3

Hireath (and Velveeta)

Today I found myself in a conversation with a group of “newbies”.

Despite my best efforts to appear polite and kind, but completely unengaged (think: Swiss), there I was.  There is a part of me that wants to be an ambassador of all things welcoming.  Really.  But there is a much bigger part of me that simply cannot bear one more conversation about how impossible it is to find Velveeta (or insert another unnecessary item that is only sold in said person’s home country).

I’ve been here before.  In my last year in Switzerland I recall having a conversation with a really close friend who had been an expat for even longer than we had.  I asked her specifically how she DID IT.  How she gathered up the energy and the motivation to put herself out there time and time again to be the Welcoming Committee.  To be the smiling beacon that lessened somebody else’s trauma over the First Expat Experience.  I’m not knocking the newbies.  I know it’s challenging to figure out a whole new…well…everything.  I remember it so well, and I am forever grateful to the really wonderful women that I met at baby group and the English-speaking playgroup at the English Church.  I truly don’t know how I would have survived those early years without those friendships.  As a newish mom, and a woman who had lost her identity as a professional, and as a person completely lost in a foreign culture-I needed them.  I think it was key that we had a few members of our group that weren’t newbies.  But it was also wonderful that so many of us were.  We truly could relate to each other’s foibles….and failures and communication issues.  We laughed at the same idiosyncrasies, and bonded over what we missed from our respective home countries (my long held-out import item that took up suitcase room and precious suitcase weight was peanut butter, not Velveeta).  I definitely remember making newbie friends and loving being the one that helped them navigate the system.  I loved that I could feel helpful to other people.  I suppose I felt like I was paying it forward in a way.

But something happens inside you after you open up completely and make a brand new life for yourself.  The people who help you settle in to a new place are part of what you love about the place.  And in this Expat, Nomad life…we generally get two to three years.  And then people move on.  I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating:

It is easier to leave than to be left behind.

We expected to be in Switzerland long-term, so I knew logically that people would move on.  But like all painful realities, knowing it doesn’t make it feel any better.  After our third year in Switzerland, many of our close friends had moved away.  I’m not sure how it happened…if it was gradual or all at once…but one day I realized I didn’t want to go to the mom’s group coffee, or the playgroup, or the Bunko game.  I didn’t want to meet anybody new.  I didn’t want to put myself out there.  I think it’s a self-preservation thing.  I had to retract in order to toughen up so I could extend again.  Ultimately, we were wrong, and when we left Switzerland I vividly recall thinking I would never again pull back because it’s so isolating.

Moving to Hong Kong was a revelation.  It was the Loser Ex-Boyfriend Bump, of course…but also, we truly just lucked out and met people who are interesting, interested, and loads of fun.  Obviously, when YOU are the newbie-you put yourself out there.  You are on your best behavior and presenting the most interesting version of yourself.  And if you’re anything like me-you re-invent yourself a little.  You leave behind the part of yourself that maybe you don’t like so much or you aren’t terribly proud of.  Or you just work really hard to become more of what you do like about yourself.  I didn’t have time to get tired of Hong Kong and in the end, I was the one that left.  I’m not sure my Bestie in Hong Kong has ever forgiven me for leaving in such a blur.

When we arrived in Bangkok there was a big group of people who arrived simultaneously.  Most had two to three-year gigs.  Meaning-they are gone.  I’m not dramatic with the goodbyes.  I believe that friendships can be maintained with a little effort.  But it can’t ever be the same.  The thing about these Expat friendships is their intensity.  When you are away from your family and the people who have known you all your life, you establish connections quickly.  When the bonds are real-they are strong.  My theory is that family members & friends that have known you all your life tend to have a very specific idea of who you are.  It’s a little bit like no matter how old you are, your “baby brother” will always be the baby.   Even when he’s old and bald and has grandchildren.  But in Expat friendships-we take each other at face value.  For good and for bad.  And we establish routines and lean on one another and there’s simply no discounting the bond that happens when you go through struggles alongside someone.   That’s special.  It’s can’t be duplicated here or anywhere.  And when you re-connect in a different locale, it’s still wonderful but it’s not the same.

One of my dearest friends gave me the most perfect gift this Christmas.  A tiny little illustrated book called Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words From Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders.  It is both beautiful to look at and absolutely fascinating.  I tell you I can taste these words they are so delicious.  There is one in particular that haunts me.  The meaning of the word (untranslatable into English of course), is “A homesickness for somewhere you cannot return to, the nostalgia and the grief for the lost places of your past, places that never were”.  The word is hiraeth and it’s origin is Welsh.  I plan to use it regularly because it is uniquely poignant in this Expat life.  The combination of circumstances and people and events and time make up our experiences.  There is no going back because nothing will be the same.  That’s the way it will always be for us Expats.  If we were to go home, life would have gone on for everybody there for the past 10 years-there is no slipping back into that life.  Returning to any of our previous Ports of Call would really mean starting all over because what made them home were our friends and our connections.

I’ve realized something about myself.  For me, after I’ve become the Long-Termer, I sort of time-out.  I’m good for that two to three-year window (ish).  Beyond that?  I can’t promise that I will be all that helpful.  If someone asks me directly for help, I would never dream of saying no.  And sometimes I just can’t help myself.  My inner Disney Cast Member comes out at the strangest times.  But, I justify my unwillingness to reach out by telling myself that it’s somebody else’s turn.  I’ve helped people find the closest organic grocery, and helped them navigate after school activity registration.  I’ve been on the board of every sport and/or activity that my kids have taken part of.  I was on the welcoming committee at the PTA for 3 years.  It’s not that I’m not friendly.  I’m just a little bit worn out.  All of that training from Walt Disney World…and here I am, not making eye contact with the smiling, slightly desperate new faces.

So, there I was…in a circle with three “newbies” and another “long-termer”.  I put on my gracious face and tried hard to be honest without being negative….to be upbeat without being snarky (no small task for me)…to be warm without being too friendly.  It’s a balancing act.  Eventually, one of the women asked how long we’ve been in Bangkok and I unintentionally must have exhaled a little too much before my “This is our fourth year” reply….because I looked up to see alarmed faces.  I back-pedaled.  I don’t dislike it here!  It’s easy!  It’s a lovely, convenient life.  And seriously-who wouldn’t want to have our kids lives here??  But the truth is…we’ve been Nomads for a decade.  I like it that way.

It’s not like anybody really “settles down” in these places-at least not in the Expat communities that we’ve been part of.  It’s transient…mutable, in a constant state of shift.  The Husband once made the astute observation that it’s like a revolving door.  The beginning of every school year brings in a fresh crop, and the end brings goodbye parties and lots of tears.  In & Out.  In & Out.  Ad Nauseum.

I’m feeling the itchy feet.   I need a new project, or a new adventure.  And by adventure, I do not mean trying to find Velveeta in Bangkok.   The ES Musical is next week and Genius Friend and I are wrapping up our costume project…so clearly I need to start a list of to-do’s.  I hesitate to call it a bucket list but at this time of year, I always start thinking along the lines of “if this is our last few months here, I really ought to (insert whatever it is here)”.  So, until we know what is next….you can bet that I’ll find something to tear up and re-do.  Because there is no way I am going to a New Parent coffee.

6

Camping

Last weekend I slept in a tent.  On the hard ground.  Outdoors.

I understand the mass confusion.

Broccoli Mom does not Camp.  It’s not the outdoor activities, it’s not the bugs, it’s not the campfire or eating off of sticks. I’m a fan of the outdoors in general.  I’ve adapted to the point where I work out (hard!) outside at least 5 days a week.  I can deal with bugs-even though Dengue Fever is no joke and it’s a real threat here in Thailand.  I really like food cooked over an open flame and my 18 months as a Chicagoan made me a lifelong fan of Hot Dogs.  Don’t even get me started on S’Mores.  That stuff is just plain heaven.  That part of camping-yes.  I’m in.

But sleeping on the ground?  Protected from the elements by a flimsy piece of fabric?  Why?  When there are cozy cushy beds (in AIR CONDITIONING) less than a mile away?  The why, ladies and gentlemen, is that my daughters and their Girl Scout sistren (it IS a word, I looked it up) insisted that Camping is the one activity that they absolutely had to participate in this year.

Now you know for certain just how much I love my children.  Because I think it bears repeating: Broccoli Mom does not Camp.

To add insult to injury-a couple of days before said outdoor adventure (I really shouldn’t oversell this-we actually camped out in an outdoor area on the school campus), 3 of the girls in my Junior troop dropped out because they had been invited to a birthday party.  I get it- 10 and 11 year olds are social little creatures, and my teaching them how to build a campfire isn’t even a close second to Taylor Swift videos, pizza and talking about boys all night.  Truth be told, I’d have taken that out if I had it.

Only I didn’t get an invitation.  So, there I was.

Sleeping in the out-of-doors.  With 12 under-12s in my care.  Again, I shouldn’t oversell it.  My aforementioned Genius Friend is my Brownie Troop co-leader and she was obviously there as the One-We-All-Looked-To.  See: Expert post.  I knew that in the event of an emergency she could have McGuyver-ed us an axe from a tennis shoe and a piece of nylon rope.  As it stood, the only thing she had to McGuyver was how to extricate the two 7-year-olds that were awake and giggling at 5:30am and go on a Nature Hike to keep them from waking the rest of the “camp”.  Did I mention that the upside to camping on the ISB campus is that there is a Starbucks across the street?  How fabulous is coffee delivery at 6:30am?  Pretty darn fabulous.

And my tired old bones needed coffee because, seriously.  Sleeping on the hard ground is really not good for 40-year-old hips and shoulders.

Oh, she also jerry-rigged some amazing little contraption that essentially air-conditioned our tent-using a tiny fan, a mini styrofoam cooler and bottles of frozen water.  It’s good to have really smart friends.

The kids really loved camping out.  The Bean liked the campfire songs and the S’Mores.  Bookworm loved the skits and the repeat after me songs.  I particularly enjoyed when it was over and I realized I had fulfilled my promise to my children and my little Girl Scouts….because I am NOT doing that again.

7

Hairy Business

This week, I’ve been rocking Miss Breck hair.  Which is particularly impressive when you consider that I live in a place where 80% humidity is normal.  If you knew me years ago or only recently, you’d definitely be scratching your head in wonder.  I have some great physical traits, and I say that as a 40-year-old woman who fights her inner critic but has come to terms with the reality of her appearance.  But I was not born with great hair.  One of my room mates when I was part of the Walt Disney World College Program had a head of hair that inspired awe and envy.  She still has that hair, and every time I see a photo of her I still double take and think, “Not Fair”.  But I have discovered cheats and tricks.  The best cheat ever is Hair Extensions, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I wear them.  My general attitude about beauty regimens, procedures, etc. is that if you can afford it and you’ve researched it and thought it through you should do whatever you want to.  But my personal policy is that if I can’t be honest about what I’m doing, then some part of me thinks it’s wrong and I shouldn’t do it.  I sort of think that’s a good policy in life.  If I don’t want my husband or my best friend or family to know, then part of me is ashamed.  And the whole point is to feel proud.

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extensions circa 2010

Hair Extensions make me feel like a new person.  I got my first head of “fake hair” (as Bookworm charmingly told her Kindergarten classmates) when we first moved to Hong Kong.  I didn’t even realize hair extensions were a thing that real people did until I moved there.  I really thought they were something strange and mysterious that happened in Hollywood.  But now that I’ve worn them, I can spot them…and let me assure you, they are much more common than you might think.   When I first wore them, I was trying on a new look.  I had previously made the ill-advised and misguided choice to chop off all my hair and have what I thought would be an edgy, European bob.  I also dyed it dark chocolatey brown.  It wasn’t a great look on me.  And it wasn’t edgy.  It was a mom bob.  And it left me feeling frumpy and blah.   In my two years in Hong Kong, I grew out that unfortunate hairstyle with the help of extensions and when I took them out, it was hard for most people to tell.

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the unfortunate bob, circa 2009

I’ve thought about getting them in the years since-in fact I once got a really inexpensive (and once-again misguided) set of extensions at a salon in Bangkok…they looked like fried Barbie doll hair.  My real hair grows long and it’s straight-but it’s fine and in humidity it just lays flat.  So, my signature hairstyle in Bangkok has been the side-bun.  I can do it in about 60 seconds and it does not even require a mirror.  But it’s boring.  And I really missed having lush Miss Breck hair.  So, when we went to Hong Kong I booked an appointment with my old (GENIUS!) hairstylist.  She fixed me right up.  I didn’t add much length-but I swear I have twice as much hair, and it is wavy and lush.  I am so grateful to the girl that grew this hair for me.  Truly-she is one lucky gal.

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the side-bun (and my beautiful friend Sol-who I am missing!)

What I have found most entertaining since my return to Bangkok is that most people have commented on the color of my hair (it is rather blonde…The Bean actually called it Barbie Blonde-but I’m cool with that)-only one has asked why it looks like there is more of it.  I’m not ashamed of it.  I think it’s awesome.  I want to swing it around and use it like a prop.  Bookworm asked me which part was “mine” last night, and I answered, “all of it”.  After all, I paid for it.

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The Barbie Hair

Seriously, though, the point of this post was really that sometimes-it just takes a little change to make you feel a little more “bouncy”.  And I’m thrilled to tell you that getting hair extensions has put a little bounce in my step (and I’m actually not kidding-these locks actually have their own spring action)!

If you aren’t up for the commitment (and in a hot climate I will tell you, it’s not something to dismiss) of extensions-or the time needed in the chair (it took me nearly 5 hours)…there are a few other cheats I’ve used.  Jessica Simpson has a line of amazing velcro extensions and fake ponytails.  They’re relatively inexpensive and easy to use.  I’ve got one of the ponytails and I plan to keep it for when I don’t have 5 pounds of extra hair attached to my head.  Dry shampoo is an absolute lifesaver for us with straight, limp hair.  And I know you’ve read it and dismissed it because of the “ew” factor..but seriously-you have to stop washing your hair every day if you want it to look like what you see in the magazines.  Every model and everybody on TV either has hair extensions or dirty hair or both.  That’s a hard thing to consider in this humidity but I got an awesome tip from my baby brother’s girlfriend (another fabulous hairstylist)-blow dry the roots without washing.  Or if you truly can’t stand it-just rinse it out.  Leave-in conditioner will take care of the ends and dry shampoo will add some thickness and absorb any oil.

My other cheat is pinterest.  There are really great tutorials for everything.  That is where I discovered the tutorial for what became my signature side-bun 3 years ago.  Find one that is easy and flattering and make it your own.   I learned that it’s difficult to get all of this hair into the side-bun-it’s way heavier than my own hair…but man, when I do, I look like Princess Elsa-one of Bookworm’s classmates even told me so.  And I will tell you, there is no greater compliment from the grade-school universe.

So, until they grow out or fall out or I can’t stand it-if you see me you don’t need to wonder.  It’s all real, it’s all mine-I just didn’t grow it on my own head.  And if you don’t get it or don’t like it, that’s okay by me.  I hope you find a cheat that makes you feel as fabulous as mine does.

12

The End of the Innocence

I knew this day was coming.

I’ve known it since Bookworm was 5 years old and despite her having worked that wobbly tooth back and forth with concentration and determination never seen before (and rarely since, unless a book was involved)…she just could not break free her first tooth to warrant a visit from the elusive Tooth Fairy.  In fact, more than 7 months after she first started wiggling that tiny little tooth, I had to take her to our dentist to have it pulled.  It was basically dead from so much manhandling-so much so that it had turned a funky sort of oyster grey.  Our dentist was gentle and wonderful (and had Apple TV installed in the ceiling so that she watched Barbie and the Twelve Dancing Princesses while he did the extraction-so seriously-who’s to complain?) and sweet Bookworm virtually danced out of the dentist’s office with her First Lost Tooth wrapped like a treasure for the Tooth Fairy to collect in the night.

Bookworm's First Lost Tooth

There was no bringing her down from her high.  Her smile was infectious, her joy absolutely true…and that tiny little hole on the bottom of her gums was just adorable (the days of really ganky, jack-o-lantern smiles was still years in her future) and the next morning she treasured her Tooth Fairy Money as though it were the most valuable and special thing on the planet.  Until.

The little boy in her kindergarten class told her that the Tooth Fairy wasn’t real and it was just her mom putting money under her pillow.

Now, here’s the thing.  I totally respect and understand that we choose to live in a multi-cultural environment and we also elected to live outside of our own culture.  I get that the majority of her Hong Kong classmates don’t “get” our customs. I also respect them for not adopting them.  When you really think about it, somebody sneaking into your room to steal your teeth is a little bit creepy.

But, seriously.  I wanted to thump that little kid right in the head.

I didn’t.

Which is good for many reasons.  In reality, I tried very hard not to even react.  I just asked my sweet little Bookworm what she thought.  And here is what I have always loved about my Big Girl.  For all of her troubles, my girl has an imagination and a pure soul that is just full of wonder and belief.  Often times, Circus Dad and I have pondered if it is good for her to live so much of her life in her fantasy world-in her head and in her books and in the little universes she invents in her own stories.  But, my 5-year-old Bookworm looked me straight in the eye and told me how sorry she was for that little boy because it WAS his mom.  Because, obviously , he didn’t believe in the Tooth Fairy.  And everybody knows that if you don’t believe, fairies can’t stay alive.  Therefore, he must have killed his Tooth Fairy.

What?  You didn’t know every kid has her own individual fairy?  Duh.  Of course they do.  Because how else would it even Work??

Anyway.  I knew then that the moment my sweet Bookworm matured to the point that her logic trumped her belief in magic, it would all crumble.

Last year, she very seriously asked me if I thought it were possible that Hogwarts is real.  (I answered no.  There is a Hogwarts at Harry Potter World, I think…but there isn’t a real school.)  She argued that I simply couldn’t be sure and when she had her 10th Birthday Party (It was a Hogwarts School Entrance Exam Party), she was certain that she was going to receive a REAL acceptance letter at some point before her 11th birthday.  Which is quickly approaching.

Only, no letter.  And her best friend didn’t get a letter when she turned 11.  Which has gotten her thinking.

This Christmas, we had a few conversations about how strange it is that Santa is all over the world.  And then she would get very quiet and ask why there aren’t any specific photos of the REAL Santa online when you Google him.  Circus Dad and I vacillated between wanting to go overboard with ridiculous reasons why she should believe and wanting to sit down and help her to grasp the magic versus the myth.  In the end, we decided that she would ask specific questions when she was ready for the answer and neither of us wanted it ON US-the end of the innocence.

Three years ago, Bookworm asked Santa some really deep questions about Fairies and sent it in a letter to Santa (that she thought I didn’t see).  I enlisted literary assistance (this time from my Genius Skip-Sister-see previous posts on Expertise and my giant family) and Santa delivered a brilliant 7 page explanation of the Fairy world and how it all works.  Every so often, Bookworm still pulls that letter out to disprove a classmate or friend that might cop to being a non-believer.

I found some great letters and ideas on Pinterest for how to deal with her if she came to us.  But it didn’t happen.  And Santa pulled through again-even though we were in the USA and her present was in Thailand.  Santa even brought her sister the crutches she asked for.  Yes-that’s right.  The Bean got crutches for Christmas.  We’re not Normal.

Bookworm has her mother’s bad teeth.   We’ve been discussing the inevitability of braces for at least 3 years.  Just last week, she pulled out a tooth and I happily told her that we only had one more baby tooth to go before we could get the braces on!  She grumbled a bit and acted a bit funny and sulky as she went through her little routine of making a little fairy seating area on her nightstand and left her standard letter for the Tooth Fairy.  In the letter (which was a the size of a mini-post-it-note) she wrote (in miniature lettering that I could hardly decipher with my 40-year-old-eyes) asking her Fairy for a photo.  Because The Bean got a photo of the tooth fairy when she lost her tooth last semester.

It’s an App.  You take a photo of your sleeping kid and then you pick a tiny fairy to superimpose on the photo.  It took me 60 seconds and it was free.  I just thought I was being fun.  But apparently, I kicked of a s*&%storm.  Because the fairy wasn’t REAL.  She was a cartoon.  Anyway-I didn’t know that.  I just used the same app and did the same thing (with a different fairy, obviously) for Bookworm.

When she came down to breakfast she was mopey and irritated.  It was then I heard that her fairy was a CARTOON and that wasn’t real.  Why didn’t she take a REAL photo of herself.  I didn’t reply.  How could I??  I sort of ignored the whole thing and hoped it would go away.

But tonight I returned home to find her in the kitchen with a little baggie in her hand and a strange look on her face.  I waited.  Eventually, she brought me the bag.  Inside, the last baby tooth.  I congratulated her and said, “Nice!  You’ll be rich!”  She rolled her eyes.  And Then.

“Mom.”

I’m dying a little bit inside.  Because I know what’s coming.  I’ve halfway hoped for this, I admit.  I’m old.  I’m tired.  It’s a miracle I remember to put the money under the pillow half the time.  But I know that this is such a moment.  I don’t know what to do.

“I know.”

“You know what?”

“Well, my teacher kind of gave it away”

“What?  What do you mean?”

Listen, again.  I get it.  It’s not kindergarten anymore.  I seriously think Bookworm is The Last of her friends to believe. Most of The Beans friends don’t believe anymore.  So I get it.  And I’ve appreciated that Bookworm’s friends have protected her and even coddled her in her need to believe.  But I was curious.

“Well, a boy in our class was sharing.  He said he had a terrible weekend because he asked his mom directly if she was the Tooth Fairy and she gave him a bag of his teeth.  And Ms. XX didn’t know what to do.  She got all weird and I could tell she wasn’t sure what to do.  So, then I knew.  She was afraid she was going to ruin something.”

“What do you think?”

“I think I want to believe.  But I know it’s not real.”

Oy.  Cue sappy hallmark music.  My stomach clenched up and I wanted to turn back time to when she was 5 and she was So Certain that fairies were real and magic was everywhere.  And I knew I could save her because if somebody hurt her feelings, she cared more about my opinion than anybody else’s.

But those days are over.  And they have been.  She’s lanky and angsty.  She rolls her eyes more at me than she laughs at me when I’m being silly or doing voices.  And that’s okay.

I did ask, gently, what she thought that meant about other things…like, say, for instance The Easter Bunny?  She said she didn’t think about it.  I asked about Jack Frost.  She actually raised one eyebrow and just stared at me.  We live in Thailand.  I waited.  She looked at me and said, “Santa?” her voice breaking a bit.

I asked her if she wanted to believe.  I told her that belief was important and believing in magic and all that entails is such an integral part of who she is, she should spend some time thinking about that.  I just couldn’t bear to push her one millimeter beyond where she was.

She was quiet.  She said, she believes in Santa.  I said, “I do, too”.

And then she asked me if she could help me BE the Tooth Fairy for her sister.

I cannot think of a more perfect job for my sweet dreamy girl.  It may be the end of the Innocence for her, but I know she will help to make the next few years truly magical for her sister.  I just hope I can remember to enjoy each moment while I have it.

1

The Loser-Ex Boyfriend Bump

Having just returned from a truly fabulous weekend in Hong Kong, I’m moved to return to My Favorite Things.  Due to circumstances out of our control, the Circus-Broccoli clan maintained a residence in Hong Kong for a mere 23 months…and for 8 of those months it was only Circus Dad as a full-time resident.  Which is truly unfortunate, because Hong Kong is one of My Favorite Places.  I spent some time thinking about why it is that I love it so much.

I often joke that Hong Kong benefitted by what The Husband likes to call the “loser ex-boyfriend bump”.  You might guess (correctly) that The Husband is referring to his own circumstances, whereby I dated such completely unremarkable (or remarkably Bad) guys before he came into the picture, that by comparison he looked like The Catch of  Lifetime.  Obviously, he would have looked that way regardless of whom I dated previously.  I mean, he had a car and job AND hadn’t ever had a stint in rehab.  Not to say that living in Switzerland was without pleasures or that we didn’t enjoy or appreciate our experience there…but life in Switzerland with babies was not Easy.  In fact, it was challenging at every turn.  I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that it took me a full four years to receive an invitation to coffee from the local ladies in our village.  It’s also impossible to reflect back on a place and remove your own personal circumstances at that time from the picture.  I’d just given up my career and was truly finding my sense of self-worth from simply being someone’s wife and someone’s mother.  I made fantastic life-long friends in Switzerland….but when I look back on it the thing that bound us there was that we truly NEEDED one another.

Hong Kong is the opposite of Switzerland in that regard.  We landed, felt the energy and immersed ourselves in a veritable hot pot of international culture.  In Hong Kong, it’s not only possible to employ full-time help, it’s expected.  It cost us less to hire a full-time live-in domestic helper in Hong Kong than we were paying our twice-monthly cleaning woman in Switzerland.  Having those hours to get out and do things, coupled with the multitudes of choices of things to do with my time…well, By comparison-Hong Kong made Switzerland look like a loser ex-boyfriend.

I don’t think I had enough time in Hong Kong to get annoyed by the idiosyncrasies.  I didn’t have to sit by and watch friends move on like I’ve had to do in Switzerland and here in Bangkok.  And we got incredibly lucky in Hong Kong.  We made really amazing friends.  And not the kind that just fill your days.  The kind that you take with you forever.  You know how hard it is to find friends in adulthood?  And then to like their spouse and their kids?

I find re-entry into my weird little bubble-life even harder after a stint in Hong Kong.  And it’s not that life in Bangkok is hard.  I sometimes wonder if we’d have come to Bangkok before Hong Kong if it would have benefitted from the same “loser-ex-boyfriend bump”.  Because life here is easy.  It’s just not cosmopolitan.  And things don’t always work-like my internet.  Or my hot water.  Or my AirCon.  But, again…First World Problems.

Keeping it al in perspective is important.  My life is pretty awesome.  I have good friends-whether they are here or elsewhere-whom make me want to be a better human being.  I have a ginormous family who seems to love me even though I haven’t lived anywhere near them for a decade.  I have fabulous hair (thanks to my genius hairstylist in Hong Kong).  And even though I don’t get to live there anymore-I still get to take awesome weekends in Hong Kong.  And that doesn’t suck.

2

Suck it Up, Buttercup

File under: Things that only happen to expat wives.

I’ve lived (happily!) abroad for nearly 10 years.  For the most part, I forget what life “at home” would really look like because the last time I lived there, I was living such a dramatically different life that there is really no comparing then versus now.  For example, the last time I lived in the USA-I had a paying job.  Nay, I would even go so far as to say a Profession.  I traveled for said job and in order to make that work, The Husband and I employed a nanny and a weekly cleaning lady.  All other aspects of home life were managed by yours truly.  Oh, and I had a 9-month-old baby.  And I was young enough to go out drinking on a Wednesday night and be able to get up at 6am with the baby and make it to work in fine form by 9am.  I can’t even go out on a Wednesday, now!  So, my life then does not resemble my life now.  Because it’s been so long and I’ve become accustomed to the things that are “normal” abroad, I often don’t realize that they are not “normal” at home.

Only every so often, something happens that makes me think, “Hmmmm”.

This is NOT normal.  This would NOT happen if we were living a normal life in the USA.

This week, I’ve been dealing with a situation that frustrates me simply because it is happening only because of the “weird” life we live.  Probably the most frustrating aspect of being a trailing spouse has been adjusting to the attitude, rules and sometimes just the custom of banks and financial institutions.  I understand that legally, in the eyes of The Kingdom of Thailand, I am present and granted a Visa only because my spouse is working here.  I like go joke that I serve at the pleasure of my husband.  If he were to get really pissed at me, he could revoke my Visa and send me packing.

This is not new.  It was the same in Switzerland and the same in Hong Kong.  And I dealt with the fact that I am not really granted access to our bank accounts due to the fact that my status is not the same as my husbands.  Initially, I thought it was just because I was the wife…or because I don’t have any income.  But, it turns out many banks have rules about the kind of Visa you must have in order to open and keep a bank account.  I’m not sure what the domestic job breakdown is for most families-but in our family, ever since I can remember, I handle the finances.  The bills, the bank accounts, etc.  The Husband manages our investments and sometimes asks me to transfer money here or there or to write a check to somebody or something, but for the most part, we have quarterly meetings where we discuss major expenditures and/or goals and the rest of the time he just trusts me to handle it.  I appreciate that.  I really do.  See my post about shopping…tee hee.  In all seriousness, though.  There was an occasion in Switzerland when I needed to get a payoff amount on our joint bank-issued credit card and they wouldn’t give me the information. Clearly, their policies are set to protect the spending habits of the primary cardholder.  And I cannot have a credit card in my name in that country because I do not have a proper Visa nor do I have an income.  So-every time there is an issue or they have a fraud protection shutdown on one of our cards…inevitably, The Husband has to take time to handle it.  Which just gets me all fired up.  I can spend the money, but I can’t know our balance?  I can pay all the bills and set up the online accounts and make all the transfers, but I can’t clear the hold on the account?  Thank God my husband is so liberal with the money, because he could easily put me in a position where I have an allowance and that is all.

We’ve had to give up our Swiss and Hong Kong based credit cards since leaving those countries.  And we opted not to have a Thai credit card because we try to keep as little money as possible in Thailand in the event of a political crisis that might result in a financial crisis.  So, our only payment options in Thailand are our Thai bank debit card, our USA bank debit card, and our American Express.  When we moved abroad the AmEx was the only card without foreign transaction fees.  This year, over the holiday, we decided to get a new US credit card that doesn’t have foreign transaction fees because many places don’t accept AmEx and we hate paying the foreign transaction fees and/or getting really bad exchange rates from vendors.  I did my research and filled out a simple online form with all of The Husband’s details and applied for the card.  Literally less than 60 seconds later we were approved.  For an enormous credit limit.  We were surprised at how easy it was, and shocked that they had given us such a high limit.  We haven’t needed to use the card, but wanted to have it for travel.  Fast forward to last week when I called to let them know that we were “traveling” and would be in Thailand until June.  In addition, we would be in Hong Kong this weekend…and could they please make a note so that the card wouldn’t be shut down for suspicious activity.  The agent was lovely and agreed to notate the file.  I made one purchase that afternoon to make sure everything would be okay and it was. Yahoo!

And then.

I tried to use it at the hotel last weekend and they said it didn’t work.  I thought maybe it was because the card is a new-fangled fancy card with weird technical aspects.  So I used the AmEx.  And then I tried again at the mall.  It was declined.  Weird!  So, I logged in online to see what could be happening.  The account status was “Disabled” and there was a number to call.  I’ve never missed a payment (okay, I’ve never had to make one) and the balance was not even 10% of the limit.  Our first payment isn’t due until early February.  So I called.  And spent 10 minutes on hold (on my dime- because 1-800 numbers are not free from Thailand) while the agent tried to “determine the nature of the problem”.  Finally, he came back to tell me that they had security concerns and needed to discuss them with the primary cardholder.

I swear, my temperature went up a full degree.  I could feel the blood pulsing in my ears.  I asked him what kind of fraud they were suspecting and he was clipped and weird with me.  He asked to speak to The Husband.  I explained that he was in Hong Kong, as our file surely noted, and was not available to speak to him.  He cut me off by saying he was not at liberty to discuss it any further with me but would I please have the primary cardholder call him back.

Sigh.  Now, as I said earlier, The Husband has had to do this before.  He hates it and it makes him crazy, but he does it.  But this situation is different.  They clearly think I am a made up person, or that I have stolen his identity.  When he called they told him that they would not reactivate the account until he could prove his identity (which for the record they did not ask for when they issued the card in the first place). We needed to provide proof of residency (utility bill with his name on it), and his social security card.  My first thought was, Seriously?  Who keeps their original card?  He does, actually…and Thank God.  So I gathered all of the documents, scanned them and sent them to him because HE has to be the one to send it on to the Credit Card Company.  Seriously.  Can you imagine this happening to a stay at home spouse in the USA?  If you google our address for the tax records you can see both of our names on that deed.   And now they say it will take 2-3 days to decide if they will lift the ban.  Maybe they don’t want us to have it because we live part of the year away from the US?  I’m not sure but it was the strangest “Expat Only” experience.

I’m thankful that we are going to Hong Kong for the weekend and not Cambodia or some other place where nobody takes AmEx.

But I’m mostly just chapped about feeling like a second-class citizen.  Wait, I’m not even a citizen.  I guess I’m an alien.  I find it insulting somehow.  It makes me feel like something less than a full person.  I have my own credit score, and half of the utilities at our house are in my name-mostly because I knew one day I might want my own credit card and I needed to keep a credit history in the USA.

Then again, I’m thankful that I have this problem.  It is truly a First World Problem as The Husband would say.  He would also tell me to “Suck it up, Buttercup”.

2

Raindrops on Roses…

..and whiskers on kittens.  Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens…

Brilliant lyrics.  But as much as I love The Sound of Music, none of the items that Maria is waxing fantastic over really do that much for me.

I had some very funny conversations with my (three) readers following my Expert post.  It seems I am actually an expert in many things.  None of which will ever earn me one red cent.  Which is truly unfortunate, because as bad as I apparently am at being talented or earning money, I am exceptionally good at spending it.  I’ve alluded to my deep-seeded love of shopping.  And it’s true-I really do love shopping.  I do appreciate a good old-fashioned trip to the mall.  But I’m much better at online shopping.  It’s an art, really.  I generally have no fewer than 4 browser windows open to things I am either price-comparing, researching or just plain mooning over.  I’m not committed to any one kind of online shopping.  I like bargain sites like Gilt, but I’m also a sucker for the luxury sites, the home decorating and improvement sites and I won’t even turn down a good hour to peruse Amazon.com.  I am not exaggerating when I tell you that more than 80% of the gifts given by myself and my family this Christmas came from Amazon.com.  Amazon Prime is absolutely brilliant.  In fact, it is one of My Favorite Things.

Which brings me back to Maria’s song.  This week, I will make some time to impart upon you some of My Favorite Things.  And since I’m an expert at online shopping, today it’s going to be my favorite sites.  Living in a place where one has to pay 60% duty on items that are shipped in-I obviously don’t order regularly.  But when I do-Boy Howdy!  I generally start evaluating my wardrobe in February so that when the Spring styles come into stores and look books in March and April, I am ready to shop, pin and compare.  By the time I arrive in the USA that first week of June-my office is like Christmas!  Full of packages and treasures.  It sounds very indulgent I am sure-but bear in mind that there’s almost nothing I can buy here because my right leg is about the size of an average full-grown Thai woman.  And even if I can buy it (we do have Gap and Zara here), I pay the aforementioned 60% price-hike because of VAT or luxury tax.  No Thanks.  I’m jealous of my friends that can take part in the wonder that is Stitch Fix…until I am someplace without duty-or in my  house in CO for longer than a 2 months stretch…it will have to wait.  If you’re a normal person in a normal place that can just Stitch Fix and you don’t need to buy a year’s worth of wardrobe in one fell swoop…you might be bored by this post.  But come back.  I will post other Favorite Things later.   I should also confess that my online shopping addiction is tempered by my frugality and my inability to click “buy”.  So, on any given day I probably have 20 different shopping carts online-full of things I might never buy.  However, I also might.  And I love that option.

I feel the need to categorize my shopping go-to sites.  For the purposes of passing on my faves the categories are: Shopping for Me, Shopping for the Girls, Shopping for the Home, and Shopping for Gifts.  The Husband is fairly self-sufficient, and when he needs to be spoilt, I’m very specific.

First: Moi.  I like a one-stop shop.  I really do.  And since my end destination in the USA is literally an hour from the nearest Target and more than 2 hours to the nearest Nordstrom-I like the idea of perusing everything from swimwear to exercise gear to the “in” sandal.  Three years ago I discovered Piperlime (one of the Gap companies) and fell madly in love.  I would wager that a minimum of 50% of my wardrobe was purchased through Piperlime.  For me-it was the perfect mix of on-point trends, mid to high-end quality brands and good prices.  Their free shipping and returns policy snared me for life.  Initially-they only sold shoes.  Now they have everything.  I preferred their old layout, and last year I didn’t find nearly as many treasures as the year prior…but nonetheless, I keep going back.   Once a woman gets to 40, she knows her own personal style.  And once you know it-you probably stick to a color palette, or at least several go-to colors and styles that you know work for you.  Mine is so predictable that anytime one of my friends finds something orange, they automatically think of me.  Same goes for maxi-dresses and Giant Hats.  Last year, I attempted to branch out into the teals (to counter my oranges) but it didn’t take.  I find that certain designers just appeal to me.  Tory Burch is my style icon.  I love almost everything she designs-even though I can’t wear a lot of it.  Sadly, I am not built like the lovely, waif-y Tory.  But I can rock a tunic, her swimwear is TDF and the sandals and accessories?  Really well-made and classic.  Clearly-her site is constantly bookmarked and with a full cart.  Though, I often peruse Nordstrom & Neiman Marcus as well to see if they have any of her things on sale.  I haven’t stepped foot into a J.Crew shop in at least 2 years-but I have a closet-full of J.Crew and J. Crew Factory clothes.  I love the clean, simple lines and the classic designs.  And Factory prices cannot be beat.  Gilt is a fantastic site.  Fabulous designers and great prices.  But I can’t buy ahead and return when I arrive, so I’m out most of the time, unfortunately.

The Girls:  Frankly, they are still little.  They tend toward sparkly and neon.  I would dress them in matching Crewcuts tunics and mini Boden.  So, we have to try to find a happy medium.  Their camp gear is from Justice, Target and Land’s End (obviously, the practical things-they wouldn’t be caught dead in a turtleneck covered in little whales).  Play clothes are the same.  I love Gilt for them as well as Zulily-but if fit is in question (which is often is with my completely different-bodied girls)-I can’t really do either site for the same reason I can’t do Gilt for me.  I have discovered a few brands on Zulily that I have sought from department stores-I usually hit Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and occasional Saks Fifth Avenue when I need them to look nice.  There is an amazing Australian store called Seed that I used to go to in Hong Kong.  For any Aussie if you don’t go-you should.  Both for you and for your kids.  I loved their clothes for both of my girls.  It was a slightly cuter, trendier J.Crew style.  I do love Crewcuts and J Crew Factory for the girls, but often they are pieces I like that get worn once because they aren’t nearly sparkly enough.

The Home: I’m addicted to Houzz.  I have loads of boards and lots of Pinterest boards.  Both to save ideas and to pine for things I will never have.  When I get bored I redecorate if only in my mind.  You can’t buy ON Houzz, but you can find out what you might want to buy.  My favorite online sources for the home are One Kings Lane and Joss & Main.  I love Horchow and Neiman Marcus Home…but frequently I just get my ideas there and actually find a comparable item on OKL or J&M.  And I’ve actually bought things for myself and the dogs on those sites as well-but mostly just really inexpensive, but decent quality on-trend decor and furniture.  I’ve been impressed with their service and their delivery.  I’ve bought art, beds, side tables, rugs and decor.  Happy, happy!  If you are not a member but want to be-please comment below and I’ll send you a link.  I get credit when you shop.  How cool is that?

Gifts: This Christmas, I bought almost everything on Amazon.  I shopped other sites to find specific treasures…but it mostly all came from Amazon.  For something different, I am loving Red Envelope.  Anthropologie always has great things for my girlfriends-but so does Joss & Main and One King’s Lane.  Gilt, too…if I’m not worried about returning things.  I get ideas from Pinterest, bloggers, magazines..anywhere really.

And now that I’m not on Facebook-that’s an extra 2 hours per day that I can be adding things to shopping carts!

And here I’ve just gotten myself all keyed up about shopping but I’m months away from the real shopping.   Until then I can keep my eyes peeled for ideas!