The Elephant in the Room

>> Wednesday, 18 May 2016

I've agonised over writing this post.

When you return to your country of origin after a time living abroad, most people don't want to hear about any problems that you encounter; not the friends and family you've returned to (you've come home, after all!  How hard can that be?), or those that you've left behind you who are still living internationally (because they will be going home at some point, too, and no-one needs yet another worry to add to the list).  Part of me thinks that perhaps it's best to keep any issues to myself, but having discussed them with other friends who've recently moved their families from one country to another and found that we are not alone in our situation, I've decided that perhaps none of us are helping anyone by keeping silent about the elephant in the room.

Which, in this case, is assimilating expat kids into an environment where their new peers don't have similar experiences.  It's about the difficulties of bringing them home - and making them feel like it is Home.

Over the last months since we've returned to the UK I have frequently been reminded of Philip Larkin's famous poem 'This Be The Verse' (first line: 'They fuck you up, your mum and dad.'), and realised that in oh so many ways, it's true.

Because expat kids are different - and we did that to them, with our emphasis on making the most of our opportunities.  I wouldn't change a thing about our six years away, and I know that it was the right thing for our family at the time - but it comes at a price.  We returning parents might not like to dwell on that as we congratulate ourselves on finding the right house, in the right location, close to the right school, and put all the pieces of the jigsaw in place to try and facilitate a smooth re-entry, but it's true.

Children who have lived in a culture not their own have had a wealth of experiences that - for all their richness and diversity - set them apart from their new classmates who have attended the same school all their lives.  The passing references that our kids make to trips to this place or that, to this winter activity or that summer camp, to the parties in the sun with live tigers and bears as entertainment (no, really), or climbing walls in friends' back gardens, none of that resonates with the children that we - their parents - are hoping they will make friends with now they are Back Home.

Some kids pick up on this quickly and learn to keep their past history to themselves.  They drop the accent, get with the programme, only ever refer to their previous lives when they are with people who will 'understand'.  I hate to see it happen, but that's how it works - if you want to make friends.  They can share their stories later, once the foundations of these new relationships are established and the pressure's off.

Other children?  They find the whole thing more complicated.  Why should they not talk about that sailing trip on blue seas, or the overnight train journey across frozen wastes?  Why can they not share their tales of flying to the other side of the world to catch up with best friends, and the volcanoes and natural wonders they encountered there?  They can't understand it - these are fascinating stories, don't their new friends want to hear about them?

No.  Actually, they don't.  The child who doesn't toe the party line on accepting oft-parroted truisms about other countries, or who professes too much knowledge of business class seating (even if it's only gleaned from walking past it on their way to the back of the plane, as in our case), or the child who excitedly chips in that yes, they have been to that once-in-lifetime holiday destination - twice - and isn't it amazing, did you swim on the reef whilst you were there, and how about the horrible porridge that they served for breakfast... they are labelled as show-offs.  Different.  Weird.  They don't fit.

So as a parent, when you hear your child starting to regale their new friends with another of the 'Greatest Hits of My Expat Life' you find yourself desperately signalling to them with your eyebrows to keep that story for another time, or butting in and changing the subject, or serving dinner earlier than you planned, or - heaven forbid - switching on the X-box to provide a distraction.  You're trying to throw them a life-belt, even if they don't see that.

And then there are times you find yourself pulling your child out from underneath their bed in the morning because they don't want to go into school (at least at home, they reason, they won't have to think before they speak).  Or sitting outside the loo that your child has locked themselves in because they can't face whatever activity it is that you've lined up for them to help them meet new friends and which you just know they're going to enjoy, if they would only undo that bolt and come outside...

Not all returning expat kids go through this, of course.  And for those that do, I'm told that it gets better, with time. But whilst they're in the thick of it, it can be - well, difficult.  For them, and everyone else in the family.

Yes, these are problems grounded in what I know are First World issues.  And unfortunately, other than being there to provide support and a listening ear - and all the other coping strategies the literature on this recommends - I don't have an easy answer on how to handle it.  But when your child is hurting, sometimes it helps to know that other families have been through it too. Which is why, against my better instincts (of course we're fine!  Everything's going swimmingly!), I'm sharing this here.

We're not all fine.  But we're managing.  And we're getting there.


Today's Task: Write a Blog Post in 10 minutes...

>> Friday, 13 May 2016

I'm putting together my writing cv.  It is, shall we say, a little 'thin'.  It's not that I don't have any experience in writing, you understand - over a thousand posts written on here alone are testament to that - it's just that I don't have so much experience in writing for publications that actually pay.

As I reached the end of this still-as-yet unfinished cv I realised that perhaps, if I'm going to refer to this blog, I probably should write something.  You know, like, a post.  It's been another month, after all...

So here I am.  With the ten minutes before I have to leave to collect the Boys from school the only time I'm likely to find in the near future.  What to tell you?

Well, Boys #1 and #2 are now ten and twelve years old.  How did that happen?  I was reminded of how far we've come today when I took them both to our local - excellent - hospital for their first allergy test in seven years.  It went smoothly, no problems (and yes, they are still allergic to nuts, dammit).  Now, the last time we did this was in London and it was something of a seminal experience for the three of us.  Boy #2 - three years old at the time, still chubby and toddling around - handled the whole experience with aplomb and dignity, whimpering a little as they scratched his arm, but generally behaving well.

His older brother?  Not so much.  There was a visit to the paediatric ward 'Quiet Room' involved, I remember, to allow him to calm down.  There were chocolate buttons (well - I can't remember the chocolate buttons, but since there were usually chocolate buttons or smarties involved in times of stress, I'm thinking I'm pretty safe in assuming they made an appearance here).  There would also have been wailing and gnashing of teeth, no doubt - obviously, since we were banished to the Quiet Room, I suppose.

But the thing is, I actually don't remember that many of the details.  I guess that may be due to having blanked it out as not having been our finest hour, who can say?  But whatever the reason, it's interesting to realise that however awful a parenting experience might be at the time (and I do remember that at least; it was awful), you actually are unlikely to remember the details in the future.

Which is a comfort, I suppose.  Especially as I look the teenage years squarely in the face.

And of course the other comfort is that whatever happens, and whatever the years ahead hold, there will, of course, still be this blog to refer to, to remind me that there were some difficult times before, and that we made it through those.  And there will still be smarties and chocolate buttons.  Or Green &; Blacks.  Whatever comes to hand, really...

There you go - a blog post in 10 (no, 12, actually) minutes.


Well, would you look at that?

>> Tuesday, 12 April 2016

It's been a month since I last posted.  A month. How did that happen?  Actually, scratch that question; I suspect that all I need to say is 'Easter Holidays' and anyone who has, has had, or ever plans to have, children attending school will probably understand.

The little darlings are back in class today though, so life has resumed it's normal rhythm.  Which is to say, I have been kicked out of the office because Husband is 'working from home' this morning and so I've been banished to the dining room table.  Not, in itself, that much of a hardship since it's closer to the tea and biscuits.  And the chocolate.  And the left-over Dutch Easter bread.  And - oh, jesus, I have to stop this right now.

*casts desperately about for a change of subject*

You might have noticed that productivity has fallen off a cliff as far as this blog is concerned.  That's because I have been 'finishing' The Great Work, aka My Novel.

*pause whilst tumbleweed rolls through the streets of 'Oh, Who Cares?'*

(Apologies for the gratuitous use of caps in the last couple of lines; they are of course totally unmerited, but, you know, it's My Blog.  So...)

An explanation now for the use of apostrophes around the word 'finishing'.  (A few of lines above  this - come on, keep up...).   Anyone who has ever spent *mumbles incomprehensively* years attempting to write a novel will probably know how difficult it is to actually finish it.  Especially a first novel.  An un-comissioned, un-represented, probably un-wanted first novel...

But, you know, that's just detail.  The difficulty that I'm trying to communicate here is in the finishing.  Because every time you think you've completed your ms (short for 'manuscript' - get me with the writer talk), you spot another typo.  Or a novice mistake.  God, the novice mistakes...  For example, if you're writing an observational passage in which a man has an unspoken thought, is it necessary to write '... he thought to himself.'?  No.  Of course it isn't.  Because that would be foolish.  I mean, who else would he be thinking it to?

It is, therefore, worth bearing this in mind whilst editing your ms (cough) down to the requisite sub-100,000 words.  If you don't you will just have to go back through the damn thing again to take the offending phrase out, each and every time you've used it.   And during this exercise you will of course find a million other phrases that sound trite, unconvincing or just down-right unnecessary and which will also need to be removed from the narrative for the sake of your sanity and more importantly, to avoid sounding like a 12 year old.

So, when I thought I had finished the ms (feel free to substitute 'damn thing' for ms if that seems appropriate - it did to me), it turned out that actually, I hadn't; there was still a fair bit of weeding to go.  And whilst I was at it, it seemed like a good time to drop in the additional narrative from another character's point of view that not one but two people Whose Opinions I Should Have Taken More Seriously At The Time suggested almost a year ago.  Which of course required a fairly hefty rewrite of about about 30% of the book if I was going to keep it under the 100,000 word limit.


It's done now.  And just to make sure of that I've taken a couple of precautionary measures.

1.  I've started on the next one.  Well, when I say 'started' (again with the apostrophes), I mean I've drawn a few spidergrammes and written the first chapter - the one that I will no doubt edit out in time but which seems essential to the plot right now.

2.  I've submitted the first Great Work to a couple of competitions and a couple of agents.  Will anything come of that?  Who knows.  But nothing ventured, nothing gained, and at least the ruddy thing is finished.  (Well - until I open it back up and decide to start tinkering again...).


Things I have recently learned...

>> Thursday, 10 March 2016

... since moving back to the UK.

1.  How to bleed a radiator.

This is no small thing when you're living in an older house with an antique heating system, I can assure you.  Waiting for your managing company (we're renting) to send over a handyman to do the job for you gets old pretty quickly - especially when you realise you can buy the tool to do it yourself (a brass radiator key, approx. £2.50 from your local hardware store) just down the road.  OK, so there might have been a slight issue with dirty water squirting out from one of radiators, but what the landlady doesn't see (evidence of) won't hurt her.

And at least now your children - acclimatised to tropical indoor temperatures after 6 years in properly insulated and heated houses in Russia - won't have to sleep under two sets of duvets.

I am Woman with Brass Radiator Key - hear me roar...

2.  How to change a light bulb

Bear with me here.  I DO know how to do this, obviously.  But after 6 years as a cosseted expat in Russia, where - according to our tenancy contract - I wasn't supposed to (I had to call The Management to send over a workman to do it), I must admit to being surprised by the frequency with which it's necessary.  Again, old houses and their suspect wiring, I suppose.

I mean, I DID change light bulbs in Russia, of course I did.  Especially since the alternative in Moscow was waiting at home for a frequently chain-smoking workman to arrive whenever he deemed it appropriate (after finishing his lunch / afternoon tea / morning coffee / not at all), watch him as he took his boots off at the front door, put on his battered tapichki (slippers to you and I), listen to him mutter to himself as he wheezed his way through the house with his plastic bag full of an assortment of different lightbulbs for different light fittings, and endure his rattling smokers cough throughout.

OK, that was just the first guy who used to come, replaced after a couple of years by Ivan Version 2.0 - less wheezy and much more jocular - but the memory of Ivan Version 1.0 lingers, much like the scent of stale cigarettes and B-O that he so generously left behind.

So, on reflection, then and now, much better to do it myself.

3.  How to deal with Husband's misguided assumption that the garden in our new house is my responsibility.

Actually, this one was quite simple.  We recently visited Amsterdam, and passed the flower market.

Husband:  "Shall we buy some bulbs to plant out the back?"

Me:  "I didn't know you like gardening!"

Job done.


Re-acclimatisation milestones for Expats

>> Tuesday, 12 January 2016

I think that this 'saying goodbye to our life in Russia' thing is getting a little bit out of hand.

When we left, I knew that we would miss friends, homes, and the weather.  Yes, the Russian weather.  What?  Never has a British winter seemed more gloomy, damp and grey than when compared to a bright, frosty, minus 15degreeC snow-bound Moscow January.  And don't get me started on missing the relentless social calendar of an expat living in Moscow.

I knew too that we would feel the difference on significant dates.  Boy #2, for example, recently had his first non-Russia based birthday celebration in 6 years.  He noticed that.  Quietly, and without any fuss, but he noticed all the same.  When the yearly photo album contains of images of parties with snow-man building competitions in the back garden and snow fort fights outside friends' houses, +8 in the UK and -8 in Moscow are not at all the same.

But what I didn't know was that I would notice the running down of our Russian supplies, or that this - insignificant as it is -  would give me pause.  It's not that we can't buy photo copy paper here, or baking parchment, or Ikea gift wrap, or any of those things that Husband still hasn't quite forgiven me for including in our shipment back to the UK.

I never meant to include them, by the way, but to simply toss them into the bin seemed too wasteful.  And then I never found time to pass them on - and frankly, fellow ex-expats, how tired did you get of giving a home to other people's unused kitchen supplies when they left the country and in their turn, couldn't bring themselves to throw it away?  I just couldn't bring myself to do the same thing.  Apart from the spices, obviously.  And the vanilla essence.  And the cocoa powder.  All that good stuff was 'gifted' to friends, I have to admit.  (But it was in-date, your honour.  Honest!)

So now I stand in the kitchen, in our new home BackHome, realising that we are about to run out of clingfilm, and that the next time I buy some it won't be the crappy budget version in the grimy and cavernous Auchan hypermarket out at Stroghino, or in the neat, tidy, beautifully presented but hideously overpriced Stockmann's at Metropolis, or even at the mid-range handily local Aliyya Parussa in Shuka, but at Sainsburys down the road.

And that still takes a bit of getting used to.


More Christmas fun and games...

>> Wednesday, 9 December 2015

'I can't go to my activity tonight, Mum.  My tummy hurts...'  This from Boy #2 who, bless him, was exhausted after an afternoon of PE and who understandably didn't relish the prospect of spending an hour racing around the gym doing a martial art.

I was tempted to let him stay home, but then remembered that we are paying for this activity via direct debit (so, the money leaves our account whether he attends the classes or not) and decided that with just one week left to go before the school holidays start, now was not the time to give up.  He's going to get 3 weeks off shortly anyway.  And we want him to learn about the importance of follow-through.  And commitment.  And all that good stuff.

So off we went. Walking through the dimly-lit car park outside the activity centre, he told me again that his tummy hurt.  Once we had ruled out this being a result of his drawstring trousers being tied too tightly (they were, but that was another drama), I asked him when the pain had started.  Before, or after dinner?

'After dinner', he answered firmly, wrongly scenting an opt out.

'Oh, don't worry then.  That's just the sprouts.  You'll be fine when you've had a bit of a run around...' Quietly, I resolved to make sure to sit as as far from the class as possible, for safety's sake.

'Sprouts?' His voice rose in consternation.  'We didn't have sprouts for dinner.  Did we?'

'Yes, we did, actually.'

'But I don't like sprouts!'

'Well, you ate them.'  He looked at me disbelievingly.  'What do you think the green stuff in the chicken stir-fry was?'

'Cabbage?'  I shook my head.  'Spinach?'  Again, no.  'Broccoli?'

'No.  Sprouts.  And you liked them, didn't you?'

He looked at me and turned away in disgust.  'I can't believe you got me to eat sprouts and didn't even tell me.'

I called after him as he entered the gym.  'It's nearly Christmas, Boy #2.  Of COURSE there are sprouts!  You might want to check your cereal bowl tomorrow morning, too.  Who knows where they'll pop up next...'



And you also know it's Christmas when...

>> Thursday, 3 December 2015

... you find yourself eating a Bendicks chocolate mint at 10am because the friends who visited you at the weekend and brought it with them did not do their duty and finish off the box before they left.  Honestly.  Call yourself some of my best mates?

...after your previous post about having run out cinnamon, various friends and relations leave smug comments on your fb feed - or worse, leave links to recipes for cinnamon biscuits.  Oh yes, sis, I'm looking at you... (not a sponsored post, by the way).

Ha ha ha ha ha ha

(Gosh yes my sides are splitting...)


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