Sound Check

NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches

Moving abroad sends our senses of sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell into overdrive, and in this month’s NSEW offering, we explore an element of expat life through one or more of the five senses.

In Sound Check here on Expatria, Baby, Linda (North) finds that it is distinctive sounds that remind her where she is. In Bottling the Essence of Beach Life, Russell (South) walks us through the multitude of sensory experiences found at the beach. In Tastes that Tell Our Stories, I (East) admit that I do, in fact, cry at Cheerios and roasted chicken. And in Nasal Manoeuvres, Maria (West) knows that no-one knows France like her nose knows France.

 

***

Sound Check

by Linda A. Janssen


Every place has its own distinctive pattern to be discerned by our five senses. A unique signature, if you will, that identifies exactly where we are or where we've been.

When I think back to living in Mexico many years ago, I can easily recall the sickly sweet smell of the meat carcasses displayed in the local mercado, the pungent odor of unwashed bodies crammed into the hot confines of the raggedy old bus slowly winding its way to the pyramids at Teotihuacan, and the gentle, fragrant breeze of indigenous flowers wafting through Cuernavaca.

In travels far and wide, I remember the dry, hot wind blowing across the Western Sahara, the coarse sand between my toes in Majorca, fingertips clutching a coin to toss in Trevi fountain in Rome, snowflakes brushing against my cheek in the frigid Czech Republic, the sticky tropical humidity of the lowlands of Jamaica and the rainforest of Panama.

Visual recollections are far too numerous to catalogue: who can forget the overwhelming splendor of the Hermitage Museum, the Louvre, or the Prado, the view from the Pont de la Tournelle in the City of Lights, Mount Etna rising majestically out of the Sicilian landscape, the Sphinx in Giza or Urquhart Castle standing silent watch over Loch Ness?

And tastes? Don't get me started. The velvety creaminess of fine Belgian chocolates, the smoky richness of Hungarian goulash, the tang of fried ox blood after cold cerveza with lime in a tiny Mexican village bar, a sizzling steak in Buenos Aires from cattle grass-fed on the Pampas, a baguette (any baguette) hand-selected from just about any French boulangerie, freshly caught Alaskan salmon and crab, bracing white Maltese wine, the most amazing ravioli with gorgonzola cream sauce in Florence...

But when I think about the Netherlands, my home of almost three years now, the sense most deeply ingrained into my memory is that of sound.

My other four senses have certainly been fully engaged, natuurlijk.

There are the windmills, of course, old and new standing side-by-side in the flat countryside. And then there's the light. It's a little difficult to explain, but the light is different here. (Isn't that often the case?) It's filtered somehow, almost gauzy in springtime. How else to explain the glorious genius reflected in certain paintings of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Rubens, early Van Gogh?

The magnificent beer, fabulous cheeses and delicious appeltaartje met slagroom. The smoother texture of Euro bills and the added effort of maintaining your balance while strolling on old cobblestones. The sweet smell of chopped onions mingling with the briny sharp scent of the fish during herring season.

Yet it is a host of sounds captured by my sense of hearing that most clearly inform me 'you are here, you are in Nederland':

49604sk6o62c48bA North Sea wind howling across the reclaimed Dutch polder.

In the warmer months, the sporadic cry of seagulls in The Hague, even a mile or more inland.

The thwap and immediate little splash of a voetbal landing in a field-side canal.

The calls of the fishermen after a hard day's work as they dock in harbors up and down the coast.

The low-key hum of bicycle tires, the tinny trill of the bell reminding you not to step into the bike lane as you turn to cross the street.

The steady clop clop clop of a horse as it cantors past, its rider lost in reverie under the dense forest canopy.

The singsong quality of the high-pitched 'Dooie' heard as Dutch women and children bid their farewells.

The clackety clack of trams busily transporting people from one stop to the next.

The distinctive pop of an opening swing top on a Grohlsch beer bottle, forever immortalized in a current television commercial.

The simple melodies and catchy refrains of levenslied (life songs), an accordion-based music popular here.

The phlemmy-throated sound of the Dutch letter 'g' that always brings to mind my cat coughing up a hairball.

Even the eerie silence of the modern windmills is itself a thing of beauty.

These are the sounds that tell me where I am, root me to the present, and will always remain in my heart and in my mind.

 

Image credit: Photostock, portfolio 2125, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Dare to Dream But Commit To Action

NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches

 

With 2012 still fresh and new, this month’s NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches examine beginnings from the four corner of the Globe. Linda of Adventures in Expat Land (North) Linda explores the moment an expat's new life starts. Russell, who blogs at In Search of a Life Less Ordinary (South), is dreaming big, and taking an even bigger bite out of 2012. Erica of Expatira, Baby  (East) writes of her love beginnings. And Maria, of I Was an Expat Wife (West) writes about the first time she felt at home in Singapore. 

 

So, get comfortable, pour yourself a glass, and join us in saluting 2012. Many new and wonderful beginnings to all of you. 

 

*** 

Dream Big But Commit to Action

by Russell V. J. Ward

I dream too much.

 

In 2011, I dreamt of untold possibilities, of opportunities and scenarios, of futures so rich of the good stuff of life, so promising and expansive I’d be hard pushed to find the sides. In my dreams, anything was achievable and I spent hours imagining options and outcomes without the mundane boundaries and restrictions of the ordinary world.

 

Not that there’s anything wrong with dreaming. We all have our hopes and aspirations, and to dream is to create and plan out one of many possible paths ahead.

 

The problem with last year was that I dreamt too much and too often. 

 

I daydreamed about my life’s direction, I contemplated the brightest of futures, and I blissfully whiled away the minutes and hours in a dozy, vacant state of mind. I dreamed of changing my job, of building a new business, of writing that bestselling book, even of living simultaneously on three continents in three wonderful homes...eventually. My dreams were fanciful but they were doomed to always remain just that. Dreams.

 

Dream

You see they weren’t real, living, actual things I could touch and feel because I held back from making them a reality. Procrastination was the devil on my shoulder and he was busy going about his business in 2011.

 

Faced with the prospect of sketching out a simple business plan, I’d instead seek out the comfort of a ‘tweet’ or a ‘like’. Rather than get started on the outline of a novel, I’d rather read one. I’m a lousy planner and a poorer goal setter, and these longer-term tasks continued to pass me by.

 

Whilst procrastination is the devil on my shoulder, then fear is his steadfast companion. Fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of disappointing others. 

 

I’ve decided that this year is going to be different. 

 

This year will be about new beginnings because, whether it's in a novel, a business idea, a change of direction or an approach to the New Year with renewed vigour and a fresh start, beginnings form the foundation upon which everything else rests. They embody great heart and hope. 

 

With this in mind, I will dream less and finish more often.

 

I will stop being scared to make a mistake. Doing something and getting it wrong is far more productive than doing nothing at all. I may not get it right first time, but at least I’ll have given it my best shot. 

 

I will stop being idle. I over-think and create problems that weren’t even there in the first place. I analyse and re-analyse when decisiveness and action are required. This year I’ll consider less and act on more. 

 

I will stop thinking I’m not ready. Most great opportunities in life force us to grow far beyond our comfort zones and I will never feel 100% ready. It’s par for the course and I need to get onboard and know I am ready, even if I think I’m not.

 

I will stop trying to make things perfect. The real world recognises and rewards people who get things done, not people who try to create perfection in their lives. And, anyway, what’s so bad about being imperfect?

 

I will stop following the path of least resistance. If I plan on achieving something worthwhile in this life, it’s most often not going to be easy. I won’t plan to take the easy way out but I will plan to create something extraordinary. It might be a hard slog, but the results will make every extra effort worth it.

 

This year will be about doing, not dreaming. I’ll take procrastination and inaction by the horns, confront the devils on my shoulder, face my fears head on.

 

This year I’ll dare to dream but, above all else, I’ll commit to action.

 

 

 

Image: Kenneth Cratty / FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

 

 

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Hating the Expat Hierarchy

NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches

 

It's fast approaching the end of the year which means we have time for just one more Expat Dispatches for 2011. As always, your faithful expat dispatchers from the four corners of the globe are:

 

North: Linda in The Netherlands at Adventures in Expatland

South: Russell in Australia at In Search Of A Life Less Ordinary

East: Me, Expatria, Baby, in Japan

West: Maria in Canada at I Was An Expat Wife

 

The December edition of NorthSouthEastWest is something very dear to our hearts. It’s the thing or things that drive us crazy as expats. This month’s theme is therefore an open invitation to have a good ole fashioned rant and is called It’s driving me round the bend! 

Over at In Search of a Life Less Ordinary, I share my (absolute lack of) love for packaging in Japan.

At Adventures in ExpatLand,  Russell is wondering why it’s always so flamin’ hard to get any sleep in Australia;

At I Was an Expat Wife, Linda examines the discomfort of discomfort; 

And here at Expatria, Baby, Maria is breathing a sigh of relief to be free of the expat hierarchy.

 

So sit back, enjoy these four no-holds-barred posts, and look forward to a wonderful festive season wherever in the world you and yours may be!


Hating The Expat Hierarchy 

by Maria Foley

***

 

 

I have many memories of our family’s years in Singapore, and most are suffused with a warm, rosy glow. It was a great place to live: fabulous weather, good food, wonderful friends. My kids were deliriously happy, and that fact alone would have made it Paradise. The only thing marring the perfection of living in Singapore (aside from the crazy drivers, the chewing gum ban, and the SARS outbreak of 2003) was the existence of the Expat Hierarchy.

 

Singapore has such a massive expatriate population that it was inevitable an expatriate taxonomy would emerge. Lumping all foreigners together under a single expat umbrella seemed crude and clumsy, considering such a wide range of nationalities, demographics, and socioeconomic levels meant that our outsider status was often the only thing we had in common.

 

It’s human nature to compare ourselves to others, but I’d never considered it a competitive sport until I lived in a so-called expat community. I wasn’t used to being so nakedly judged by the car I drove or the bag I carried. I guess I was naïve, but this was a type of culture shock I hadn’t anticipated, and never really got used to. 

Judgment


Placement in the hierarchy was determined by two different scales:

 

The Rags/Riches Scale

 

Also known as the “I’m Richer Than You” scale, this involved a complex logarithm based on such criteria as residential neighbourhood, domestic arrangements (maid? gardener? driver?), expatriation package (club membership? travel allowance? First Class, Business, or the dreaded Economy?), and legitimacy of status symbols (real Louis Vuitton, or Johor Bahru knockoff?)

 

 

The Newbie/Veteran Scale

 

Sometimes referred to as the “Been There, Done That” scale, based on number and length of previous expat assignments plus the desirability and/or exoticism of assignment locations. (Extra points awarded for enduring sudden evacuations (due to natural disasters or social unrest), hobnobbing with celebrities, or living in a locale that was “so pure and unspoilt before the tourists discovered it.”) 

 

I couldn’t stand the subtle and not-so-subtle fishing expeditions for information that would make my place in the social pecking order clear. (For the record: I scored points for living in a nice neighbourhood and flying business class, lost points for not having a maid, and evoked pity for carrying a logo-less bag and buying my clothes at the Gap.)

 

Not everyone played the game, of course. I met a lot of people who couldn’t give a toss about who washed my dishes or made my sunglasses. They were far more interested in determining shared values and interests than they were in scrutinizing class markers. I liked to call these folks “my friends.”

 

Surrounding myself with genuine people turned Singapore from a nice place to live into a real home. And while I miss that home — and those people — very much, I’m happy to report that I don’t miss the expat hierarchy in the slightest. 

 

 

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Throw Off The Bowlines

NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches

It's the middle of November so you know what that means: it's time for our monthly virtual four-way blogfest!

North: Linda in The Netherlands at Adventures in Expatland

South: Russell in Australia at In Search of A Life Less Ordinary 

East: Me. Here.

West: Maria in Canada at I Was An Expat Wife

This month's theme? What is the one item each of us can't imagine living expat life without. So have a seat, get comfortable and come around the world with us as we explore four different items from four different perspectives:

At In Search of a Life Less Ordinary, Maria shares what matters most to her;

At Adventures in Expat Land, I demonstrates why paper beats rock and scissors every time;

At I Was an Expat Wife, Russell ponders whether it's possible to be too attached to his chosen item

and here at Expatria Baby, Linda's all for throwing off the bowlines.

 

***

Throw Off The Bowlines

by Linda A. Janssen

 

I'll let you in on a little secret. 

Each month when we put together our virtual NSEW blog, a different member selects the theme. This month's choice, 'the item I can't imagine living expat life without', was mine. I can't speak for the others, but I can tell you that when I selected this theme I didn't have anything in mind.

I know, it seems strange that you wouldn't pick a topic that you already knew what you'd write about. As it is, there's enough of sitting down to the page and finding your muse in the writing life.

But I didn't. I liked the concept and the fact that I didn't have an immediate answer in mind. I wanted to see where it would take me.

For days I thought about it. Poked memories and prodded brain cells. Sifted through ideas and sorted through possibilities. 

I came close with a couple.

First up was a corkscrew. 

We'd brought our good, heavy duty metal corkscrew with us. One we'd had for at least a half dozen years, probably more. Then it broke.

No worries, I thought breezily. How hard can it be to find a metal corkscrew in The Netherlands?

Harder than you might think.

The next time I was running errands, I picked up the familiar metal corkscrew at the home and kitchen store. Case closed.

Except that when I took it from its packaging, I immediately knew something was not right. Turning it over and over in my hands, it weighed a fraction of the heft I should have felt.

How could that be? Surely the Dutch wouldn't design and produce a metal tool that would likely snap under extreme pressure? (If you've seen the twisted angles at which Husband occasionally employs the corkscrew, you'll understand why I was worried about that happening.)

That evening when Husband picked up the new corkscrew to open a bottle of red wine, he didn't mince words.

'Why did you buy this corkscrew? It's like a toy!' he exclaimed, a quizzical look painted on his face. 'It's going to break after a few uses.'

Sure enough, that's exactly what happened two weeks later. When trying to pull the rabbit ears down gently, a move I'd easily perfected ages (and I mean ages) ago when employed as a cute young bartender in a Chinese restaurant, it snapped and one of the ears broke off. With the cork still wedged in the bottle, of course.

But I was prepared. On a recent trip to the hardware store, I'd spied what looked to be a maximum strength corkscrew in the corner, tucked behind other odds and ends. 

A return trip to the hardware store ensured we were now in possession of the requisite reinforced corkscrew. Why the corkscrew itself even looked thicker, and the package was heavier in my hands than the previous one.

Except that it wasn't, and it wasn't. Seems that much of the additional weight lay in the extra-thick plastic packaging. And the corkscrew? The extra girth must have been metal-covered flimsy whatever.

Who goes to all that trouble to make an item appear to be better than it truly is? Why not just, oh, I don't know, MAKE THE ITEM BETTER??

But I'm not going to write about the corkscrew. Important? Yes. Can't imagine living without? Not quite.

Another item I seriously considered as integral to this expat experience was a Dutch-English dictionary. Not just any old dictionary, but a used one I'd ordered online a few months before Son, Daughter and I moved to The Hague to join Husband here two and a half years ago.

He'd gone ahead of us six months earlier, leaving me back in the US to orchestrate major decluttering and downsizing before getting all of the things fixed, adjusted, corrected or otherwise taken care of on what seemed at the time a never-ending 'to do' list. All in pursuit of getting our house and yard ready to put on the market.

Did I mention selecting, procuring and overseeing the exterior house painting and installation of new carpeting? Occasional trips to the dump/refuse center to get rid of the detritus that seems to accumulate in the attic and garage? Earmarking a few special items for family and friends, then setting aside a considerable number of others for a yard sale? Eventually selling both cars and closing out various accounts and utilities and the like?

All while holding down a job, playing single parent to two kids with continuously changing emotions about leaving their friends behind, and caring for our two dogs and two cats.

If you've ever tried to sell property, especially in a tight market, you will know that the place must be beyond immaculate when it goes on the market. When people walk in to view the house, they expect it to be pristine.

Which meant five weeks of being at the beck and call of our real estate agent. 

I had it down to a science: rush home from the office and do exactly what needed to be done, in precise order, in 42 minutes so that the prospective buyers would forget that someone actually lived in the house and see instead a tableau against which to manifest their own dreams of how happy they would be if they would only choose to live there.

Then I'd wrestle the two dogs into my car and go elsewhere for a couple of hours while the house was shown. And do it all over again the next day, and perhaps the next and so on until the house was finally sold.

It felt as if we were living in a museum while simultaneously reliving every single day, like in that great comic classic Bill Murray movie 'Ground Hog Day'. 

My focus was so securely on wrapping up our previous life that I didn't have time to dream of what our new life might be. Ordering that used Dutch-English dictionary from Amazon late one night represented crossing a momentous threshhold: from the now to the what might be that lay ahead. 

Significant? Absolutely. Can't live without it? No. So in the end, I decided that the dictionary isn't what I can't imagine living expat life without.

So what, you ask, is it? What is so absolutely essential? What item matters most? What has meant the most to me over the past thirty months, that I would make sure to take with us when we eventually pack up and leave here, bound for who knows where?

The sense of adventure. 

The feeling of digging down deep and learning what a place is really like. What makes it tick. What makes this place so quintessentially Dutch. 

We're not apt to still be here five years from now, and I want to walk away knowing that I did and saw and experienced as much of it as I possibly could. The good and the less good, and yes, even the just plain odd.

Even when I encounter something I don't love, or feel homesick for aspects of my old life, or am just feeling out of sorts. Even when I feel as though I've stretched enough, that to stretch any further I'll snap.

Mark Twain said it so well:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines! Sail away from safe harbors. Catch the trade winds. Explore. Dream. Discover.

 

NSEW



So let me share another secret: anyone can move overseas and make a new life. You don't have to even want to do so, although it certainly helps. We've all encountered people like that, just passing time in a place that isn't what they thought it would be, isn't where they want to be.

You can set up a home and make it your own, make a few friends, find a job or work that fills your time, enjoy it (or not), go through the motions, and bide your time until your stay here is up and you either go home or go on to the next place.

But to really grab life with both hands and pull it so close that you're nose-to-nose with it?  To stop testing the water with your big toe and just go ahead and jump in, thrashing and splashing and hoping you'll make it back to the surface? To wring every last drop out of it?

That, my friends, takes a sense of adventure. Right up until the very end.

 

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Believing In My Values

NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches

 

We’re back — four intrepid souls who swap guests posts each month from the far corners of the globe. We are:

 

North: Linda in the Netherlands at Adventures in Expatland 

South: Russell in Australia at In Search of a Life Less Ordinary

East: Me, in Japan at Expatria, Baby

West: Maria in Canada at I Was an Expat Wife.

 

The great philosopher Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Let the examinations begin! Our theme this month is self-knowledge, or what expat life has taught us about ourselves.

At I Was An Expat Wife, I  learned that tolernce is much easier in theory than it is in practice. At In Search of a Life Less Ordinary, Linda realized that the more she learns about expat life, the less she actually knows. At Adventures in Expatland, Maria learned that within her timid exterior  — deep, deep within — beats the brave heart of a gambler.

 

Please do read our stories, and share some of your own in our comments sections. We’d love to hear what expat life has taught you about yourself.

And now, on with Russell's post wherein he learned to trust his gut and remain true to his values in his search for a fulfilling expat life.

 

***

 

All expats are not the same. 

 

But we do all have a vision of why we became expatriates and what we want our expat life to look like.

 



My own journey wasn’t the result of some high-faluting international assignment with a global corporation. I was not packed off to the tropics with wife in tow, dog under one arm, and a big house and eager manservant waiting for me at the other end. Joining the increasingly mobile ranks of professional transplants from around the world was simply not to be read from my tea leaves.

 

Dare I say that my expat journey was more personal? It was a self-initiated search for a different way of life. It was a self-funded move to a well-researched location in the hope that it could provide unique and exciting experiences, opportunities and adventure not readily available in my home country. 

 

I yearned for a better work-life balance away from the intensity of London commutes and traffic and noise. My entire being cried out for a more natural environment with mountains, ocean, freshwater lakes, and abundant wildlife. I wanted to enjoy my job but I wanted to love my home life more. I craved a wholesome existence, focusing on family, downtime and fun. The lifestyle I sought was an active, outdoors and environmentally-focused one. Most importantly, it would bring a peace and calm to the intensity of my pre-expat life and would wrap me and mine in these core values that I so passionately believed in - and that were the driving force behind my expat move.

 

Believe



The problem was that it didn’t take long before I lost sight of these values. Within two years of my first international move to a place where my value system was almost entirely fulfilled, I was challenged with job insecurity and role dissatisfaction. On the basis of career, and contrary to my gut instincts screaming at me to pull back, I moved my family cross-country to a second expat home and completely skewed my long-held values in the process. 

 

Looking back, I realise I’d reverted to the old ‘me’, the person who put the lure of an interesting job before the possibility of an exhilarating life. When faced with uncertainty and unease, I’d farewelled my intrinsic beliefs in how this expat life should be and replaced them with a single goal: to find a better job.

 

Arguably, I paid for the price over the next few years, unhappy with my decision and based in a city that didn’t tick the boxes and satisfy the soul. In ignoring my instincts and those niggling doubts, I’d landed us in an environment that was neither particularly exciting nor very stimulating. Life outside work was staid and routine when we should have embraced this new city. The outcome was always going to be the same. We were destined to move once again.

 

I learned much from this experience. I started to trust my instincts and believe that my core values were important to me. My next (and current) destination tied me back into many of those values I held dear: the improved location; better work-life balance; outdoors lifestyle; laidback way of living. And this much became obvious – I needed to always put these values first and remain true to the vision of what my life is and what I want it to be. By doing this, I would guarantee a match between what was dear to me and a location that could provide this.

 

Expat life has taught me that there are a range of ideas and desires that we expats go in search of – these are our core values. Whilst not all of these values can be found in every destination, some are absolutely non-negotiable. By trusting in my instincts and listening to my core beliefs in this final expatriate move, I had regained my focus on, and belief in, what was important and necessary for international expatriate happiness and fulfilment.

 

Expatriation continues to teach me that not all expats are the same - we want different things and have different needs. I learned that on my own expat journey, I will stay true to myself and believe in core values and goals. They are the key to a successful life lived abroad for, without them, an expat life is not all that appealing. 

 

Image: Photography by BJWOK / FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

 

----------------------

 

Russell VJ Ward

 

Russell is a British expat living on Sydney’s Northern Beaches in Australia writing about his search for a life less ordinary at www.insearchofalifelessordinary.com. He can also be followed at twitter @russellvjward.

 

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Coyote Ugly

The expat life is one of adventure, discovery, glamour, and...bumbling social ineptitude. And so, for the September edition of NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches, our ongoing guest-post project, our four expat bloggers are divulging their most embarrassing expat moments. 

Linda of Adventures in Expatland (North) demonstrates that a small vowel can cause big problems. Russell, who blogs at In Search of a Life Less Ordinary (South), discovers that wherever you are in the world, people enjoy a good laugh at the newbie’s expense. Erica of Expatria, Baby (East) writes of disastrous first impression that last and last and last. And finally, Maria who blogs at I Was an Expat Wife, reveals how her expat mantra of “try new things” led her astray.

I hope that you enjoy this month’s post by Maria Foley of iwasanexpatwife.com and do check out all of the other posts. There are many, many lolz to be had. 

***

One night in Singapore, my friends and I went to a bar named Coyote Ugly.

 



That pretty much sums it up; that’s my embarrassing expat confession. Just typing the words makes my cheeks burn. As a fortysomething stay-at-home mom, if I’m going to write a sentence that starts with “I went” and ends with “a bar named Coyote Ugly,” the words “out of my way to avoid” had better be sandwiched in there somewhere.

  Coyote Ugly

 

For those of Erica’s readers who might not be familiar with the expression, “coyote ugly” is an adjective that describes a physically repulsive woman. Why, you ask? Well, a coyote caught in a trap will chew off its limb in order to escape. Apparently, a man who goes home from a bar with an unattractive woman and wakes up in the morning with his arm trapped beneath her sleeping body will chew that arm off to make sneak out without waking her. Delightful, no? 



The term spawned a New York City bar of the same name, and Elizabeth Gilbert — long before she hit the jackpot with Eat, Pray, Love — sang its seedy praises in GQ magazine with “The Muse of the Coyote Ugly Saloon.” That article, in turn, became the inspiration for the movie Coyote Ugly. (I’ve never seen it, but its promos featured a scantily-clad Tyra Banks prancing around on a bar, dispensing body shots and getting her freak on in an extravaganza of questionable taste that made me want to poke my eyeballs out with a sharp pointy stick.)

 

I’m tempted to end my story right there, but I promised Erica 700 words on the subject and I’d hate to let her down, what with her being so nice and all. So here’s the rest:

 

We’d gone to see a show and had just left the theatre when Babs (definitely the Alpha Female in the group) declared that we were going clubbing. I hadn’t gone clubbing since my pre-stretchmark days, but loosen up and try new things was my expat mantra, so I agreed to give it a go. 

 

When I walked into the establishment Babs had chosen, I noticed two things simultaneously: the large sign that screamed COYOTE UGLY, and the Asian dominatrix cowgirls undulating on the bar. I almost walked out again. Not because dancing on bars was illegal in Singapore — it was, although I didn’t know it at the time — but because the whole cheesy scene was so determinedly louche I couldn’t bear to witness it.

 

I repeated my mantra through gritted teeth, and plodded on. We ended up having a great time — $18 margaritas will do that — and danced (on the floor) for hours. Sometime after midnight I declined the drink offered by a very polite British sailor named Charlie, but I desperately needed a glass of water so I went to the bar with him and let him do the ordering. 

 

I was either too naïve or too hopped up on overpriced cocktails to notice that the crush of people around me had mysteriously receded, rather like a modern-day reprise of that Moses + Red Sea incident. I became aware of the hushed air of expectancy a second too late. Time seemed to slow down as I watched the bartender reach under the bar and pull out something metallic, which she pointed directly at me. My brain screeched RUN, but after all that dancing my feet were too damn sore to obey.

 

And then she shot me. With a steady stream of ice-cold water. 

 

The place erupted in applause as I gasped for breath. I was horrified to discover I looked like an entry in a middle-aged wet t-shirt contest. But I had to admit, in the steamy atmosphere of the club, the cold shower felt good. So good, in fact, that when I did finally get my glass of water, I didn’t need it anymore. I dumped it over Charlie’s head instead. 

 

He stood motionless for a moment, dripping water onto the floor, before shaking himself all over like a Golden Retriever. Grinning from ear to ear, he asked, “Feel like dancing on the bar?”

 

I glanced up at the nymphets languidly swiveling their hips, shrugged, and said — 

 

Would you look at that: I finally reached the 700 word mark! Now that I’ve fulfilled my obligation to the charming Erica and the rest of the NSEW gang, I’m going to call it a day. That’s quite enough embarrassment for one blog post, thank you very much.

 

 

 

 

Photo credit: M. Foley | iwasanexpatwife.com

 

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A Silent Movie

NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches 

Welcome to the second four-way guest posting of NorthSouthEastWest! We are four expat bloggers who have joined together to rotate our monthly guest posts from the four corners of the world on each other's blogs: Linda at Adventures in Expatland (North), Russell at In Search of a Life Less Ordinary (South), me at Expatria Baby (East) and Maria at I Was an Expat Wife (West).

 This month's theme is 'how different cultures physically interact'. I hope you enjoy today's guest post on my site by Linda, and that you check out my NSEW guest post over at Adventures in Expatland. Better yet, why not check out all four?!

In the meantime, let me introduce you to Linda, an American expat and writer living in The Netherlands, and the brains behind the NSEW blog concept. She writes here a reflection on physical interaction, rudeness, and cultural relativism.

***

I've done plenty of travelling in my life, worked in the international arena for most of my career and lived in a country other than my own for a time when I was younger. So I'm used to observing and respecting cultural differences, and know that they certainly include the non-verbal.

But I have to admit that when I was preparing to move a few years ago to The Netherlands, it never really occurred to me that there would be all that many non-verbal differences in how we physically interact. After all, America and The Netherlands are two Western industrialized countries. English and Dutch even developed from the same base Germanic language.

What I should have realized was that of course the differences are there, just as they may exist if you move from one part of a country to another. 

It's a little like watching a movie without the soundtrack. Your mind is expecting certain actions or behavior, so if your eyes take in something other than what is expected, it registers. When the physical interactions between cultures are very different, it's immediately noticeable because it feels jarring. Others are more subtle, like nuanced shades of different; it takes a little time to notice them. Something feels gently out of kilter.

Probably the first difference I recall noticing was when we were settling in to life on an entirely Dutch street in a predominantly Dutch neighborhood. As I carefully retraced my steps to the ever-growing list of places with which I was becoming familiar (grocery store, local shops, tram stops, recycling station, nearest park to walk the dog), I'd smile and nod at passing pedestrians. For those making eye contact, I'd add a quick hello.

It wasn't long before it dawned on me that no one was returning my greeting. Some people even looked startled. By what?, I'd wonder. What to me was a passing pleasantry, an almost automatic courtesy, was clearly not standard procedure here.

And it grew from there.

Whenever I found myself waiting in close proximity at a tram or bus stop, rarely did anyone acknowledge my or anyone else's presence. No one ever made the casual passing remark one is used to in the United States. You know, the simple observations such as 'The bus is running late this morning' or 'What gorgeous weather this is!' indicating a sort of 'we're all in this together' attitude as we passed time in tight spaces.

Alvimann morguefile.com

It wasn't simply a case of language differences. No one said anything in Dutch, either.

In stores and shops and other public places, when someone had to press against you to get by, they didn't say Excuse me or Pardon me as they brushed past. They'd just turn sideways and slip by as if you weren't even there. Not in an aggressive manner, just getting on with business.

Much is made of the Dutch becoming accustomed to living in tight quarters over the centuries given the lack of land suitable for farming and building. Only with the advent of a sophisticated dyke system could the polder land be reclaimed from the sea. They're used to having many people interacting closely together, and somehow that has translated into no one saying even the Dutch sorry as they invade enter (at least from my own cultural perspective) your immediate personal space in the crowded aisles of the local Albert Heijn grocery store. 

Why? Because their definition of personal space in public areas is much narrower than many other cultures. It's simply taken for granted that in crowded places, people will end up being packed in tightly. No need to acknowledge it or the air would be filled constantly with a litany of Sorry. Sorry! Alstublieft. Zo sorry. Graag gedaan. Sorry. 

Rarely a dank u wel when you hold a door open for someone, either. Occasionally someone will hold the door for someone other than in their party, but not always. All part of a culture that believes strongly in a Calvinistic sense of personal responsibility. The door is there, of course one should be prepared to open it.

These are subtle cultural differences that, since they may differ from one's own social norms, are often trotted out as examples of how rude or standoffish the Dutch can be. But is this really so?

I think not. 

It's all a matter of perspective. What is expected in one culture may not even make the radar screen in another; what is acceptable in one may not be tolerated elsewhere. If we bring our value judgements to bear on the behavior of others in different cultures, we risk the stinging pronouncements of others on our own customs and expectations. We also miss out on what we're not seeing, what we're not observing.

Watch closely and you'll see that the Dutch are not without their own effusive salutations when they encounter someone they know. They'll do the standard Dutch greeting of three kisses. Not two as in many cultures, but a full three! Hands holding the other person's upper arms to draw in for a partial hug and then left, right, left: lips on cheeks if a family member or close friend, air kiss with cheeks touching for acquaintances.

Observe Dutch people interacting with someone they know and you'll hear the lilting singsong conversation and the high-pitched, drawn out Dooie! (akin to an informal See ya!) of some of the women, the easygoing joshing and guffawing of the men, the gentle teasing of teens and younger children by adults.

While perhaps not as 'hands on' as some cultures, the Dutch can indeed be generous in their physical interactions with others: they just draw their cultural circle of intimacy much smaller than some of us are used to. 

So more than two years on, how have I changed?

Well, I still make eye contact and greet most people passing on the sidewalk, but now it's with a short Morgen or Dag. Most respond, and very few ignore me or act surprised anymore. Sure, many of the neighbors that I haven't met probably recognize me by now, but whether they are responding due to a sense of familiarity or acceptance or just to humor me, we'll never know.

I still nod and smile at whoever is waiting in the tram shelter with me, but I don't think twice if they don't respond.

When I encounter a close friend, I easily slip into a cheeks-touching triple air kiss if they're Dutch, a single air kiss with a half hug if they're not.

I now say a quick Pardon when having to brush past someone in a crowded place, but don't expect it to be said in return. When I hear that or Excuse me, we both tend to spin around, realizing we've probably encountered a fellow expat or someone who's been socialized to say that.

Because that's the point. It often isn't about right or wrong or polite or rude, it's about how each of us has been socialized.

But you'll never EVER hear a high-pitched Dooie! pass these lips. I'm just saying.

 

{Image credit: Alvimann morguefile.com}

 

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Home is where the heart is, wherever that may be

 
NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches

 

Welcome to the inagural four-way guest posting of NorthSouthEastWest! We are four expat bloggers who have joined together to rouate our monthly guest posts from the four corners of the world on each other's blogs: Linda at adventuresinexpatland.com (North), Russell at insearchofalifelessordinary.com (South), Erica at expatriababy.com (East) and Maria at iwasanexpatwife.com (West). 

Sometimes we'll have a theme (July's theme today is Where We Are Right Now), some months we'll just write about whatever strikes our fancy. I hope you ejoy today's guest post on my site by Russell and that you check out my NSEW guest post over at I Was An Expat Wife. Better yet, why not check out all four?!

***

Me 2

Russell is a British expat living on Sydney’s Northern Beaches in New South Wales, Australia. Russell spends his time travelling the world and enjoying life by the ocean. He lived in the UK until 2003, before emigrating to Canada, then most recently to Sydney, Australia (his wife’s home city).

Read more about his expat search for a life less ordinary at www.insearchofalifelessordinary.com. He can also be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/russellvjward

Without further adoo, here's Russell. 

 

I’ve spent the past few weeks considering my expat life here in Sydney – what it means to me, how much I want to be here, whether my Australian life is sustainable and, if not, why not and where to now? 

I’m an expat by choice. I didn’t move here due to a job opportunity, wasn’t forced here by marriage or reckless, impossible love. It came down to a careful, measured decision. Where would my wife and I like to live our life?

Sydney Views

Given this quite deliberate choice, I’m curious as to why I’m questioning my expat life in this beautiful land down under. Maybe it’s because I’m an eternal wanderer, destined to a life lived in different places and always looking for that next overseas fix, that next stop on this international adventure. I’ve lived in the US, Europe, Canada, and now Australia. In each place, at some point, I’ve come to ask myself the question: what next? So why should this situation be any different?

Maybe it’s because I’ve been gone a long time. Eight years in Expat Land is a fair amount of time away and maybe I just want to go home… which raises a bit of a dilemma in itself. Where exactly is home and aren’t I home already? You see, we expats are a complicated bunch. We leave home to make a new home – or, in my case, several new homes. It all becomes a bit confusing to the emotions. Is Sydney my ‘home’? Do I fly ‘home’ each year to the UK? Where is my next ‘home’?

London

I was fortunate enough to take two overseas vacations in the first half of this year to two of my former homes. What better way to understand these confused emotions than to visit these places in the flesh and attempt to figure out where home is to me.

 

IMG_0245

Landing in Canada was an interesting experience. As the plane circled over Vancouver, a previous home of ours for nearly two years, I was hit by the ‘wow’ factor. That moment when you see the mountains, the ocean, the city skyline, the wilds of British Columbia visible on the horizon. It felt exciting and exhilarating to be back. On a deeper level, something stirred within. A pining, a longing for this town. We had left in a dizzy spin six years before, hurriedly following a job to the east, and having never really said goodbye – and never really having wanted to. As we explored our favourite city, we were full of adventure, not unlike expat newbies, wide eyed and in wonder of this interesting, new environment. Yet I also had a sense of this now being someone else’s adventure. We’d had our chance here but had chosen to move on. This was now somebody else’s dream, wasn’t it?

Arriving in England a few months later and emotions were running high. I’d returned to the place of my birth and a country in which I’d lived for more than 26 years. I’d been absent for almost three years and, upon returning, was immediately struck by how disconnected I felt. Reacquainting myself with the towns, villages and hamlets, the wonderful architecture and history, the vibrancy and size of cities like London contrasted with the sleepy backwaters of the south of England and their ever-present sense of community, I still couldn’t completely connect with my homeland. I pictured myself moving back with family in tow but struggled to visualise a town or area that could match the picture postcard beauty of Sydney or the outdoorsy spirit and vibe of Vancouver. I had opened a Pandora’s box of experiences and interests since leaving the UK in 2003 and I wondered if it was too late - and, I, too reluctant - to close it back up.

 

Pacific meets Australia
A few weeks after returning to Sydney and settling back in, once the emotions had hardened and the reality of day-to-day living had kicked in, I took stock of the life we had created here on the Northern Beaches and wondered whether I’d been premature to consider leaving and too eager to disregard this part of the world as my long-term home. I enjoy the life we’ve created for ourselves, from the simple weekend walks along the ocean front to the casual mid-week dining on the deck outside our little house, listening to those cheeky lorikeets whilst watching the early winter sun go down. But life here has had its problems and I wouldn’t be questioning our Sydney life if this weren’t so.

 

My trips to the northern hemisphere were quite revealing. Whilst I’d always thought of my homeland as my ‘home’, it seemed to no longer be the case. Vancouver was a previous home that excited and inspired me but may realistically never be home again – it’s much more likely someone else’s home now. And where I currently live may be our home for the time being until we opt to pick up and start over someplace else, like all good expats! 

 

Although I’m examining our next steps and re-assessing our future expat life, what I realised from my travels is that home is, for better or worse, wherever my family are. It’s where my work is, and where good friends and cherished weekend rituals co-exist. Home is where I’ve put down roots, however short or few they may be. Home will always be where my heart is but it will also be where my family and I live, wherever that is or wherever that may come to be.

 

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