Expat Women: Confessions For Gals on the Go

In 1980, I became a globetrotting professional basketball player and my plane touched down in Paris.  When I saw little women with baseball bats (baguettes) slung on one shoulder, and vegetable-laden baskets over the other, stopping on cobblestone street corners to kiss, I thought I’d landed on another planet. I moved dozens of times between continents and countries and have three decades of experience teaching in international schools abroad. With the world as my classroom, everyday is a learning experience, but when I first moved abroad I was clueless.

Expat Women: Confessions, 50 Answers to Your Questions About Living Abroad hits home with me.  The authors, Andrea Martins and Victoria Hepworth, address issues any woman faces leaving home, yet the stakes are higher as an expat.  In a simple-to-read, down-to-earth, no nonsense style, the authors tackle the toughest questions with aplomb. They touch on complex topics women confront in their roles as partners, mothers or employees, which are more complicated when living overseas. The book includes sensitive issues from transitioning-in to, to child raising, to culture shock and repatriation, to divorce and death abroad.

Expat Women: Confessions (http://www.expatwomen.com/expat-women-confessions.php) is a must read for anyone leaving the homeland.  It offers insightful advice from women who have years of experience living cross culturally. As valuable as the Berlitz Language guide, I would highly recommend this for anyone contemplating the expat life.

Thirty years ago, I lifted weights, ran laps and shot hoops to train my well-honed body for the rigors of international ball, but my mind was ill prepared for life abroad.  I had no idea where to locate Paris on a map, how to ask for the restroom in the local language or how many times to kiss cheeks in greeting.

In retrospect, for anyone contemplating an overseas assignment, I strongly recommend 5 basics before signing the contract.

1.  Research – find out as much as you can about the country, culture, customs, and language including work place protocol

2.  Network before leaving your home – sign on to newsletters and blogs that entail expat life (http://pattymackz.com/wordpress/subscribe-to-my-blogs/)

3.  Make sure the salary allowance includes or covers health insurance and costs of trips to the homeland for holidays or family emergencies.

4. Be open minded, flexible and willing to make mistakes (a sense of humor helps)

5.  Read Expat Women: Confessions, the book I wish existed when I first moved abroad

My Norwegian great grandmother, Eugenie, immigrated to America in 1902.  Her four-year-old daughter died a fortnight after arriving at Ellis Island; then, Eugenie passed away 5 months later giving birth to my grandmother. Leaving the nest and striking out for a better life elsewhere is as old as time; yet with high tech connections shrinking our globe, no one needs to be blind-sided as to what awaits. Sacrifice has long been the female’s role, but no one no longer needs to lose the self in the transition.

From the pioneer women loading wagon trains Westward to the trailing spouse and adventuresome entrepreneurs paving new trails in Africa, Asia and Europe, women, round the globe, have always been bridges between generations and cultures. Bon voyage!

 

 

 

First Doctor in the Family

I slouched through school feeling ashamed with three strikes against me: tall, smart and athletic.  Not cool.  In the 70’, girls pursuing advanced careers in sports or academics were scorned minorities. Fast-forward four decades. Our Franco-American daughter, Nathalie stood proud, set shot blocking records in college and aced medical boards, playing the game her way.

Ironically, I, who grew up with hospital phobia and feared white coats, gave birth to a doctor.  Yet in retrospect, I saw the makings of a medicine woman early on.  As a precocious child, Nat spoke two languages, read books at the dinner table and excelled in her studies.  As a youngster, she had an innate ability to sense others’ pain.  She held her great grandpa’s hand when his footsteps faltered from Parkinson disease and leaned her head into Great Grandma’s shoulder to make her feel special.  She distracted her little brother when he threw tantrums and settled squabbles between cousins.

Fascinated with body parts and blood cells, she insisted we read « The Way Your Body Works » over and over again in childhood.  While I cringed at the word science and the sight of blood, she loved chemistry and biology, mixing chemicals and dissecting animals.

She paved her own path sans doctors in the family on either side.  Born of blue collar and modest teachers’ families, she jumped social classes to become a doctor of medicine, following her dream 4,000 miles away from home.

I marveled at her persistence; the greater obstacle, the harder she grit her teeth. The night her college team got knocked out of the conference championship, she mourned the end of her basketball career.  Yet hours later, she cracked open books and crammed for the biochem exam scheduled for 8 am the next day. She survived four years of boot camp for doctor wannabees in the grueling med school program enduring thirty-hour shifts and studying every free second. Med school is intense from the get go. …First day meet body buddies, second day meet body – as in cadaver.

Nat's medical school graduation

Nat's medical school graduation

The afternoon of Nat’s graduation from the University of Minnesota Medical School, her dad and I stayed up late in Switzerland to watch live on webcam.  When they announced, « Doctor Nathalie Lechault » and she stepped forward to be hooded, my throat tightened. I blinked back bittersweet tears filled with awe.

In 2011, nearly half of the 238 students in Nathalie’s graduating class were female.  From the Susan B. Anthonys and suffragettes of the late 1800s, to the Rosa Parks of the civil rights, to the Gloria Steinems of the liberation movement – hats off to all the women, who dared to think outside the box, who dreamed big, who helped give birth to our alpha daughters of the 21st century.

Help! I am becoming a social media junky

Okay, what started it all was this crazy desire to be a writer.  But nobody sits downs and writes anymore. They socialize, they connect, they advertise, they promote, they sell.  They pound the pavement on line to build a platform. Reminds me of selling potato chips door to door to raise money to attend Y Camp as a kid.

I naively signed up for blogging 101 and build your author platform with Dan Blank, our social media guru. http://wegrowmedia.com/ Before I knew it I was hooked.

First he encouraged us to blog.  Got that down.  Next step -Twitter.  Twitter scared me. I feared the CTA (Cyberspace Transit Authorities) would catch me smuggling words across borders.  Twitter feels like passing notes in class to strangers.  Twitter is like it sounds –  a bunch of magpies sitting on a telephone line gossiping.

Next Dan insisted,  «join Facebook. » What a tool. Daunting. The concept scared me.  I  avoid  mirrors. I don’t particularly enjoy looking at my face these days, so why  would anyone else ? Yet now, as if displaying the bulletin board of my childhood, my mug shot flashes on the « wall » of the world.

All these people are coming out of the woodwork.  It’s awesome reconnecting with my high school and college alumni, but also unsettling. I can’t get my head around it.  It’s like looking into a trick mirror – we look grey and paunchy. Yet I’m still sweet sixteen in my mind, a skinny thing in pig tails and skinned knees.

The worst part of my new social media gig, is that I no longer want to go to my real job interacting with real students and real colleagues.  It is more rewarding to catch up with former students and friends on line. They are so much smarter than me. English teachers are obsolete. Seriously, no one writes complete sentences anymore.  Even Shakespeare  looks like this – R & J in love 4ever. The downside of social media is that it makes me feel old, dumb, and ugly.

Yet for somebody living abroad, it is a way to link in with old classmates; to keep up with the youth,; to meet new people in a  writers group that shines from sea to shining sea.  Rebecca in San Fran and Barb in LA, Viki in Chicago (http://www.friendgrief.blogspot.com/), Porter in Atlanta (http://www.porterandersonmedia.com/), Kathy (http://krpooler.com/) and Jen in Virginia (http://jenhenderson.com/wordpress/ ) Judith in Italy (http://aromacucina.com/) and Dan in NYC.

To attract more followers, Dan says we need to host events, plan give aways, and create gimmicks.  It makes me feel more like the on-line Avon Lady than Virginia Woolf.  One thing I know for sure working with teens, social media is the future. Tomorrow we “boogie, “on their terms; my generation is on the way out! So suck it up, Pat, and get it on with it.  Tweet. Tweet.

Dr. Jone’s Dream: Equal Education Long Before Brown v. Topeka Kansas

I teach at the world’s oldest and largest international school where the annual tution costs as much as a year of elite university in the states. My students, from affluent families valuing education, cannot understand how minorities denied equal education remain powerless within societies. In 1896 the 14th Amendment guaranteed full rights of citizenship to anyone born in the USA, yet Plessy v. Ferguson, a ruling that same year, upheld social segregation of “white and colored races”. Over a half century later little had changed.  The “separate but equal” doctrine provided the legal basis for racial segregation until the 1954 Brown v. the Board of Topeka, Kansas case. Thirteen families representing twenty school children, led by the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall, who became the first African American judge, challenged the Supreme Court’s decision and deemed the doctrine unconstitutional.  This helped spark the Civil Rights Movement and led to integration of not only schools, but also public places.

Dr Jones & school children

Dr Jones & school children

In 1909, long before that epic battle,  Laurence Jones, a black man with a vision, turned an abandoned sheep shed into The Piney Woods School with meager donations from an impoverished community. This was the beginning of his dream  to educate underprivileged black children in destitute, rural Rankin County, Mississippi.  Over a century later, that one room school has become a thriving 2,000 acres campus, with a high school that can justly boast “we are changing America, and the world, one student at a time.” Alumnus went on to Princeton, Howard, and Tuskegee pursuing degrees in medicine, education, marketing and other careers to become leaders in their fields.

When my grandparents, Ralph and Betty McKinzie, retired from teaching at NIU and DeKalb High School, they dedicated two years of service teaching at Piney Woods.  During Easter break 1968, on a trip to visit my grandparents, we drove through the deep South where I saw ram shackled lean-tos, the remnants of slavery.

Jim, Ralph, Betty McKinzie, Martha Olson, Dr. Jones

 

“How come the Negroes live in shacks?” I asked with the innocence of an ten-year-old.

“Because they are so poor.”

“Why are they so poor?”

“Because they don’t have any land.”

“Hey, I see lots of land,” I said pointing towards a sprawling plantation with stately white pillars. “The whole town could fit in that house; it’s bigger than a hotel!”

At Piney Woods School, my brother and I played basketball with the black boys on a dirt court in a sun-baked paradise surrounded by pine and honey-scented pink and white magnolias. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

“Isn’t it great how well they get along?” my dad asked.

My sisters and new friends

“If only we could remain children in our hearts,” my grandma replied.

As we piled suitcases on top of the Rambler to head back North, a young girl peeked behind her big sister’s cotton skirt to stare at the first white family she’d ever seen.

“Schootch together,” Grandma said, “so I can take your picture.”

I stood by my new friend, the color of chocolate, and beamed as the camera clicked.  Then I reached over and took her soft warm hand in mine. It fit just perfect.

Photographs of my childhood remain etched in my soul forever.  Just as my grandma had hoped, I remained a child in my heart, befriending people from all four corners of the globe in my international community where I teach as an adult.

 

http://www.pineywoods.org/

 

 

 

Happy Birthday Expat Women Worldwide

I was born in Sandwich Illinois at the far, far outskirts of the Windy City, but I have lived by the White House in D.C., the Eiffel Tower in Paris, a 15th century German castle, and Lake Geneva surrounded by the Alps. I moved 12 times in 17 years between four different countries. Even spectacular views cannot erase the bouts of loneliness inherent in expatriate life.

In 1979, as a globe trotting pro basketball player, when I landed in France and saw little women with baseball bats (baguettes) slung lover their shoulders, scurrying down cobblestone streets blowing air kisses, I thought, “OMG, I’ve landed on another planet.”

Back then, in a flat sans telephone, TV, microwave or electronic anything, domestic chores took on new meaning. I washed clothes in the bathtub, shopped daily and my only connection to home was thin, blue, airmail envelops that took ten days to arrive.  Whether living in Germany amongst college co-eds, in Paris as a young mother, or Switzerland as a teacher, friendships with women kept me sane. Throughout my transitions from athlete to coach to teacher to writer, from wife to mom to empty nester, I have depended on a sisterhood of females – teammates, colleagues, friends, neighbors – to help me cope with hard times while living 4,000 miles away from extended family.

My journey would’ve been far less turbulent if ExpatWomen.com Expat Women - Helping Women Living Overseas
, the largest global website helping women living abroad existed when I first moved overseas. Reading the down to earth information on a site displaying over a 1000 content pages, 1600 expat women blogs, 300 readers’ stories, country resources pages, interviews, motivational articles, a blog and newsletter is like sitting down for a cup of coffee with your BFF.

As ExpatWomen.com celebrates its 4th anniversary, I embark on my 32nd year abroad. Happy Birthday to us – women overseas who are raising families, learning other languages, adopting new lifestyles, negotiating internationally and living cross culturally. And a special shout out also to the women back in our homelands who keep us grounded by sharing our past and reminding us where we came from and who we are.

Santé, prost, salud, hälsa, cheers. Here’s to expats worldwide! Bring on the next adventure!

Staying Connected at Christmas Always Worth the Trip

My sibling and I live 5,000 miles apart, away from our childhood home, yet in spite of the distance we remain close. It helped that we were a family born on wheels. In the sixties, at time when most people wouldn’t take four kids five years apart any further than the corner grocery store, my grandparents and parents loaded the station wagon with, nine bags, eight bodies and one big red ice chest and hit the road. Like the Beverly Hillbillies, we cruised the blue highways from sea to shining seas in our beat up old Rambler.


We grew up believing life was an endless road trip. Consequently we continue to spend an inordinate amount of time in our adult lives riding the rail, flying the sky, and pounding the pavement to remain connected.

Just last week over a span of 24 hours, my youngest sister, Karen, drove to my son’s college game in Minnesota, one evening, and dropped our daughter, Nathalie, off at the Minneapolis airport at 6 am the next morning. Then she drove 7 hours to Sterling to support my mom and middle sister, Sue, as my dad recovered from delicate hip reconstruction surgery in Sterling Rock Falls Hospital. Meanwhile my older brother, Doug, and sister in law, Julianne, picked up Nat at the airport in Cleveland and chauffeured her to her residency interview at Rainbow Baby and Children’s Hospital.

In the meantime, Rush Memorial called her for an interview, so my brother-in-law, Cliff in the Chicago suburbs, helped change her ticket and arranged her pick her up 0’Hare Airport. He will drive her to her appointment at Rush; she’ll take the train from there back to the airport to fly to Utah for another interview.

On December 17th, Gerald and I were supposed to fly from Geneva via Amsterdam to Minneapolis. Our son will pick us up in the car he borrows regularly from my brother-in-law Dick. Then after Nathalie arrives from Utah, we will drive back down to Sterling, via our cabin at Summit Lake, to celebrate my dad’s successful surgery.

“And that my dear,” Aunt Mary used to say, “is love in action.”

One wonders what do people do without family?

Every winter, the McKinzie clan will log miles in the air and on land, braving blizzards, airline strikes and flight delays because Christmas happens whenever, wherever and however we can get together.

Be sure to rejoice in the gift of family especially this holiday season. Safe travels to you wherever you gather. May your wheels keep spinning for another year.