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!

 

 

 

Seven Spring Cleaning Tips from Small Countries

Switzerland could win awards as the tidiest nation on earth.  As a compact country, the Swiss are born with an extra chromosome, a clean gene, to help conserve space. The streets are so sanitary, you could  eat off the sidewalks. I have never been a neat freak, but I have adopted a few helpful spring cleaning tips from our European neighbors.

  1. No shoes in the house. Ever. The Swiss are trained at an early age to automatically remove footwear at the door.
  2. Commune rule. Divide heavy tasks with household members on a rotational basis.   When I lived in an apartment complex in Germany, the residents on each floor took turns mopping the stairwell.  Same rules should apply in a family.
  3. Cut down laundry. Throw bedding out the window for a weekly breather.  Europeans, great believers in the curative properties of fresh air,  hang duvets over wrought iron balconies and wooden framed window ledges.
  4. Recycle bread crumbs (another French custom) Shake table cloths out the window.  First make sure pigeons, not people, inhabit the balcony below.
  5. Eliminate dust. Triple stack books on the shelves, that way there is no shelf left to collect grime.
  6. Clean sweep.  Push-everything-under-the bed-trick.  It’s a great storage area for books, essays, newspapers, laptops, and used Kleenex. Technique also works well in the living room using space between the couch and floor as magic drawer. (another personal invention)
  7. If all else fails, follow my Norwegian mom’s wise advice – hide the incriminating evidence, (including children):
    • Move the messy kid to the basement
    • Close the door
    • Condemn the area as a natural disaster

That is how my parents and I co existed during my adolescence. Consequently, I grew up serenely in comfortable chaos as a cellar dweller and only had to clean my room semi annually when the basement flooded.

 

 

 

Snow Storms Leaves Passengers Stranded in Europe, Including Me!

Well, that was an interesting voyage. Round trip to nowhere. We left the house before daybreak and ten hours later, returned home in the dark again. We never left the airport, yet felt like we’d travelled for weeks. Since most European countries lack heavy snow removal equipment even a couple, little snowflakes creates huge havoc on the entire continent.

Lechault’s snowed in at home

First bad omen: our taxi got stuck at the stoplight at the corner of our street. While our wheels spun on a patch of ice, a Renault Scenic smashed into the back of a Volkswagen Passat at the adjacent stoplight. Fifty yards further, a Mercedes slammed into the stoplight on the overpass knocking out the traffic signals.

In bumper-to-bumper traffic, we crept toward the airport. As soon as we arrived at the check in gate, a voice announced on the public address system, “Due to inclement weather, the Geneva airport will be closed until further notice.”

Ever optimistic, KLM personnel insisted we check our bags and pass controls to wait at the gate, just in case. But as soon as the Geneva airport reopened, the Amsterdam airport closed. We counted as one after the other flights across Europe to London, Paris, Frankfurt, Stockholm, Madrid, and Moscow were cancelled on the departure board. Our flight was rescheduled for noon; fifteen minutest later the red sign popped up, “cancelled.”

Luckily, Geneva is a small airport, so I felt at home in what turned into a mini reunion of the international school. All morning, I chatted with a colleague whose flight to London was delayed. In the afternoon, I caught up with a couple of 12th grade students who were booked on that same ill-fated, KLM flight. We waited for rerouting in a line that crawled forward a foot every fifty minutes. After four hours, we finally reached the rebooking counter, and I offered hopefully. “We could fly to Chicago instead of Minneapolis.”

Fat chance flying anywhere. During the Christmas holidays, flights worldwide were over booked. Forty-five minutes later the airline agent suggested, “Sunday, we have space on a flight to Paris with a stop over in Washington, then Minneapolis.” I collapsed on the counter!

“Pleeeaaasssee, I have health problems, can you recheck for a more direct flight?”

By then, I looked like I rolled under a cement truck, so she searched the computer screen again. A half hour later, she found a Continental flight to Newark then on to Minneapolis.

Last leg, flag down a taxi and head back to our own bed. Passengers across Europe slept the night in the airports. Since snow is a natural phenomenon, the airlines aren’t responsible for providing meals or overnight accommodations. It could be worse. In light of everything else that could go wrong in life, it is ONLY a cancelled flight. And when it snows, it is best to be stranded at home.

After the taxi dropped us in front our snow covered house, I discovered students had left a bag of homemade chocolates and a bottle of wine on my doorstep. There is a God, after all.

Bonne nuit. But will I sleep? Yikes, in 48 hours, I am flying over the Atlantic again!

Stranded- Flying the the Not So Friendly Skies of Europe

Living with one foot on two continents, I’ve crossed the Atlantic so many times I thought I had encountered every obstacle that exists from the fallout of delayed, detoured, and cancelled flights. I’ve flown through electrical storms, landed in snowstorms and endured turbulence caused by every kind of weather condition, but I’ve never been grounded due to volcanic ash.  When Iceland’s Eyjjafjallajokul Volcano erupted, spewing ash into the stratosphere, European governments not only grounded planes, but also closed airspace.
Flying these days is not for the weak-hearted.  When northerly winds blew a 4-mile high black horizon of volcanic ash across Europe, 17,000 flights were cancelled daily in the past four days leaving roughly 6 million plus passengers stranded.That is almost the entire population of Switzerland or all the residents of Chicago and Houston put together.
The cloud cover, which caused shutdowns in N. Europe bringing Europe’s largest airport, Heathrow, to a standstill for days, has spread as far south as Italy and Spain and east to Russia and Turkey. Within 48hours over 90% of French airports ground to a halt and its southern most terminals closed today.
A triple whammy hit France.  This weekend marks the end of a spring break for one zone of France and the beginning for another zone, leaving millions of families stranded on route to or from somewhere. On top of which workers of the SNCF, French rail system, notorious for staging protests, have been on strikes for the past 11 days.
Now almost all airways over Europe are affected and all airports across Europe are closed, which wreaks havoc far beyond the airline industry.
“I’ve worked at Geneva Airport for 43 years, “ Francois said. “And never seen anything like it. Not only are passengers stuck, but we have nowhere else to store cargo while we wait for trucks to pick up perishable products.”
Chancellor Merkel flew from Washington to Portugal to Italy then drove back to Germany.  She is lucky; a chauffeur is driving her home. The everyday citizen is stuck sleeping in airports, waiting for information, and fighting for tickets on Euro Star, ferry boats, and buses.
Right now no one, not even the experts, can predict when the cloud will dissipate or where it will travel next, perhaps, gradually blowing around the world. Air France, Lufthansa and KLM Airlines have begun test flights to determine the impact volcanic ash can have on plane safety.
Travelers will not only worry about terrorist threats,seasonal storms, bird migration, pilot errors, mechanical failures, and air traffic controller mistakes, we will now wonder when the next volcano might erupt.
My mom said it best,  “We humans think we are so smart, but Mother Nature trumped us all!”
While stranded passengers wait and pray for the big black cloud to disappear, I hope that big bad volcano goes back to sleep, so my college kids and their globetrotting grandparents can fly over in May.

Swiss Minaret Scandal

Switzerland made the news again for the wrong reason. Rightwing leaders of the Central Democratic Union launched a popular initiative fora constitutional ban on minarets, the domed-topped spires on mosques, theIslamic architectural equivalent to the Christian steeple.  On November 29th, the ban passed with an alarming, 57.5 % percent of the vote. Only 4 cantons, the French speaking ones, voted against it.

Xenophobic, racist, paranoid? C’mon where is the threat?
Muslims represent 5% of the country and only FOUR minarets exist in Switzerland. So much for the image of peaceful, bucolic alpine country where cow bells ring.
« Switzerland is not racist. It is afraid, »
Youssef Ibram, the imam of the Geneva mosque insists. « We have failed to communicate that terrorism is not part of the Koran. If there are Muslims who have given Islam a negative image here or elsewhere, it should not be generalized to the entire Muslim community. »
Though Switzerland was widely criticized across the continent, a Euronews poll found that if a similar vote were taken in other countries the outcome would be the same with 69% of Europeans banning minarets.
To ban one’s religion, in effect, forbid one’s way of life, is repression, not dialogue. It is a sad reflection of the world’s only true direct democracy. Rather than making the country more secure, it fuels the extremists.
I, too, am afraid, but not of Muslims. I fear radicals in any religion or government.
Prejudice is always based on fear and ignorance.  We fear most that which we do not understand. If we are truly a democratic society, freedom of speech and religion are non-negotiable human rights and to tamper with this by changing the constitution in a country that prides itself on multiculturalism is abominable.
An Al Jazeera editorialist insists that a country that prides itself on tolerance and humanitarian traditions, and values civil liberties should practice what it preaches. How can a democratic society hold a popular vote on a matter regarded as integral to freedom and rights?
The only ones applauding the Swiss action are the right wing extremists and neo Nazis throughout Europe.  Rabbis condemn the decision citing a Swiss law passed a hundred years ago that banned Jewish practices in attempt to drive out the Jewish population. According to Amnesty International spokesman, Manon Schick, the ban violates international law guaranteeing religious freedom.
When my children studying in the States heard about the vote, they were outraged.  I still
remember, when as 6th grader my son visited temples, churches and mosques in Geneva and claimed, « the mosque was the most welcoming. » Our daughter, voicing a sentiment heard throughout the Swiss international community, insists « It is unfathomable that issue ever came to vote in the first place. »
That it passed reflects a greater underlying problem within Switzerland and Europe. Over 30 million Muslims make up a part of Europe’s social fabric. May the church bells and minarets round the world, calls us all not only to worship the heavenly powers, but also to commune together with
mortals here on earth before it is too late.