my history of living abroad

January 28, 2014 · 14 comments

in Belgium, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan

I’ve done quite a bit of moving around the world, some of which was never shared here or only shared in bits and pieces. I decided to write out my full history of spending extended lengths of time abroad, and maybe I’ll expand on certain experiences in more detail in a later post.

In 2007, I spent a semester abroad in Amman, Jordan. I think of my time there like a cross between college-life and expat-life. Unlike other experiences, I had a support system that was similar to college, with the staff that ran the program and various university employees who were there to help us get through those four months fairly comfortably. I had an immediate schedule, I had an immediate network of peers, I was picked up at the airport and given a cell phone and an apartment; all the basics were covered for me.

But yeah, it wasn’t quite like truly living abroad. I read a brilliant concept the other day on Christine’s blog, (I’m paraphrasing) that the difference between being an expat and an immigrant is where your idea of home is, one is more permanent and lacks the idea that eventually you’ll “go back” home. I would say there’s a bit of undefinable fluidity that separates being an expat to something a bit lesser (for lack of a better word), like studying abroad. I had a set deadline from the beginning, and it was short. I hardly had time to get to know the other American students in my program, or settle down enough that I could concentrate on what I went there to do in the first place (study Arabic). I had no idea that those four months would inspire travel and living abroad quite as much as it did, but I vaguely remember telling myself that next time, next time I study abroad, I’m going to study. Next time I go abroad, I’m going to meet local people and really throw myself into the whole experience.

I wouldn’t end up studying abroad again. Originally I had an idea that I’d spend a semester in an Arabic-speaking country, a semester in France, and a semester in a French and Arabic-speaking country like Morocco or Tunisia. Then I’d be fluent in French and Arabic, right? That’s how that works? This was just before the economy went to hell and before student loans were acknowledged as being completely out of control. I told myself that I would simply take out loans and stay in school an extra year (or more) if it meant I could study abroad several times.

Luckily, I met a certain someone in my Arabic class the semester after I returned from Jordan. He helped me get an internship that turned into a job that turned into rearranging all of my classes so I could graduate a year early and go spend eight months in…

Baghdad, Iraq! By then I had started this blog, so that experience is lightly documented. There are still many words I have about this experience, but security was always a looming issue, so most of it has gone unpublished (for now).

Iraq was like boarding school. I lived on a walled compound in a converted shipping container that had one window and no bathroom. I walked three minutes from my container to my (beige, concrete, fortified) office building, drank instant coffee from styrofoam cups, worked in a media center in front of a row of giant TV screens always playing either Arab or American news channels (I sat in front of the Fox News screen, groan), and walked three minutes to the (giant, metal, fortified, windowless) dining hall three times a day for meals. The dining hall was staffed by South Asian men who served pancakes and over-boiled lobster. The compound was secured by Peruvians and Ugandans who used the basketball court as a soccer field. The shared bathrooms in the mini-village of shipping container houses (called CHU-ville) were cleaned by Iraqi men. The embassy itself was protected by Marines who were my age (I was 21 at the time), but the office I worked in was staffed by high-ranking officers and diplomats who had been on their career track for about as long as I had been alive. It was exciting in theory, it was nice to brag about and being there made me feel adventurous and brave, but when it came down to it, there were office politics, cliques, romances, and day-to-day boredom punctuated by shared care packages, surprise dinner brought in by one of the translators, a rare trip off the compound (mostly to another compound), or, unfortunately, a rocket attack or bomb blast.

In this case, there wasn’t really an opportunity to put myself out there and befriend local Iraqis. On my first day in Baghdad, my boss pointed to a group of apartment buildings across the street and told me he sometimes watched for snipers hiding on the rooftops, reminding me that if a duck-and-cover alarm sounded while I was outside, “Don’t worry about your dress getting dirty, just hit the ground.” *eye roll*

I remember by the time I left, I was ready for something totally different; no itinerary, no solid plans. Let’s wing it. I was engaged, I was planning a wedding, and we already decided, “Hey, we’re young, we have no kids and no mortgage and I want adventure! How about we move to…”

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. If you’re new to this blog, then go check out the archives. This part of my life is pretty well documented here. Now that I’m gone, I’m digesting what it all meant to me and what I learned from living there. At the very least, I got over the whole notion of becoming a local. I got over the idea of living according to how I thought I should be living my Kyrgyzstan life; “I’ll only shop at the bazaar! I’ll never go to a grocery store! I’ll only speak Russian and Kyrgyz! I’ll travel to all of the ‘Stans and become a Central Asia expert!” (poor, naive Kirstin.) I took my time to get settled, but I’m not sure if I ever found my place in Bishkek. I made great friends, I took cool photos, and I have some interesting stories. But, let’s face it, I was never going to stay in Bishkek forever. We were convinced we’d moved back to the US once one of us found a job, then the universe threw us a curveball…

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and that’s how we came to Ghent, Belgium. I’m just over three months into this new living situation and I have experienced oscillating emotions about it. Although, that could be attributed to the combination of being home with Darwin all day, on my own, in a brand new country where I don’t know the language, plus the rain, plus all of the general new-expat feelings. Plus the rain. It rains a lot.

I tried to plan ahead for this move. I wanted to feel settled in a way that I never achieved, but always wanted in Bishkek. I wanted the house we moved into to be the one we would stay in for a while. I wanted to fill it with familiar things and decorate it. I wanted to set up a comfortable place to get me through the initial period of adjustment. I think we’re pulling that off.

Here in Ghent, I wanted to give myself permission to slow down. From my past expat experiences, I know it takes a long time for me to get into a routine and feel “at home”. In Bishkek, I had my routine worked out. I had my friends, my cafes, my walking routes, my parks, my daily trip to buy ice cream, and my different grocery stores for spinach, brown sugar, soy sauce, etc. If we had ended up staying there for a few more years, I think I could have mapped out a solid plan of action for us. I had resources and friends who could help me with being a new mom and navigate things like playgroups, schools, pediatricians, etc. We had professional connections and a steady amount of work. It wasn’t a bad spot to be in. It took three years to get there, it took three years to be moderately comfortable with Russian, so I told myself (and still remind myself) not to expect much progress in Ghent for a while. Despite the reminders, it’s still a struggle. I get antsy and restless not knowing where to find things (fabric shops in Ghent? Anybody know?). I’m shy telling people about how long I’ve been here (“Three months and she still doesn’t speak Dutch?” they’ll think).

Looking back on all of these experiences makes me realize not only how different they all were, but how different I was during each of them. I was a college student in Amman and got myself into situations that make me cringe now. I was a contractor on a secured compound in Baghdad, sealed off (mostly) from the reality of the city. I came of age in Bishkek; I was a newlywed, a small business owner, and pushed myself far out of my comfort zone for some unique opportunities and events. In Belgium, I’m (for now) a stay-at-home mom trying to figure out daycares, preschools, and how to entertain a little human who is not content to binge-watch the Wire and subsist on cereal all day, all in addition to non-mom things like finding a job, sorting through Belgian bureaucracy, going to Ikea for the 37th time, and cooking dinner.

Every time I leave a place, even if it’s just a short trip somewhere, I try to replay the preparation, the successes and wish-I-thought-of’s. I try to be better prepared for the next time, wherever that happens to take me. There are little tips that sometimes stick, but the big lessons never seem to be able to translate from one point in my life to another. That’s not really what I set out to write about, but that’s the lesson that keeps striking me as I wrap this up. What do you know, you’re a different person at different points (and places) in your life.

Let’s see who I become in Belgium.

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