The other night on the couch, Rob said, “I find myself thinking in British English sometimes.” And it’s true; I do too. One of the odd things about not just just expat life, but about moving in general as often as we do, is the way you can feel like an imposter as you integrate into your new life. After four years in Nashville, I was throwing out hearty “y’alls” like I was born and raised in the deep South. A neighbor even praised me for it, saying he was glad I didn’t say “you guys” like the other Northerners he knew. It left me confused. When I would talk to family or my Midwestern friends on the phone, I was aware of the “Bless your hearts” and the “y’alls” that peppered my speech. I felt like a fake. So I self-edited and carefully enunciated, “How are you all” or yep, said the dreaded “you guys.” But if you’re correcting away from what feels natural, isn’t that being a faker too?
And now, here we are….Americans living in Luxembourg, learning French and hearing British English. Plasters for Band-aids, Maths for math, crisps for chips, torch for flashlight, brilliant for awesome. Communications from the school ask the kids to choose their “favourite colour” and to wear a Christmas jumper. In order to live in a foreign country and thrive, you force yourself to embrace the strangeness and daily discomfort of a completely new way of life. After 18 months, we’re forever changed; the brain does funny things to help you adapt and assimilate. I no longer break into a sweat speaking French on the phone, not because my language skills have necessarily improved, but because I’m totally comfortable — even conditioned — to sounding ridiculous. Like mixing up the word for monkey and blood when I’m speaking to the kids’ pediatrician. Even at home, I offer the kids biscuits instead of cookies, and I take them to the piscine instead of the pool. The first time my British girlfriend told me she was shattered, I texted a mutual (American) friend and we planned a quasi-intervention. Then I found out she was just telling me she was particularly tired with a newborn at home. As a mother of four living in a foreign country, I too am shattered. Absolutely shattered.
Being an expat abroad means we’ve all unilaterally left our families behind. While we have emotional support from back home (wherever that may be) and the gift of technology to connect “face-to-face,” tactical, on-the-ground support comes from friends, and that means our friends become like family. We lean harder, ask more of each other and change some of the rules. Girlfriends I had only known for eight weeks sat with me in my hospital room after I had our fourth baby; they brought my family meals, picked my kids up from school and stopped by the pharmacy to buy my nursing supplies. Nothing like having a brand new friend pick up your nipple cream. But some relationships have a temporary undercurrent — expats are an itinerant population. Everyone’s always coming and going, and traveling every weekend to get the most out of our collective European Experience. We all leave for the summer and come back right before school starts. It’s kind of like we’re on an extended college spring break.
As a former expat kid now raising expat kids, my story may have seemed a little interesting when we were living in middle America. But over here, where Italians marry French, raise their kids in Belgium, summer in Majorca, and everyone speaks four languages by the time they reach high school…well, my story is not at all unique or even remotely interesting. I’ve moved 14 times since I was born, including 5 different countries and 6 states in the U.S. (that’s not including a cute college study abroad or local moves from house to house). I hesitate internally when people ask me where I’m from while I make a snap decision between the quick answer or the real answer. I usually say, “Oh, I went to high school in Peoria, IL,” which is where Caterpillar’s world headquarters are (most of my family and my husband work for the company). Fast forward to the present, and by my youngest son’s fourth birthday, he had already lived through four transfers. I was taken aback when my six year old’s first grade teacher told me matter of factly that Charlie didn’t know where he was from, and I felt sad last year when my daughter walked out of 2nd grade and expressed the same confusion while writing a school essay. When you picture giving your children roots “so they have wings to fly”….this wasn’t quite what I imagined. So I googled “Raising expat kids” and gave them my best shot: Home is always going to be wherever our family is together.
They wanted to know where we’re really from. So I gave it another try. I told them that since we lived in Nashville the longest, that we’re most likely moving back to Nashville one day (it’s where Caterpillar’s financial headquarters are located) and that two of four children in our family were born there, that’s where we call home. The fact is they probably have a lifetime ahead of choosing between the quick answer or the real answer.
We’re all a hodgepodge of our life experiences. Real roots come from my children’s sense of security and trust in the world, which is established through our daily interactions from the moment they’re born. It comes from their absolute confidence that they are loved and safe, and that our family is a ironclad unit. The experiences we’re gaining from moving and traveling are teaching them to march into new classrooms, try something completely new, and appreciate new cultures and religions. I love watching them make friends in an airport or a playground — when they can’t understand each other, they just run around in circles and laugh. What a beautiful language. Last night, Madeline’s entire horseback riding lesson was in Luxembourgish, of which we do not speak a single word. She observed the girls around her and followed suit. And if you can believe it, in her first-ever group lesson, she actually fell off her horse, brushed the dirt off her face, wiped her tears and was back on her horse by the time I made it to the ring. However cliché, there couldn’t be a more apt or timely life metaphor. We’re bumbling through our days, doing the best we can, laughing at our mistakes, ordering pommes de terres (potatoes) instead of jus de pommes (apple juice) when the waiter asks what we’d like to drink. And sometimes we throw out a “y’all” and a “voila” all in the same sentence.