Expatriation

More than half a decade ago (!), when I was living in Paris, I sang in a number of choirs. Like extracurricular organizations in every country except the US, their real purpose was not to come together to pursue an artistic/athletic goal. They were simply convenient excuses for drinking societies. The post-practice pilgrimage to the bar was always at least as important as perfecting whatever Bach cantata we were working on.


Mascotte (view at right) was one of the favorite drinking spots. One evening, an older member of the group pulled me aside. He asked me why an eighteen year old like me was in Paris and not in university, what I was doing with my life, why I’d left the US. As usual, I didn’t have very convincing answers.

‘It’s interesting… I figured I should make some money before college… I have no idea what I want to do with my life…’

He didn’t respond for a second. Then ‘You’ – the way he said this implied an intimacy that seemed presumptuous at the time – ‘you’ll become an expatriate.’

Years later, when I read The Sun Also Rises, I had a sharp sense of déjà vu. What I remember of that conversation in Paris was eerily reminiscent of a conversation Hemingway stages between two of his main characters. This is hardly surprising – Paris breeds the type of people who will quote literature as if it were their own personal insight. In Hemingway’s words:

‘You – you may not know it now, but you’ve become an expatriate. Not just for a little bit, but maybe for life. First you’ll lose touch with the soil. Then you’ll get precious because fake European standards will ruin you. You’ll drink yourself to death and become obsessed by sex. You’ll spend all your time talking, not working…’

 

And he saved the direst prediction for last: ‘You’ll hang around in cafes.’

I can safely report, on the eve of my one-year anniversary of being a full-time expatriate, that only one of these predictions has come true (IMHO). I write this from a cafe – where I am neither drinking nor talking, but working, or was until I took a break to write this.

Hemingway, I discovered recently, was not the only member of the American Literary Canon to have less-than-pleasant things to say about expatriate life. Truman Capote is less predictive and more judgmental:
 
‘Among the planet’s most pathetic tribes, sadder than a huddle of homeless Eskimos starving through a winter night seven months long, are those Americans who elect, out of vanity, or for supposedly aesthetic reasons, or because of sexual or financial problems, to make a career of expatriation.’
 

Some of my favorite expats on a recent boat trip. Not so sad.
 
The quote, from Answered Prayers, aka the novel that earned Capote a top space on the list of Literature’s Bitchiest, is predictably hypocritical. Capote spent years living as an expat before returning to New York to die an untimely death brought on by drink (proving Hemingway’s quote might have a little bit more to it).
 
The fact that I am neither a literary genius nor a member of the bonne monde probably has something to do with the fact that neither of these descriptions of expatriate life mirror mine. Great books will never be written about my exploits. On the other hand, at least I make enough money to pay my own bills.

So, back to working in cafes. One of the great miracles of modern life, up there with genetic engineering and the near-worldwide availability of Chilean Malbecs, must be the ability to work remotely. With my Outlook files backed up on a custom work-tailored gmail account, my documents stored safely in Dropbox, and access to my company’s archives through our FTP server, I can work anywhere that has a decent internet connection. Which doesn’t happen to include my apartment, where I can only get internet if I hover, creepily, outside my landlady’s door to piggyback on her wireless (an action she sanctions, and charges me for).
 
Of course there are benefits to being in the office, and I am most of the time. However, on days like today – when a precious Indian summer is providing a break from the dreadful Black Sea winter weather which seems to have prematurely set in – heading to the eleventh floor of a skyscraper just doesn’t appeal.

The flexibility to work anywhere my company is active – Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the Bahamas (?) – and my ongoing like-but-not-love affair with Istanbul (Chilean Malbecs present, but unnecessarily pricey) are combining to convince me that my days in this city may well be drawing to a close. Not before January, or likely even June, but I’m beginning to explore my options. These don’t, at the moment, include a return to the US. So, as I close my first full year of being an expatriate, it looks like it won’t be my last.

 
Go ahead and tell me this makes me more pathetic than a huddle of homeless Eskimos starving through a winter night seven months long. I won’t believe you. I think I’m right where I belong looking for where I belong.
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Why not? Part II


One of the joys of moving to a new city is the process of forming a social network. In my book, this joy is slightly greater than shots of antibiotics in painful places, and infinitely less than the joy of cooking.

Making new friends takes work. It involves treading a fine line between proactivity and stalkerville. Despite your best intentions, there’s a good chance that at least a few people you call or email – friends of friends, people you met out and about – will think you are nosy/presumptuous/offensive/annoying. Or hitting on them. But when the alternative is sitting alone at home, or going out with the delivery man who misinterpreted your friendly conversation as an unspoken invitation to ring your doorbell in the middle of the night, sending some awkward emails to people you barely know seems a small price to pay.

Especially when they so often yield great rewards. One recipient of one said awkward email has both become a good friend and pointed me in the direction of the Professional American Women of Istanbul, a networking group.

Despite a deep-seated mistrust of organised groups of women (borne out of a traumatic summer living in an all-girls cabin at band camp in my early adolescence), I decided to give PAWI a try. The first meeting I attended was at the Consul-General’s residence, a fortified mansion that looms over an innocent-looking little village a few miles north of the centre of town. I wasn’t sure what kind of people I would be meeting – ladies who lunch (here known by the code name ‘trailing spouse’)? Bra burning careerists? English teachers? – but took a cue from the name and tried to dress Professionally. The only problem was that I was still living out of the backpack I’d taken to China at that point, so the only Profession I could dress for was Starving Artist/Unemployed College Grad.

Thankfully this wasn’t an issue as the Professional American Women of Istanbul turned out to be an interesting, and forgiving, mix of the three professions I expected (trailing spouse, starving artists, English teachers), plus a healthy dose of lawyers, entrepreneurs, and executives. I also learned, to my surprise, that the Consul-General was a woman.

‘Her husband calls himself the trophy husband,’ one woman told me conspiratorially. ‘He’s quite the charmer.’

I didn’t know quite what to say to that and so made an excuse about being thirsty. In the line for tea, I found myself behind the only man in the room. Feeling friendly, I asked him, jokingly, if he was the trophy husband.

‘No, I’m not married to Sharon,’ the man said, without a trace of a smile.

‘Well, you don’t look like one of the caterers,’ I said. This too was intended as a joke.

‘No,’ again. He was not the greatest conversationalist.

‘So – what do you do here in Turkey?’

‘I’m the Ambassador,’ he said. Still no smile.

What kind of aspiring Turkey-based journalist does not recognize the US Ambassador? The answer is: a bad one. I attribute this bit of self-realization, and the career shifts it inspired, to PAWI.

I also have PAWI to thank for finally, finally finding a good answer for the question of why, for the moment, I choose to live abroad. Anyone who has lived abroad has had to contend with friends back at home who simply cannot understand why someone would choose to leave a country with stable democracy, free speech, and the best candy bar selection in the world (the case could be made for either the US or Britain in this respect). Truth be told, it’s a question many of us ask ourselves every day – see as evidence the fact that ‘Why Istanbul?‘ is one of the more popular tags in this blog.

To Maureen, who sat next to me at a PAWI networking dinner last week, the answer is simple. ‘The way I see it,’ she said, ‘is this: expats have a fundamentally different mindset to the rest of the world. While the vast majority of people exist in a world where ‘why’ is the most important and instructive question, we live in a world of ‘why not’. Why live abroad? Why not? Why Turkey? Why not?’

Maureen’s take on this question is not the first time I’ve noticed the usefulness of ‘why not’. Most memorably, it was the excuse a man named Giles gave me for moving to Gambia when I met him in the summer of 2008, which inspired me to declare 2008 my summer of ‘Why not?’ (see the blog I contributed to back then, complete with a ‘Why not?‘ post of its own, if you want more context). But Maureen’s explanation captures the zeitgeist of expatriate life in a way that has never occurred to me before, and which I will now never forget.

Photo: I walked down the street I used to live in last week and thought this cat had it pretty good. A spot in the sun, a sweet fur coat, a motorcycle: everything you need save opposable thumbs, really.

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Pragmatic if not practical

‘Les filles sont fait pour fait l’amour,’ was the opening line (and refrain, and pretty much entire text) of French rocker Adanowsky’s set at the Moloko Music Festival, the culminating musical event of Kiev’s Gogol International Modern Art festival. The song seemed especially fitting here in the Ukraine, where women are as uncannily beautiful as their Muscovite cousins (see ‘The Moscow-New York Connection‘).

To the delight of almost every male expat, and the trepidation their female counterparts, there is a rich tradition of Ukrainian woman – expat man relationships, or so I gathered from the cover story of the Sept. 3 issue of ‘What’s On Kiev‘. The article blithely lays out the pros and cons for each party. Some highlights:

‘The delights’ Ukrainian women can offer the expat man:
– No matter how ugly, overweight, or out of shape you are, you can probably find yourself a young wife with a face you can’t believe and a supple body to die for!

‘The dark side’
– Don’t allow yourself to entertain the foolish thought that because your Ukrainian wife expects you to be the breadwinner, going off to work every day and earning fortunes (she will expect this, by the way), she’s going to be stuck at home being a housewife… she will expect you to hire a nanny, a cleaner, a cook and a maid.
– All Ukrainian women believe that men are bastards. They will fully expect you to be drunk all the time and to be unfaithful in equal amounts. She will treat you as if you are doing all this, even when you’re not, which will certainly drive you to drink, and probably drive you to being unfaithful, in the unlikely event you’re not already

‘The Good’ about expat men for Ukrainian women
– Chances are they can give you a better lifestyle than their local counterparts. Then again, an ex-pat in Kiev is never going to be worth what an oligarch’s worth, but if you’ve got no access there, a foreigner’s a good option.
– Most western men know it’s a bad thing to beat a woman, while statistics show that might not always be the case with Ukrainian men.

The Bad and the Ugly
– He’s going to be old. While that might not matter now, try and project into the future and calculate how old he will be when you’re his age. He may well be dead by then, but then again, that might not be such a bad thing. After all, you’ll have the passport and all his money.
– An expat will not be as generous with his money as his local equivalent. He will tell you it’s because he doesn’t have the fatalistic attitude to money Ukrainian men have and that he thinks of the future, but you know it’s just cause he’s a tight bastard and doesn’t appreciate how much it costs for you to look the way you do. He simply does not understand!

Naturally, the article was the subject of many conversations among the expat community. I thought it was a joke. On the contrary, said nearly everyone I talked to, it’s spot on. Even the Ukrainians I talked to didn’t seem to take much umbrage with the fact that it painted their women as gold-diggers. ‘Of course women want to be taken care of,’ said one man. ‘My wife has told me she doesn’t want to do anything but play with our children all day. Of course it is my responsibility to provide for them.’ ‘It’s just the reality of life over here,’ one woman echoed. ‘And it’s so true, what they say: foreign men don’t understand how much it costs to look good. I used to date an American who said I should get a job if I wanted to spend $2000 a month on spa treatments. How ridiculous is that? I dumped him and started dating a Ukrainian man who owns a spa.’

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