One of my first blog posts was about the difference between living in Portugal and Singapore. I’ve since lived in Kenya and the UK and after revisiting this post I realised that the sentiment still stands.
No one ever asked me what the difference is between living in Singapore compared to Portugal. I am asked all the time if I miss it (yes) or what I miss most (chouriço, coffee, the weather, and “lost Sundays” with friends), but the differences are apparent even to someone who has never visited either country.
In Portugal, we moved a lot but typically lived in a rural area surrounded by lots of land. Down the road (any road– just pick one) there was a great café or restaurant that served typical Portuguese fare. The beach was never too far, and although very windy with cold Atlantic waters, the surf was great– providing you wore a wetsuit.
In Portugal, entire villages look after children, every garden has at least one lemon tree, and the mini markets have nothing you want but everything you need.
But when I think about how life was truly different in Portugal than it is in Singapore, I think of my mailman.
Before I explain, it’s important to know that, especially in rural areas, the Portuguese make their own wine. Gardens, lawns, planters, what have you, are brimming with beautiful wine leaves and grapes, and in the autumn, entire families (sometimes even entire villages) get together to harvest, squash, and ferment the lot and stick it in barrels that are stored in the garage.
It is just as customary to share the wine with visitors, though a ‘visitor’ can be anyone who happens to be walking past the house at the right time. And such is life for the rural Portuguese mailman.
Our first house in Portugal was about an hour north of Lisbon, in a very small village at the end of a long road and then down an alley; therefore, it was at the end of the line for cables, electricity, telephone — and mail delivery. If the electricity went out, ours was the last house to have it restored, for example. As for the mail– some days, the mail would arrive quite early in the afternoon, just after lunch, brought by a cheery mailman who would chat and pleasantly endure my pigeon Portuguese. Other days, however, the mail would arrive around dinner time, delivered by the same man but now transformed into a swaying belligerent who’d be complaining about an incomplete address on one of my letters, or the wrong formatting of the address. How could I not understand the burden of his mailman duties? From our perch atop a hill, he would wave his arms toward the view of the valley below and exclaim, “Sou responsável por tudo isso!” (“I am responsible for all of this!”)
To be fair, that is a lot of mail to deliver. And it’s even more so when there’s a free wine tasting at each stop.
Unsurprisingly, there were some days he wouldn’t show up at all, delivering our mail instead to the “other foreigners” who lived in the village next to ours. Not that I’m complaining– that’s actually how I met our dear friend, a Yorkshire lass who dropped off our mail one night shortly after we moved in, and from the same family who brought to our attention the art of the “lost Sunday” I mentioned earlier (drinking much of the same wine, I might add, as the mailman).
According to my friend who still lives in the same village, the mailman has recently quit drinking. Of course this is a good thing. Still… I can’t help but picture him wearing a silver helmet and large mail bag over his shoulder, swerving his moped around the road from one garage to the next. It’s a little piece of Portugal that I will remember forever.
My husband moved to America and we eloped at the foothills of the Green Mountains in Vermont and then set up house in southern New Hampshire where I was able to commute into Boston for work.
New Hampshire weather is fairly extreme. There are parts of America where it’s more volatile but I give New Hampshire its extreme four-season due. Nevertheless, it’s entirely predictable. Weather patterns in America move from west to east gently swerving north or south depending on the time of the year. Often when a storm threatens it’s possible to predict with accuracy exactly when it will hit your neighbourhood.
That’s why I found it so annoying that my new husband took a jacket and umbrella with him wherever he went. It would be 20C and no clouds but he couldn’t trust the weather report.
Two years in England and I understand why. There is nothing predictable about the weather patterns here – in the past week I’ve been hot enough for A/C and longed for the beach, drowned in a torrent of near freezing cold rain and huddled by a space heater wishing it were an open fired (have expecting to see snow). It’s July by the way.
Weatherwise, this country is bonkers.
I’m going out on a limb here and I’m going to say something about politics. It’s a limb in these days of a highly politicised and charged environment where I actually had to stop using Facebook because, instead of posting holiday memories or cute pics of my children – and commenting on same from my friends and family – I was instead losing respect for people I care about.
Unless you’re sure you agree with all of your connections, Facebook just isn’t the place for political discourse. I had a distant auntie send me a meme about how Muslims were, and I quote, “taking over America”. And from her own chart, right there in the very numbers she referenced as proof of this takeover, it was clear the Muslim inflow accounted for less than 1% of immigrants. I have no idea if that’s an accurate statistic but when I politely pointed it out to her she raged at me with savage brutality. This “devout” Christian woman, the primmest and ‘properest’ septuagenarian I know, swore like a trucker and condemned me to hell. My jaw is still agape at that confrontation and yeah, I unfriended her.
Sadly I unfriended a few other friends whose general rantings on the topic of immigration and other blatantly racist and bigoted nonsense hurt my head and my heart. So I just stopped.
I’m still not quite sure what happened in the 2016 elections in America. How could so many people vote to put Donald Trump into power and, in the face of utter chaos and disaster, failure after failure, still support him? Fear and bigotry are all I can imagine that would continue to drive his solid base of about 30% of American voters.
I was already an expat when George W was president and that was embarrassing enough — at times I pretended to be Canadian to avoid the inevitable conversations. What a relief it was when Obama took office. I met a few people who didn’t agree with his politics but I never met anyone who claimed to hate him as a person. Now I’d gladly return to George W which is something I never thought I’d say. But my American accent draws comments and questions about this “president” and the Canadian camouflage doesn’t work – I tried it once when asked how I liked having a Cheeto as a president. I tried my Canadian accent ending the sentence with, “Eh?” The stranger then asked if I was worried Trump would invade Canada.
I did not vote for Donald Trump and I do not support any of his policies about the wall, health care, immigration or education. Whether he “colluded” with Russia or not that man must be impeached.
I recently went to the hair dresser intending to ask for pink highlights. It’s something I’ve always wanted… and of course I chickened out.
It’s hard enough for most women to spend fleeting time or money on products and services of vanity. Somehow it feels extra frivolous if the highlights I would normally buy are to be pink. “Sorry children, I can’t read you a bed time story tonight because I have to have pink stripes painted into my hair.” Blonde stripes somehow are ok. Pink, however? I guess not. Not in this psyche anyhow.
I definitely believe it’s a person’s prerogative to invest in their own image, especially if doing so boosts their confidence. But that’s third party advice, isn’t it? I can hear myself scolding my best friend because she feels too guilty to buy that new dress; yet, more often than not, I can’t follow my own would-be advice.
Bearing in mind that I currently live a life of 7s – I leave the house at 7am, return about 7pm and do this 7 days per week – some days I see my children for less than 20mn. My guilt is somewhat justified.
But here’s where it gets weird. Ever since I backed out of the pink hair and got my standard ashy blonde and light brown highlights, I’ve been having regular 2am panic attacks. First I freak out that I’m not yet an instant overnight retail success with enough cash to retire and when I talk myself down from that ridiculous irrationality, I start panicking that my children are growing up without a mother. Once I hit that car-crash-like spectacle there is no going back to sleep — I just about doze off again when an adrenaline rush pounces my stomach and I jolt back to the darkness of the night.
People who talk about a working mother’s guilt like it’s all in their heads have never been a mother. Or worked in retail. The fear of success vs failure is sale to sale. Someone buys 3 items worth £200 and I am clearly the greatest retail business woman ever to have lived. But seconds later another customer will buy one product worth about £6 and I’m worrying about paying the electricity bill.
And I know deep down in the most logical part of myself that the measure of my success as a woman, a retailer, mother or wife has absolutely nothing to do with the *&!@*%?$ colour of my hair.
I’m exhausted. On a cellular level.
Then just to be sure I knew my place, yesterday my youngest son sprouted chicken pox and my oldest daughter sprained her wrist. Naturally my middle child had to – Quick! – think of something to grab my attention. First her “neck” hurt (throat) and then her tummy. She also hurt her leg and had to walk with a limp for a minute to prove it. Later she pinched her finger, bonked her head, received a toy car in the face from her little brother, ate too fast and “couldn’t breath”, and so on. And on.
I love the outfit I’m wearing today. It’s not even all that special yet, up until a couple of weeks ago, I would not have had the courage or confidence to wear this outfit in public.
Enter Samantha Wilding, my new personal stylist.
I think it’s probably a big deal for an owner of a women’s fashion boutique to admit that she needs help dressing. Or maybe it’s not? Maybe it’s just what’s done and owning your own boutique is a great excuse to do something that any woman with an interest in fashion would practically kill to do.
Like most women (and plenty of men) I’m pretty hard on myself, my image, my confidence. While it’s not easy I’m going to go ahead and share with you part of the crazy long storey of why I have finally been able to give myself a break.
Three years ago at the ripe old age of 42 I got pregnant with my third child. For me, being an older new mum meant it took a hell of a lot longer to feel “normal” again. And I don’t always know that I’m not feeling normal until I actually do feel normal. I identify with not feeling well or unhappy or blubbery or un-energetic. But the word “normal” doesn’t enter my vocabulary until it exists.
So this, my third and final pregnancy, took a full three years to feel recovered (ergo my body image suffered even longer than usual). And I only just figured that out a couple of months ago.
Body image is spectacularly easy to push aside, though, isn’t it?
Not only did I have a baby in my 40s but when said baby was just 6 weeks old we moved country (Africa to Europe), travelled with 3 children for 4 months in a Vauxhall Zafira around England, France, Spain and Portugal while waiting on tenterhooks for my visa to live in the UK. Frustratingly the thrill of receiving my visa was short lived — when we went back to England no one would rent us a home since our references were rather unconventional (our last landlord lived most of the year in the bush of Uganda). A lovely Sri Lankan lady with a cottage in Devon finally took pity and let us stay. But from 6 weeks to 6 months my infant son and rest of the family were essentially homeless.
Our entire lives continued with so much uncertainty that I then spent the next 10 months homeschooling my older 2 children before we moved from Devon to Sussex and finally enrolled them in a proper school.
Fashion? Not so much. Plus you need clothes for that.
Before England we lived in Kenya and choosing what to pack and take with us was (almost) more painful than giving birth. In the end, it came to questions such as, Fabulous trousers that I couldn’t zip and gave me raging muffin top? Or hand blown drinking glasses crafted by dear friends and up-cycled from wine bottles? I made a rash decision to prioritise all of the African art work and memorabilia over my ill-fitting clothes and donated everything but a few bits and pieces to the local women in my village who needed it all much more than I ever would.
Fast forward to the past 9-10 months or so and I have accumulated a few more clothes but total uncertainty reigned supreme with each purchase. I lost my style, my body, and the confidence to look for either.
In reality I should have asked Samantha to help me far sooner but that’s a hard call to make. In just two meetings, though, she flipped a switch in my head that made it ok to love clothes and fashion again. She acknowledged my own style as valid. And that’s a great big gob-smacking wonderful start to feeling “normal” once again.
I recently started a new business – a women’s boutique in the centre of a small English city. I write a blog for that website so I’ll post those entries to this blog as well. Here is the first:
I am new to to Brighton. I’m even relatively new to England.
So I hope you will take my perspective on the fashions of Brighton with the understanding that I see them though fairly fresh eyes. I’m neither jaded nor excited by local cultural stereotypes or expectations. I don’t demand anything from its people or its shops. I’m just here, observing, trying to fit in, finding my own niche in a city well known for having lots of niches.
Through this brand new baby blog I intend to write an open, honest broad view of fashion, about life in the fashion industry and personal growth through a fashion business. But I also want to bring you a dose of reality on just what it’s like to be an expat American woman who has lived around the world, who has just started a brand new business at the age of 45, who juggles family and profession and who is obsessed with fashion in all its forms (especially culturally significant, gender-bending and/or size defying) — but who struggles daily with her own personal image.
On these “pages” I will never lie to you, or try to sell to you. I have two entire websites and several social media platforms that aim to do that. This blog just isn’t about sales. It’s a piece-by-piece, realistic documentary of a new chapter in my life. If I succeed, if I fail, there is no value in pretending it’s all been easy. There’s something to learn in the path I’m following and by sharing it with all of you – earnestly.
So. Here goes. I’m an American named Jennifer. I’m 45, married to the greatest man ever (who happens to be English) and we have 3 young children. We’ve just opened a woman’s boutique in The Lanes of Brighton, England, and I’m beyond excited for this opportunity to share my adoration of fashion. I fully intend to succeed. I am ambitious and @$%£ scared of failing.
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. 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.
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…
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.