Celebrating the ex-pat life

Day before yesterday I received a call from an old friend named Bethany Bell, someone I hadn’t heard from in over five years. I’d been thinking about her just the day before, too, while idly watching BBC America’s nightly newscast and hearing her reporting from Jerusalem during George Bush’s visit there.

Over the last couple years, I’ve listened with idiotic pride (and sometimes worry) every time I heard Bethany’s voice coming over the BBC or NPR from an empty Austrian valley and the recent bombings in Lebanon. Because, you see, it always reminds me of sitting with Bethany in a coffehouse in Vienna, almost ten years ago now, when she was working thanklessly at Austrian Radio (ORF) to train herself for possible BBC entry, and I was loathing my first job at an English-language newspaper. She talked about her frustrations with the process of breaking into an industry, and the need to be somewhere where things are happening; and I talked about my feelings that me and journalism weren’t a great fit.

And we both talked a lot about Viennese life and the 15,000-strong ex-pat community that felt sometimes like going to a small high school. Vienna’s not a welcoming city — a beautiful one, yes, with a quality of life that is hard to beat, but not one where a foreigner ever feels truly at home. The ex-pats end up forming their own societies, introducing their own cultures, and going to one another’s potluck dinners.

Being an ex-pat is a subset of the traveler’s life that I value above all other experiences. There is no travel that can’t be outdone by spending a year or more acquainting yourself with local bus routes and finally cajoling a smile out of the woman behind the meat counter at the local supermarket.

Bethany called to congratulate us on the birth of our son, and to talk about how good it would be to see each other again. But her lovely British accent made me think less of what my life is now, and more about what it was and where it’s gone. The memory of sitting in one of those high-ceilinged coffeehouses with a friend on a Sunday afternoon brought back others: the eternally sour-faced woman my husband and I named Frau Grumpy, who worked the bread counter across the street from our apartment; the fact that I still sometimes reach for an actual wicker basket when going grocery shopping; and most of all, that tremendous giddiness you get from the luxury of living in a different culture, of soaking it in and seeing how it can change you. It made me think about the fact that living as an ex-pat is not just an experience to write about or to pack away with your photos in the face of uninterested friends in your home country, it’s something that becomes part of who you are and how you view the world.

Just on the heels of that memory, a friend who just spent a year teaching English near Kyoto sent me a link to a new webzine she writes for: Nothing to Declare, a site started by ex-pats living in Madrid and written by those intimate with the trials and joys of living as an ex-pat.

As the writers on those site have found, the friends you make as an ex-pat are like no others in your life. They’re the ones who can show up on your doorstep after five or ten or twenty years, and you can chatter away as if nothing has changed. They’re the ones who can call out of the blue and make you laugh. Because what you share is not an early childhood or drunken university days, but a deep-seated interest in the world and thirst to know it.

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