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Monday, August 27, 2012

The Three Phases of Life Abroad

I imagine that a many readers of this blog live in a country other than that in which they were brought up and I suspect that a fair few have been living there for many years. Of course, everybody has different experiences and different expectations, but I believe that there are at least two or three stages of adaptation that most of us go through after settling in another country and culture.

Reading "The House on Paradise Street" by Sofka Zinovieff, I came across the following passages, which kindled feelings of recognition of my own adaptation of living abroad. I do not live in Greece and obviously this is the character's/writer's experience and interpretation, but the general idea of the stages are similar to those I have passed through over the last 12 years.

I was pleased to shed my own surname and become “Mond Perifanis” as a reflection of my new, Greek life, but perhaps I should have worried a bit more about becoming part of this particular family. For some time I believed that my move to Greece was a way of creating a simple, pared-down persona – a clever trick, as though leaving behind my old existence physically would therefore slice through the roots that tied me to place, family, and above all, memory. At that stage – the phase I later recognised as my “Hellenic Idyll” – I abandoned myself to the worn but nonetheless charming cliché of the cool northerner being bathed in the warm water of Mediterranean delights. Perhaps it is no more of a cliché than falling in love; both are limited in duration and may be followed by pain or disappointment, but while they last are as real as anything that alters a person’s perceptions. 
In later years, after the idyll faded, I began to see the experience as a fantasy. I compared my delusion to those lovers of the ancient Greek world who believe the smooth columns and elegant sculptures were always pure white with uncontaminated simplicity. They forget, or don’t know, that most of those creations were originally painted with gaudy colours, the sculptures dressed in fashionable robes, their eyes flashy and provocative, the columns bright with circus zigzags and seaside stripes. I might have left behind the location of my past, but it was hubris to believe that a new life with Nikitas would be characterised by clean-cut minimalism. Gradually, I began to experience the alienation of being an outsider. “Where are you from?” became the defining question of each new encounter, where I tried to resist being stereotyped with my nation’s characteristics. In the beginning I felt like a character in a novel, recreated each time I revealed my country of birth, but unhampered by my personal history: when nobody knew you as a child, or disliked your parents, or approved of your school, you are potentially something new. But increasingly, I sensed I was being defined by my first answer – put into a box from which I was not then allowed to emerge. Also, although my command of Greek was constantly improving, I became frustrated by my limitations, at not understanding all the jokes and references to personalities, events or films that everyone else had grown up with. I saw the missing parts as my deficiencies. 
The third stage, after Idyll and Disillusion is Pragmatism. Ultimately, my status as an outsider became another form of liberation – to hell with other people’s preconceptions. I thought of England without disdain, even indulging in occasional bouts of nostalgia for rolling green fields, London’s cultural life, tea in a pot and other miscellaneous delights. But I was clear that I was wedded to Greece. And it is in this phase that I have tried to remain.
What had previously been exotic became annoying, starting with the details of daily life. What sort of country expects people to put their shitty toilet paper in baskets instead of down the drains? Why couldn’t they install normal drain pipes like everywhere else? Why is it considered normal to have power cuts for hours on end during summer heat-waves and winter storms, as though we were living in Gaza and not twenty-first century Europe? Why are seatbelts seen as an infringement of liberty (even for children), when they know that the roads are the most dangerous in Europe? Why is the Greeks’ idea of freedom interpreted as the freedom to park across the pavement, blocking women with pushchairs and pensioners, or the freedom to smoke incessantly, everywhere? Of course, once I started down this slippery slope, the questions came faster and more furiously. Why was it considered normal when we handed the surgeon a “small envelope” containing 3,000 euros cash when Nikitas had a minor operation in a state hospital? There are times, especially after a roasting hot night in summer, when even a cotton sheet seems to burn the skin and the whine of dive-bombing mosquitoes drives you mad, that I long for the soothing North, the subtle shadows of grey London light and cool summer nights where you sleep with a duvet. “Moaning Maud” – that is what I am, or at least what I became. Even worse than “Bored Maud”, as an old boyfriend used to say. At least I wasn’t “Maudlin” or “Mordant”, as Desmond, my grandfather, called me affectionately. He would make up limericks that made use of all the words that rhymed with my name. There was a young lady called Maud, who was always incredibly bored… I remember flawed and ignored, but there was also roared, gnawed, clawed. Above all, the thing I had tired of was the Greeks’ obsession with themselves, with the nature of Greekness, with how they are viewed and how unfairly they are judged. Beware of saying even the slightest critical thing about Greece to a Greek as they will take it as though you have said their mother is a whore and their father her pimp.
I have always found it easy to adapt (maybe too easy?) to the place I am staying in, to the point where I would not want people to know I was a foreigner. Even when I am a tourist, I hate getting a map out in public! This happened very early on, possibly because my Spanish was better than that of most of my friends who were just beginning to learn the language. I have never enjoyed being the centre of attention and therefore didn't want people to stare or see me as different. Luckily, I have an "ear" for languages and my accent isn't very noticeable, enabling me to blend in. In turn, this "becoming Spanish" phase gradually became a "I hate Britain" phase, where I would start to deny my "Britishness" and abandon almost any contact with my country's culture. In those pre-internet days (at least for me) this was very easy, in fact it was very difficult to keep up with news, current affairs, TV, music etc from abroad. So I became "less British/more Spanish" quickly during this period, although I would hate it when people started telling jokes! Even on the few visits I made to the UK to see my family, they would say I had a Spanish accent - due to an unusual intonation that I had picked up, as I only really used English in my classes and socialised with locals. But I would never be Spanish and yet I was no longer really British. I didn't fit into any box, although the Spanish would put me in the box labelled "British" and the British in the box labelled "Spanish".

This period probably lasted around five years, although with the acquisition of a computer and internet connection, it may have been diluted somewhat. As a big fan of indie music, I spent many hours during my late twenties online, reading about British bands and downloading records. This led to a new interest in British TV, especially comedy, and my asking for BBC comedies for Christmas presents. I then rekindled my interest in English football, especially during the season my team were promoted to the Premier League. I was now reading the Guardian as well as NME. I went to Gibraltar to buy British back bacon, Cheshire cheese and gravy granules.

Little by little, I started to get my Britishness back, after having denied it for several years. With this, like Maud in the story, came the questioning and criticism of some local ways of life. I have never been one to complain much about the place where I am living - this is why I think I am good at adapting, I don't feel the need to compare it with somewhere else. And when I hear other Brits moaning about all things Spanish I have to resist the urge to tell them that nobody is forcing them to live here. If they don't like it, they can lump it. Either that or join forces with discontent citizens who are actually trying to change things. However, after having lived almost all of my adult life to date in Spain, I feel that I should have some right to complain about things, being born in a country shouldn't give one an automatic right to whinge more than others!

Sport is one of the few things that divides me from everyone else here, but that is actually a good thing, it gives us something to talk about. I will always support England in football, however bad they are and however much they disappoint me. I absolutely loved the London Olympics! It gave me a sense of pride that the England football team has never done - now I know how everyone felt here when Spain won the World Cup.

I don't really have a concluding paragraph to this post. I only realised that there was a kind of pattern to the period of adaptation when I recognised certain opinions in friends or colleagues. They too have gone through the "British denial" phase and after reading The House on Paradise Street, I discovered that this must be more common than I had thought. I would love to know if any of my readers have gone through similar periods during their years living out of their country of birth (note, I don't want to say "home country", as I am of the opinion that home is where you make it). Please add your thoughts and experiences in the Comments section.

Thanks for reading!

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