazakhstan wasn’t exactly an easy location to welcome visitors! I’m fortunate that I jump on flights and make it home for family occasions despite living here, yet the long haul flights are wearying with jet lag at either end. No, I’m not complaining about the excursions I enjoy along the way, I know I’m lucky. So perhaps in that sense, I’m not a ‘trailing spouse’. Am I not that travel companion I always was, from the beginning?

And even the relative ease of this upcoming move seems too good to be true, at least in the physical sense, almost like back in those carefree days of backpacking. I arrived with luggage, ‘only luggage’ stuffed with as many books as possible. The usual relocation of furniture and household effects didn’t pertain to this posting. No this time there’s only memories and a few other ‘intangibles’ to pack away.

So what’s the problem then? Well, we do have a say in where we choose to relocate next, but the final decision isn’t ours, so to speak. And as any expat will admit to you, while you’re waiting to hear your ‘fate’ you tend to get a little nervous. And even though you’ve done this umpteen times before, half of you wants to fly home and lock up your passport.

Our young expat family

Our young expat family

And so I ponder the options…yes in a few of the locations I already have friends there, true some countries are closer to home than others, indeed the climates and cultures vary drastically…literally options around the world. And that’s when the other half of me gets excited.

Back to that problem? Will it be somewhere that I can inhabit happily…a true ‘home away’ from home. This short posting was anything but that and yet I believe I made the most it. But I now have a list of what I’d also like in country X; a writer’s community, an inspiring place to write and to host more writing workshops and hopefully a treasured circle of friends.

But the real clincher…please let me I’ll feel like I’m not wasting these precious years by living in a place that doesn’t gel, just doesn’t work. If you’ve committed to a 3 or 4 year assignment and it doesn’t work, well that’s when I’ve seen women fly home, kids in tow and not return. That’s when depression can set in, when marriages might fail, when one despairs...What on earth have we done!

Thankfully in retrospect, all of our locations ultimately succeeded, often beyond our expectations. But It was our move to Houston that brought me back down to earth; perhaps the first crack in my ‘idyllic expat wife veneer’. For the previous seven years, I had happily taught ESL whilst living in the Middle East. It was part-time and ideal in many ways as I still had time with our sons. I started the ESL program at the British School in Oman and taught children from around the world. I tutored a young prince from the Qatari Royal Family who loved to bring his prized falcon to class. I taught adults who were delightful and showed their appreciation with gifts of incense and silver. I adored it.

And then the axe fell, so to speak, with that move to Texas. A threatening stamp in my passport reminded me that I was not allowed to work. The irony of it all; there I was back in North America after 14 years abroad and I couldn’t work. Despite being busy with three children and yes, many wonderful times, an identity crisis crept in.

images-1At the aforementioned FIGT Conference, one of our writers in Insights and Interviews, Cristina Bertarelli, interviewed Evelyn Simpson and Louise Wiles. They’ve created a company that focuses on, ‘Decide to Thrive’, which supports accompanying partners with the ultimate goal of ‘Discovering Global You and Empowering Global You’.

Simpson and Wiles discovered that there is a clear connection between an active working partner and a successful family relocation. A survey revealed “that despite 78% of participants saying they wanted to work whilst they were living abroad, only 44% were doing so and of those only 16% were working full time. Our findings also showed that higher percentages of people who were working reported high levels of life satisfaction and fulfilment versus those who were not working.”

Yet Simpson and Wiles also remind us that many expat wives are happy to have a career break and focus on families. However, the survey concurred with the situation that I soon experienced myself in Houston. A long term quest to find something that was going to sustain me going forward. During those six years, I now realize that I truly felt like a ‘trailing spouse’ and often bemoaned my fate. It wasn’t just me. Off the top of my head, I think of my friends around the world who sacrificed their careers to follow their partner. They are doctors, psychologists, nurses, engineers, accountants and teachers…professionals.

Some of these friends lament that their qualification doesn’t apply to their present country or after a break, it’s a challenge to return to their IMG_1088profession. And often that’s accepted as we happily live life, raising families and supporting husbands. In many cases we may have homes to take care of in different countries with endless flights to book, schedules to organize. We require flexibility to travel at any time for a family event or an illness. It all gets incredibly busy and then one day you realize your path has meandered down a side trail and albeit a very interesting, colourful road that you’re pleased you traveled along. But that original path is gone…now what will you do? Especially if you find yourself in a country you had no intention of living in, as I did with Kazakhstan.

In our book, Insights and Interviews, another of our writers, Justine Ickes, interviews Linda Jansen, author of The Emotionally Resilient Expat. Linda sums it up concisely.

“We undertake momentous transitions as we cross culture…It is those transitions and change which bring opportunities, struggles, enriching gifts, difficult losses, but above all they bring growth. It’s up to us whether to choose to embrace this growth as positive or negative.”

Agreed, and indeed we are often more resilient and resourceful than we give ourselves credit for. We volunteer, serve on school boards, organize and coach sports teams or teach other pastimes, study, gain languages and learn new skills. I became a tour guide in Norway and studied Viking history. I now can also add kayaking and cross-country skiing to my list of new pastimes from our years there. The salsa lessons didn’t work out that well for me! In short, I along with many of my friends, embraced Norwegian life. It made all the difference.

But back to that arrival in Houston…if only to remind us that there are times when we all face difficult challenges, wherever we may be. To encourage us that we can make our way out of that dark ‘tunnel’, it just might take time.

I recall arriving at my children’s new school for the first time. I looked out to an auditorium of strangers. I remember feeling dread, despair. Not one person did I know, not a familiar face, never mind a friend. I’ve got to start all over again! Every day for those first months I wanted to flee, back on a flight to Oman which had been our home in every sense.

One of those 'breathless holidays'

One of those magical holidays

When we relocate, the husbands (or wives as there are also male accompanying partners) continue with work in the new location, the children start school and then it is up to those of us who accompany to find a way to adjust. If it’s a new country, we figure out where to shop, perhaps get a new driver’s license and maybe learn how to drive on the other side of the road. We decorate yet another home, find new babysitters for our kids, and very importantly…hope to forge new friends.

Four months after we moved to Houston, I went to a ‘Yay! The Kids Are Back In School’ coffee morning. A Scottish lady with a stylish hair cut was introduced to me. “How long have you been here? Where were you before this?” The usual questions we expat wives invariably begin first conversations with.

It seems we were best friends waiting to find each other. And we now had, in each other, someone that understood our transition woes. After years in Indonesia, Gillian was also struggling with culture shock. The two of us walked and talked our way through those first years in Houston; you always feel you can go forward with at least one good friend.

Part of me also knew I had to integrate and feel useful. A month or so after the move, I found myself on a baseball field on a humid evening. I had signed up to coach my youngest son’s baseball team. After all I had set up a league in Oman and coached for years. Yet I had almost backed out. We had been at a welcoming neighbour barbecue and I had mentioned that I would be coaching the upcoming season. There was almost stunned silence.

“Y’all know how serious these Texan fathers take their baseball, haven’t seen a woman coach before.”

I’m pleased I went through with it. Halfway through that first practice, I walked over to address the parents. I shan’t forget her, Penny was her name. She looked out to me and spoke on behalf of the parents, “Ms. Terry, we’re all just sittin’ here praisin’ your name!”

In true Texan fashion, I was welcomed with open arms. Maybe it was going to be just fine after all.

vintage-luggage_ggiul_01 Relocating is a challenge and often demands all of our resources. But whether it’s through volunteering, working or studying we integrate, re-define or even re-invent ourselves. For those who embrace change, there are many varied and colourful moments as an expat; days when you pinch yourself, life is just so great. But the peaks of emotion can be steep and the lows incredibly deep without family close at hand, with language and cultural barriers, with continuous farewells to friends. And when they jet off to the next location, you don’t want to be left behind; the proverbial ‘itchy feet’ syndrome sets in.

In one of my articles in Insights and Interviews, I write, “The trials and difficulties we experience as expats are often not discussed or fully appreciated by non-expats… My mother has often defended my ‘privileged’ life by asking people how they would cope with finding new schools, homes, doctors and friends every four years or so. More often than not, the response is that they had never really considered any of that.”

As time passed, I found ways to compensate for the fact that I couldn’t work. I mentored high school students who were in distress and know that I made a difference in their lives; an opportunity I wouldn’t have missed. I took a few evening courses and yet time was ticking. I would question, what do you want to do with the rest of your life?

After six years in Houston, we relocated to Norway which eventually would be a catalyst for the images‘good place’ I feel I’m in today. Jo Parfitt sums it up in a book she co-authors, the very useful and successful, A Career in your Suitcase.

A portable career is work that you can take with you wherever you go. It is based on your unique set of skills, values, passion and vision and is not based in a physical location.”

As if she were speaking to me directly, Jo summed up my situation. My time in Norway is when I was finally able to meld my passions and talents, finally culminate them into the start of a new direction; a readjustment. But it isn’t just us accompanying partners that must continually adjust, it’s also our children, those TCK’s.

Our writer, Dounia Bertuccelli, addressed this when she covered a session at FIGT. She knows the trials of being a TCK, having lived and studied in 7 countries herself.

“By the time they are 18, most TCK’s have said goodbye to many people and places. Sometimes they were leaving, other times they watched friends move away. At International Schools students must regularly cope with the emotional upheavals of leaving…”

I shall never forget the sorrow of my 17 year-old in Norway as he arrived home after saying goodbye to his first love. We were moving, they had no choice in the matter. As a parent, all one can do is hold them…and be thankful that time heals. Yet does it completely?

The writers at the 2014 Families in Global Transition Conference

The writers at the 2014 Families in Global Transition Conference with our leader, Jo Parfitt

Our well rounded, seemingly adjusted son would handle the transition from Norway to his home country of Canada far worse than we anticipated. He had visited every summer and Christmas, but had never lived there.

Sue Mannering, one of our writers currently living in Singapore, covered a FIGT session led by Danau Tanu, a TCK that has written a thesis regarding the topic of “Where are you from?”

Sue wrote…”How do you answer ‘Where are you from’…the answer might be how much time have you got?”

I remember waking up one morning at our cabin a month or so before my son was to start University. He had come across a blog that a young TCK had written about not knowing where to call home. My son had forwarded it to me with the title…This is me Mom, where do I call home??

He was reaching out as he tried to cope, figuring out how to go forward…distressed. Seemingly those experiences and friends that he missed from a life abroad, now had to be tucked away from his identity. As expat parents we are continuously questioning our decisions in this lifestyle…should we have moved sooner so they could have had a home town, what if their academic skills don’t translate, do they feel like they have roots, how will we forgive ourselves if they come to us one day and suggest we ruined their life for ‘dragging’ them around the world?

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New horizons and our FIGT compilation

You remind them of those magical holidays, the experience of people and cultures, the opportunity to play in sport tournaments throughout Europe, etc, etc. I have heard it time and time again from parents. We want to believe we’ve given them a good life, yet seem to also second guess this privileged life of travel and private schools. We want to believe they’ll just plunk themselves home when the time comes and all will be well.

As partners, our emotional well-being can often end up taking a backseat as we help our children transition. And yes, this can go on into the University phase as was the case in our family. That morning after reading my son’s email, I hastily made my way back to the city. He needed counselling and three hours later, he understood that he needed to embrace all of his life experiences and proudly acknowledge his international past.

And that is essentially the key. Whether it be our children or as an accompanying partner, we must endeavour to…well, one of my lovely Texan friends gave me a handcrafted tile before I left. It summed it up beautifully, Bloom where you’re planted.

So thrive and grow, some days it’s far easier than others. Those difficult days have to be accepted and put away. Our TCK’s need to be re-assured that they will find their path and like us, a small piece of their heart always be waiting for them in the countries that they’ve lived…and with friends that they’ve loved. Thankfully there are now many resources available to us for support, such as FIGT and their links; even our newly published book that we are all proud of.

So I shall soon know where I’ll next be ‘planted’. And one more requirement now that I think about it, is to live somewhere that I can easily get to the 2016 FIGT Conference, next March in AmsterdamAnd I encourage expats to consider being there. You will be enlightened, inspired and make new friends, as I was, and most certainly did.

Jo Parfitt summed it up in the forward of Insights and Interviews, Here are the people who know the answers. The experts, the gurus, the leaders. This is where people ‘get me.’ It has often been said of the event that it is a place where ‘best friends meet for the first time.'” Then again, you can be sure I’ll be there, no matter where I am in the world.

UnknownAs I checked into the Calgary Airport for the trip back to Kazakhstan this past visit, the Air Canada agent noticed my luggage as I heaved it onto the belt. I myself had my eye on the scale, hoping it wouldn’t be overweight yet again.

“That’s a fine set of luggage you have there, Ms. Wilson.” I chuckled a thank you.

But what I was really thinking was…Yes and there’s more packed in there than you’ll ever know. My ‘wee career’, my resilience, my wanderlust, my friendships, a photo of those precious sons with that traveling partner that I’m more than willing to accompany….wherever it may be in this big, frabjous world. And no, I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Insights and Interviews from The 2014 FIGT Conference and The Emotionally Resilient Expat are available at summertime publishing

Completing our group of writers are Alice Wu, Becky Matchullis and Nikki Kazimova.

Shades of blue, pesky green…and counting Ladas

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IMG_3525It was one of those days yesterday, which admittedly, one can have anywhere.  Although I returned to Kazakhstan only last week, the initial excitement of seeing hubby and friends had given way to a dismal Wednesday.  I’ve somewhat recovered my equilibrium today; back from a ladies lunch and a market, but yesterday….how I longed to get back on that plane.

Trust me there have been countries over the years that yielded more than their fair share of…well in Qatar we all used to call them, Doha Days, and not in a good way. So I suppose yesterday was my first… Aktau Day.

I drift back to other countries we’ve lived in.  ‘A few moons’ ago in Japan I loved teaching English, though it was definitely a bad day when rats from the upper flat visited us and scurried across the tatami mats and futons.  In Holland, gloomy days were easily spun away with a good bike ride through the cobbled streets.  Scotland? Too many to mention and that was before the travails of two kids coming down with the chicken pox at the same time.  Oman…bad days didn’t exist except maybe when the water was too choppy to take the boat out…oh heavenly Oman!  The U.S….the first six months in Houston I was desperate to go back to Oman.  And Norway…let’s just say my ‘romance’ with the Vikings and my work cheered me immensely and rescued me from blue days and lashing horizontal rain.

But back to Kazakhstan.  There’s a honeymoon phase when you first move to a country andIMG_4199 I revelled in that last fall.  But of course, it often doesn’t last.  Thankfully at least, my daily routine is calm and harmonious. The ebullient staff greet me warmly at breakfast, placing my Americano on my table while I do a first sweep of the buffet. Miroslav, the chef calls out to ask if I’d like an omelette…”pazahal’sta, just a malinky,” I reply using my favourite Russian word meaning small.  The odd day, there might be the distraction of an unfamiliar guest to chat with. Today it was a lovely, and understandably jet-lagged American lady here to attend a wedding this weekend.  I tip my hat to her as it’s an awful long way to come for a celebration. I have a feeling she hid her surprise when I told her I actually lived here.  It does catch a few people off guard, including myself occasionally.

Most days by this time, the ‘business’ crowd has left for work leaving us stragglers, including the striking Air Astana flight attendants who frequent the hotel. They glide past us in perfectly manicured ‘other worldliness’; thank goodness I usually dress for breakfast and with makeup!  Yesterday, my eye followed them wistfully…maybe I could jump on a flight back to Istanbul with you. Predictably, the rhythmic efficiency of the staff preparing for lunch is a reminder to make use of my time, to not squander it. Look at the luxury you have, living in a hotel, no chores, no responsibilities…

And it’s interesting, even intriguing with a revolving door of different people and fascinating conversations. Going down for a cocktail or two and buzzing back up to the top floor is darn cool. The staff feel like family, I was welcomed back with hugs and genuine warmth.

But there I was yesterday, feeling restless, feeling confined.  The suite had been cleaned while I had breakfast. My quick stint at the gym was lacklustre.  A short walk to the grocers garnered IMG_3839some much needed vitamin D and my two phrases of Russian elicited some carrots and wilted coriander. Back along the rutted sidewalk to the hotel, outing complete. Not one photo snapped, not one interesting exchange, not even a glance out to the sea.  As the elevator doors closed on me, I slipped back into the doldrums.

Trying to be productive, I washed our seven dishes from lunch…yes B. comes home for lunch every day, usually just when I’m caught up in my work and would rather not be disturbed.

“See you this evening,” I’m forever calling out to him as he leaves in the morning.  He looks at me like I’ve lost my memory once again.  I switch from being away from him for more than a month at a time, to having him home for lunch everyday, please tell me that elicits just a little sympathy ladies…

Continuing with my predictable days, I know that the very efficient Amangul will deliver our laundry at 4:30 and trust me, I longed to have this respite from housework and chores once again. But there is something fulfilling about a gleaming floor and dust free blinds when they’re the fruits of your own labour. No, the laundry I will never miss.  And yes I admit that crawling into pristine sheets every evening is, well…sublime.

DSC04600Snap back to that restless afternoon, time is crawling by.  I’m procrastinating, I have a writer’s bio to complete for some newly published work and I’m designing a writer’s workshop that I should start on.  Instead, I stare absent mindedly out the window…Oh how I wish I could open it.  The view of the Caspian from our suite is usually what inspires me.  Today it’s almost monochromatic; the sea and sky melding into one dun, formless canvas.

Seemingly in a hypnotic trance, I fixate on the busy IMG_4240intersection from our upper window, watching the cars scurry below. I start counting Ladas, those ubiquitous toy- like cars left over the Soviet days. Hmm, seems there’s about one every twenty cars..yes, seems they’re all still white.  This is rather ridiculous, get on with something, I chide myself.

Then something registers against the drab skyline.  I suddenly get these ‘Soviet style’ buildings across the street and down the streets…those with no names.  I understand their garish colours and the slathers of paint on the low, crumbling concrete walls.  Some relief, some colour DSC04672against this drab February setting.

I recall pondering this when we were out in the warmth of the October sun… the fact that so much of the city is hued in blue and green.

Do they have a warehouse full of that pesky green shade left over from Soviet times that will be used until eternity. The blue I like!

IMG_4265Blue, along with that sickly shade of hospital green dominate the colour scheme; at the markets, on signs, on flower pots and buildings.  On buses, benches and especially doors. I sense it isn’t by chance.  In this part of the world, blue is a colour steeped in tradition and of religious significance.  To the Turkic people, as with Kazakhs, it symbolizes cultural and ethnic unity. It also represents the endless sky, as well as precious water (not to mention the colour of the Kazakh flag.) Yes, this light blue colour is meant to signify health, healing and as a bonus…it wards off evil spirits.  Perhaps why it graces so many doors?

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So, I finally rally and go to my photos that are resplendent with these two shades. There is no end to the photos I took when I arrived, it must have been that beguiling honeymoon phase. Looking at them now has cheered me, revived me…and at least I’m no longer counting Ladas!

 

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By the way,there is a shade on the colour wheel for this sickly green… (#94b21c) …the supposed healing properties of the light blue is a lovely antidote for it after all, it seems.

No, things aren’t that bad, after all tomorrow is Friday which means there’s the weekly soiree to look forward to.  The ‘gang’ will be down at the bar for evening drinks.  Last week’s tales spanned from the prepounderance of luxurious fur coats,IMG_3872 to the endless bottles of vodka stacked in supermarket aisles and unbelievably, to bride stealing in Kyrgyzstan (yes sadly an issue.)

And it appears we need to chat about a trip being planned to Azerbaijan. It’s supposed to be a must see…I know, who would have thought it.  I’ll keep you posted!

 

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First Dispatch from a former Soviet city…where the streets have no names

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The Hotel we call home, with a preserved Soviet jet fighter in the nearby park

Not counting a few jet lagged days, I’ve been a resident of Kazakhstan for two weeks.  Let’s begin with first impressions on arrival, tired and bleary eyed after an overnight layover in Istanbul. Thankfully, my long awaited visa barely received a glance and Bruce was there to greet me; as was the driver in a 4 x 4 fitted with a roll cage.  I would immediately see why as impatient drivers weaved in and out along the chaotic, single laned highway.  New and rustic vehicles zipped past as our driver kept steadfastly to the company mandated speed limit. Soviet style military trucks lumbered alongside shiny new Range Rovers, Land Cruisers and an inordinate number of Ladas. These boxy, toy-like cars were manufactured in the Mother Country and were popular behind the Iron Curtain. You could even choose your colour, as long as it was white! They were a symbol of city life and yet here they were in the ‘outback’ of Kazakhstan.  I guessed they wouldn’t stand a chance against one of these bactrian camels that wander so perilously close to the road; good call on the roll cage!  The hairy, two humped beasts ambled along, at home in this barren, limestone landscape.  They crossed paths with shaggy horses as they both foraged in the scrub.  I would soon discover that one of these beasts is a staple of the Kazakh diet…  In this hazy dream-like scene, I could picture Ghengis Khan and his warriors riding this parched steppe, once again staking their claim as they did in the 1200’s.   In reality, it was only a goat herder recklessly shunting his precious flock across the busy highway. I gasped and the driver chuckled as I clutched Bruce’s hand; he sensed his normally intrepid travel companion was momentarily in culture shock!

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A row of Khrushchyovkas often with painted murals decorating their ‘gabled ends’..either folk art, political or cultural

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A dombra – the national instrument

The first glimpse of the city itself, Aktau, confirmed my bemusement. I’ve lived in similar cities in varying stages of development, notably Doha and Muscat.  They weren’t as modern as they are now, yet it was in their tucked away labyrinth of streets and souks that they came to life; exotic scenes, smells and intrigues. Would it be the same here? Please tell me that’s the case, I feel as if the clock has been rolled back.

At first sight; drab, little greenery, crumbling sidewalks, haphazard and care worn.  And then I see them, the Soviet style apartments. They go on and on and I know I’m in a former Eastern bloc state.  Even with a smattering of modern buildings, one could imagine a city in decay or, with a positive outlook a city on the cusp of rejuvenation. Had one lived here during the Soviet days, it could appear progressive and modern.  If not, it might seem outdated and dowdy, eager for a makeover.  For all that, it’s a mere forty years old, originally founded in a quiet corner of U.S.S.R. where nuclear testing would go relatively un-noticed.  I’ve met Westerners who enjoy living here because of that open space (happily now without the testing) as well as the traditional simplicity.  As always…it’s relative and personal.

 

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1, 2 and 3, with a neighbourhood shop

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A patriotic mural

By the time I arrive at my hotel, a sleek building of steel and glass, I realize this will be my oasis of modernity. I look out from our suite on the top floor and the Caspian Sea rolls before me like a beautiful canvas.  It shimmers and promises something exotic. But that would be stretching the imagination. The hotel stands out incongruously amongst the apartment blocks, a glaring counterpoint to the hastily erected utilitarian structures that give Aktau and any former U.S.S.R. city their character.  The majority of the population call them home, some refurbished, most are not.  Their once uniform appearance now stamped with a patchwork of individual modifications and candy stripes of pink, yellow and sickly hospital green. They are called ‘Khrushchyovka хрущёвка’ and were constructed from pre-fab’d concrete, mostly trucked out of Moscow.  Usually only built up to five stories (this way they didn’t require elevators), they were only intended to stand for twenty-five years or so.  They are carbon copied throughout the city, each with seven foot high numbers at the top of each, denoting their address.

 

The other part…well about those streets with no names, it’s true, there are no names!  Even

Mingling of new and past culture along with a few Ladas

Mingling of new and past cultures, with a few white Ladas

the busy street I live on which runs close to the Caspian Sea, doesn’t have a name. I suppose you would say it’s the busy street where the modern hotel is. People here would know and if they didn’t, you would tell them it’s in Microdistrict 9, that’s it. The city is divided into these districts, as was Soviet style.  One’s address is a series of numbers; the Microdistrict, building number and apartment number. Structured, simple, no nonsense.  What I have noticed is that these areas seem to be neighbourly, often with ‘hole in the wall’ corner stores and colourful playgrounds.  Children play in the fading warmth of autumn. Grandparents watch from nearby benches as they chat.   And so I walk past their endless rows, intrigued with these homely homes, though I’m not quite sure why…yet.

 

The seafront

The seafront

My solace is the sea.  Twice a week I walk and chat with a lively group of expat ladies.  We meet at various points along the seafront, some with precious cargos in tow, (toddlers or wee dogs), though most of us are here alone.   Accompanying our ‘oil and gas’ husbands, we have nothing but ourselves and time. Many of us are at the stage where adult children are scattered around the world.  We speak of them and miss them, of course. But there’s a sense of wanderlust as we recall countries we’ve lived in, adventures remembered and those that are being planned.  I’m reminded that living in any new country is always about the people. I’ve been welcomed into the expat group with open arms, lunches, seaside walks and apparently a crazy night of Karaoke is on the cards. No, I can’t sing, but one must be respectful of the local ‘culture’ so I’ll have to be dragged along!  If you’re lucky in a new ‘posting’, you meet that one person you just kind of click with…that ought be here the same time you are.

 

Molly is also new to the country and as Bruce and I waited for the hotel elevator that first day, she was exiting it.  I was an exhausted mess, but I do remember her saying “I’m so glad you’re here now!” I don’t think that’s how I felt, but it was nice to hear.  Within days, Molly, strolled from her end of the corridor to mine for tea. Admittedly, a farewell one as she and her husband were off to an apartment.   There went my new friend and neighbour with her red bucket, rubber gloves and a suitcase.  I went back into my suite to ponder if we should also consider an apartment, an option open to us.   The room had been cleaned, our laundry just delivered and I haven’t thought much about it much since.  Well, maybe once or twice as I shuffle my microwave off my tiny counter to make way for my ‘stove’. Admittedly this isn’t for everyone, being confined to a small space.  Let’s see if that view of the sea and ease of life keeps us here.

 

A breezy Wednesday morning walk

A breezy Wednesday morning walk

But what is it like, life in a hotel?   Well it’s a delightful revolving door.  From the people that work here, to the visitors, to those that call it home.  The world seems to come into ‘my’ lounge and I love it.  Also wonderful are the local Kazaks and Russians, eager to befriend you.  I hope to meet with one of them this week as she’d love to tell me more about life here.  For that and for friendship, I’m thankful.

 

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A fisherman and a wedding shoot

Of course, there are a multitude of questions I have that in time will hopefully be revealed.  To begin with there’s the food, fodder for it’s own entire blog entry.   Not to mention the cultural differences, history and the language.  My Russian lessons begin soon and admittedly, I’m frightened to death.  Firstly, there’s that pesky ‘other’ alphabet to contend with (it’s called cyrillic.)  I’ve left other countries not having made an effort with the language and I’m determined to not repeat that.  Most people in the traditional shops don’t speak English.  Nada, nothing, so it’s rather important.   My first word… спасибо, sounds like spasiba…means thank you. If I’m in the room about 4 pm, our laundry is delivered by a friendly lady named Amanguel.  She comes in, hangs up the pressed shirts, plunks down the rest, and proceeds to chat.  We point and motion, a game of charades which often ends in her grabbing a pen to illustrate her point.  She’s smiles freely through her front gold-capped teeth, her jet black hair pulled back in a bun.  We like each other, even though we can’t communicate, yet…

A piece of Kiev cake and a stab at Russian

A piece of Kiev cake and a stab at Russian

 

And so, this new adventure is just that, an adventure.  I’m enjoying that guy beside me again after mostly living apart the last year.  We’re suddenly in a suite together with no housework, laundry, chores, weeds to pull, or kids to cook for?  It’s pretty darn brilliant actually, the time is ours.  As Bruce always said ‘Terry Anne, I haven’t experienced it unless you’ve been there to share it with me.”  So now I’m here and we’ll see how I manage.  It should be alright, unless those walls start to close in, that Siberian wind blows me away or I never get past спасибо!

 

Late night Limoncella with Molly

Late night Limoncella with Molly

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the meantime, Molly and myself are planning a trip with our guys, into the countryside to photograph those odd looking camels, just for starters.  She’s a photo journalist, another reason we seem to get along just fine.  For me, our friendship was pretty much sealed when I boarded the company bus recently.  I really feel like a school child as we’re not permitted to drive here, I miss my Aspen!  Once seatedMolly pulled a small vial out of her bag and slipped it into my palm. “Some lavender oil for you, I know yours broke on the way here.  Have some of mine.”  And that about sums it up.  You can weather just about anything if you have friends at your side, a deep blue sea to gaze upon and a trip into the unknown to look forward to!

The Caspian, no seashells in sight, just sea glass

The Caspian, no seashells in sight, just sea glass