Category Archives: Writers

Penang’s shades of green and hues of blue…a mansion and Jimmy Choo

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There are a few unsent ‘postcards’ from Penang this past year. Having co-authored a book about its pioneers, both past and present, there is much to write. I could relate the fascinating history of Francis Light, who claimed the island for the East India Company in 1786, or the myriad settlers from near and far, especially the resourceful Chinese and the stalwart Southern Indians. There are Penang’s iconic shophouses, godowns and clan temples. Its diverse culture and heritage trades, the legendary food and the engaging street art. That and more will be revealed when the book is published. But for now, a few snippets from the Penang I’ve come to know and love…

 

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A photo of her hangs in the mansion’s dining room, her dress and hairstyle unusually simple for a person of her status. Tan Tay Po was 20 when she married the 70 year-old Cheong Fatt Tze. She would become his favourite wife – there were eight of them – and the Blue Mansion was Tan Tay’s splendid home.

Known as the ‘Rockefeller of the East’, Cheong Fatt Tze had homes (and wives) scattered throughout S.E. Asia, but the indigo-blue mansion in Penang was his preferred. Where he’d find his beloved wife number 7.

boutique-hotel-penang-island-blue-mansion-architecture-02-1-600x600-1I had been to the mansion earlier in the year, gathering information for the book project. Along with writers from the region, I had the good fortune to be invited to a candle-lit dinner in Indigo, the mansion’s elegant restaurant. Serendipity saw my place-card positioned across from Laurence Loh, the man who brought the mansion back to life; rescuing it from its dilapidated state and likely from demolition.

Laurence Loh is one of Malaysia’s esteemed architects and I followed many who have spoken to him over the years, BBC, CNN, Architectural publications and others. Laurence is understated yet passionate about his role as a conservation architect.

“Why take on such a daunting project?” I asked. “What motivated you to dedicate years to the restoration of a mansion? ” In fact a home now considered to be one of the finest restored mansions in the world.

Laurence admitted that he had not given the property much thought as he passed it daily as a youth on his way to school. Years later having returned home to Penang after time abroad, Laurence felt a strong pull towards the temple-like building. Along with partners, he and his wife Lin Lee would buy the property on Leith Street and transform the Chinese court-yard home to the enchanting splendour of its past – it would take 11 years of meticulous restoration.

That evening as we had dined, Laurence explained that developers had hovered in anticipation for the prized site when it came on the market. Conservation in 1989 was almost non-existent with no guidelines and little vision. The mansion lay in a state of decay and disregard with more than thirty tenant families inhabiting it. Motorbikes zoomed through the house and washing lines hung from gilded panels. Animal bones, droppings, feathers and rubbish littered the rooms.

Laurence told me modestly, “It just needed to be cleaned up and restored. There was an epiphany that this would take hold of our lives.” And he hinted that it was meant to be…that perhaps Cheong Fatt Tze had already chosen him as the rescuer.

I was curious if it was the love story of wife number 7, ‘the one he loved above all others,’ as Laurence had put it. Or perhaps it was the unique sense of scale, proportion and space with which the mansion had been designed. I sensed that it is a little of both. Laurence admitted that a keen sense of preserving the legacies of Penang’s forefathers, especially those of the Chinese settlers, had motivated him. “I’m very proud of my Chinese roots,” he explained, “it’s essential they’re preserved.”

The residence was originally completed in 1904 by Cheong Fatt Tze. Having arrived from China to Batavia in 1856 as a penniless 16 year-old, Cheong would come to epitomize South East Asia’s determined Chinese entrepreneurs – of which there were many. Cheong transcended from a carrier of river water to a one-man multinational conglomerate. Initially there was help from his merchant father-in-law, that of wife number 1, yet Cheong would go on to successfully deal in the commodities of the day: pepper, tin, rubber, tea and coffee, rice and opium. He would invest in banks, glassworks, textiles, cattle and a vineyard. He would start his own shipping line when refused first-class service on another. He was an extraordinary entrepreneur.

On a recent visit to Penang, I decide to spend an evening at the Mansion in one of its 18 restored guest rooms. I’d be untruthful if I didn’t confess that its history and spirt is felt within its storied walls. It’s not an uneasiness, but more of a tacit acknowledgement that you are just passing through…the home will always be Cheong Fatt Tze’s.

The next day, I’m invited to join a tour. The private rooms are roped off to the public and there’s a secret delight in having been in the inner sanctum of the mansion. Along with tourists from different countries, I learn that nothing was left to chance when the grand home was built. With its 5 inner courtyards, the centre wing was where business was conducted and were family was housed, perhaps one or all of the 3 wives and various concubines. This was often the norm for a man of Cheong’s social standing.

“Wives 3, 6 and 7 lived here. But if you were out of favour you could easily find yourself in the side wings or across the street in the servants quarters”, our guide reveals motioning to separate buildings across the street. Yet we’re told of Cheong’s great philanthropist tendencies, of his ease with both Asian traditions and of the Western World. We hear of his discerning sense of fashion from Mandarin outfits of fine silk, to top hats and tails.

Indeed the photos and other manifestations capture the essence of time, place and wealth. We see intricate Scottish ironworks (a must-have to affirm one’s wealth in the British empire), gilded decoration, priceless porcelain and Art Nouveau stained glass windows. But its the chien nien that intrigues me most.

Chien nien translates to cut-and-paste shard works, a laborious process whereby specially produced rice bowls are cut with pliers to provide shards of coloured porcelain. Lime putty is then used to form the shards into intricate patterns of men, women, animals and scenes depicting Chinese mythology and various Gods. Some 10,000 bowls, imported from China, were needed to restore the mansion’s chien nien – believed the most prolific on any private building outside of China.img_5060-1

As we gather in the central courtyard, we’re asked a question that I had heard previously from Laurence. “Do you feel the chi, the spirt?”

It is reference to the elaborate feng shui that Cheong Fatt Tze implemented in his home .

“This is the heart, here in the middle, where the greatest chi energy radiates,” our guide says motioning to a spot between two stone columns. “This precise point would have been selected by a feng shui master, the house grew from there.”

It seems very little was left to chance. Granite steps were added as ideally one must always step up when entering a Chinese home…it denotes promotion. The granite implies strength and stability. Golden coins were buried in auspicious corners to ensure continued wealth. The side wings of the home contain six rooms on each floor. The number six as it rhymes with ‘lok lok tai soon‘…smoothness for every dealing.

The Chinese believe that rain water brings wealth (farming, crops) and that nature’s wealth should be drawn inwards. Hence the mansion’s elaborate pipes and gutters to collect rainwater, emptying into the courtyards, backing up in loops, cooling both the floors and ceiling spaces. “The water can come in quickly but should flow out slowly, just like the Chinese ethos towards money.” This is conveyed to us with a chuckle, yet it is clearly to be taken seriously.

When we encounter a photo of the beloved wife number 7, we learn that Tan Tay was the daughter of a Penang goldsmith and the only wife mentioned in the tycoon’s will. When Cheong died in 1916, flags were lowered to half-mast throughout Asia by both British and Dutch authorities. His coffin was toured to Penang, Singapore and Hong Kong for farewells, before burial in his native China.

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And of the mansion? Cheong’s will stated that it was not to be sold until the death of he and Tan Tay’s son, only 2 at the time of his father’s death. When he died in 1989, the last daughter-in-law would fall short of money and resort to leasing the mansion’s once grand rooms, contributing to the dilapidated state Laurence Loh would find the mansion.

As the tour finishes, I recall something Laurence had shared that with me. “Cheong Fatt Tze had wanted nine generations to live in this home. He wanted it to be enjoyed by many.”

Thanks to the vision of a passionate architect, that is happily the case…

*The Blue Mansion is properly known as the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

 

A connection with Jimmy Choo…

img_3173I find myself on ‘hallowed’ ground…that is, if one is both a lover of shoes and familiar with Jimmy Choo. His story began in Penang, a local boy who shared his roots with the very man I’m speaking with, Mr. Wong Heng Mun.

I’m at Hong Kong Shoes on Kimberley Street and have decided to have a pair of shoes made by Mr. Wong and his team of cobblers.

There are three skilled artisans busy today in the long, narrow shophouse. One shoemaker is stitching and another cutting strips of leather with scissors as large as a size- 13 shoe. Mr. Wong minds the front of the shop. He not only knows a thing or two about shoes, he apprenticed alongside Penang’s runaway success story…Jimmy Choo. Like Mr. Wong, Mr. Choo also came from a family of shoemakers.

“Jimmy was about 15 or so, a little older than me when we apprenticed. It was my father that taught us.” Mr. Wong’s father, Wong Sam Chai, was Penang’s esteemed master cobbler for some 60 years.

This is not the original location of the shop but still, it’s become a bit of a mecca for shoe lovers visiting Penang. The shop is certainly not as salubrious as a Jimmy Choo. This is more of an ‘organized chaos’ with shoe mouldings, scraps of leather and shoe samples crammed onto shelves and arrayed on the floor. Proudly displayed magazine and newspaper clippings of the Choo connection decorate the walls. The workshop is stuffed with tools of the trade: threads on bobbins, glue for soles of leather, hammers and heels, and a ‘museum piece’ Singer – timeless and trusty.

Mr. Wong is kind enough to lead me up the worn treads of narrow stairs to the second floor. Shoe moulds as far as the eye can see. Wooden and plastic – shades of greens, hues of blues and wood polished smooth by expert hands, sizes and shapes for all.

Mr. Wong tells me that more than 200 pairs of shoes are handcrafted every month for clients. “Some locals but many foreigners.”

img_5285Back in the workshop, I notice the nonya shoe that is in the works. Its delicate glass beads have been painstakingly stitched into a pattern onto fabric, and is now being crafted into a sandal or perhaps a slipper.

Traditionally this was a pastime expertised by Malay ladies. Beaded slippers complimented their colourful sarongs and lavish kebayas, their tight fitting embroidered blouses.

I’m told that the craft of stitching the coloured glass beads was even a skill coveted for marriage. It seems that presenting a pair of hand-stitched men’s slippers was effective for impressing a future husband. Wonderful examples of nonya slippers and all else pertaining to their refined and opulent culture can be enjoyed at the Pinang Peranakan Mansion.

Today, pieces of the beaded designs are still created and sold to Hong Kong Shoes, both for personal orders or otherwise. “Many foreigners also like these,” Mr. Wong assures me as we admire the intricate samples. In somewhat of a paradox he shows off a massive shoe mould, though I don’t catch the name of who it was a match for – surely it was an extremely tall basketball player.

I’m just a normal size 6.5 and I tell Mr. Wong that I’d like my sandals copied please, “though just a little more tight fitting.” I dig my worn footwear from my bag. They’ve traipsed over the cobblestones of Rome, through the narrow lanes of Cintra and the back streets of Miri…and many others in between. I surprise myself by choosing roughly the same colours of leather…actually I think I’m just a little overwhelmed with the vast array of samples.

Mr. Wong opens a notebook, asks me to take off my shoes and instructs me to stand on the blank paper. He traces my feet, jots down some notes and confirms my order on a small notebook…order 8565. I pay, then he bundles up the note paper, my beloved sandals and plunks them in a plastic bag. Gosh, I hope I see those again, I can’t help but fret.

“How long Sir, until they’re ready?

“About two, three months,” he tells me with a confident smile.

“Lovely, my friend will pick them up for me,” I say, giving a knowing glance to a good friend who spends much of her time here. I already envision my next visit, my shiny pair of sandals awaiting me.

“No worry,” Mr Wong assures me,” we make many, many shoes.”

I can’t resist asking, “Who is the most famous client you’ve had?”

“Oh, Hollywood famous,”he says matter-of-factly. He’s most definitely not revealing any secrets.

 

And may I share a few of my ‘preferred’ in Penang…

Hotel…Campbell House on Lebuh Campbell

Restaurants…Seven Terraces, Il Bacaro, China House

Museums…Pinang Peranakan Mansion, the house of Sun Yat Sen (father of modern    China), Penang State Museum, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

Things to do…Enjoy street food, especially Char Kuey Teow. Trishaw to discover the many Street Art installations. Take in the view at the peak of Penang Hill and visit The Habitat, Penang Hill. Wander along Beach Street, Armenian Street, Love Street and all in between. Venture out to the Spice Gardens. Have tea at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel. Take in live music at China House. Visit the many temples and mosques. Stroll the clan jetties. Don’t miss Occupy Beach Street early Sunday mornings. Arrange your visit to coincide with the brilliant George Town Festival…

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Postcards from Malaysia…a writer’s journey

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The past few months have found me researching, interviewing and penning. I’m involved in a book project which is endlessly engaging and challenging.

With a team of writers, photographers, a brilliant designer and project manager, we collaborate from various countries –yet happily rendezvous for some eventful on-location forays. It’s an interesting journey as I delve into the history and culture of a place that I am now very familiar with… Penang, Malaysia.

With trips of discovery and a recent getaway to Borneo, experiences gained and people befriended continue to make this the most rewarding of times.

Thankfully our home in Bangalore, India, is now ‘settled’ with the arrival of our shipment which most definitely took the ‘long way around.’ We have an eclectic mix of old and new, from here and there; Omani, Indian, Chinese, Malaysian, Middle Eastern and Thai…and some wooden skis propped in the study to remind us of home.

The guest-rooms await a visit from our sons in the not too-distant future and our adopted family has grown by one. Preya joins us three times a week – her spicy South Indian food is scrumptious and help in the house is much appreciated as another month of work ensues. All is well in the neighbourhood; the monsoon rains are expected imminently, Munglora has procured a charming ancient scale for my new kitchen and without a doubt, the roof top yoga kept me sane.

A good friend commented that I was fortunate to have this ‘mountain to climb.’ Indeed it does feel like a wonderful, steep journey, one that I could not have imagined two years ago when I set out with my blog…it feels quite surreal yet natural at the same time.

So for the moment, just a few of my favourite images from the adventure thus far…many kind thoughts, Terry Anne

 

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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.

52 Countries and a year that is new…with abundance

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Serenity and reflection while snowshoeing

It seems there’s been an underlying theme this holiday at our home in the mountains; good food and fine wine are a given. But snowshoeing and more snowshoeing, has allowed me unexpected serenity. The snow on the ski hill has been somewhat lacking and so we’ve been strapping on the ‘shoes’ and happily meandering through the nearby golf course and Kimberley Nature Park. The neighbourhood gals and I have also been out and when we’re not chatting, my prevailing thought is of the year that has passed. As I soak in the vistas and admire the snow laden pines, I reflect and give thanks that my dream of writing a blog came to pass.

A New Year’s message from Word Press included a summary of the first year of notes on a boarding pass and those 20,000 plus written words only have meaning if someone reads them.  And thankfully you have. In fact, I know that you readers are from 52 different countries, thus far.  Imagine how inspiring this is for me, to envision that somewhere in Russia, Estonia or Botswana for example, my blog was discovered and read…literally, it means the world to me.

I know who some of my readers are of course, but many others I do not.  I don’t see who you are when you view a post, but I can see the country that you’re reading from. If you’re curious how a reader ‘finds’ my blog, one way is from the ‘tags’ that I note on each post which materialize in internet searches. I myself recently researched something online and one of my articles popped up, somewhat surreal I can assure you!

The unexpected joy of writing a blog is the communication it opens up with people.  It seems I traveled ‘around’ the world this past year with stops in the U.K., Denmark, Sweden, France, The Netherlands, U.S., Turkey, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Thailand and Hong Kong.  So perhaps, dear reader, I met you in one of those countries.

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Snow laden pines in Kimberley

There was the lovely German lady on the train to London and unfortunately we didn’t begin chatting until just before the train approached Paddington Station. There was an immediate connection and I was able to give her my card before we reluctantly bid farewell, “You can have a look at my blog if you’re ever bored,” I said with a parting smile as we each disappeared our own way from the busy platform.

I recall the charming Londoner I met while on the Dickens tour , there were many questions I wanted to ask him. Unfortunately, time doesn’t always permit this and yet I was pleased to have met him, if only briefly. Not long after, he graciously sent a note to notes on a boarding pass. 

There also was the beguiling young person in the cafe in Malaysia who was interested in my travels, as was the couple in Thailand while we chatted over a beer as we sheltered from the midday downpour. There have been so many chance encounters and happily for me, people are receptive and curious.

“How are you able to travel so frequently?

“Do you plan what you write about or is it an inspiration that comes to you?”

“Don’t you get tired of living out of a suitcase for much of the year?”  (yes to that one!)

And pleasingly there are people here at home who are supportive and follow notes on a boarding pass.  One such lovely lady is a vibrant eighty-two year old whose birthday I had the good fortune of celebrating just as I arrived back to Canada this holiday season.  I was in transition as a few days earlier I had traded my sandals and sun dresses for winter boots and sweaters. Donna Lee took my hand in hers and said warmly, “Thank you Terry Anne for the opportunity to travel with you through your blog. I read every one of them, those interesting insights to places that most of us will never experience.” It warmed my heart and I think we both might have had a tear in our eye.

It means so much to hear sentiments such as these, as I have from many of you whether it’s in person or through a written message. And when I do, I know writing is worthwhile…and it also gives back to me. That was predicted by a dear friend of mine as I procrastinated and swithered a few  years ago.

I was on a Skype call to Pamela, she in France, myself in Norway.

“Where’s your blog, you’ve thought about it for a year now,” She admonished me with a stern but encouraging voice.  Pamela is a life coach and was justifiably focused on my procrastination.

“I know, but I can’t decide on a name for it, I’ve got so many ideas…Bloom Where You’re Transplanted, A Collection Called Life, A Passion for Life, Planes Trains and Notebooks,” I lamented.

“Just pick one and get on with it, this is called paralysis by analysis.  It’s time to do it, it will bring you such fulfilment and abundance…”

It was that word abundance, it stuck with me and Pamela was right. This blog, nine months young, has brought me such joy and abundance. Along with the research, travel and writing, it’s also the connection with people that has been more gratifying than I could have imagined; the satisfaction of making an impression, imparting or learning something new, inspiring someone wherever they may be.

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The vista we ‘shoe’ to…the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia

My resolution last year did come true and this year my hope is to secure more articles for publication and then there’s that ‘darn book’ to spend more time on. That is my wish and I hope that whatever resolution you have committed to becomes a reality for you this year.  As I know, sometimes it can take longer than expected and often it can seem like an insurmountable challenge, just as this blog once seemed to me. But as I can attest, when you stretch and challenge yourself just that little, you can bloom in unexpected ways.

I’ll be returning to Kazkhstan at the end of the month, however it will be a short ‘stint’ as it seems we’ll be off to live in a different country in the spring. Yes, dear reader, perhaps more adventures in store, more intrigues to write about. Ah, by the way, how did I finally decide on that seemingly difficult task of naming my blog?

There I was in Amsterdam last February, out for dinner, chatting and absent mindedly making notes on a piece of paper all the while. As I arrived at Schiphol Airport the next morning for my flight, I dug out my e ticket boarding pass. Surely it can’t be this piece of paper marked with notes? It was indeed and I remember thinking once and for all, that’s it…notes on a boarding pass. Pamela was pleased and I had finally stopped procrastinating!

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Abundance

I’m ever so relieved I did. But for now, I wish you a new year full with dreams realized and much abundance in whatever you hope it to be. Happy New Year, wherever you may be in one of those 52 countries…and I truly do thank you.  Terry Anne

 

P.S.  And of those other two questions?

I’m able to travel so frequently partly due to my husband’s work locations and a commitment I made to myself as an ’empty nester’  to seek out new experiences and inspirations.

Of inspiration?  Everything I’ve mentioned inspires me and most blogs formulate in my mind for a week or two. Perhaps others for months such as the post previous to this one. The sheer joy of it all; even I don’t know where the next one will take me!

And those countries…just in case you’re curious

Canada
United States
United Kingdom
Norway
Kazakhstan
Netherlands
France
Thailand
United Arab Emiretes
Malaysia
Russian Federation
Italy
Australia
Germany
Japan
Singapore
Denmark
Spain
Indonesia
Qatar
Sweden
Switzerland
India
Philippines
Finland
Bahamas
Jordan
Botswana
Lao People’s Democratic Republic
Mexico
New Zealand
Korea, Republic of
Hong Kong
Panama
Portugal
Turkey
Kenya
Brazil
Israel
Hungary
Colombia
Sri Lanka
Belgium
Slovenia
Isle of Man
Cambodia
Oman
Brunei Darussalam
Estonia
Ghana
Jamaica
and last but not least, Romania

Lipstick palms on Phuket…of botany and the verve of Jack

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A place of serenity for the writer’s retreat

“Do you think someone plants all those ferns in the palm trees?” I ask Jo as we paddle idly in the pool.  Another day of writing was complete and we were now cooling off after a massage in the nearby ‘massage studio’…How will I ever leave this serenity?

“No, they’re epiphytes, plants that live on others. They root by themselves and just grow,” says Jo.

“See how some of the trees have ferns and those ‘spiky’ plants. And they’re orderly, as if it was landscaped,” I muse as I gaze out to the pool-side palm trees, each massive trunk in a cosy ecosystem with its ‘house-guests’.

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Into the massage studio

“We have a theory in our family,” Jo continues, “trees are like people; some are more fun than others, maybe that’s where the party is, more booze, better snacks?”

“Hah, that’s good!” I said, quite taken by the notion of trees as a party venue.

Jo and I have often chatted about nature, but never more than at this writer’s retreat in Phuket.  The garden cascades in all directions from the central pool, a who’s who (or rather, a what’s what) of a botanical garden.  The coconut palms reign supreme, tall and imposing over the stockier white washed date palms, bamboo somewhere in between. Frangipani trees dot the lawns and verges, their fragrant flowers a fond reminder of my once middle eastern gardens. Those years when the kids played in gardens of jasmine, orchids and rainbows of bouganvilla. When they climbed houses built in exotic trees that we didn’t know the names of…when we drank sundowners with the melodic call to prayer as a backdrop.  Gardens have always been important to us; they’ve helped root us to a country, provided solace in foreign lands.

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Lipstick palms

This garden seems to reach out to us writers that are happily ‘entrenched’ here for a week.  It’s animated yet calming, even the water nymphs call out.  One day, a lovely water-lily suddenly appears in its glazed pot, a little blaze of silken petals. As one might announce a birth, I summon the group that morning…”the lily has bloomed, do stop to appreciate it everyone!”

“I love that grouping of palms just there, beside my villa.” I declare in the general direction of Jo as we luxuriate late that afternoon on teak recliners.

“Skinny stalks of subtle lime” I alliterate, “burnt orange and lush lemon.” I continue, getting carried away with the literary thing.

“Those are luscious lipstick palms,” Jo happily jumps in, seemingly bursting with botanical knowledge.

“Well they would be, wouldn’t they!” I sigh at the resplendent scene before me, as if to breathe it in for posterity.  “Ah, I think those are the palms that when Europeans first set eyes on them, they were named the red sealing-wax palm.”  I picture the slow drip of hot wax, the delicate stamp of a signet ring.

The Royal Embassy Resort is owned by Phil, a New Zealand transplant, and his lovely Thai wife, Ari.  It’s a secluded, intimate setting and we’ve been treated like royalty. Even by day six, I can’t stop admiring the effortless bounty of nature that surrounds us.  It’s also mirrored in the cuisine; delicious offerings served on banana leaves, intricately carved fruit and magenta orchids adorning tall, frosty drinks.

Normally I’m engrossed with the architecture of a country and though I’ve traveled through Thailand before, I am endlessly captivated by the effortless melding of nature into everyday life here.  Could it be the stark contrast to Kazakhstan where I now live for some of the year? From the sparseness of the vast steppe to the overwhelming abundance…yet I remind myself that each country has its own beauty and uniqueness. 

The view from our ‘writing room’ has transfixed me throughout the week.  Yellow, snow-white and tangerine butterflies dance around fluttering palms.  Delicate frangipani flowers cling to trees, pink hibiscus blossoms drift in the breeze, birds linger and browse the floral wares: inspiration at every glance.

As if writing and meeting new people weren’t enough to occupy the week, we were encouraged to limber our bodies and minds with an early yoga session on the lawn each day. I had affirmed to our yoga instructors, Anne and Melanie ( Anne was the wonderful facilitator of the retreat) that I wasn’t a fan. Much to their delight, I quickly ‘purged those negative thoughts‘. It was difficult not to; with the night dew still clinging to the grass, we focused on ‘a drosti’ and executed the ‘warrior pose’ while glancing at tall bamboo, a favourite palm or gazing out to the misty hills beyond.

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The waterlily has bloomed

Beyond the tranquility of our garden retreat, the neighbourhood slowly came to life. Tuk-tuks puttered in the lanes beyond our view, pans clashed on outdoor stoves, roosters cock-a-doodled, a broom swished across the corner store porch, and stray dogs barked in raucous anticipation of the new morning.  Now this was the way to greet the day…I was happily convinced.

On day five, a new friend Barb from Halifax announced that she’d received a visitor as she opened the door to her villa that morning.

“Jack came to say good morning, he was right there to greet me,” she said as she laid happily in ‘child’s pose’ at the end of the yoga session. I admitted to being envious. We all treasured the rare encounters with Jack and, though he hadn’t actually enrolled in the retreat, we considered him as one of us, nonetheless.

The following day as I opened my door to greet the thick, humid morning, there he was. I was honoured to have been chosen for some personal attention.  White hair soft as feathers, black ears erect not droopy…he allowed me to caress his silken curves until it was time for yoga.   Yes, Jack is a rabbit that we all came to adore.

“Gosh, it must be sad for him to be alone here,” I wonder aloud to Phil one day after an impromptu tour of his admirable collection of Thai antiques.

“Well, Jack’s the only one left; all of his erstwhile mates have been savaged by the neighbourhood strays.”

“That’s terrible, how has he managed to survive?” I ask, reminded of the similar fate that met Pebbles and Bambam, our sons’ childhood rabbits (yes back in that seemingly serene garden.)

“Oh he hides, he’s wily, that Jack rabbit!” Phil says in his lyrical Kiwi strains.

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The beloved Jack

There was evidence enough that the beloved creature played an important role at the Royal Embassy. On returning from an outing one evening, sun dipping below the horizon, we came upon Phil and Ari sitting by the poolside. Jasmine, their silken dog lazed on Ari’s lap and in the chair between, completing the family vignette, sat Jack in perfect contentment. I shall never forget that scene, there he sat…a rabbit called Jack on a chair for cocktail hour at peace with his family, it was absolutely heartwarming.

On the final evening at the Royal Embassy Resort, only Barb and I had stayed on.  The other writers had flown back to their homes in the U.S., KL or Dubai; the rest had returned to their homes in Phuket, the island they had come to love.  Barb and I made our way to what had become our favourite restaurant, ‘Bua’, perched on stilts overlooking the gentle waves of Kamala beach. Bua, the omnipresent lotus, sacred symbol of this fertile land, rising up from muddy waters to attain perfection. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the week that had just been, yes, it had pretty much been perfect.

“Well, my dear, cheers to a wonderful week, we were meant to be here indeed!”  We chunked our coconuts together, setting the Pina Colada aswirl. It didn’t matter who had voiced the sentiment, we would part the next morning knowing we’d made a friend for life.

Early the next morning we took one final walk together, turning left from our resort

Hibiscus and Saturday morning laundry

Hibiscus and Saturday morning laundry

instead of the usual right, taking us into a ‘normal’ neighbourhood which was just beginning to stir that Saturday morning. Boys cycled down palm lined streets, past lovely homes both grand and simple, some with kitchens and dining rooms exposed to the elements.  A mother and grandmother tended to the laundry, graciously pausing to pluck a luscious pink hibiscus for each for us from their garden.   As if in prayer, we met our hands to our heart, as they do here…to convey a genuine thank you.  I will dearly miss that heartfelt gesture and the gentle Thai people who smile so freely…who welcome you to their land with open hearts.

A gift of hibiscus

A gift of hibiscus

 

We passed yet more varieties of palms that Jo, my botanist hadn’t yet identified for me (actually my mentor at summertimepublishing). They were interspersed with a few spindly rubber trees. Introduced for commerce, rubber trees arrived in Phuket at the start of the century, plantations once covering forty percent of the island.

“I hadn’t realized that rubber trees are tapped like maple trees to harvest the white goo that oozes out.” I slapped the trunk with my palm. “I really hadn’t grasped how it’s transformed into rubber, I got the full picture when I read about it this week”, I confessed to Barb.

 

Barb, in front of yet another variety of palm

Barb with yet another variety of palm

“Thank goodness it wasn’t just me, I hadn’t realized that either until I was here,” she conceded comfortingly. Later as I snapped a photo of Barb in front of yet another variety of palm, I vowed to improve my botany knowledge for the next trip!

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The view at The Indigo Pearl

It was time to depart and I left the quiet, unique resort to spend my last two nights at the Indigo Pearl with only a small inkling of what awaited. I had booked the starred resort online, splurging a little at my husband’s encouragement, but I had not imagined the sheer luxury or the captivating history.  This resort, rather unexpectedly pays homage to the tin mining industry that had once been so important to the Phuket economy.  The lobby and restaurants were opened to the verdant grounds and scattered amidst this stunning backdrop stood fascinating remnants from bygone mining days.  Old tin presses become art, tin florets hang on walls and sit on taps, untold flirtations integrating design and history.

Tin becomes art!

Tin becomes art

My suite overlooked the pool; fronds of massive, milky palms flapping like wallah-less punkahs over my patio, I was now truly in another world. And then I noticed the bathtub; perched on the patio and posed towards the verdant vista, candle already burning with exotic oils filling the air. Truly, how can I leave this paradise!

 

The beauty of a treetop spa

The beauty of a treetop spa

 

After a back and neck massage in the treehouse style spa on the second day (where even the chilled towels are proffered with magenta orchids atop), I venture outside the gates…it’s time to head to the beach. And as wonderful as it had felt to be ensconced within the walls of the pampering five star hotel, I was happily back into the heady chaos of Phuket street life.   Vendors jostle for business, aromas of barbecues waft through the air as the Andaman sea crashes its waves onto the pristine shore.

I find the perfect spot on the white sand and settle myself. But something isn’t quite right; I conjour sweet memories of my boys building sandcastles and frolicking in the sea waves. Images of a family holiday on Phuket tug at my serenity, urging to be let in. Wonderful memories, now lingering and bittersweet in my solitude. No fellow writers to share my thoughts with, no friends beside me with whom to relate these golden images.  This experience has run its course I confess to myself, though seemingly not before I cheer myself by having my second massage of the day…yes the second!

A bathtub with a view

A bathtub with a view.

Come on this is ridiculous, you should be finishing those writing assignments, completing that gift list, even sending your hard working husband a postcard!

But no, recalling that I had strolled past a thatched roof structure, housing twenty or so rudimentary low, wooden tables, I am drawn back by the promise of one last Thai massage. It’s full with foreigners in varying degrees of un-dress, it just doesn’t matter here!

”Only 300 Baht (under 10 bucks) OK?”  And I yield to the matronly Thai lady who catches my eye, her hand enticingly swishing her bottle of oil, a welcoming smile on her expectant face.

“I’m in!” and if not on a new spiritual plane, at least I’m soon cheered!

Someone recently mentioned a study that showed most people’s first deep sigh comes seven minutes into the massage; mine was at two, at the most!  Relaxing and more ‘real’ than the resort experience, I succumb.   Kids run about as momas and grandmothers alike knead and cajole the ‘stress’ out of us spoiled tourists. They keep a watchful eye on their brood during the hour long session, chatting in Thai to their colleagues beside them, nattering at the kids as they play simple games with leaves and sticks.  Vendors bells ting ting, as it approaches dinner time, the local mosque’s call to prayer echoes in the air. I’m returning here with hubby and those grown sons of ours, even if it’s just for this experience alone!

View to the Andaman Sea from the massage hut

View to the Andaman Sea from the massage hut

The massage is glorious. The sound of the waves just a few meters away is natural mood music, the view of simple fishing boats bobbing and coconuts swaying on a nearby palm tree further encapsulate my trip. But it’s time to go home. I smile, barely managing to pick myself up off the woven Thai mat, slowly slipping on my flip flops. Dodging the daily afternoon rain, I opt to have a quick Singha beer at the cafe across the street and chat to a couple from Germany.  They’ve just arrived on the island and of course I suggest the Royal Embassy Resort to them.

“They even have a pet rabbit named Jack,” I tell the friendly couple.  “He likes to be petted,” I say fondly, already missing the little guy.

Coconuts hidden under massive fronds

Coconuts hidden under massive fronds

 

It’s time to go back through that gate that takes me to the opulence of the Indigo Pearl.  I don’t really want to leave this scene where people chat freely, where everyday culture is revealed and I’m absorbed into the pleasantly chaotic scenes.  So I stroll wistfully through the gates returning the smile from the security guard, with one last glance at the tranquil sea.  It’s my last night here and I might just have to have one more soak in that glorious tub… 

A writer’s retreat in ‘Siam’…a market wander

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An entrance of brooms and hanging baby chairs

In the humid labyrinth of aisles, back corners and shelves, I yearned for that special piece to present itself. To call to me, to beckon escape from this musty, neighbourhood market. We were on a writing assignment…to find something elusive or inspiring to write about in this potpurri of, well…everything.

I passed the welcoming display; a hodgepodge of wispy brooms, sponges and spades, of dust pans in yellow, pink and blue. I noted tickley feather dusters, hoses, and hanging baby seats…wicker tightly bound. They perch precariously on many family ‘vehicles’, the ubiquitous scooter.

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A ‘bike vendor’ with the market’s entrance beyond

There were knives, rakes, tape measures and plastic prayer alters. Rainbows of stacked carpets, bento boxes, scales…and pots and woks and saucepans. Of vases, washtubs, fans both new and defunct…and rows and rows of glasses waiting for champagne and beer, dejected and dusty. Past plungers, packs of straws and Chinese waving cats for prosperity…for luck.

Still, nothing spotted that spoke of a keepsake from this writer’s retreat, from a nation once known as Siam. A country of lush bamboo, tall palms, temples and tuk-tuks. I wished for a momento…the fragrant garlands and orchids don’t last.

The humidity climbed, fellow writers melted as we shared my small woven fan when we converged somewhere between the plastic stools and ironing boards…Could they not plug one of these fans in…we despaired as we eyed the myriad of oscillating cooling devices.  Is the time almost up, can we escape soon?

No there was more. In the corners lurked hulla hoops, parasols and porcelain of fake delft blue.  The tool section stacked with clunky hammers, chisels, trowels and wrenches. They competed with dull saws, plugs and keys…and long, dark, rusty nails. My father would love poking around these crammed shelves, examining pipe widths and plyers; a handyman’s trove of treasures.

My mother would peruse the rice steamers, the Thai cushions and then announce she’d buy a cooking utensil. Something to ladle with, to stir with… to playfully chase those naughty grandchildren with.

Mercifully our time had elapsed and I manoeuvred through the tight aisles out to the welcoming sunshine, defeat admitted as I dabbed my drenched brow and neck.

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Steamy pouches of spicy sauces

And then I spotted it, dangling from under a vendor’s umbrella. He was parked there, just on the left, selling delicacies of fish, skewered meat and sauces in tiny, steaming pouches. Offering rice in banana leaf parcels, a toothpick to close.

The object was forlorn and worn. Small and intricate, stitchings of green and orange. It wanted to join my collection of gleaned treasures from far away lands and adventures, from gifts received.

Only fifty baht was taken with a genuine smile, with a Kob Kun Kaaaa. I tucked it quietly away and made my way back to the writing group, a sly grin embracing my face.  I’d found it. My small, delicate rice vessel speaks of days gone past, of workmanship under thatched roofs…of Thailand.

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My friend and mentor, Ms. Jo at lunch

Each day is unique at a writer’s retreat and on this day, after the market and writing session, we left the resort for a working lunch in a restaurant on the sea. It was a gloomy afternoon, ideal for sharing our ‘market writings’ as we dined on grilled shrimp, spicy calamari and icy Chang beer. Unique interpretations of our assignment; some mysterious, many funny, a few suspended reality and suddenly we were transported through a secret portal to an alien ‘space’. Yet another was deep with metaphors, sad and brooding, like the stormy weather that was closing in on us. Words enchanted and rolled around us…just like the melancholy waves rolling towards us.

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The brooding sea on a Phuket beach

Beguiling and inspiring, just as the day we were having.

So You Want To Be A Writer…

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I have to admit, being announced as a writer at the recent #FIGT conference was a proud moment. It had long been a dream of mine and my eventual epiphany was inspired by a borrowed book. That book would eventually lead me to a writing retreat in Tuscany, led by Jo Parfitt. At the risk of sounding over-dramatic, it changed my life.

Becoming a writer…in Tuscany

Becoming a writer…in Tuscany

I’ve always been envious of people who are diligently committed to their writing, as opposed to simply proclaiming their wish to be a writer, as I had done for years.  Having lived and travelled for twenty-three years in countries strung across the globe, I have nevertheless written every step of the way. Though up until now, those experiences have languished in my journals, begging to be released. They attest to adventures such as safari by camel in Rajasthan, truffle hunting in the Arabian desert, and trekking in Nepal.  To be fair, a few of those diary pages made it to published articles;  Fleeing Tiananmen Square was one and thankfully, on a happier note, Shopping in the Silver Souks of Oman.  The latter is definitely a lighter read!

Yet there’s still no book to speak of despite pleas from my ever patient husband and even a grandmother’s admonishment to, “Please write that book dear so I’ll know what you been up to all these years”.  Sadly, she’s no longer with us, which reminds me that time is knocking at the door.  It seems there hasn’t been that all consuming desire to lock myself away and write, that persistent need to tell my story. I could blame it on raising sons on different continents and working part time which kept me more than busy.  No excuse, countless writers produce a manuscript with far less ‘crippling’ situations than mine.  I now appreciate that perhaps we need to grow into things, to arrive at that place more experienced, more poised, and to forgive ourselves for ‘lost’ time.

While living in Norway these previous four years, I finally heeded my husband’s protestations  and “find something I was passionate about if I wasn’t going to write that darn book”.  I did cultivate my passion for history and became a tour guide.  And I did write, so to speak, with verbal narratives.  I can tell you everything you want to know about the Vikings, shipping fleets and herring exports, or why most of the wooden houses in Norway are painted white. In fact, I would tell stories for three hours at a time, weaving history and local culture into rich tapestries, but alas they’re not on paper. My stories were informative and entertaining, but ephemeral nonetheless.

And so it was through a book lent to me, written by Maggie Myklebust, that I finally became committed to writing.  Maggie had an inspiring story to tell and she was brave enough to do so in her book Fly Away Home.  It touched me on many levels, but mostly Maggie’s determination to become an author, something she could not have envisioned.  Her publisher was Jo Parfitt of Summertime Publishing, who would that autumn lead a writing retreat in Tuscany. After years of dabbling as a writer, I dug up the courage to put my proclamations to the test. And if it all failed miserably, at least I would have had a week in beguiling Tuscany.

The Tuscan Writers

The Tuscan Writers

Eleven strangers had chosen to be thrown together. Eleven strangers who shared a love of words, poetry and story telling, but could we write?   We all had doubts as to why we had taken this plunge; frightened, yet excited with the possibilities of what the week would bring.

Writing at the Vine Terrace

Writing at the Vine Terrace

The group was mostly British including eighty- four year olds, Pamela Mary and Peeta.  These lovely ladies arrived together, their sun hats set firmly atop their silvery coiffures. They had  been raised by nannies and servants in Her Majesty’s far flung colonies while their fathers served the British Empire.   Both were eager to record their stories from a bygone era for family and posterity. They only wrote with pen and paper, no lap tops, and their penmanship was beautiful, of course.  We were inspired that they had the courage to begin the journey of writing their memoir, confirmation that it is never too late to fulfill a dream.

The Watermill at Posara was the ideal setting for a writing retreat. The Tuscan sunshine, superb hospitality and gorgeous surroundings welcomed us with open arms.  With the back drop of a cobblestoned courtyard and terracotta pots stuffed with bouganvilla, we embarked on six days of lessons and inspired writing. Most of our work took place under the Vine Terrace. Shaded by a mass of grape vines, their plump grapes poking through the trellises, the terrace welcomed us into its safety.  It is here our writing would evoke emotions of sorrow, joy, disappointment and laughter, along with tears.

Our mandate was to learn and observe, to write, to polish, to present by 5 p.m. This did not vary. Every day, bar one, we knew at this time we must present a piece of work to be read aloud for all to hear, to ponder and to comment upon. As the sunflowers nodded in the late afternoon sun and the nearby bells of Posara chimed, we ruminated with our words and reached into our souls.

Frightening and challenging yes…

Instructive and inspiring, yes again..

Life Changing, absolutely.

At precisely 6:30 each evening, we were reminded that it was Apertivo time as the tiled table was promptly set with a fruit laden decanter of Aperol and carafes of Chianti.  It was a welcome reward for our writing toil, and balm for our souls that we had bared to each other.  After a delicious meal, our day would conclude in the comfort of the drawing room. Sinking into deep sofas, we engaged in lively conversation while sipping on chilled, locally made Limoncello.

The only male in our group was a famous British screenwriter (who shall remain anonymous) and we wondered why he was there, though pleased that he was.  He would read from his poignant memoir, recently begun but already captivating.  He would also regale us with stories of his Hollywood exploits, just as intriguing, I can assure you!  We all contributed with tales of jungle treks, of living on a houseboat, of lovers, of simpler times, of loss.  Each evening, was more entertaining than the previous. Each evening, eleven ‘strangers’ with different pasts became closer, breaking down barriers that would enable us to bare our souls just a little more in our writing the next day.  With the window sashes thrown open allowing the moonlight to peek into our lively gatherings, we would comment that another day had indeed been well lived at The Watermill!

The most integral member of that group and the reason we were all there, was Jo Parfitt.  We blossomed under her nurturing guidance, her magnanimous manner and her colourful scarves that greeted us each day. Because of her, we became writers… we became a writing family.

The nodding sunflowers

The nodding sunflowers

I had arrived in Tuscany with my sandals, sundresses and my favoured Uni-ball pens firmly packed.  I left……a writer.

 

P.S.  I’m finally writing that darn book!

 

 

It Takes A Village…

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It occurred to me at the #FIGT conference, that I had never referred to my three sons as TCK’s or third culture kids.* Listening to the varied educators, authors and specialists at the conference, I came to understand why I hadn’t done this. I wanted them to be ‘normal’.

So despite having lived in seven countries, having had different experiences AND losing their friends every three, four or six years, they were supposed to be like any other child. What I realized throughout the conference is that excellent support and care exists for expat families who live overseas. There is often a need for this. I’m thankful that for the most part, my three coped fairly well. However partly what FIGT is concerned with and facilitates, is that for many children and their parents, this global life can be challenging, confusing and leave kids without a sense of belonging to any country.

Three children raised by a global village

As parents we feel guilty that they may not have a home town to call their own. We worry that they only see extended family during holidays. We fret that they don’t have ownership to any one place, even their home country feels alien at times.

And yet as the esteemed Dr. Fanta Aw reminded us during her keynote speech at FGIT...it takes a village to raise a child. And this is precisely what we do as global parents. We pull out all the resources to ensure that our kids have a sense of home in which ever country they’re living in; parents, teachers, coaches and volunteers all contribute to raising expat children. We all become their village.

My husband and I created a sense of normality (from a Canadian’s viewpoint) by starting and coaching a baseball league in Oman. I wasn’t pleased that my boys may not grow up playing baseball and so with the help of passionate coaches and parents, I started a baseball league. We soon had over one-hundred kids from all over the world playing. Some of these families also helped with the hockey team, also a first to be formed in the stifling heat of Muscat. Our coach, Teppo Virta, will always be a hero in the eyes of my boys.

I was overwhelmed years later when one of my sons depicted me as a ‘hero’ for facilitating their desire to play a sport that wouldn’t have been possible. I had only done what many of us do for our children in foreign lands; form and nurture clubs and organizations of every description. For we know that when children grow up globally, it’s even more important that they belong to something that represents their home culture and identity.

As Dr. Aw, reminded us, “It’s an intersection of experiences, relationships and friendships that become family.  It’s the people that claimed you in good and bad.” And that is what a village does. Be it physical or not, as in the case of many global families, our extended family has helped raise our cherished children. We ask so much of these resilient kids; arriving, living and leaving so many countries. And yet if we all do our part to help raise them, the ‘village’ is a pretty good place to be.

I recently asked one of my sons if he would change anything from his overseas childhood. “No mom, look at the experiences and opportunities that I’ve had. Not to mention the friends I have all over the world.”

Yes, all part of that village that we’re fortunate indeed to be a part of.

*Note, a TCK is defined as a person who has spent a significant part of his/her development years outside their parents’ culture.  As summarized in Linda A. Janssen’s informative book, The Emotionally Resilient Expat published by Summertime Publishing