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Wikipedia photo by hozinja – uploaded by Bald.

Remember me, the Singapore leaver who was last seen freaking out about a visit to Kenya?

I had a bit of a lapse in my blogging career. It’s been three years since my last post! Disgraceful. Negligent. Selfish even. Pole pole (so sorry).

It doesn’t work as an excuse, either, to say a lot has happened in that time because I could have been writing about all of those interesting plot twists and turns. I’m just glad WordPress didn’t delete my account due to inactivity.

I’ll have to go back to some of those interesting stories retrospectively, but here’s a sneak peek to tide you over: I’ve moved country twice, I have more children than before and I’ve started a new career.

But I’ll get to all of that in due course.

For now, it’s just good to be back.

What’s Swahili for “I’m freaking out”? Mimi freaking nje.

Dog is freaking because he is peekingKenya is calling and I’m curled up in the fetal position, covering my ears and screaming, “LAH! LAH! LAH! LAH! LAH!”

I’ve spent much of the past 2 years in Singapore missing my home in Portugal and simultaneously thinking that I’d quite like to live in England. So after finally making the decision to leave, the invitation to Kenya feels like this giant f-bomb delaying the move to someplace where I’d actually like to live.

What the hell is wrong with me? For 3 months we are to stay with a lovely, terribly important family in Nairobi. So it’s not long enough to say we’re moving there, but 3 months does mean living there, especially since we’ll be hosted by a local family and integrated into the local society — undoubtedly the best way to experience any new culture.

I’ve got to do it. If I don’t, one day not long from now, I’ll be sitting in England or Portugal or America or even Ecuador, Australia or Cyprus, and think, “I’m bored.” And then I’ll wish I had gone to Kenya.

Have I lost my expat edge? Most expats live their lives in one country but move abroad to retire, and more or less stay put until they die. Some go out and see the world while young, but then return to settle down to a job and family, and more or less stay put until they die. Then there are those pesky expats with temporary expat syndrome (TES) who move abroad only because their huge, multinational companies pay them gobs of money, after which they go straight back home (and more or less stay put until they die).

Then there are a few “crazy” expats who move abroad simply because they want to or because an unusual opportunity arises and they go for it. And they never go back.

I kind of considered myself as a young one out to see the world who gradually became the “crazy” kind, and I was proud, too.  Maybe even a bit egotistical.

Am I homesick? If so, I’m kind of shit outta luck because I’ve been abroad so long that I’ve relinquished the privilege of having a “home”. That never bothered me before, though. In fact, as mentioned, I was kind of proud of it.

Midlife crisis? I’m 42. Possible.

Under the circumstances, though, I’ve been telling myself that it’s entirely normal to have anxiety. The lease on our apartment is up in 9 days but we don’t yet have visas, plane tickets or a place to live after Kenya. My children are no longer enrolled in a school. My husband doesn’t have a job.

So I think a good, old-fashioned freak out is in order, don’t you? Wouldn’t any sane person be waking up at 4am in a panic?

Well, no, actually. Because no sane person would put themselves into this situation in the first place (hence the well-deserved “crazy” expat title).

This morning my husband and I were talking about why I’m so freaked out and he’s not. The eternal optimist, he just knows that everything will work out. It’s in fact his rock-solid rosy vision of the world that has allowed me to follow my expat dreams in the first place. Without him, I’d be living in a boring place, still waking up in a panic, but about some boring problem.

It made me realise that living as a “crazy” expat is about living life in extremes. There are highs and lows, panics and pleasures and risks and rewards. Right now I’ve got the lows, panics and risks.  But in 9 days from now…

Oh!

Wow. Well shut my mouth and call me Francis. I think I had lost sight of the bigger picture but I’m starting to see it again. I probably needed to talk myself through it. Embrace the freak out so that I could let it go.

I am a crazy expat. This is how we roll.

As an American who hasn’t lived on American soil for 11.5 years, A Broad Blogs is her collection of the absurd, silly, sometimes useful insights about the life of an expat. You can also read more of her work on the global property markets in her other blog, Global Acresglobalacres.blogspot.com.

View her profile on Google+: Jennifer LS Harrison

Delores, my Jewish alter ego

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The Old State House, museum on the Freedom Trail and site of the Boston Massacre. From Wikipedia via user Urban.

The bombings in Boston reminded me of my own association with this city.  It’s a happy story.

Moving to Boston was my first big move as an adult.  Although it wasn’t quite ‘abroad’, it certainly felt that way, and so I consider it the start of my expat saga.

I was born in New York, which I mention to explain why I can do a mean imitation of a New Yawk accent, and why I’m so mad about bagels.

I grew up in Minnesota, though, and in the early 1990s, worked in Minneapolis for a voicemail software company.  The respectable side of the company managed phone lines for weather info, movie schedules, and voice mailbox services.

The real money maker, though, was in porn lines and in handling the services for personal columns for newspapers all over the country.  If you see a personal ad in a newspaper, for example, and want to respond, you typically dial a toll 900 number and leave a voicemail message for the advertiser.

I worked in the call centre receiving phone calls from people who wanted to place an ad, seeking “love” or whatever.

“Thank you for calling Love Lines, this is Jennifer, how can I help you?”

I guided advertisers through the process of writing an ad and setting up the voicemail messages that people would hear when responding to their desperate calls for attention, sex, maybe even a relationship.

Now I’ve had some pretty crazy jobs in my life, as most of us have. I’ve been a waitress, hostess, receptionist, nanny, hair sweeper-upper at a hair salon, a supermarket check-out girl, a pharmacist’s assistant and I’ve built computers. I’ve also sold computers as well as steak knives, tickets to an amusement park, clothing and apparel, and rubber stamps. I even once applied to be a truck driver, but was turned down for the unfortunate fact of being female.

My second-favourite crazy job was building two Web sites for the Ministry of Agriculture in Latvia.  I mean, who does that, besides Latvians?

But in terms of crazy, my all-time favourite crazy job was this personal ads gig.

Although mostly tedious, it was a kick to have to have conversations with callers about being, say, a pre-op transvestite with a foot fetish, or whether their penis was adequately large enough to mention in the ad.  “Well I don’t know, four inches isn’t all that big– what’s the girth?”

I spoke to prison inmates, religious fanatics trying to save my soul, wanna-be child molesters, lonely (sometimes suicidal) hearts, the occasional genuine love seeker, and Jewish mothers trying to find a wife for their sons. (For these callers, always from New York, I adopted an alternate personality called Delores who called everyone ‘doll’.  She had a thick New York accent and generally empathised with how the ungrateful sons never fully appreciated their mother’s love.)

The humour of it all wore thin rather quickly, though. So when the company started a Web site to host the personal ads online, where advertisers would email rather than call in their ads, I pushed hard to get in. I mean hard.  I begged and pleaded, and after a couple of rejections, I taught myself all about email, Web browsers and HTML. I even lied my way into a side job as an online columnist writing about Web programming — which I knew nothing about — just to boost my qualifications.

Turns out this was the single greatest career move of my life.  It is no exaggeration to say that this one effort altered the course of my life in ways that were then unimaginable.

It wasn’t exactly a promotion, and certainly didn’t come with a raise to my already paltry income. But it didn’t matter. It was an opportunity and the education and experience I received was far more valuable than an added $.50/hour. I had an exceptional boss (hi, Bret Busse!) who I will always credit for helping to change my life, and I happily worked my ass off.

The Web site that hosted the personal ads was created and managed by a start-up company in Boston called InterStep (aaahhhh… finally we reach the Boston connection).  Again, this was the early to mid 1990s, and if you weren’t in Silicon Valley running a start-up company, then Boston was the place to be.

I worked daily with the co-founders, Craig Mattson and Bill Jacobson. We had a great time, laughing as much as working, and over the course of a year built up a pretty solid friendship.

But I was eventually offered another job as a Webmaster for another software company in Minneapolis. (What a great title.  There is power in the words, “I am a Webmaster.”  I.e., I am a master of the Web. Bwa-ha-ha-ha.)

When I told Craig in Boston of my new job, there was a very long pause, followed by a harried, “Hang on…”  Literally five minutes later he came back on the line and said, “Would you consider moving to Boston?”

No long pause on my part.  Hells yeah I’d move to Boston!!

The distance between Minneapolis and Boston is about the same as between London and Bucharest.  So while the language and currency are the same, Boston was a whole new world for me.  It’s the heart of American heritage, old-money families, and brainiacs (several of the most prestigious universities in the world are in and around Boston, like Tufts, Harvard and MIT).

I was the 6th person to join InterStep, and eventually we grew to 20. We left the personal columns behind and developed instead email newsletter creation and delivery systems where content could be customised for each recipient.

After a few years, InterStep was bought out and integrated into another tech company.  Cha-ching!  Hold the phone, though — just three months later, that company was bought out and integrated into yet another company.

It was the Internet wave, my friends, and I broke out the long board and hung ten!  Stock options and bonuses were flying about and amid and around the high-tech, start-up, buy-out madness.  At the peak and only on paper, the accumulation of unvested and vested stock options plus bonuses meant that I was worth about US $1 million.

Having been thrust into seemingly instant wealth, I went with some friends to Amsterdam to celebrate, and this is where I met James, the Englishman, who shortly thereafter became my husband.

But as is life, the tech wave crashed, and in the end I walked away with just US $3,000.  Rest assured that I am not complaining.  I would NEVER complain.  It was all just so…  gnarly, dude.

So Boston for me is not just the birthplace of American heritage, or the sadness of the Marathon bombings.  It’s also the birthplace of my career, of one of the greatest stories I’ll ever have to tell, and of my life as an expat, wife and mother.

After the crash, James and I moved from Boston to New Hampshire and then on to Portugal (where we had two babies).  Then we moved to Singapore.

And now we’re moving on again.  This time to…

P.S.  My daughter, Sofia, has a doll she named Judy and a stuffed rabbit she named Rabbi.  Along with Delores, my Jewish alter ego, they helped co-found my Singapore bagel bakery, Mama Bagel.

Tokyo train gropers aside…

From Wikipedia Creative Commons via Cors.

From Wikipedia Creative Commons via Cors.

The question of where I’d live in Asia– if not Singapore– renewed this week when my doctor said that the climate of Singapore is not good for my health.  That wasn’t much of a news break, but it counts when your suspicions are confirmed.

So I continue here my countdown of the top 6 cities in Asia where I’d choose to live as a part of my quest to find my own, inner truth.  Coming in at #5– Tokyo.

I connected to Japan after reading the James Clavell novel Shōgun and then Kafka on The Shore and Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. What I wouldn’t give to ski Mount Fuji and witness firsthand the blossoming of cherry trees.

The truth is, I’d quite easily place Tokyo at #1 if it weren’t for 5 nagging problems: earthquakes, train gropers, and money, money, money.

Pros

1. The movie Bright Lights, Big City may have been set in NYC, but Tokyo is brighter and bigger.  It is so damn cool, chic and unique that I’d pack my bags tomorrow just to experience it.

I had no problem moving to Singapore, even though I had never been here (or even to Asia), because it is a big city like any other big city, really.  There’s an airport, museums, banks, skyscrapers, pedestrians crossing in front of taxis, supermarkets… Factor in the safety, gleaming infrastructure and organised bureaucracy, and it’s a pretty solid bet.  Some called me ‘brave’ for making the move.  Whatever.  It’s not brave if there’s nothing to fear.

Tokyo, on the other hand, is a city unlike any other city. While I don’t think there’s necessarily anything to brave, except the earth shifting beneath your feet and the cost of a cup of coffee in the morning, there is no doubt – at every turn – that you’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

Singapore is so perfect that it can feel manufactured.  It is, to use the local expression, a bit ‘same-same, lah’.  By comparison, Tokyo is out-of-this-world different.

2. While there is no cultural cuisine as globally exported as Italian food, Japanese food is starting to make the rounds, meaning you don’t have to live there to get in on the good grub.  But in a trip to Italy a few years back, I realised that there is no comparing the food in even the best Italian restaurants around the world with the food you get when actually in the country itself.

Sushi, Kobe beef, gyoza, and perhaps my all-time favourite, ramen (no, not the cheap, dried noodle packs with seasoning bits favoured by university students around the world, but the real stuff where the broth alone is cooked for days to develop the depth of flavours) must be better in situ. And holy crap, have you tried edamame beans?!  Swiftly boiled and lightly salted, they are nature’s healthy alternative to crisps (potato chips).  They are WOW good.  I can only buy them frozen, but how good would they be fresh off the farm?

3. I’ve dwelled in previous blogs about Temporary Expat Syndrome (TES) and how it’s hard to make friends with expats who move to a city only to cash a phat pay check and then book a flight home.  As a hub for multinational corporations, Tokyo certainly has this contingency.

But if you don’t work for a multinational and want to move to Japan, there’s a really easy way to do it– get certified to teach English as a foreign language and get a teaching job.

This is a trick employed by many an expat around the world– the kind of expat who uses their English skills as a means of seeing the world and experiencing new cultures.  In other words– my kind of expat.  There are loads of these all over Japan.

Cons

1. Cost of living in Tokyo is notorious.  Depending on the study you read, Singapore is the 6th or 8th most expensive and Tokyo is all-out #1.  My sphincter tightens at the mere thought.

2. Earthquakes– the kind that destroy both cities and lives.

3. Trains in Tokyo, an excellent form of public transportation although sardine-tin crowded, suffer from a rather unsavoury problem: gross men groping.  With no room to move, you are trapped, so there’s not much you can do when a hand reaches up and under your skirt.  The extreme nature of this type of assault makes my skin crawl.

The drawbacks of this otherwise magnificent city are too much for me.  If someone offered me a job with an extreme salary and a limited contract of a year or less, I’d probably go.  Otherwise, I’d rather travel to Japan on holiday and see Tokyo as part of the adventure.

Spitting and other types of pollution

Shanghai_-_Nanjing_Road

Photo from Wikipedia via user P.B.

 

I admit it– before moving to Singapore, I thought it was a city in China.  But I’m American.  It’s expected.

Though I’m not the only one.  Several people from a variety of countries asked, ‘Why would you move to China?’  Or, ‘Where’s Singapore??’

It also happens that there was some confusion when I moved to Portugal — plenty of people thought I was moving to South America, perhaps confusing Portugal with Paraguay?  Someone (she knows who she is… Lynn) even asked me, ‘So is Portugal right next to Brazil?’

Appalling geography skills aside…

The only reason we came to Singapore specifically was because my husband was offered a job here, and we wanted to live in Asia.  It’s not like we sat down, researched the various countries and chose the one we liked best.

Knowing what I know now, would I choose Singapore?  I’ve given that question a lot of thought lately, and have come up with a list of the top 6 cities in Asia where I would choose to live, if the choice were 100% my own (i.e., no input from hubby and job offers / visa requirements being equal).

Over the coming weeks I will post my list, starting today with #6 — Shanghai.

(Before jumping in, I should confess that I haven’t been to Shanghai and so the ‘wisdom’ here is based on websearch* and feedback from friends…)

#6 Shanghai

As the most populous city on earth, and a modern mega-financial and multinational hub, there are job opportunities, entrepreneurial opportunities, and it has one of the top-ranked educational systems.  It’s also heavily polluted and under communist rule.  And people spit.  Ew.

Pros

1.  It’s so modern that there’s really nothing to miss by being an expat in Shanghai.  As a bonus, I’m told that pretty much everything can be delivered to your home or office, and the shopping is, in a word, awesome (tailors who can make anything for you).

2. There’s high-ranking education– in the top 3 best countries (PISA – http://www.oecd.org/pisa).

Although there are many private and international schools as well, if I were to live in Shanghai with my two young children, I’d opt for the local school system.  There are pros and cons within this one point alone, though:

Pro: I’d love for my children to become fluent in Mandarin and immersion is the best and fastest way to fluency.

Con: The Chinese learning methodology is pretty hardcore and intensive.  The curriculum moves quickly, doesn’t often reinforce before moving on, and expects a lot of work outside of school hours.

3. It’s not hot all the time.  Ok so it’s rainy for almost a third of the year.  And the humidity can get pretty heavy, especially in July and August, when the polluted moisture clings to your skin with gritty particulates.  But I can take extreme heat and humidity if I know it’s temporary, and that I’ll soon enough have a chance to break out the scarves and jackets.  It’s the change of weather that I value.

4. Shanghai is reasonably affordable at the moment, though getting more expensive.  The Mercer cost-of-living analysis shows Shanghai breaking in to the top 20 most expensive at #16, up from last year’s position at #21.  But when you live in the #8 city, #16 seems pretty good.

Cons:

1.  When moving to anywhere in mainland China, a foreigner from one of those crazy ‘clean-air’ countries can expect to get bronchitis at least once in the first year.  Cough, hack, wheeze, hack, hack. No thanks.

2. Friends who have visited or lived in China say that the communist restrictions are barely noticeable, mostly in the form of censorship, and that the only truly annoying bit is the lack of access to certain websites, including Facebook and porn.  So sure, I could live in Shanghai for a year, maybe 2– as an experience (because I’m not one to turn my back on an experience such as this).  But, it would turn me into the next con on my list…

3. It’s full of expats with temporary expat syndrome.  I find it increasingly difficult to make friends with people who are only looking to cash a pay check and book a ticket on the next flight out.  Because of communism and a high density of multinational corporations, Shanghai is particularly full of expats with The Syndrome.

4.  People spit (ew). Singapore has a fraction of the spitting culture apparently seen in mainland China, but even here I’ve been subject to many near misses (probably the real reason women use umbrellas in sunny weather).  Not too long ago, I watched a man lean over the handrail of the sidewalk, hold one nostril shut with one finger, then clean out his other nostril using strong bursts of gargling and gagging.  It was one of those slow-motion-car-accident moments where my brain struggled to process the horror.

If tomorrow someone offered me a job in Shangai, I’d almost certainly take it, barring a better offer elsewhere.  That’s just the kind of expat I am.  But I wouldn’t seek out a reason to live there.

Notes:

*Websearch: Noun. Web-based research, likely to be less reliable than real research. i.e., to conduct websearch:  the websearch he provided contained no scientific hypothesis  

Verb. The act of conducting websearch: he was websearching the statistical probability of finding up-to-date information on Wikipedia**

**The statistical probability of finding or up-to-date information on Wikipedia is 1 in 20.***

***Results based on Wikipedia websearch — allow for a 10% margin of error.

And when Plan B fails?

World MapAfter the failure of our total immersion plan for living in Portugal, it made sense to apply the exact opposite rationale when moving to Singapore: embrace with gusto the expat way of life. Oddly enough, the flip side of this approach has its own drawbacks.

We never expected to live in Portugal forever (making us decidedly ‘expats’ instead of ‘immigrants’).  The original plan was to stay for a few years and move on, perhaps to Spain or Italy, and then the world.  But we were in love with Portugal, and there was just no reason or opportunity to leave.  Until…

We became friends with a couple who owned a rather swanky hotel in the south of Portugal.  She was Singaporean Tamil and he was Swiss German.  They once offered my husband a job selling villas, apartments and hotel rooms on their resort, but he had just started working for the largest hotel group in Portugal, and so declined.

As a present on my 40th, they invited us to stay at their luxy hotel, and over drinks Mr. Swiss German said to my husband, ‘Now James.  I offered you a job before, and you turned me down.  So I’m not going to offer you another, but I am going to tell you a story.’

He explained that the Mrs. still had strong family ties in Singapore, where her father was the undisputed ‘poppadom king’ of South-East Asia.  Based on an entrepreneurial spirit (as well as her father’s existing warehouse space in Singapore), the two started a business selling Portuguese wine into Singapore and Malaysia.

Business was ok, but it could be better– under the right management. ‘Have you ever considered living in Sing…’

No need to finish that sentence.  We’d already talked about moving to Asia, believing it would be a great place to educate our girls.  Plus, the economy of the West was sinking in comparison to the growth in the East.  We wanted in.

Planning this move to a new country required an utterly different approach, however.  We learned a lot in our 10 years as expats in Portugal, plus we now had children.

So here’s what we did for Singapore, effectively heretofore known as Plan B:

1. Firstly, when moving to Portugal, we intended to learn Portuguese. But the official language of Singapore is English.  Done.

1.a. Although not an official language, Mandarin is taught in schools and widely spoken, so instead of gearing up for our own fluency, the focus was on our kids.  We enrolled them in local schools, a fact that is generally met with surprise from both locals and expats– it’s simply not the norm.

2. Secondly, for Portugal we wanted to immerse in the local culture totally avoiding expats.  But that didn’t work out so well, and Singapore is full of professionals from all over the world — expats moved into the financial hub by their large corporations.  Why avoid the inevitable?

2.a. We moved into a condo development, which is something we never, ever would have done in Portugal.  Ever.  It would have surrounded us by exactly the wrong type of expat in Portugal.  But in Singapore, there was little alternative, and were actually trying to surround ourselves by expats.

2.b. We also actively sought out expat groups and organisations.  Wow are they expensive to join.  Even if there’s no membership fees, the activities they sponsor are equally expensive.  So… how else could we meet other expats?  Well, we were here to sell wine, and that means– wine tastings!  Surely we would meet some nice expats like ourselves?

I have to say wine tastings are not a good way to meet people.  Hangovers, blurry conversations, an over-inflated ego that crashes about you the next morning when remembering fragments of the hi-larious jokes you told…  Not the foundations of a solid friendship.

In retrospect, it’s probably a good thing that the wine business didn’t work out (Singapore is already saturated with French and Australian wines).  My husband luckily found his way back into the property world and we then tried more conventional means of meeting new people.  Which is to say that we didn’t.  We couldn’t afford to.

But here’s the truth as I see it anyhow: the typical expat in Singapore is either too wealthy or suffers from ‘temporary expat syndrome’. In either case, they’re just not like us. Their kids go to international schools — ours go to local schools.  They own or rent houses or central condos — we rent outside the city.  They have luxury SUVs or sports cars — we take the bus.

They may reside here, but we live here, which is what I mean by ‘temporary expat syndrome’.  My husband has had a few conversations that went something like this:

‘Where are you from?’

England. (Or Australia, or America, etc…)

‘Do you live here in Singapore, or are you just visiting?’

I work here, but I live in England.

‘What, you commute??’

No, no, I have a place in Singapore.

‘Oh.  So your family is still back in England?’

No, they’re here with me.

‘So… you live in Singapore…’

No, I just work here– we’re going back home in two years.

It’s hard to see the point in investing time and emotion with someone you know is leaving as soon as possible.  For those expats who have truly moved in to Singapore, it’s often the case that their total fantasy world of wealth and circumstances is either intimidating or so far out of our reach that there’s no common ground.   When they’re local hangout charges SGD$300 for a bottle of wine, where can you make plans to meet up?  Honestly, it’s embarrassing when you’re consistently invited out and you consistently have to decline for a lack of funds.  How may times will they want to go for a free walk in the park or a dinner on the cheap at a local Hawker?

Fortunately, we’ve found a few exceptions with a couple of neighbours who panned out, a wine tasting that resulted in at least one friendship, and a few business associates who became friends.  But unlike the expats we befriended in Portugal– who became our family– we’ve struggled to find similar connections in Singapore.

On the other hand, this does make the friendships we do have that much more valuable.

There’s one more drawback to Plan B that I haven’t mentioned: friendships with locals.  It’s not like we intentionally avoid locals while embracing an expat way of life, but as a result of Plan B, we ended up with no particular ‘in’ with locals either.

So to sum up–

Plan A for Portugal: failed (but in a good way).  Plan B for Singapore: failing.

Plan C may be in order.  What is Plan C?  See Plan A.

————————–

As an American who hasn’t lived on American soil for 11.3 years, A Broad Blogs is her collection of the absurd, silly, sometimes useful insights about the life of an expat. You can also read more of her work on the global property markets in her other blog, Global Acres, globalacres.blogspot.com.

View her profile on Google+: Jennifer LS Harrison

Pig Butchering Day

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Statue of Queen Leonor in the centre of Caldas da Rainha, Portugal

When we first moved to Portugal we planned to completely immerse ourselves in the culture to learn the language and become part of the community.  We wanted to make friends with the locals, not other expats.  Why would we move so far away just to hang out with other Brits or Americans?  But what we discovered was, no matter how long we lived in our adopted country, we were expats and always would be. And that’s ok.

Driving down the road to our first home in rural Portugal the radio was tuned to the nostalgia channel and I tapped my toes happily to the familiar music. When the DJ paused the music to read the news, however, he spoke so fast that I couldn’t differentiate one word from another, much less understand what he said.  It sounded more like one mega-multi-syllabic word that took exactly two minutes and thirty seconds to say.

In my little fantasy world I pictured myself in a café speaking Portuguese just as quickly with some random person, chuckling at their joke that I totally understood, and then firing off a witty reply without even pausing to think of the right words.

How long would it be before I could chatter away in Portuguese? I figured about a year, maybe less — once I made friends with some of my neighbours.

New to the world of living as expats, we honestly thought we’d move in, meet our neighbours, learn about the culture and pick up the language, all the while eschewing other expats like ourselves and becoming friends instead with Portuguese people doing Portuguese things… total immersion.  Then, bish bosh, Bob’s your uncle (or ‘Robert’s your mother’s brother,’ as my husband likes to say), a few months to a year later:  fluency and a local lifestyle.

Although we tried our best to avoid it, there was a local expat scene made up of primarily British and Dutch, a few Germans and Belgians, but no Americans (fine by me).  The only expat organisation was called the International Ladies Club, which we found out soon enough was an excuse for the old biddys in the area to get together once a month, gossip about anyone who wasn’t there, complain about the Portuguese, and occasionally host a bake sale to raise charitable funds (for which charity, I’ll never know).

No I did not join the International Ladies Club.  We were firm with our immersion goal.  But then it happens innocently enough: you meet another expat, perhaps in the supermarket or in a café, they invite you over to dinner with other expats, and those expats invite you over to dinner with their expat friends.  There’s a snowball effect and then truly, Robert’s your mother’s brother– you’re part of the local expat scene.

And once it happens, no matter what your original plans were, it’s comforting and natural, and you wonder why you resisted it in the first place.

As per ‘the plan’, we tried to make friends with our neighbours, who were all warm, wonderful folks, who invited us into their homes, fed us their home-smoked sausages and home-brewed wine, and included us in parties and celebrations (usually held in their garages).  Typically we stood to the side and occasionally mimed and mimicked our way through conversations with anyone curious enough or who took pity on our outsider status.  And they were always smiling, waiting patiently while we looked up words in our travel dictionary and tried our best to pronounce them.  But there was never a connection.

  • Outsiders, that’s what we were.  Aside from geography, we had nothing in common with these lovely Portuguese farmers and small-village people.  There were times (plural) when we invited our neighbours over to reciprocate their invitation to us, and were politely refused because that was the day they’d set aside to slaughter and butcher the pig.
  • Yes indeed, nothing in common.  Although we enjoyed spending time with them and certainly learned a lot about the language and culture, it’s not exactly an easy way to make friends.

After a six months without any real social life or real friends, we were lonely.

Then came the first expat dinner party invitation– our mail had been delivered by mistake to the ‘other foreigners’ who lived in the village next to ours, and when dropping it off, we were asked to come for a dinner party. We accepted the invitation to be polite, yet when we arrived the overwhelming warmth and acceptance we found made us feel, for the very first time since moving to Portugal, at home.

We were lucky.  We had somehow managed to buy a house in a relatively undiscovered region (by foreigners, at least) and so the type of expat who would make the same choice to live in that area was one we were more likely to befriend– one who wanted to learn the language and the culture and at least try to make friends with some locals.  They knew just how to make us feel at home because they understood exactly how we felt (not to mention they all spoke English, even if they were Dutch or German).

We fessed up to our ‘plan’ to our new friends, and they all laughed knowingly, nodded profusely.  They’d been there once, too.  Everyone starts that way, they explained, but they’d never seen it truly succeed outside of foreigners who marry locals.

So short of divorcing one another and marrying locals, our plan was foiled.

Being part of an expat social circle, as it turns out, is pretty amazing (depending of course on the kind of expats you engage).  You’re still living in a foreign country and experiencing a totally new way of life, and regardless of the different cultures, ages, reasons for moving abroad, you share a common bond with expats that is strong enough to forge a meaningful friendship: a drive to live in and learn about a new culture.  We all chose Portugal for some reason, and even more, we all chose that particular region of Portugal– and not a tourist trap– and so perhaps we were destined to meet and become friends.

Years later we did finally learn to speak the language fluently, made a couple of Portuguese friends, attended a few Portuguese weddings as well as a funeral.  We even helped one neighbour on their pig butchering day (and by ‘help’ I mean stand far away and moan in disgust every now and again). In our own village, we were accepted as part of the community (especially after my husband jumped into the bull fighting ring during the village festa to save a young man from being mauled– I’ll tell you about that another time).  But on the whole we were kept at a distance as acquaintances, not friends.

When we had the occasion to meet a new expat arrival with similar immersion plans, it was our turn to laugh knowingly and nod profusely.  We had been there once, too.

Jennifer LS Harrison is an American who hasn’t lived on American soil for 11.3 years.  As she also happens to be a writer, this is her collection of the absurd, silly, sometimes useful insights about the life of an expat.  You can also read more of her work on the global property markets in her other blog, Global Acres, globalacres.blogspot.com.  You can also view her profile on Google+: Jennifer LS Harrison