Lessons Learned Living Abroad
Nine years living overseas, first in Italy, then in Haiti, then Bolivia, Panama, and now Costa Rica, have taught me...
1. Patience...the kind of patience you learn as Christians… waiting upon the return of the messiah...
The other day I was driving and I noticed a pretty nice whole foods organic store by the roadside. Packed my car to quickly grab avocadoes, mangoes and broccoli. The broccoli was missing a price tag, so the young man walked from behind the counter to the back of the shop to find a file with all the codes that would show a price. Several minutes later he returned.
As he looked down to enter the code into his adding machine (the shop didn’t have a cash register), he noticed that it was out of paper. He walked to the back of the store again, several minutes later, he returned with a roll of adding machine paper.
As he begins to replace the paper in his machine, his phone rings, so he lays the roll of paper on the counter to answer it. Several minutes later, he finished his conversation and picked up the roll of paper again. A few minutes later he succeeded installing the paper in the machine.
After adding up my few purchases, he reached beneath the counter for a bag to put the groceries in but found he was out of bags, so he came out from behind the counter and disappeared again behind the door to the left. Several minutes later, he returned with a single plastic bag. Four other customers stood in line behind me. I guess he was counting on them not wanting bags.
My items placed in the plastic bag, the young man looked up at me. “That’s 5,500 colones,” he told me in Spanish. That’s an equivalent of $9.
I handed him a 10-dollar bill. The young man reached beneath the counter for the cigar box where he keeps his change. No singles. He called out to the young woman stocking shelves, at this point I just let him keep the change and save my car that is still running by the roadside 30 minutes later!
This is the kind of scene that could play out anywhere in the world but you muster the patience to take it in stride. Or you leave!
2. How to embrace ambiguity...
Will the store open at 9 a.m. as the sign indicates... and close again at 2 p.m. will they open later...or at all?
Will the lady behind the counter at the immigration office accept my prepared Kenyan documents or request additional certified paperwork not indicated in any of my six previous visits to the immigration office?
Will the bank cash my check or reject and question the signature (happened to me with banks in Panama City every month)?
Will the car in front of mine turn right from the right-hand turn lane we’re both in or will he turn left across two lanes of traffic?
Will the deliveryman show up on Tuesday as promised? Will he be able to see my house number that is not clearly visible on my gate?
Will the waitress return with my order or was she distracted by the heavy accent?
Over the years I’ve trained myself not to be surprised when the answer is, as it often is, contrary to expectations.
3. Not to mind not understanding what’s going on around me...
Why are city workers digging another hole in the middle of that street? They dug a hole in that same spot and then covered it over last week. Why dig another one...and why do it now, during morning rush-hour traffic?
Why has the government declared such-and-such national holiday from Friday to Monday (happened a lot in Haiti without warning or explanation)?
Why does the Internet and cable go out every time it rains?
Why is the electricity out...and when will it be restored?
4. Don’t be bothered by things that don’t matter...
5. To savor the “oyster” moments...
The frustrations and challenges of living in a foreign country are many but so are the moments of extraordinary discovery and delight. Seeing the look of unadulterated pleasure on my 5-year-old daughter’s face the first time she tried oysters when we were living in Haiti was one. As we were celebrating my birthday in a penthouse in Las Vegas... the first time my husband and I drove across the border from Haiti to the Dominican Republic... the ocean view and sunrise driving to work and school everyday in Panama… the breathtaking scenes of Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia… rolling green fields outside my bedroom window in Costa Rica …the view of the long line of ships awaiting their turn for passage through the Panama Canal that I saw every afternoon from work... parasailing with my daughter in Hawaii... rocking in a big wicker chair on the front porch of the Hotel Moulin Sur Mer in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, one of the oldest beach resorts in the Caribbean, as life carries on as it has in this spot for centuries...
6. To let go... just let it go…
My cousin helped me to pack up my house in Kenya in advance of my move to Haiti years ago. Packing up my closet standing on a step stool, she asked, “What do you want to do with all these bags and shoes?”
I glanced over and told her to put everything in the closet into a box and then to take them home with her.
“But all these shoes...your African clothes!” she replied. “You can’t just give all of this away!”
To make the move to Haiti I had to clear out a two-bedroom apartment in Kenya, and my husband’s four-bedroom house in Kinshasa, Congo. That required a lot of letting go. At the time, it seemed hard to give so much away. Now I smile and shake my head at the thought that a reluctance to part with the paraphernalia of our lives to that point could have stood in the way of launching our new lives that we’ve enjoyed all these years since.
7. Bloom where I’ve planted myself...
Bolivia was cold, windy, and grey more days than it wasn’t, and in Haiti, where we were based for four years, was (is) hot and humid, typical Caribbean weather. Costa Rica, where we’re currently living now is warm and humid every day of the year. It’s also a boomtown, meaning bottleneck and crazy traffic.
In Bolivia, I could have complained that I missed sunshine and the trappings of a real city, as I did, and in Panama City, I could’ve complained about the tumult. The truth is, sometimes I do. Then I remind myself of the big-picture reasons why I am where I am. Panama was the best place for me and my family when we were there, hustle and bustle notwithstanding, and the same is true now for Costa Rica.
8. How to downsize on the fly...
I learnt to start letting go when I left Kenya. My graduate lesson in the exercise of downsizing came in Haiti. We relocated with our daughter with only six suitcases. We had a friend store some of our belongings for months before we were able to ship them to Bolivia. My husband and I shared jackets and sweaters before we were able to get some of our personal items that we had left in Haiti. We had to start all over again.
And I wouldn’t trade a single day in Bolivia or a single memory of our years there for any value of some of the personal items that we had to give up.
9. To ask for help...
I’m a resourceful, self-reliant, Type A Kenyan woman. I can take care of myself. However, living overseas, I’ve learned that sometimes life is easier and more fun when I don’t. In Bolivia and Haiti, we were able to afford a full-time nanny. It’s an indulgence we wouldn’t consider here in Costa Rica but the help around the house sure is nice two times a month.
10. To abandon any idea I ever thought about “normal”...
What’s a “normal” way to celebrate Christmas (in Costa Rica, decorations go up end of October and they are key) or celebrate a child’s birthday (in Bolivia a themed party is key)? More seriously, what’s a normal way to raise children or what is a normal business to run? My family thought I was lucky to move with my then 5-year-old daughter from Kenya. But they think I’m crazy, for moving so often.
I sometimes worry that our lifestyle might translate down the road into years of psychotherapy for my daughter. Today, though, she speaks five languages and has a global and very independent perspective that makes me both proud and optimistic about her future prospects. Whatever life throws at her, she’ll be fine.
Not normal, maybe...but fine.