Tag Archives: expat spouse

Stuck in the middle

The other weekend we went blackberry picking on a path near where we live. Like we might be the type of family that lives knee deep in Lego and laundry, watching TV in a super-urban apartment, and goodness knows what Janet Lansbury would make of the way I snap at the kids sometimes, but, whatever. We are also the kind of family that makes foraged jam. So wholesome.

I concentrated on filling up my ice-cream container while my husband helped M, who was very proud of the ten or so berries that ended up in his bucket. We left A buckled in her pram for safety’s sake, and as long as I fed her a berry every now and again she was happy. Until she wasn’t. And just then a family boated past us on the river, having a family sing-along.

Dammit. This isn’t wholesome family fun. Family sing-alongs while you boat is wholesome family fun. I’m doing this wrong. What must they think of the crazy woman standing in the blackberries while a toddler yells in a pram.

The yelling turns into crying.

I try to extract myself from the bush – cursing myself for wearing a skirt. And realise my jacket is snagged in many, many places. Turning to deal with that, my hair gets snagged by more thorns. I remember a recent episode of Peppa Pig, the one where they go blackberry picking and Mummy Pig gets stuck in a blackberry bush.

I have turned into Mummy Pig.

Dammit.

Mummy Pig just wants wholesome family fun. She just wants some fruit. And five minutes to pick berries without having to stop and admire a four year old’s basically empty bucket, or be yelled at. She just wants jam and maybe a crumble or two. Why does she have to be judged for her food choices? Why does she have to have her dignity stripped away by a blackberry bush – let’s all come laugh at the fat pig stuck in the prickly thorns! Why does she have to involve the whole family and share when all she wants is a fucking dessert? It’s not all about you Peppa!

Somehow I ripped myself free.

Or did I?

I came home to see the always excellent Andie Fox (@bluemilk) retweeting an old post because the same old tired arguments about mothers keep happening.

We will know we’re living in a world of equality not when just as many men as women are staying home making jam and looking after babies but when women can talk about their life making jam and looking after babies without everyone freaking the fuck out.

Because maybe the blackberry bush I am actually stuck in is a metaphorical one; a thorny tangle of attacking mothers for the choices they make. It seems in these days of information overload, we can’t just make a decision. We are expected to have thought about it – to have done our research. Then everyone gets to analyse our decision, and journalists write crappy clickbait articles about the mommy wars. But these choices (if we actually get a choice) aren’t about society. They are just the choices that we make for our life. Choosing jam doesn’t mean giving up on gender equality. But it is hard when you are in the thick of it to know if what you are doing is right. So does picking blackberries make me a better mother? Or does being mired in domesticity mean I am a poor role model? Or does it tell you nothing about me other than the fact we have blackberry bushes nearby and I like to cook?

And to eat.

So I made crumble. And I made jam. And my children and I shared licking the spoon and got happy, sticky, jammy faces.

Conclusion: It’s just fucking jam. Stop overthinking things.

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#Iamanimmigrant

I wonder.

I wonder about those who cannot walk in another person’s shoes. Those who only see the opportunities taken, but cannot see the price paid.

I wonder about those who feel so threatened by people like me they can only respond with hate. Oh, I know, not really people like me. I am the right sort of immigrant. But, I am still an immigrant.

I wonder if they have ever thought what that would entail.

I wonder if they have ever walked off a plane, out of a railway station, and looked around, lost, no landmarks they recognise. And not with the excitement of a few days to bumble around a city, but with the knowledge this is your home now. Find your way, make it work. This is where you stay.

I wonder if they have had to register people’s surprise, when they open their mouth and begin to talk. Oh, you’re one of those.

I wonder if they know how it feels to stand in a queue, at the shops, the post office, mentally rehearsing the conversation you need to have once it is your turn. Hoping it stays on predictable tracks.

I wonder if they have ever felt the hopelessness of not being able to make yourself understood. I wonder if they know the moment the conversation moves beyond you; if they have ever felt that blank stare on their own face, searching their mind for words and grammar they don’t have, only for it to be met with a flicker of irritation.

I wonder if they know how exhausting even a trip to the supermarket can be. What it feels like to stand in front of all the cleaning products, trying to guess from the pictures which is the one you want. How bewildering the selection of flour can seem. How sometimes you buy something and get it wrong, or you don’t buy, only to find out later you were looking at the right thing after all.

I wonder if they know how it feels to be the person who spends too long reading the signs: the notices up at daycare, the notices to residents of your apartment block. This is, I suppose, what it is like to be functionally illiterate, lacking the access to information everyone around you takes for granted.

I wonder if they know how unpredictable the world can seem, when all the little social rules are so clearly ingrained, and yet so impenetrable to you. That nobody ever knows you didn’t know until too late. The sort of clothes your children are supposed to have, what to take with you to parties, what foods you are supposed to eat and when. That every public holiday is a surprise.

I wonder if they know what it feels like to have a child more fluent in the local language than you. The pride, mixed with frustration at not being able to follow them into conversations they want to have.

I wonder if they realise that these language problems are fleeting and generational. Adults will manage and muddle through and if allowed children will integrate easily. Bi-lingualism is not a threat. It is a skill, an asset, a bridge between worlds.

I wonder if they know the nagging question I ask myself. Is it worth it? So far from ‘home’, from family? Do the benefits outweigh the costs?

I wonder if they understand that we make new homes. We grow to love places that were not ‘ours’ to begin with.

I wonder if they know the doubts. The way parents question themselves, as they watch their children assume a new identity. Will they be accepted?

I wonder if they know how it feels to watch their child play with their friends; the funny-sounding parents as important as who does or does not have a cat, less important than who does or does not like to dig holes with you. I wonder if they know how it feels to think that all it takes is media hype and careless words for your children to discover that they were not welcomed after all. Merely tolerated.

I wonder how it would feel for that toleration to disappear. To find decency is no longer required. To find yourself put up for public judgement and the verdict is you are not welcome.

I wonder.

We’re going where the sea is blue

It has been a stressful time recently, so we decided what could be more relaxing than a holiday with kids? We decided to take advantage of a long weekend and traveled to Ebeltoft for a night. For the most part it was fabulous. Fabulous. But it was also testing and tiring.
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We don’t have a car, so travelled by bus from Aarhus. On the way there it worked perfectly. But on the way home, tired after new exciting experiences, M decided to be – difficult. I’ll take some responsibility; we did briefly lose track of time, and then we realised we needed to rush to make the bus home. They are only hourly, and waiting for the next one was getting too late. Have you ever tried to rush our son? After working hard to keep the holiday calm and relaxing it suddenly turned into GET YOUR CLOTHES ON! GET YOUR SHOES ON! While he yelled NO! NO! And then we really only had 15min until the bus, with a 10min walk to the bus stop. So I said WE JUST HAVE TO GO EVEN THOUGH YOU DON’T HAVE SHOES ON!!

He went from uncooperative to hysterical. It was awful. I realised that he hadn’t seen me shove his shoes under the pram, and so thought I meant we would leave his shoes behind. Hysterical, but also cooperative. Shoes on, M dumped down on the buggy board, and I raced off; my husband grabbed the bags and locked the door. We made it. But my son spent almost the entire walk crying. It was not the end to our holiday we had hoped for.

* * *

Nobody has asked why I chose the name I did for this blog. Perhaps some vague assumptions about Scandinavian design, and innovation. The behemoth of furniture shopping that shall remain nameless. Of course that was on my mind. But it is also how I feel about this nomadic-expat lifestyle my husband and I have fallen into. This year will be our tenth wedding anniversary, and we have lived in four countries during those ten years. Not by design, or even strong desire. Life just kinda worked out that way.

Every time we move we have to dismantle our lives. Pack the boxes. Choose what to take, and what to sell. Say goodbye to friends and places and routines. And then arrive somewhere new. Reassemble our lives. Unpack the boxes. Fit our old belongings into a new house. Try to make new friends, find new places, make new routines.

And like flatpack furniture, things don’t always fit together the same as they did before. It is always a little different, the angles have shifted slightly.

The folk-wisdom of expats is something like this: the first year is either exciting or depressing. Then you know your way around, but you don’t really feel like you belong. Three years feels like maybe you could stay. Five years to feel like you really belong. We’ve never managed the five years.

We have gained a lot, and had such wonderful experiences with this life we’ve led. But I also know that every time we leave somewhere we lose something too. There is a part of me that will always call Wellington, Cambridge, Canberra ‘home’. And my childhood homes too – Lower Hutt, and Germany. Some parts of me will never be at home again.

If there is one thing I’ve learned it is that even when you know you are leaving eventually, you can’t live in a state of impermanence for long. You have to make yourself a home. Dig your heels in and build a new life. Make new friends, find new places, make new routines.

* * *

Ebeltoft is situated on the Djursland peninsula which juts out in to the Kattegat; the strait between Denmark and Sweden, that eventually opens out into the Baltic Sea.  The Kattegat – around here at least – can seem strangely calm to a New Zealander, who has grown up near coasts where winds blow straight from Antarctica. Ebeltoft was particularly idyllic. Nestled into a bay, the opening of which is tucked in under the peninsula, the seas were very calm. It would be spectacular in summer. We’ve had a couple of cold weeks, sleet and hail, wind and rain. They say in Denmark you always need to be prepared for any kind of weather. Well, we were not prepared for the amount of sunshine we got.
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On that stunning Saturday afternoon we walked out to the end of the harbour pier, where in this peaceful place the cannons are still fired weekly. Ahead of us was blue sky and blue sea, green hills curving in to mark the entrance to the bay. Somewhere behind those hills, further down the coast lies our home, Aarhus.

Our home. Hjem. It feels like that to me. And certainly to my son.

I stood at the edge of the sea, feeling these northern winds blowing gently on my skin, the hush of a calm northern sea. The Dannebrog waving above us. And I knew, then, one day we will leave a piece of ourselves behind. One day we’ll ask our son to lose something much bigger, much more important than his shoes. Maybe a different child would take it easily, but we have to deal with the child we have; he is not going to find it easy.

We have a good life here. We are able to give him some wonderful experiences. But we also have to teach him how to uproot himself. This isn’t something that can be done in a rush. It is going to be hard to say goodbye to our life here. To start again, somewhere else. But wherever we end up, we’ll do it. Make new friends, find new places, make new routines.

I also know, we’ll carry a little piece of Denmark with us when we go.

der har jeg rod, derfra min verden går

Kære Aarhus,

It has been two years since we arrived. An unbelievable two years.

Making the decision to move here was difficult. Saying good-bye to my mother at the airport was heart-wrenching. I know a lot of people were surprised to see us move so far from home, but as my wise cousin said to me that was a decision that could only be made by those affected, and we didn’t have to justify it to anyone. Those words have given me more strength than I think she knew. I made my peace with my decision; though I won’t lie, there are moments of regrets. But I know my mother didn’t want her illness to hold us back. Like any mother really.

We stepped off the plane in Copenhagen, out into a taxi rank, tired, stressed, bewildered at the magnitude of what we were doing. Our son, M, then 18months old, produced two new words that first day, “windmill” and “cold”. Perhaps he understood what this country was about.
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It turned out that a free online course and the first season of Borgen were not great preparation for the reality of getting by amongst Danish speakers. I’ve come a long way since selvfølgelig seemed like the biggest tongue-twister out there. We went for a walk just after Christmas on a day with bitterly cold winds. My cheeks and lips were so numb I struggled to shape them into consonants. Perhaps this why Danish sounds the way it does. Though this would not explain why Norwegians speak so beautifully.

But the language barrier is not so great since virtually everyone speaks fantastic English. Even those that insist ‘only a little. Not very well’ before launching into complex sentences with multiple clauses and only making a mistake when they have to pronounce a ‘v’. Anti-waxers had me stumped for a while. But really Danes, you are very patient with our fumbling attempts to learn your language. At least you know nobody ever arrives on your shores with a high school level of Danish. So you welcome all these beginner level speakers.
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Or do you? It seems, based on your recent elections, you are becoming less tolerant. I think the stress of being more welcoming than most of Europe has become too much. You shouldered a larger burden of migrants while other countries turned their backs. And it has been hard for Denmark. When for so many centuries nobody wanted to come here. To this ‘lille land’. So for centuries there has been only one way to be Danish. All us migrants are changing that, and some of you want that to stop. But I think that horse has already bolted. And perhaps the greatest threat is not people who don’t eat flæskesteg for Christmas, or people who don’t celebrate Christmas, but your growing intolerance.

And we do try to be less ‘udansk’. I realise now we made some grave errors in decorating our apartment. We hung our lights in an incorrect way. You are right, they are not very hygge. Our furniture is not minimalist enough. But I have a Kähler vase now, so I hope that counts for something. I confess that two years here has not taught me to understand all your ways. Like the obsession with the light wood floors. Tell me Denmark, how do you keep them clean? Especially in winter, when the streets are salted and gritted and you have a pre-schooler? Is it possible? Or do you all sweep multiple times a day too?

Often the locals ask me ‘why?’ Why did we move here? To this land of winter, rain and wind. I admit on paper they seemed quite daunting. But looking closer Aarhus, you have half the annual rainfall of my home town. And while your wind is cold, it is hardly ever gale force. To my surprise it is easier to take a pre-schooler out here, in a cold, dry snow than in a boggy soggy Wellington winters’ day. Sure the summer is hardly spectacular, my Australian friends would be very unimpressed. But I find much to admire in your fierce embrace of what summer you get, – sun bathing on your decks at the first rays of sunshine, regardless of temperature.
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I love the seasons. The silver frosted trees -winter blossom my son called it- replaced by tiny green buds. The clichéd red, orange and brown cascades of leaves in autumn. It is the variation of light that I have learnt to enjoy the most. The long, long summer days with nights where the sky never goes truly black, only a deep blue, a promise of sunshine only a few hours away. To the grim grey of winter. I am always amused to find myself staring at a patch of cloud, only to realise that, yes that is the sun hiding behind it. I never understood that the sun would stay so low on the horizon that even day would be so dim. Or that the cloud would be so thick that the temperature does not vary from midnight to midday. But shift slightly either side of that grey, you have whole days where if the sun makes it out from behind the clouds it casts that beautiful magic hour glow you usually only get just before sunset.
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You’ll never win any beauty contests Aarhus, but there are places, views I have learnt to love. The dinosaur sunrises down at your industrial harbour. The Rainbow perched above the city. Those particular shades of orange and mustard yellow stucco on old cottages. Our nature walks along the Brabrandstein. I’ve learnt where to go to get a great coffee, and a pastry. Where to buy decent fish. Where to pick blackberries.
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These are perhaps the greatest achievements to me. That after two years I feel I have solved some of the great challenges of expat life. They are not just good coffee shops, but my favourite coffee shops. My favourite walks. My local shops. We have managed to turn the unfamiliar into the familiar.

I’ve written before about my wish to give my children turangawaewae. At times I have misgivings about our choices. I wonder if the costs have been too high. But today I think we have made roots here. We know our future here probably does not extend further than 2017, so they will never be deep. But this will always be the city my son spent his preschool years, the city my daughter was born in, the city I grieved my mother in. So I know I will look back and be able to say:

Aarhus, for a time at least, you were home.

K.H.