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Culture Vulture
On the ipod:
  • The Joshua Tree
    The Joshua Tree
    U2 /Island Catalog
  • Love & Hate
    Love & Hate
    UMGRI Interscope
On the Kindle:
  • The Dinner (Movie Tie-In Edition): A Novel
    The Dinner (Movie Tie-In Edition): A Novel
    by Herman Koch
  • The Orchardist: A Novel (P.S.) Reprint Edition by Coplin, Amanda [2013]
    The Orchardist: A Novel (P.S.) Reprint Edition by Coplin, Amanda [2013]
    by aa
Bucket List
  1. Malawi
  2. Kilamanjaro
  3. Masai Mara National Reserve - Kenya
  4. Djenne - Mali (West Africa)
  5. Loango National Park - Gabon
  6. Goree Island, Senegal (West Africa)
  7. Tswlu Kalahari Game Reserve (S. Africa) 
  8. Grootbos Nature Reserve 
  9. Morrocco
  10. Mauritius
Wednesday
Aug102016

Digital Free Down Under

 

Below is an article I wrote for an expatriate magazine distributed at the company we have worked for and relocated with over the past 10 years. The original was much longer so it was edited for the sake of space and readership. Enjoy!

*** 

Carolyn is a fundraiser and former Outpost Focal Point. She and her husband Edmund, VP Finance, Integrated Gas moved to Melbourne, Australia in 2006 on their first international assignment after living in Houston for many years. The couple recently returned to the US after three years in Lagos, Nigeria. Here she discusses moving overseas for the first time with a toddler and a baby on the way on the cusp of the digital age.

Whenever someone asks me about expat life, I instinctively say how much I loved it and how lucky we were. I’ve always felt lucky because we scored Lagos and Australia as expat destinations. While Lagos was an adventure, Melbourne was a dream.

But Melbourne was not without its challenges. We arrived in December 2006, with little time to prepare. A preview trip was impossible for me because of my pregnancy, but had some Australian friends to lean on. They invited me to a traditional Aussie dinner of “meat and three veg” and pavlova for dessert. They talked about the culture and showed me a hilarious promotional video with the tagline “Australia – Where the Bloody Hell Are You? Those experiences, plus my Lets Go Australia guide, were the extent of my research. I worked full time and was 30 weeks pregnant with baby number two, so when the day arrived to head to Australia, we simply picked up our daughter and blindly got on the plane.

Did I mention this was 2006? In Australia, this meant pre-smart phones, pre-Instagram, pre-Snapchat. Pre-Yelp and Google Maps. Pre-Uber. Pre-Skype. Facebook existed but no one I knew used it. I still owned a Palm Pilot which I naively brought with me hoping it might work “over there”.  I also had an MP3 player but it was rarely used due to the difficult set-up and constant file-sharing lawsuits. I did, however invest in a very indulgent…wait for it…Franklin Quest hard-bound day planner. It was bright green leather and cost as much as the stroller because I insisted on buying three year’s worth of calendar inserts and to-do lists in case they didn’t carry the same sizes in Melbourne. (perhaps like the Australian bed sheets that followed a mysterious sizing chart?)

Landing in Melbourne was exciting but also exhausting. It was Australian summer and I was extremely pregnant. I had no childcare for my daughter due tosummer hollies” and no idea where anything was located. We didn’t have a car and struggled to find “maxi taxis” big enough for our family and luggage. Although my Let’s Go guide and map from the train station were helpful, I desperately needed a cell phone. I didn’t understand how to manage a mobile phone contract without an address so I took the first pay-as-you-go-phone I found. It was a hot pink flip phone and came with a free sample of Britney Spears perfume, ("Fantasy – everybody has one"). It had a small Britney Spears charm hanging off it (yay!) but an archaic number keypad (boo!). I had that phone the entire three years we lived in Australia.

After finding our permanent accommodation, it took a lifetime to get Internet access. Most of Australia was still wired via “dial-up” and many cities had no Internet at all.  In the interim, I registered for a library card, having to reserve the computer terminal for small blocks of time in order to attempt to email my family. The download speed was like watching paint dry. I made little progress before my time was up or the connection was lost.

Thankfully we had some foresight and purchased a pre-paid, re-chargeable phone card from Costco in the USA. It cost a small fortune over three years and we had to get up in the middle of the night to call home because of the 15 hour time difference but it was a life saver in a world without Skype or FaceTime. 

Australian television was also a bit behind the rest of the world. Other than Two and A Half Men and The Simpsons, we struggled to find familiar shows (and something that didn’t solidify the horrible stigma on Americans - Cops? Really?).  My daughter had never watched TV but we caved and bought a portable DVD player for the interminable flight over. You can imagine how long it lasted after continuous use by a media-starved two-year-old! When we purchased a new one in Australia, we discovered none of our US discs would work on an Australian device. We had access to a Blockbuster video store (remember those?) but their DVDs carried the dreaded PAL symbol for Region 2 (aka the other side of the planet) and so we couldn’t watch them on our Region 1 system.

Looking back, one of the turning points was finding other Americans. Although I was part of a wonderful mother’s group with Australians, you can’t underestimate the importance of finding other expats, especially those that come with stuff…important stuff like People magazine and books. And pumpkin puree. And Tylenol. And a Vogue that covered fashions from the hemisphere you are planning your home visit to and not the one you are living in. Trading coveted items amongst friends opened the door to a world of normalcy at a time when we were feeling far away from home. Most of us had very young children which can be a lonely existence even in your home country. LOST, Oprah, Dora, Sesame Street, Thomas the Train, Grey’s Anatomy – we finally felt like we were back on the grid, even if we were a few seasons behind. Similar to our student days when we would discard a used book in a youth hostel, we would trade ideas on dog-eared copies of InStyle or Eat, Pray, Love while having a “cuppa and a chin wag”.

While technology was advancing across the globe, Australia seemed to move a bit slower due to its vast island mentality and “no worries mate” culture. Like all expat assignments, things became easier with time. We found what we needed through friendships and by living everyday life like the locals. I met mums at the beach park and exchanged numbers using my trusty planner (later dubbed “my diary”). We found swim classes, babysitters and things for sale by perusing the bulletin boards at the Melbourne Market. Eventually we watched The Castle and The Dish and Summer Heights High.  I listened to Hamish & Andy every morning on the (gasp) radio and became a Kylie fan. The kids called me “mummy” and looked forward to fairy floss and cordial at parties. We lived at the beach and watched the kids play in the surf whilst eating fish and chips. Like I said, Melbourne was a dream.


Monday
Aug242015

"Lost in the Supermarket"

 

Below is an article I recently wrote for an expatriate newsletter on repatriation since I couldn't bring myself to send the one titled Like A Wrecking Ball. Enjoy!

***

There’s an old song by the Clash (okay so that’s a bit of an oxymoron – anyone who knows the Clash knows it is old) but I digress… So there’s this song that has been running through my head almost daily since we, ugh, “repatriated” (don’t you hate that word?). Maybe you remember it (“I’m all lost in the supermarket, I can no longer shop happily”..)? The song comes to me, like a haunting - without warning, in my very large car, in a very large parking lot, with other very large cars closing in on my space and judging my hesitancy (I’m sorry but I haven’t driven in three years okay?!!).

Mostly it comes to me as I stand there in the cereal aisle of a larger-than-my-college-campus-H.E.B, in a fog, wondering what could possibly have been wrong with the original Cheerios. Why are there 15? Is nothing sacred?! Yes, there are fifteen different types of Cheerios. I actually went to the website for the purposes of this article to check. Fifteen. (Dulche de Leche? Seriously?) And there I am – in a repatriated stupor in the supermarket. And here comes the song (“And the silence makes me lonely”). It’s tragic really. But no more tragic than the fact that I’ve just spent the last three years in Lagos dreaming about food; dreaming about shopping for food; dreaming about eating American food and all the choices that come with it.

This basically sums up repatriation for me. It is a nonsensical roller coaster. And it is far more intense and scarier than I anticipated. It’s a rollercoaster of every emotion possible - sadness, fear, anger, happiness, frustration, with a hearty side order of soon-to-be-doomed-expectations. Some days I am riding the euphoric high of Americana (the movie theatre has waiters? And wine?! ) The next day is a kick in the gut (what do you mean our public school has a wait list?). Actually several days (weeks?) have felt that way. Can we please discuss the special type of Hell that is the DMV? Getting my license, getting the car, getting the car insurance, finding a pediatrician, finding a dentist, finding the health insurance cards, understanding the health insurance cards – it is exhausting. And it is certainly not the warm welcome you hope for when you return to a place everyone but you calls Home.

Friends and family don’t always understand either. They assume we are happy (nay, thrilled!) to be “out of there”, out of harm’s way, and finding some “normalcy” (I’m starting to loathe that word) when in reality I miss my friends desperately. I miss my driver. And our nanny. I miss the nail lady (and the waxer, the masseuse, the plumber) that came to our house. I even miss the annoying estate manager constantly trying to fumigate our flat or clean the air cons. I miss our old life every day. I know I should be grateful for all the wonderful advantages our home country has to offer (family, friends, a malaria-free environment) but I’m just not there yet.

Years ago, I read that famous book “A Moveable Marriage” (c’mon, you know you have it too) and the chapter on reverse culture shock. I scoffed and snickered at the image of the newly repatriated “trailing spouse” (ick! Can we please do away with that word? Geez.) who can’t even operate the dish washer and vowed that would never be me.

Says the woman staring blankly at 15 boxes of Cheerios…

Monday
Jul062015

"Like a Wrecking Ball"

 

"I've.. I've been gone.. I've been gone too long; Singin' my songs on the road, another town; One more show then I'm coming home..."

And then this happened. We're back. Or rather, we've been back - for about a month. 4 weeks to be exact. One month since we moved back from Nigeria and about two months since we found out we were being, gulp, "repatriated".

I really hate that word. Repatriated. Possibly almost as much as "trailing spouse" or "accompanying partner" but just enough to make the top of my list. There's something about the word that is just disagreeable. For me, any word that starts with the prefix -Re implies negativity. Returned. React. Reverse. Refuse. The word somehow suggests that you did something wrong and are now effectively...what? Being sent packing? Being shown the door? Deported? Exchanged? Nope. Repatriated. As my friend Dana said, The Party's Over.

I realize our friends and family don't see our move that way. They see it as a Homecoming. Especially after such a tumultuous year (do I need to Re-name the Evil E words again? No not Enron... but Ebola? Elections?). My family and friends are happy. For them, we are out of harm's way and in a place they can understand - and actually visit. But I just don't feel that way - not yet anyway.  I know it is partly because I really did (despite my many, many, rants) enjoy my life there. And I wasn't alone in that. I loved the travel and the people and the colorful, albeit unpredictable culture. I loved being part of the club that only people who have lived in Lagos can belong to. But I knew many who didn't like that life; who actually dreamed of being "re-patted" (ick, it's even uglier when you try to abbreviate it!). For them, repatriation was something to hope for - like getting discharged from the Army or a hospital. But I never understood that.

Being on assignment and exploring a new country gave me purpose, even if it was a temporary purpose at best. I realize there are a lot of reasons to be happy about returning to our home country. A new and rewarding job for E, a beautiful new home for our family, a different learning environment for the kids, access to friends and loved ones we don't always have time to see. Ultimately it provides a much needed return to "normalcy", if you can call it that.  But for me, returning home doesn't feel normal. Mostly because I don't feel I have a strong identity in my home country. If I have any kind of identity, it is oddly, being "Someone In Transition". Sometimes I think I've spent the last 15 years in some type of transitional phase - Newly married/New to Houston; Employed/Unemployed/Employed again; Trying to get pregnant/being pregnant/getting pregnant again; moving to Australia and Re-turning home.. then moving once again. 

Finally, I have to admit - it's far easier to avoid long term commitments like career goals when you are constantly in transition. It is a quick and easy crutch. It's my Go To Crutch and I know it. I use it to avoid making decisions about getting a Masters degree or starting my own business for example. And when your "job" is to relocate (Re!) children across the globe and make sure everyone else's needs are met, it's easy to put all your own needs aside. 

The amazing thing about expat life is that you are rarely alone in your experiences. Not surprisingly, my friend Inga (names have been changed to protect the tall blond and innocent!) is going through a similar experience right now. She impressed me by saying she was eager to return home so she could "do Houston better this time". Despite my funk over our move, I know she has the right attitude. Other friends have suggested the same - to treat our move like another assignment - to eek... Re-Do it.  So that's my plan - for now anyway. A Do-Over. To be an expat in my own back-yard. To be a tourist in my own town. To try to love on Houston a bit harder. 

"Crash right through the front door, back you up against the wall... Love ya baby like a wrecking ball"...
Saturday
Mar282015

"Everybody Wants to Rule the World"

I can't stand this indecision, Married with a lack of vision, Everybody wants to rule the world..

Today marks the beginning of our fourth and final "lock-down" weekend due to the National Election taking place in Nigeria this month. To be fair, we skipped out on two of them and took the kids to South Africa for the Easter break but nonetheless, it's about to get Real Quiet.

I'm not sure I can define how completely bizarre and stressful the past 6 months have been for us. First Ebola, now the Election. We used to call Enron Corp "the Evil E" after the Hell we all went through for them, but clearly that title has been usurped. 

The first weekend was an unforeseen lock-down following the announcement that the Presidential Election, originally scheduled for February was being postponed by.. wait for it..  6 (six!) weeks. Cue flashbacks to the Ebola-driven school delays totaling 7 weeks here. Our Company's security department was concerned there would be backlash following the announcement and we were "asked" to stay inside the boundaries of our compound.  At the time, the election drama plus the constant threat of Boko Haram had really added to the tension so everyone agreed it was the right call.

Being under "Lock-Down" essentially means there is no driving to or from the office, school or basically any movement outside of our residences. A lot of people think we live on some kind of "camp" or golf resort with stores and clubs within the walls of the property but that is not the case. Our compound consists of four major apartment blocks, a gym, a pool area, and a building where much of the staff lives called the DQ (Domestic Quarters). It is similar in size to many apartment communities in Houston - just with armed guards outside. It is clearly not a hardship when compared to how most Nigerians live - I know this. I remind myself of this - constantly. However, when you are already living in a restricted environment it feels a bit unfair to be sequestered in your own home. You also find yourself engaged in "hurricane level" shopping in a grocery store the size of a CVS with every other expat in Nigeria. Milk, water, cooking gas, staples like pasta, cereal, canned goods, ahem ALCOHOL.. these are things that can be hard to come by under normal circumstances let alone when there is a national panic. Not. Very. Calming. 

The second Lock-Down period was for the Gubernatorial (yes, that's a word) Election, which was for the governor - not as contentious but still, another weekend under lock-down.  The third Lock-Down was for the actual Presidential Election and the fourth was a placeholder for the run-off in case the vote was too close to call (read: all Hell breaks loose and there is a military coup. lovely).

And I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Surely, you can go somewhere.. down the street or to a friend's house?". But No. On the actual voting days, only Nigerian citizens with voting rights (and the paperwork to prove it!) can be on the road during voting hours. Some say it's a security measure - to keep protests from escalating and to keep non-Nigerians with ulterior motives from voting illegally. Most believe it is a way of deterring poor people with no access to transportation from voting. I am not sure what to believe. I just know that it would be far more interesting to be out in the street watching Nigerians practice their democratic right, even change their fate than to be stuck under lock-down watching from our golden perch.

I feel this is one of those overseas experiences that no one can really prepare you for - not that you will be under lock-down for 4 weeks straight but that you can't even experience major changes within the culture that you're visiting.

I guess all you can do is try to talk to the people around you, ask their opinion and engage them in conversation about what's happening in their country (theirs.. not yours). I mean, hell, what else are you going to do under lock-down?


 

Wednesday
Mar112015

"Something Good Can Work"

Let's make this happen, girl you gonna show the world that something good can work and it can work for you. 
And you know that it will. 

Today marks Three Years since we moved to Lagos. Three! It is hard to believe, even for me - the person who is actually living this life every day. Honestly, some days it feels like it has been a lifetime and other days, I am amazed at how fast it has gone. Recently, I was discussing plans for next year's school activities when I realized my now 10 year old daughter would be entering Grade 5 in the fall. When we moved here, my son was only 5 years old! He was still in pre-school (and in a car seat) which blows my mind only slightly less than how much he's grown since then. 

When I reflect on the last three years, I am actually quite proud of everything we have accomplished and how much we have seen and experienced. I never thought I would work in a traditional way while I was here, let alone run a program that served an entire community. I've done A LOT. But I also wish I had done things differently. I wish I had had more patience with the customs here. I wish I had made an effort to meet more Nigerians and learn about their culture and their history. I have tried, to be sure, but it is a hard culture to infiltrate especially when safety issues restrict the radius of your world. I actually wish I had thrown caution aside and explored a bit further; seen how most Nigerians truly live - and not the ones working on the road outside our compound - or worse, within the walls of our compound.

But we did not come here just to explore Lagos for three straight years. We came to see as much of Africa as we could in the time we were given. With the exception of some places on my bucket list that are just not safe right now, I think we made a pretty good go of it. The trouble is, that kind of life can be addictive. It's hard to give up. I truly love travel. I love ticking that box. I love knowing that one day we will be old and grey and we can say, "Remember when we spent Christmas Day in Zambia?", "Remember when we talked to a man who had been one of Mandela's prison mates?", "Remember Ebola?" Well, that last one may be pushing it but you get the idea.

People thought we were crazy when we first chose to move to Lagos. It was exhausting to defend it. At times, I feel I've defended it for the last three years. Thankfully, time has somehow normalized it. I know how to work within the confines of the culture. I know how to get things done without tearing my hair out and cursing the country around me. I know how to make it work. I still deal with the occasional look of horror by a Westerner when I tell them Lagos is our home but instead of defending it, I celebrate it. "Yeah, that's right - we live in Nigeria. We are bad asses." (insert virtual high five here). Okay, maybe I don't say that (out loud) but I am secretly happy to add a bit of shock value to an otherwise boring conversation. Mostly, I feel proud because I know in my heart that we made it work for us when few people would have even tried.

I don't know what's next for us but there is one thing I know. Unless you have lived here, you will never understand this life, which makes us part of a very unique club.

Like I said, Bad Asses.