Category Archives: Living Abroad
There’s a religious story told about a drowning man praying to God to be saved and turning down all the help sent his way because he was looking for something specific.
I wonder sometimes whether this is the parable of my life. I feel like there’s something I’m ‘meant’ to be doing but not sure what it is and am hoping the universe will send me clues.
I’ve always claimed that I want more time to myself, to immerse myself in creative writing. And there have always been plenty of good reasons why I can’t find this time. Until now that is!
Here I am living in a beautiful pueblo blanco with no family around for me to focus my energy on. I have a few friends and am beginning to become involved with some community activities. I’m really enjoying looking after the home, exploring local markets, buying and cooking our food and growing an abundance of plants in our patio garden. But there’s always a niggling feeling that I ‘should’ be doing something else.
Today it occurred to me that I am that drowning man. Having spent years claiming I want the time and space to write – the universe has provided me with the most perfect opportunity and I spend my days on distractions and tasks that provide varying degrees of satisfaction without ever actually having to sit down and write.
In Vietnam my excuse was that while I was sitting in front of my computer I wasn’t out experiencing the wonderful culture and life all around me. A valid comment you may agree. And the same does apply here to some extent but …. It’s now so hot during the day that all my neighbours and friends escape to the beach every afternoon to cool off, relax and play. That’s not something that hubby and I particularly enjoy so at the very least I have several hours every afternoon to ensconce myself in my lovely study, turn up the fan and write.
A lightbulb moment! Eureka, Karen, you finally have the time, space, energy and commitment to writing – all at the same time. Stop procrastinating! As an author friend once wisely commented: writers write.
If I want to be a writer, I’d better get writing!I
One reason for living abroad, or indeed just travelling, is to experience first-hand the differences in life, even in seemingly shared experiences.
Having lived in Vejer de la Frontera for just 4 weeks we were a little perturbed to discover two speeding tickets in our postbox one morning. Dating from our first week in Spain our concern was with how many more might arrive over the coming days!
Anyway, the 200 euro fine would be halved if paid within 20 consecutive days. No one seemed sure when those days started but everyone agreed that one would be quashed as, at 109 kms in a 100 zone we were within the 10% margin of error. Wrong – that has been stopped, at least in the Jerez area, as vehicle equipment is apparently now so sophisticated that there is no error – and therefore no margin. Nothing, nada, zip. 100 kms means 100 kms!
Having tried to pay online and almost lost the will to live we decided to head to our local Santander bank, with the promise of desayuno (breakfast) in our favourite bar on the way back. As an incredibly rusty lower intermediate Spanish speaker my automatic assumption when confronted with speech I don’t understand is just that – that I don’t understand it. Sometimes though reality is a little more complex and, in fact, my understanding has been spot on linguistically, it’s the concept I don’t understand.
The very friendly lady in Banco Santander explained that we could only pay there for free on a Tuesday or a Thursday; between 8.30 and 10.30 and between the 10th and 20th of each month. All other times, there is a 3 euro fee per ticket.
As I said, actually I understood her words but still didn’t appreciate the concept, until she showed me the sign pinned up on the wall where, sure enough it confirmed the 3 requirements for fee-free fine payment. She advised us to come back the follow week when we could ‘save’ ourselves 6 euros. All well and good until I asked her when the 20 days started from and she confirmed that it would take us to either the 9th or 10th March, she wasn’t sure.
By now exhausted and in need of my cafe manchado with tostados con tomato y aceite (milky coffee with toast, tomatoes and olive oil) we decided not to take the risk, paid 106 euros for the two fines and left the bank heads spinning.
On one hand this seeming bureaucracy could drive you crazy, but on the other hand – it’s why we aren’t living back home. Viva las diferencias!
Feeling rather restless and rootless at the moment I am constantly reminding myself to:
- live in the moment,
- be present,
- accept the present/intend the future
- this moment is as it should be because the whole universe is as it should be
I eat well, meditate daily, walk in the countryside, rest, have fun and generally love life. But. I find living ‘in between’ incredibly difficult. My brain is screaming to get stuck into projects, communities, things, things, something to keep it active and busy. I panic that life is passing me by and I’m not achieving anything, not fulfilling my purpose, wasting precious time.
And then I take a deep breath, slow down that monkey mind chattering away and remember that my life, right now, is filled with blessings, love, discoveries, good health, friendships and all the things that make it so magically wonderful. So what’s the problem then? I think that it’s the void. We have been living in Cardiff for four and a half months and really love it here (partly because we know we’re leaving soon?). It’s a fabulous City, great culture, architecture, people, scenery and so many things to do and keep us occupied that we’ve barely scratched the surface. But it isn’t home. We came here because it’s the city of my birth and I wanted to be closer to my parents for a while. And I’m loving spending time with them and with the City and all it has to offer. A lot of time though is spent planning and preparing for our move to Spain at the end of January so my heart is only ever half here and the other half across the water.
There is something to be said for that feeling of discomfort and ‘being’ in the void as I’m convinced that that is where the magic happens – where creativity can bubble up to the surface and be heard. It’s like the analogy of dropping a pebble into a raging sea and it having no impact whatsoever, whereas the same pebble dropped into a calm lake sends ripples far and wide. Today then I will enjoy the calm lake and drop pebbles of creativity into it and see what happens!
Well, having spent a few months trying out Blogger instead of WordPress and acquiring a new iPad mini along the way, I think I’m back!
They say to embrace change but I wonder when I’m changing something just because I can, or to try out the latest ‘thing’ and when change really is to the benefit of me and those in my community.
Having struggled to access WordPress while in Vietnam I switched but it occurs to me that I prefer WP and now that I’m back in Europe there really isn’t any reason not to return.
So, here I am, back up and running and plenty to share from the last few months – about life, identity, family and a sense of belonging.
To be continued …!
My day job is an interesting combination of marketing writing, teaching Business English and being on the Community Aid Committee of the wonderful Hanoi International Women’s club. And of course those tasks get juggled alongside everything else that most women (and yes, some men) deal with on a daily basis – currently that includes moving house. So it will come as no surprise that I cannot function without a daily To Do List, combined with jottings and slips of paper in a desk calendar, a pocket calendar and electronic calendars all neatly synched between laptop, iPad and phone. Simply keeping these aide memoires up to date and colour co-ordinated regularly provides endless hours of entertainment (I think that was someone’s catch phrase but don’t know whose?).
In that wonderful way that only the universe fully understands, my various ‘worlds’ often overlap and merge in a very satisfying way (and occasionally collide in a less pleasant manner) and I marvel every time when I’m asked to write an article on a subject that is just the topic I need to know more about at that particular time.
Two recent examples illustrate my point. The first, more positively than the second, was an article I wrote for an e-newsletter where the topic was how to handle email overload in the office. I have the Post It Note in front of me as I type: Do, Delegate, Designate Time and Dump and I have to say, this system works very well for me (when I remember to use it!).
The second article was a longer piece about business blogging – why you need one and how to get started. Researching this article had me engrossed and I enjoyed writing it so much I even decided to implement some of the advice. An hour or so later I had a hand written, a typed and an Evernote version of my blog’s mission statement, frequency, editorial calendar and keywords.
That was back in April and since then I ‘should’ have written fortnightly on:
- Public Holidays in Vietnam
- Getting a second dog
- Trailing spouse syndrome
- Visiting Thailand
- Staying home alone in a strange country while hubby works away
- Visiting Phu Quoc island
- The CAC and HIWC
- Moving house, what you look for in a home when living abroad
- Holidays redefined – when going back home is not a holiday
And since April I think, from memory, I’ve posted about two blogs and probably not actually covered any of these topics. In fact, I haven’t felt inclined to blog at all. What had been a pleasure that I admittedly didn’t indulge in as often as I would have liked, had suddenly become a chore. Creating this plan took all the creativity out of the process for me. What had been fun has now become work.
Three months later here’s what I’ve learned – not all plans are good plans, you don’t always need a plan and – if it isn’t working ditch the plan!
So, hopefully I’ll be back more often and writing about the stuff that appeals at the time of writing rather than following a ‘features calendar’ and hopefully my readers will enjoy the randomness of ad hoc writing. I’ll leave you with a photo of me and the hubby getting soaked playing splash with an elephant in Thailand – just to bring the fun back into this blog!
One aspect of life abroad that can be both fascinating and frustrating for expats is that of Public Holidays.
Here in Vietnam there are nine weekday holidays, of which we’ve so far had 8.
Having arrived ‘post event’ in 2012, we decided to stay put for TET this year, despite the hugely conflicting advice about the wisdom (or otherwise) of such a decision, particularly given the proximity of our house to Phu Tay Ho – the main temple in Hanoi which is dedicated to the Mother Goddess. Changing date in accordance with the Lunar Calendar, TET this year was celebrated between 9th and 14th February and the whole area around the temple was turned into a cross between a carnival and carnage. Next year we will be going somewhere quieter – anywhere that doesn’t recognise this as new year.
On the 19th April we had a day off for King Hung’s day to commemorate the first King of Lac Viet and this week we enjoyed a two-day break. 30th April was Vietnam Victory/ Reunification/Liberation Day (depending on your affiliation/geographic location) to mark the fall of Saigon and the reunification of Vietnam in 1975. And yesterday, 1st May, was International Worker’s day which celebrates the economic and social achievements of workers throughout the year (not sure how these achievements are measured or whether they’re just assumed?).
Unlike in the UK where all Bank Holidays (apart from Christmas and New Year) are shifted to the nearest Monday – public holidays fall on the ‘correct’ day here so it is not unusual to have a Tuesday and Wednesday off – as we’ve just witnessed.
The reason that I find these holidays stressful is because they are completely alien to me. I can’t always work out what is being celebrated. I’m conscious that sometimes even the name of the holiday can be cause of contention – as in the case of Reunification/Liberation Day. And it’s extremely hard, as a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language, to work out how the Vietnamese celebrate or enjoy said holiday.
I’m reminded of my first Introduction to Islam lecture at the University of Manchester when the lecturer posed the questions – which Islam, when, where and for whom? His point being that, like much in life, there is no one ‘right’ answer – Islam is many different things to many different people. So too is the way of celebrating national holidays.
TET is the big one – similar to the Western Christmas – with presents, food, food and more food, some alcohol, spending time with people you don’t necessarily see the rest of the year, rituals, traditions and an enormous amount of pressure. It is, for the Vietnamese I’ve spoken to at least, both expensive and tiring and something approached with very mixed feelings. Sound familiar?
The last two days have felt like a weekend and so today must be Monday, which for some reason everyone else is calling Thursday! Hubby was off work but you wouldn’t have known it thanks to the constant beeping of his Blackberry and because he works in an international consultancy firm with colleagues around the world blissfully unaware that he was ‘on holiday’.
Which brings me onto the topic of how expats celebrate public holidays in their host country. Many, particularly the more seasoned foreigners and those with children, simply flee. Hanoi in particular engenders this desire because whilst it’s an amazing and vibrant city, it can drive you crazy with its constant noise, dust, humidity and general air of disorganisation. Depending on the length of holiday many people take the chance for an adventure exploring parts of Vietnam they haven’t previously visited, others head for a beach or 5 star resort and recharge their batteries beside a pool. Some friends of ours took advantage of one of the great deals offered to foreign residents and enjoyed a ‘staycation’ at a beautiful hotel on the opposite side of town to where they live and work.
We seem to be a little slow on the uptake and have so far been here for every public holiday. Now that we’ve enjoyed experiencing them – in that strange twilight zone between not being a local and not being a tourist, we have both agreed that we’ve ticked the box marked ‘Experience Public Holidays in Vietnam’ and will, in future, take the chance to be tourists in another city, enjoying everything that that entails. Staying put has meant that we’ve paid more for pretty much everything we’ve bought as local shops and restaurants all raise their prices at holiday time and we haven’t been able to enjoy the fresh ingredients we’ve become used to because, for example, the dairy producing the milk we like was closed for the holidays and the markets and small traders we usually buy from simply didn’t bother opening.
So here’s to our next public holiday, Monday 2nd of September when we’ll be celebrating Vietnamese Independence Day on a beach somewhere, or maybe even in Cambodia, Taiwan or Japan.
I wished I didn’t have to walk the dog so many times every day in Hanoi.
I got pneumonia and was housebound for two weeks.
I missed going out with the dog.
I wished the incessant drilling and banging would stop on the construction site next door as my neighbour builds a new house.
We had a power cut for 6 hours during which time I missed a work deadline in the UK and nearly roasted to death.
I missed the noise next door.
I wished I had remembered the old adage: Be careful what you wish for, it might just happen.
One of the things I knew nothing about before moving to Hanoi was the reality of the climate here. Speaking completely personally, and no, I’m not an expert (!) – it’s awful! We’ve been here almost a full calendar year having arrived at the very beginning of March 2012, February is the only month we haven’t experienced yet.
Apart from November which was a lovely month (am I biased because I had friends to stay and it was my birthday?), no weatherwise it was pretty good, really every single month has been a challenge for me. When I first arrived I was pretty soon struck down with Hanoi Hack (a medical term folks, I’m not making it up for dramatic effect), that took weeks to clear up before a short period of respite and another bout of coughing, bronchitis, sinusitis …..
Add to the challenge of keeping my body healthy with all the pollution here, the climate itself and really I’m amazed I’m still here! March was very grey, April started to brighten up, May – August were so unbelievably hot that going up a flight of 10 steps inside the house seemed like a gargantuan effort. Oh you get the picture …
One of the things I love about the Vietnamese, and expats now I come to think about it, is their willingness to share information. And this is particularly so when it comes to medication. I have drunk all sorts of herbal concoctions and teas which were absolutely guaranteed to cure a cough (and no, I don’t know what was in them but they looked horrid enough to perhaps work!), I’ve spooned down all sorts of hideous syrupy liquids, taken tablets, antibiotics, anti histamines …. However, I think all of this has been a waste of time and my latest venture – to a Vietnamese lady who practises traditional Chinese medicine – pretty much sums up the state of play.
After listening carefully to everything I have tried so far (and to be fair, only giving the very faintest of smiles), looking at my tongue, taking my pulse and blood pressure and then feeling around various key parts of the body she gave her diagnosis: My body was fighting itself, it is not in harmony and really the fighting is too much. So, I must start yoga, only eat food that is fresh and in season, gargle and sniff sterilised salt water twice a day, take exercise, relax more and stop struggling against my own body but let it find it’s own path to healing.
And the bill? A big fat Xero. She said there was no charge for her advice because really it was just common sense that I had forgotten and there is nothing wrong with me that my body won’t sort out for itself if I just give it a chance and lay off all the medicines.
A tip here that could result in some impressive savings for the National Health system in the UK perhaps?!
But I don’t know which one to tell you. Should I tell you about eating dog in Vietnam? Or the experience of being Country Table Coordinator at the HIWC Charity Bazaar (which looks set to be a record-breaking fundraiser this year, having taken $115,000 by the end of the day), or maybe I could talk about attitudes to Christmas here in a Communist/Buddhist country? Or how about the trip to Cinematheque with my book group to meet LeLy Hayslip?
Okay, I’m going to talk about the cinema trip – if you want to hear about the others send me a message and I’ll oblige. I belong to two book groups out here and am planning to start another. Both are through the Hanoi International Women’s Club (HIWC) and both are very different in character and membership. The lunchtime group is older women (oh okay, more my own age) – generally women who aren’t working, American, British, one Indian lady and a Scottish lady who has lived in Geneva for years. We host the group in turns and the host provides lunch – either home cooked or bought in. We meet from 11.00 – 1.30 and never have any problems talking about the book and veering off into fascinating discussions sparked by the theme. We’ve read and discussed books such as ‘The House of Velvet & Glass’ and ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ and are about to meet to discuss ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ (which is short stories – a genre I would never choose and I’m loving them). Choosing books always feel a little like pulling teeth and there’s only one or two of us who suggest any – not sure why!
But, I’m digressing because it’s actually a book that I’ve been reading through evening book group that I want to talk about. Evening book group is younger women – i.e. women who work or are still active mums (as opposed to me whose kids are back in the UK and aged between 18 – 26 years). We take it in turns to choose a book and the ‘chooser’ hosts. We usually get together in the host’s house at around 7.30 and enjoy wine and nibbles whilst having some very lively debates! We’ve read books like (the fabulous) The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman and The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhharta Mukherjee (a biography of Cancer which is brilliantly written, easy to read and absolutely fascinating). Our latest book was ‘When Heaven and Earth Changed Places‘ by LeLy Hayslip. Not entirely by coincidence, this was chosen because we felt we should read some Vietnamese literature and this won out over other suggestions as LeLy was scheduled to visit Hanoi in December.
Several of us are members of a delightful independent cinema club called Cinematheque Hanoi who tend to have themes and special screenings, including Q & A sessions with the author or director of a film when possible. (They’re about to start a week of David Lean films, including the first showing in Asia of the new HD version of Lawrence of Arabia – I’ve already booked my seat!). LeLy Hayslip’s book is about her experiences growing up in Ky La, a village near Da Nang in central Vietnam – caught between the Viet Cong and the Republican Army. Her graphic account was made into a film in the 1990s (I think) by Oliver Stone. She was at the screening, having prepared (with some Buddhist monks) a fantastic vegetarian buffet supper for all guests and then conducted a Q&A at the end.
So, 6 of us met up at Cinematheque for supper and a bottle of wine, all confessed that we hadn’t finished the book but were enjoying it. We met LeLy and were blown away by the film – a little Americanised for sure but great nonetheless. The Q&A was fascinating and LeLy was so open, honest and friendly it was hard to equate her with the traumatic life of the character on the screen. She donated all proceeds on the night to a charity she established in 1998 to help to heal the wounds between America and Vietnam following the war – East Meets West Foundation. What struck me, sitting in a red velvet seat, in a 90-seat capacity, independent cinema, sipping my glass of wine, with friends was how unbelievably lucky I am to have these opportunities. Where else could I meet such an inspiring woman in person, and enjoy her food, life-story and company among friends.
And where was my husband at the time? Out with a group of French friends enjoying an evening at L’Opera Hanoi listening to a Jazz concert featuring Vietnam’s most famous saxophonist. Sometimes the choices we are having to make about how to spend our leisure time are almost absurd. I’ve always said that I wish I could have two parallel lives – one with the choices I do make, and one with the choices I didn’t make. Never has this been more true than here in Hanoi where on many occasions we’re having to choose between almost impossibly fabulous events. In the end it usually comes down to which one we’ve said yes to first! Ah, it’s a great life eh!
One of the things I was particularly looking forward to about moving to a completely new place was the feeling that I would suddenly have more time. Back in the UK I managed to fill all my time – with a combination of work and leisure activities – so that I never seemed to have the time to take on anything new or even ‘enough’ time to do some of my activities to the extent that I wanted to.
In Vietnam though I felt that things would be different. For one thing I wouldn’t have friends and family around and although I love spending time with them all, without their presence I should, in theory have spare time.
Five months in and that just doesn’t seem to be the case. My husband reckons that the day I die I’ll still be complaining that I haven’t got, or haven’t had, time to do everything I want to do. Maybe he’s right, maybe I am just one of those people who is constantly dissatisfied. But I don’t actually think that’s what he meant. I think he meant it as a compliment. He often says that I have an insatiable curiosity and interest in life, a thirst that can never be quenched. Hmm.
So what exactly do I do all day?
Well let me see:
Monday – free in the morning to catch up with marketing writing and other bits of admin related to owning property that’s rented, pensions, general ‘stuff’. The afternoon I try to meet up with my writing buddy to do a couple of hours of creative writing. Walk the dog – which takes the best part of an hour and a half made up of walking for around 45 minutes, cooling her off and feeding her and showering and changing clothes. Often I cook on a Monday but Chi will have acted as sous chef so not usually too much prep to do. The evening is spent chatting to hubby and watching one of the many series we enjoy on DVD. Bed and read either one of the book group books or something I’ve chosen.
Tuesday – 9.30 – 12.00 – teaching English to a Vietnamese lady. Sometimes on the way home I’ll stop at a shop to buy some of the Western groceries that Chi doesn’t buy. Chi works all do so usually cooks on a Tuesday. In the afternoon I walk the dog earlier and then go to Lacquer class from 3 – 6p.m. Home to finish off the supper and eat with hubby.
Wednesday – 9.30 – 1.30 – Play Mah Jong with a group of International Club ladies followed by lunch. In the afternoon as I’m in town I will do any admin or buy items we need from shops in the centre. Today for example I went to find and pay the tour operator we’ve booked some forthcoming trips with. Home to walk the dog. Catch up on marketing work and keep in touch with friends/family. Cook supper and evening with hubby.
Thursday – a.m. teaching Vietnamese lady as Tuesday. If I haven’t made it to my writing buddy on Monday I go in the afternoon. Otherwise I prep for a Business English class tomorrow, read a Book Group book if I find time and play some learning sessions of Mah Jong. I do ad hoc writing work for clients in the UK in addition to retained work so often fit this in here. Walk the dog – of course. Evening – Chi works all day so cooks. I might need to do a bit of prepping but otherwise – evening with hubby.
Friday – 8.10 – 2.00 I go to hubby’s work where I teach all the Vietnamese staff Business English, followed by lunch with hubby and colleagues. Home to walk Sally followed by cooking supper if needed. Sometimes we go out on a Friday night but not always.
Saturday and Sunday – 9.30 – 12.30 on both days I teach the Vietnamese lady’s 2 young children.
So, in between these ‘set’ activities I belong to the Hanoi International Women’s Club and go to coffee mornings or other events they run; belong to two book groups and a writing group. We swim at least once a week and go probably three times a month to the independent cinema club to see a film. On average we eat out with friends once a week and I try to meet a friend for coffee or lunch once a week. We are about to buy a bike each to go cycling at the week ends and so I can do my short run journeys by bike instead of needing a taxi to get everywhere. I knit in the evenings and we sometimes listen to a story on CD but hubby usually falls asleep and I get fed up having to listen to the same chapter the next evening x about four before I refuse to hear it again and we give up! Once a month we’ll go to a cultural event – at the English book shop perhaps or a wine tasting. I write a journal and occasional blog!!!
I’ve just volunteered for a role in the HIWC Charity Bazaar annual fundraising day held at the end of November. It sounds like a pretty big role but in all honesty the work hasn’t started yet so that isn’t taking my time.
Now, what don’t I do that I want to?
Go to pilates classes every week; go with the ladies to the orphanage to teach the girls to knit/spend time with them; more creative writing; join the weekly ‘hash’ walks on a Saturday; baking; cultural things with a friend – visit more museums, pagodas etc.; some time with absolutely nothing planned; more trips and week ends away.
Some of these we’ve got planned – we will buy bikes this week end, the hash walks will start up again I guess in September, when I finish the lacquer course I’m going to use that time for the orphanage/pilates/cultural things with a friend and we’ve got number one son coming to visit next week and have two pretty full-on weeks planned of visiting Saigon, Danang, Hue, Hoi An, Hanoi and Sapa.
Is my husband right – do I just want to do more things than there’s time for? Life is for living right and absolutely every component within mine has been chosen by me – how enormously priviledged am I. So none of what I’ve written is a complaint – more an observation that perhaps some of us are born to be dissatisfied – in a good way!