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Women's True Tales of Life Abroad
Edited by Christina Henry de Tessan
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It's one thing to travel abroad—to stay in charming hotels and deliberate over whether to visit this museum or relax at that café even to head off the beaten track for a glimpse of "real" life—and another thing altogether to move to another country. Expat chronicles the experiences of twenty-two ordinary women living extraordinary lives in outposts as far flung as Borneo, Ukraine, India, Greece, Brazil, China and the Czech Republic.
In vivid detail, these writers share how the realities of life abroad match up to the expat fantasy. One woman negotiates the rough courtesies of Serbia, finding lives limned by harshness and an insurmountable spirit. Another is tutored on English manners by an eclectic bunch from Liverpool: "The cardinal sin in America is to be insincere, whereas the cardinal sin in England is to be boring." For some, their new home prompts them to reconnect or confront lost parts of themselves: One woman rediscovers her Judaism—in Japan; another writer's Western outlook is challenged by Javanese mysticism.
Many share their own naíve blunders and private confessions: a Thanksgiving dinner that doesn't translate in Paris, a sudden yearning for bad Hollywood films. And all discover that what it means to be "American" is redefined, again and again. taps into the bewilderment, the joys and surprises of life overseas, where the challenges often take unexpected forms and the obstacles overcome are all the more triumphant.
Featuring an astonishing range of perspectives, destinations and circumstances, this collection offers a beautiful portrait of expatriate life.
An anthology is a true collaborative effort. First and foremost, I want to thank the contributors for their spirited stories, as well as their endless patience and goodwill, even as I asked for “just one more round of revisions.” This book would very simply not exist without them. This collection also benefited greatly from the shrewd guidance of my editor and friend Leslie Miller. Many thanks to my family, for nurturing the travel bug in me, to Ninive and Elizabeth, for believing I could do it, and of course, to Rick, for just about everything, but especially, for taking a leap of faith and running away to Paris with me and for keeping the home fires burning (quite literally) as I put this collection together.
My mother was born on a ranch in the Arizona desert. She loves France. My father was born in Paris and fell in love with the Wild West. While my dad loves nothing more than galloping around on horseback in search of stray cattle, Mom loves getting to know the cheese man in her neighborhood when she visits Paris. So although life at home in San Francisco was always a very fine thing, I was raised on the idea that foreign places were the stuff of real magic. Travel somehow allowed room for a fantasy that real life did not leave much time for, and my parents’ adventures always seemed wonderfully romantic. They sheltered themselves from tropical storms in Guatemala with sombrilla de pobre leaves (poor man’s umbrellas), sampled guinea pig in Peru, raced across potholed roads through Portugal’s groves of cork trees, picked up hitchhikers swathed in flowing robes and adorned with curved daggers in Morocco. Their photos told tales of fantastically different-looking places: Dad playing checkers with the local villagers in Senegal, Mom climbing to the top of Tiqual, Prague’s Charles Bridge on a snowy evening. The unknown (and the more obscure the better) had a mystique all its own, and I couldn’t help but get swept up in the fervor of it. I, too, became addicted to stepping out of the rut of day-to-day life and testing myself far from the familiar and comfortable routines of home. But even as I strayed further off the beaten track, I always returned home to the States after a few adventurous weeks. It was never enough. Eventually, I began to wonder what it would be like to take travel to its furthest extreme—and move someplace to live. After all, if one loves to travel, then isn’t living abroad a natural extension of that passion?
So I went to Paris—and lived in poorly insulated, renovated maid’s quarters on the ninth floor of an ancient building overlooking the chimneys and rooftops for over a year. I befriended the local merchants, learned to cope with French colleagues and became a regular in obscure North African restaurants. I sighed impatiently when the tourists descended upon the city in the spring. I explored beyond the glittering surface and became a local, commuting to a nine-to-five job in the icy northern European rain and reveling in the now-familiar signs of spring as the chestnuts along the Seine released their pale green leaves. All of this was heady stuff, and I loved it. But I also learned there was an unexpected dimension to living abroad that I hadn’t considered before going, one my parents hadn’t taught me and that I had to discover on my own. I hadn’t given more than a fleeting thought to the good old-fashioned loneliness that cropped up. I no longer had the familiar clutch of friends to call and debrief with at the end of a long day. Accustomed to being efficient, competent, articulate, and able to navigate the various logistics of American life, in Paris I was often flummoxed: by doctors, medical insurance, renter’s taxes, voice mail, the laundromat and that wretched foreign keyboard which turned all my letters to gibberish.
Was it worth it? Absolutely. Was it what I’d expected? Not always. Living overseas, I learned, was not the same as traveling there. And so, I became curious: how did others fare when they left to make their home in a different country? What was it like to try to gain a foothold in a foreign place, and why did they want to? And finally, how did the dream match up to the reality for them?
I was astounded by the essays I received—not only by the range of experiences and destinations, but by how different they were from traditional travel essays. When we travel, we are craving a break from routine, so we seek out the different and exotic at every turn because we know that in a week or two, we will be back in our safe little worlds. But when we move away, the home we’ve left behind can tug at us in surprising ways. We go abroad with our sights set ambitiously on change, but find we crave something recognizable and tangible, things we may never have known we needed: flavors and foods, love and companionship, routine and purpose, being understood for who we really are—whether it’s our incandescent wit or our skills as a chef. Instead of fantasizing about the new and exotic, we might find ourselves daydreaming about the familiar: No, I don’t want a thimbleful of bitter French café, I want a huge paper cup full of American coffee that will last all morning. Having wanted to take travel to its furthest extreme, we end up coming full circle as we learn to cope with the most mundane tasks in a foreign place. Ultimately, real immersion—and the real challenge—occurs during this shift. Balancing the need for the familiar with our desire for the exotic is at the heart of the expat experience.
Time and again, the women in these essays display a dazzling, inspiring resourcefulness as they struggle to find the right balance for themselves. Forced out of the familiar zone of twenty-four-hour Safeways, longtime friends, and cultural and linguistic fluency, these essays are glorious proof of our powers to adapt. They overcome fears and shyness, make themselves understood, re-create a sense of home, find what they need. These stories make me want to pack my bags once again, but they also remind me that it is not as easy as it sounds. I recall how much I craved friends and colleagues who could understand me, how humbling it was not to be able to express myself as I would have liked, and how quickly I had forgotten the hard parts. That said, I also remember how gratifying it was to assemble the myriad pieces of a life from scratch. I was as wide awake as I have ever been, for better and for worse, and for that reason alone, I would do it all over again.
Christina Henry de Tessan
Seattle, Washington 2002
Before and After Mexico
While life yet lasts, laughter and molasses
—traditional Mexican saying
January 1997. My husband, Dave, and I were deliriously happy—giddy with the reality that we were officially unemployed, homeless and about to blow our life savings by boarding Taesa flight 572 (Oakland-Zacatecas-Morelia) with one-way tickets, one two-year-old, three suitcases, a bag of books, a laptop, a pink teddy bear, a diaper bag and three saxophones. The only plan for our new life in Mexico was that Dave would play jazz, I’d finally have a go at writing and our daughter Annalena would chase lizards.
We sold nearly everything we owned to finance this escape. Our Tahitian-green Honda Civic named Uma, Macintosh computers, Navajo rugs, 50s reclining beauty-parlor chair, Bang & Olufsen stereo system, reading lamps made of twigs, goose-down comforter, garlic peeler and Weber grill: all sold to the highest bidder. People described our liquidation as “the flea market of the gods.” Estranged friends descended like vultures to paw through our belongings.
Everything was gone. Dave’s beloved collection of obscure R & B Christmas albums: gone. The books of French literary criticism I never actually read in college: gone. Annalena’s primary-colored plastic educational toys: gone. The five bottles of extra fancy grade A pure Vermont maple syrup, four of which I bought because I never could remember if we had any, and brunch with friends was an ideal I perennially aspired to mid-supermarket-aisle: gone. Gone. Gone. Gone. Gone.
The abstract notion of lightening the load was more cathartic than the excruciating book-by-book process. I had to keep reminding myself that each item sold translated into that much more time I wouldn’t have to spend in a gray cubicle. A neighbor squabbled when I refused his pitiful offer for Italy: The Beautiful Cookbook. He didn’t understand that this was no ordinary garage sale, that we weren’t getting rid of these things because we didn’t like them. They were our only assets and we were exchanging them for a new life.
It’s not that our old life was without its pleasures, but we were bone tired. Dave was the managing director of a Shakespeare festival and I was the assistant to a vice president of marketing at a software company (back in the glory days of corporate-sponsored staff-bonding ski trips and free Snapple lemonade for all high-tech workers). I was too lowly a peon to get stock options, but my boss was a nice guy who thanked me daily for my competence. Having spent my twenties toiling in employee-morale disaster zones at supposedly progressive political and arts organizations, the software company’s esprit de corps and catered lunches had been a revelation.
Quitting was Dave’s idea. He was thirty-nine and barreling his way to an ulcer from the stress of managing the theater’s never-ending backstage dramas, while juggling the demands of fatherhood, husbandhood and gigs with his experimental jazz ensemble. He was seeing both a therapist and a career counselor, trying to figure out a way to make money that might also make him happy, or at least happier. Architect? Therapist? Jazz history professor? Vice president of something? Bookstore owner? Record-shop clerk? Hander-outer of putters at a mini-golf course?
None of these ideas stuck. More than a new profession, he needed a break—time to catch his breath, find his bearings, rekindle his spirit. He needed a lot more than a two-week vacation. While stuck in Bay Bridge traffic one Thursday night, the solution came to him. With desperate clarity, he bounded in the door and swooped Annalena up into his arms.
“Honey, I’ve figured it out. We don’t have to buy a house. We can quit our jobs, sell everything and become expatriates instead.”
We had habitually entertained fantasies of life abroad while on vacation, but this time Dave was serious. My first impulse was to dig in my heels: “But I finally like my job.”
“I thought you wanted to be a writer. Think about it. We’re not tied down to a mortgage. I haven’t embarked on a new career. We only have one child and she’s not in school yet. This is our window of opportunity.”
He made it sound so reasonable. I was thirty-one and had been coasting on my “creative potential” since college. This move felt like put-up-or-shut-up time, like my artistic bluff had been called. My work at the software company was pleasant, but it was meaningless. I needed to sit still long enough to find out if I had anything to say as a writer. I also yearned to see our little girl during daylight hours.
We contemplated relocating to Holland, Spain, Italy, or France, but settled on Mexico, where we’d vacationed three times, because we loved the mariachi bands and the brilliant colors, because families were revered there and because rents were cheap. And we were, indeed, a family with limited resources—$23,732.45 after the sale, to be exact. We thought it would be enough money to carry us for a year, maybe two.
When the last of our furniture was carted away, Dave and I sat on the hardwood floor and surveyed the empty space. There was no remaining evidence of our personalities. We no longer had proof that we were intelligent people of distinguished, if modest, accomplishment and quirky good taste.
The closer we came to our departure date, the less coherent I was when people asked, “Why Morelia?” Nobody’d heard of this inland city. I tried to sound rational, explaining that we thought coastal resorts were well and good for vacations, but that at heart we weren’t beach people and we didn’t want to live surrounded by tourists. The guidebooks intriguingly described the state of Michoacán as the “Switzerland of Mexico,” the “Hills of China of Mexico” and the “Land that Time Forgot.” We specifically chose the capital city of Morelia because we were suckers for colonial architecture and cobblestones, and, with its universities, music conservatory, and nearby crafts villages, it just seemed like the place for us.
Of course, we’d never been there, we didn’t know anybody there, and we didn’t speak Spanish.
We ended up spending the first of what would turn into four years in Mexico in Pátzcuaro, a Purépecha Indian town on a mountain lake about an hour’s drive south of Morelia. The capital itself had felt too sprawling and cosmopolitan, too similar to California. There was a gourmet grocery where we could buy imported coffee and Häagen-Dazs, and that felt like cheating. We wanted to live in the Land that Time Forgot, and in Pátzcuaro there wasn’t even coffee-to-go.
We lived on a nameless cobblestone road in a little adobe house that had no telephone, no washing machine, no microwave and no television. The kitchen counter was a glorious, crazy quilt of Talavera tiles decorated with bananas and jalapeño peppers, and the bathroom walls were painted azul añil, a deep ultramarine blue believed to ward off evil spirits. Two stone angels, carved in the nearby village of Tzintzuntzan, held up the mantel above the fireplace in the living room. We bought wood from an eighty-three-year-old campesino named Don Ambrosio who delivered it by burro. Stoking the fire, I felt like a pioneer bride.
Dave planted a stand of calla lilies and hung a hammock in the backyard. We learned how to finesse the water and gas tanks and (after our first miserable round of amoebas) to soak vegetables vigilantly in a disinfectant solution. Just walking to the post office was an adventure because we invariably stumbled on one fiesta or another—boys blasting fireworks at dawn in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a mariachi band serenading a bride and groom on the church steps, children bashing a piñata strung up in the middle of the street, a drunken brass band careening through town in celebration of a win by their favorite soccer team.
Wandering through Pátzcuaro’s outdoor market was a visual feast. Block after block was filled with the reddest tomatoes I’d ever seen, alongside pyramids of huge, ripe avocados, juicy cactus paddles, mangoes carved into flower shapes, baskets overflowing with dried chilies and pumpkin seeds, platters of chicken heads, candied sweet potatoes swarming with bees and more cow parts than I’d ever imagined. Enormous bouquets of tuberoses could be had for a song. I’d dare myself to go back by the butcher stalls to look at the ghostly tripe, pig snouts on hooks and glistening entrails. My legs would nearly buckle, the sensual overload was so confounding. When Dave wasn’t around, I enjoyed a flirty dance with Juan, my favorite fruit seller. “A su servicio, mi reina (At your service, my queen),” he’d grin as he dug for the sweetest strawberries.
For people who had so recently shed our material trappings and piously sworn to “never accumulate that much stuff again,” we had a hell of a lot of fun accumulating new stuff. There was such palpable pleasure in being surrounded by things that were hecho a mano (made by hand). We drank fresh-squeezed tangerine juice out of hand-blown glass goblets, wore hand-knitted wool sweaters and slept under a hand-loomed magenta bedspread. We brushed our teeth with purified water decanted from an earthenware pitcher. Annalena played with miniature toy frogs made of straw and she chased not only lizards, but dragonflies, ladybugs, grasshoppers, butterflies, pigeons and all manner of mangy street dogs as well.
We made friends with Lupita, who sold roast chickens in the market. She always gave Annalena a little cajeta (goat’s milk caramel) cookie and advised Dave and me to make more babies. Mexicans rarely asked what we did for a living. They were more curious about the size of our family and, though ours was small, the fact that we were a family seemed to normalize us. Annalena, with her blueberry eyes and impeccable Spanish accent, became our goodwill ambassador. No matter how dusty-poor or remote the village, people made a fuss over her. ¡Qué linda! (How pretty!), they’d exclaim. She was preciosa (precious), una princesa (a princess), una muñeca viviente (a living doll). By the time she was three, Annalena would answer, “No soy una muñeca. Soy un mono. (I’m not a doll. I’m a monkey.)” She also took to telling anyone who asked that she had forty-nine brothers and sisters.
The view from my writing desk was one-third twisting cobblestone roads and red-tiled rooftops and two-thirds sky. When I sat down to work on my novel, it seemed ludicrous to try and invent a plot when the surrealism of everyday life in Mexico felt so compelling. I found myself trying to describe the sky outside my window—surging and cleaving clouds, thunder and lightning, cotton-candy sunsets and a profusion of shooting stars. The constant drama of that sky seemed a testament to celestial will, grace and fury, an explanation of why there are so many believers in this part of the world. Instead of poetry, I wrote letters home.
Sent via e-mail, these monthly dispatches to friends and family took on a life of their own. My loved ones forwarded the letters to their loved ones, who in turn often asked to be added to my mailing list. What began as a list of thirty grew to nearly three hundred recipients. A fledgling writer couldn’t ask for a greater gift. Knowing that there was an audience eager to read my words helped me develop confidence and discipline.
Through the letters, I began to discover my voice and core literary themes (death, lies, and room service). Eventually I found work as a guidebook correspondent and published two books about Mexico—one about Day of the Dead and the other about the architecture and interior decor of Mexican inns. Dave also thrived creatively. He practiced playing his horns several hours a day and found work with an art-rock band from Mexico City, as well as jazz gigs at various resorts.
We loved living in Mexico, but ultimately tired of being outsiders. The downside of a culture rooted in family clans is that friends aren’t as integral. Annalena’s classmates rarely invited her home to play because there they played with their cousins. We had genuinely warm, but stubbornly superficial relationships with our neighbors. While it was possible for us to feel gloriously swept away by the splendor of saint’s day celebrations, these holidays would never belong to us. And because most of the expatriates we met were either cantina-hopping college students or cocktail party-hopping retirees, we didn’t fit in with the foreigners either.
After four years away, it was time to engage again with our own tribe; to let Annalena get to know her own cousins; to taste Black Diamond cheddar, sushi, and real maple syrup; and to hear the thunk of the Sunday New York Times on our doorstep. We returned to a Victorian house in Oakland and made dates to meet old friends for lattes at our favorite cafés. Annalena learned about the wonders of drinking fountains and central heating. Dave got another arts-administration job and my old boss at the software company hired me part-time to write brochure copy. Our community welcomed us back with open arms.
But we’ve been home five months now, and I’m not sure we belong in California anymore either. We’re struggling to reconcile the Mexican sky that now fills our hearts with the daily grind of a more or less upwardly mobile life. I find myself willfully spacing out, trying to slow down the pace, trying to hold onto the sense that time is simply time, not money. Perhaps we’ve become permanent expatriates—neither fish nor fowl, forever lost no matter our location. But this fluidity also means that we’re now like mermaids and centaurs—magic creatures who always know there’s another way.
A Taste of Home
The year I taught English in China, I tried every kind of food except dog soup. I ate chicken feet, fish heads, and the gummy tendons cut from pigs’ legs. I even developed a love of cold jellyfish and cucumber salad.
“China has the best food,” my students often told me. So did people I met on the bus. In fact, every stranger who got past saying hello and asking if I used chopsticks raved about the culinary superiority of China.
I didn’t argue. The truth is I ate well. Aside from sea slugs and a few other meals I’d rather forget, I enjoyed banquets of sautéed snow peas, garlic shoots, sweet-and-sour pork, and steamed fish. I ate better in China than I ever had at home, and yet, six months into my life in Qingdao, I began craving roasted chicken.
Really, the craving surprised me. I hadn’t eaten roasted chicken once in the previous year, when I worked in the U.S., or even during the four preceding years of college. The chicken I craved was my mother’s. She baked it on special occasions, perhaps once or twice a year, when we had enough time to prepare dinner long before we were hungry. I rested my head against the kitchen counter as she worked, watching her pull out the bag of gizzards and dust the chicken with salt. She let me crush the rosemary in my hand then sprinkle it over the bumpy poultry skin. Then we waited together, playing Scrabble at the dining-room table, as our house filled with oven warmth.
When we pulled the chicken from the oven, it oozed juices through crispy skin. It was succulent, nothing like the steamed chickens with white rubbery skin hanging in Chinese restaurant windows, nothing like the chunks of meat and bone fried in a wok. No, it was my mom’s chicken. A taste of home.
Unfortunately, buying chicken in China was nothing like shopping for poultry in the United States. The neighborhood market in Qingdao had no clean-plucked bodies in cellophane on yellow foam trays. These chickens had feet, feathers, heads, and, yes, life.
I had seen them crammed together in rusty wire cages stacked three high on the ground in my first weeks in Qingdao, before I made it a habit to avoid that side of the market. They were in the same aisle as the wriggling eels, fish, and crawling crabs. I preferred to shop on the other side of the warehouse along the rows of low tables piled high with green peppers, eggplants, rice, and other stationary food.
The piles of vegetables and grains were the only anchors of stillness in the bustling market. The blue and gray clothing of busy shoppers and vendors flowed down the aisles. Voices in negotiation provided a constant background hum, accompanied by the sharp rustle of plastic bags filling with produce. The smells wafted in clouds, some delicious, like the aroma of coal-roasted sweet potatoes, and others as foul as drying shrimp and chicken manure.
It was several days before I finally mustered the courage to walk to the chicken vendor and ask, “How much?”
“10 kuài” the man behind the cages said. I eyed his gray rumpled clothes for signs of blood, but there were none. Who would kill this chicken?
“Tài gui le.” I protested the price out of habit, having no real clue what a chicken should cost. Chinese came easily to me in the market, where bargaining was both a necessity and my only genuine chance to practice speaking the language. In other parts of town, I rarely got through one sentence in Chinese before a young stranger in the crowd approached to practice English. With my students and friends from the university, I was an English teacher above all else. They smiled and clapped when I spoke a word of Chinese, then turned the conversation back to the language they wished to master.
In the market, however, it was all business. Vendors wanted my money. I wanted their goods. The more Chinese I spoke, the better I could live on my university salary of $160 per month.
“Néng bù néng pián yi diăr.” I asked the chicken seller if he would lower his price.
Two women left the squid table to stand beside me and stare at my strange foreign face speaking Chinese.
The man lowered his price to nine yuan per half-kilo, then pointed to a small cage crowded with four hens. The gray speckled hen pushed to the front to stare through the wire at my feet. She was cute in a pathetic way, with feathers stuck in all directions like a head of short hair first thing in the morning. I was on the verge of asking for her when she looked up and met my eyes with her own. Two empty blue disks. Forget it.
By now six more shoppers had gathered around to watch me, the outsider, trying to buy a chicken. A ten-year-old boy called “hello!” then hid behind his mother’s legs. Two gray-haired women pointed at me and giggled like schoolgirls. I’d been shopping in the same market for half a year and still could not stand in one place longer than three minutes without gathering a crowd.
In the initial weeks I didn’t mind the attention. It was fun to try speaking Chinese and have so many people listen and respond. After months, it got old. Really old. Some days I simply stared back in anger as if my eyes could say what I dared not shout, “I’m just another human. Stop staring. Leave me alone!”
Today I didn’t have the energy to get upset, I just wanted to buy my chicken and go home. I pointed to the least scrawny of the red hens. The man leaned down to reach for her then stopped, turned and looked at me. He dragged a finger across his throat then raised his eyebrows in question. I nodded, relieved.
He grabbed my selected victim by the neck. She flapped her wings and puffed out her feathers, squawking while I struggled not to look away. My whole life I had pretended meat came from a refrigerated section in Safeway. It was time to face the truth.
- On Sale
- Mar 5, 2013
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Seal Press