Too old to rock’n’roll: Too young to die. The name of Jethro Tull’s album evokes in me a sense of misfit. I don’t belong here. I don’t belong there, either. This feeling of not belonging has been with me since my highschool days.  Too “western” to live in Istanbul, too “eastern” to live elsewhere. The funny thing is I did not feel “eastern” when I was living in the US. But now, in Switzerland, I do. Is it the Swiss? Is it because I am more aware? Is it related to the rise of nationalism throughout the world?

I just finished reading Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical comic novel about her childhood in Tehran, followed by (lonely) teenage years in Austria then her return to Iran to live through her twenties. The story begins in 1980, the year after the Islamic Revolution, when she is 10 years old and ends in 1994, when she leaves Tehran for the second time.

It’s 1980. Coming from a forward thinking family, Marji finds it very hard to conform to the new rules of the Islamic Revolution: wear a veil, don’t walk with anybody of the opposite sex, don’t wear lipstick or any other makeup. She even has a few brushes with the Guardians of the Revolution. Even though she portrays these events as if she talks her way out of them, I thought that her family, which has influence, got her out of these. In any case, her life is confined to house parties and hanging a Michael Jackson poster is a big act of rebellion under this pressure. Worried about their daughter’s well-being, her parents send her to Vienna. She goes to school there but is never accepted by her friends and, furthermore, she never feels like she belongs there. She is so lost that she goes through a phase where she deals drugs and then stays on the street for two months and gets bronchitis. In the end, she returns to Tehran, feeling like a failure. She was too “western” to live in Tehran. Unlike many of her friends who went to fight in the war (boys) or who had to live under complete oppression (girls), she was one of the few lucky ones that got out. Yet, when she finally gets a chance to live in Europe, she feels out of place. She does not fit in. Granted she is a teenager and which teenager has an easy time at high school? She is all alone in a city where she does not know the language. No family, no friends. Limited money. I don’t know how she does it but she survives those years and then makes her way back to Tehran.

Survival. Survival when dislocated. Survival is an instinct but thriving is a decision. A conscious decision.

Marji thrives in her years in Tehran. Despite the oppression that surrounds her, she is protected by her upbringing, her family’s connections and even her family’s old heritage. Her grandmother’s wisdom protects her. Her family’s resistance in the form of optimism and persistence protects her. The feeling of being at home, familiarity with her friends protect her. Once she gets out of that cocoon, she loses her sense of self. Her sense of belonging. She is dislocated. Even though she knows the western life style,  she has a hard time adjusting because her sense of self is defined by her lifestyle in Tehran.

Do exiles ever talk about their previous life as a bad life? I think not. It’s usually a wonderful life that they leave behind. Especially at the beginning of their new life, their past life is much more wonderful than the new life they try to (re-)build. Back home, they thrived despite all the hardship or, even sometimes, because of all the hardship. They have their own network, own neighborhood and their whole network and support structure keep them afloat in their home country.

If it’s all so wonderful, what pushes them to move away from this lovely network? Circumstances. War. Hope of a safe future. This is what we need to appreciate about the refugees. Most would not be refugees if they had a choice. They were violin players, astronomers, pilots, teachers, doctors. Dislocation meant that they lost everything of value but most importantly their self identity. Some will survive. Will they thrive?







Global nomads

As soon as I arrived in my new life as an expat mom, this book was recommended by fellow expat moms: “Raising Global Nomads” by Robin Pascoe. The subtitle reads “Parenting Abroad in an On-Demand World”. Robin Pascoe is an expat expert (title of her blog http://www.expatexpert.com/) and has moved to several different countries following her husband’s career.

I was happy to read that “Most kids turn out great”. Most expat parents tell me that children not only survive but they thrive in their expat life. In the book, these children are described as flexible, mature, and geographically aware; skills every person needs in a world becoming more politically polarized as we speak.

One valuable reminder in the book was to give my children time and space to grieve for the life they left behind. This is also described very delicately in the movie Inside Out. It is okay for the children to spend some time online with their friends back home. It is okay for the children not to adapt to their school on day one. It is okay for the children not to like their new life for a while. It is okay for the whole family to miss their old life. It is okay to feel sad (Cue: Everybody hurts by REM).

On the other hand, I took issue with these following points, which were raised frequently in the book: 1. The expat world is no place for a dual career family 2. The expat is usually a first world citizen trying to live in (or suffer through) an outpost location (described in the book as “out there” on page 7). Describing different locations as “out there” is certainly not a “global” point of view if we allow ourselves to fully experience our presence in a new country rather than just surviving it.

We are a dual career family, and it was discouraging to read that children of dual career families are the most susceptible to culture shock. I am lucky to have more flexible hours, but most women in dual career families will not. The book recommends that the mother, described like a 1950s housewife, takes the family through this transition while the working husband does not skip a beat in his new role at his new position. This is a shame. Unfortunately, though, it looks like Pascoe is correct, as shown by the number of stay at home mothers at my children’s school.  If companies need their employees to transition well into their expatriate life, they need to recognize that the employee (and his family) needs some time to get settled. Expat women, with their globally enriched experience and multitasking and flexibility skills, can add immensely to the workplace (https://womenintheworkplace.com/). This is only possible with commitment from companies to diversity and to work-life balance for the expatriate employees.

The book is an anectodal personal story rather than a help book and has a very focused and one-sided point of view. The author is drawing from her own experience and does not take advantage of parenting literature. Nevertheless, the expat parenting literature is limited and I am glad to have read this book at the beginning of my sabbatical year.




Surviving our first month in Zurich

Here is my simple checklist for the first few weeks so far:

  • Housing: It’s a homeowner’s market. There are so few available apartments at any point in time that they know you are in their hands. You can use homegate.ch or other websites to look for apartments but they never responded to us when we used the contact e-mail address/phone number. Probably easier to use an agent, who also uses homegate.ch. You make an application, they check your references and if they accept your application then you sign a contract. There are three set move-in, move-out dates. Finding an apartment was by far the hardest part of our move.
  • Registration at the Kreis Buro: You need to do this within 14 days of entry. If you change your residence, you need to change your address again at the Kreis Buro and at the Post Office.
  • Registration at the Immigration office: The Kreis Buro takes an appointment for you, you go to the Immigration Office and they take some information and your picture. Your Auslanderausweis Card will be sent to your address. This takes about 2 weeks – unless they send to the incorrect address like they did for us.
  • Getting a bank account: The banking system is extremely inefficient. We have used mobile banking in different countries so we thought it would be no problem for us. Alas. You need a machine to do e-banking. So, forget about transferring money using your phone while you are waiting for the tram.
  • Getting a phone number: You need your Auslanderausweis card to get a phone number. You can get a prepaid card.
  • Health insurance: There are a few health insurance companies that offer almost an infinite array of variations. It is impossible to pick a global optimum. Speaking with independent brokers is helpful. We spent a few afternoons on this, but I’m pretty sure we did not make the correct choices.
  • Transportation: Zurich is known for its excellent transit system and there are several options for daily/weekly/monthly passes. There is one male clerk at the Stadelhofen station who speaks perfect English and is very helpful to guide you through the various options for your needs.
  • School for children: Our children go to the international school. I am happy with this decision because the international community is always in transit and everybody is in the same boat as “foreigners” so eager to help you out. One book recommended by the fellow parents is “Raising Global Nomads”. More on this later.
  • Clothing for children: Children are outside most of the time so you need a snowsuit or rain pants during recess and school trips.