Expat Summer 2: Home and Away

Kerry

by Kerry Nappi

High: Sitting with Mom

The time with my mom this summer was bittersweet. I had started knitting in April (after a lifetime of not following in Mom’s crafty ways) and my knitting projects had been going well. My mom and I sat chatting and doing our projects for hours this summer. One bad scarf, though, made my mom say, “You can crochet a border and that edge won’t be noticeable!” And thus we began – crocheting that border was the beginning of crocheting other things. Before the summer was out, I had made (since April) nine scarves and two baby blankets with my knitting and crocheting. It was my mom who, again, supported and cheered me on.

It was comforting, actually, to sit on the edge of my mom’s recliner and let her show me the steps I needed to take to chain a new blanket or double-crochet a border. Her arthritic hands are no longer able to knit, but with a flat-edge crochet hook, she can manage a few rows of crochet each time she sits to work. She has made 13 baby blankets now, almost all crocheted, and they will go to her thirteen grandchildren, a legacy of fine craftsmanship they can use with their own babies.

Part of the joy of learning from my mom again was that it allowed me to consider her as she has always been instead of what age is doing to her. In her mind, she is still strong and young and able. I am in the same in my mind, but my children also don’t see that. Mom is one of the smartest people I know, book smart and practical smart, but now she wrings her hands and bemoans her own stupidity when she can’t remember what to do with her technology. It’s usually her children, or more often, grandchildren, who have to help her now, but it was joyful to learn from her, sitting by her side.

Low: Away Time

China has its challenges: The air quality isn’t good, it’s hotter than the gates of Hades in the summer, I don’t speak Mandarin (yet!), and we can’t even flush toilet paper in our own house. However, I found myself longing to be back to it because for all it isn’t, it IS home now.

I was in the US for three long months this time, and six of those weeks were when my daughter and husband were still at home in China. I missed Sarah’s big end-of-year award and got pictures and texts from my new friends witnessing her achievement. Even once S and S joined me in the States, it was only two weeks of family bliss before Steve had to go back for work and we still had 5 weeks to go. As necessary as it was, and as much as I was able to do (help my son through a tonsillectomy, attend my brother’s wedding and my niece’s graduation, travel 4950 miles by car to see family and friends), I am glad to be home. Away time is low time, and I’d rather have it in smaller doses.

Glitter: Family

Family is an apt glitter this summer! I managed to see all members of my family except two nephews (damn med school and work), attend a wedding, a graduation, and a reunion, and reconnect with siblings in longer and more relaxed times than I have in years. I drove for 12 hours straight with each of my children once and brought them together in St. Louis for three days of touring a new city.

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Kerry Nappi was born, raised, and attended Smith College in Massachusetts. In fact, she had rarely left Massachusetts by the age of 22 when she decided she could both expand her horizons and help others by joining the Peace Corps. Thus, she landed in Tunisia for an amazing two year stint that, still, might have proven to be the end of her travel. At 24, she was back in Massachusetts, teaching at a laboratory school at Smith College, and starting to forget her Tunisian Arabic skills already. When she married a New Yorker at 28, it seemed New York would be her only culture shock. Her new husband, Steve, had spent 6 years in a Navy nuclear sub and wanted nothing more than to settle down on Long Island, where he had been raised.
As often happens when you make plans, though, life changes them without much notice.
Between forced job changes and new desires to see other parts of the world, Kerry and Steve moved across the country to Arizona with their 2-year-old for grad school, spent a semester in Tokyo while pregnant with their second child, and then started a new life in Michigan. Since 2000, their family has lived in Michigan, Hiroshima, Bangkok, back in Michigan, Bahia, Brazil, and now Nanjing, China. The kids, now 16 and 20, are considered Third Culture Kids, and Kerry is a “trailing spouse”. For the most part, it doesn’t seem like “trailing” as she is the one who has to forge forward in each new host country, learning the language and making new connections, from friends to doctors to schools, while Steve goes to work and the kids to school. For the first time, they are not all together, as her son has started university and work in the U.S., further complicating things like holidays and dealing with emergencies.

 

18 Flights, 10 Cities, 2 Bombs & Lots of Thin Mints

My friend and I climbing the Great Wall at the section known as Mutianyu.

My friend and I climbing the Great Wall at the section known as Mutianyu.

by Kerry Nappi

High: Travel Companions

Alex and I at the Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders), built in the 7th century B.C. but burnt to the ground in 356 B.C. (on the very night Alexander the Great was born) by a man who wished to do something to make his name live on. It was rebuilt soon after that. Alexander wanted to rebuild it, but the Ephesians said it was wrong for one god to build a temple for another god, so the people themselves rebuilt it.

Alex and I at the Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders), built in the 7th century B.C. but burnt to the ground in 356 B.C. (on the very night Alexander the Great was born) by a man who wished to do something to make his name live on. It was rebuilt soon after that. Alexander wanted to rebuild it, but the Ephesians said it was wrong for one god to build a temple for another god, so the people themselves rebuilt it.

Not to be cliché, but it occurs to me that travel companions are a lot like life companions: They entirely change your experience. My spring of too-much-travel has finally come to an end, and though I am relieved and content to be home now, I can look back at the past 6 1/2 weeks and 18 flights and 10 cities with appreciation.

Not all travel or life companions are chosen ones, but both the carefully selected and the accidental partners have influences on everything we do and our perspective on the experiences. Case in point: I have traveled with my son, a friend, and my daughter recently. I have also been on those travels with other vacationers whose stories made the tour sites that much more memorable to me.

My son was on spring break, and for the first time, we traveled together as a pair. He was delightful ~ and has turned into an adult I couldn’t have anticipated even three years ago. Like me, he likes good food, long walking days, and the history of a region. Unlike me, he has a fabulous memory for dates and civilizations, and he didn’t mind repeating the information every time I asked. We toured parts of Turkey and Greece, a combination of our individual choices, and the trip worked for us both.

My friend was a teaching friend. We were childless and then mothers together; we only taught for four years together before I started moving around, yet we have reconnected for one day every year for twenty-four years. This was the first time she came to see me in an overseas posting, and so we saw as much of China as we could in 8 days. Suddenly I was seeing my life through her eyes, and I hope she saw a bit of mine through hers.

My friend and I at the Terra Cotta Warriors in Xi'an, China

My friend and I at the Terra Cotta Warriors in Xi’an, China

My daughter had her own spring break wishes ~ to relax from the harried pace of a 10th grader and see another country in our region. So, off we went to Malaysia, staying in Kuala Lumpur for 4 days. Not counting on the heat, we took it pretty slowly, but in that slowed-down time, we were able to see KL together and relax before the end of term speeds up to finish off in June. I have to leave her early this year, to take care of business in the U.S., so I treasured the time we had for just the two of us.

In our formal tours, we ran across some interesting other travelers. A Finnish expat family who lives in Moscow reflects our own family’s experiences even though we are different nationalities who have lived in different countries. As we climbed the Great Wall together, we discovered that they live in the same compound as some friends of ours, Americans, with whom we lived in Japan. Small world.

Also in Beijing, we toured the Forbidden City with a father-and-son Russian American family. The mom had died recently, of breast cancer at age 41, but they were in China to support the sister, competing for the American national acrobatic team in Worlds.

Alex and I in Ephesus at the Library of Celsus, built in A.D. 117

Alex and I in Ephesus at the Library of Celsus, built in A.D. 117

In Ephesus, walking among the 1st century Roman ruins, we chatted with a guide who was more than impressed with Alex’s knowledge of history. Days later, when a bomb went off in Istanbul where we were staying, her boss and she emailed to ask if we were okay and gave us their private numbers in case we needed anything.

These private connections among strangers always surprise me, but I suppose it’s where friendships start. A few German guys we met on the Amazon River last year are now people we keep in touch with through notes and pictures; who knows, maybe if we’re in Munich some day, or if they come to China, we will meet again. Until then, they are all travel and life companions who suggest that we are not alone in the journey if only we allow ourselves to be connected.

Low: Bombings

I really had to think twice before I took off for Turkey in March on a planned and paid-for trip. After all, the bombing in Ankara was just one month before, and anyone evil enough to set off bombs in the busy capital city of Ankara would not hesitate to do the same in the even busier city of Istanbul. And yet, it wasn’t that long ago that I might have chosen the safer European destinations for such a trip, and look what happened in Paris. It seemed there was no getting around the risks; even staying home and going to work has gotten people killed by terrorists.

I also knew that hindsight would tell different stories, depending on outcomes I couldn’t foresee. Would we be the idiots who went too close to a war zone and got what we deserved? Or would we cancel and think later, Geez, nothing would have happened to us and we lost our chance to see an amazing country, not to mention all the money we spent.

In the end, we were both lucky not to get hurt AND unlucky to have been close enough to TWO bombs in one week to really set fear into our hearts. In the first instance, we flew over Ankara hours after a bomb went off, killing 37. We weren’t going to Ankara and would not have affected us, but it was scary nonetheless. We felt such relief to not be heading there at the same time as we were pained for the people who died and all of their loved ones.

And then, we made it to our last day. I hate the separation that comes with no cell coverage, but I had to leave for the airport three hours before my son. Just as the taxi pulled up to the airport drop off, the driver told me what was on the radio news: Another bombing; this time in Istanbul. I had no way of reaching my son, and I knew that with his remaining hours, he might have chosen to go to Taksim Square, the only largely tourist area we hadn’t made it to. Making it worse, I couldn’t even reach him when I reached Germany for my layover. It wasn’t until I got back to China that I got his assurances that he was safe, made it to the airport on time for the heightened security, and that he would contact me from Germany.

That’s also when I got an abundance of other messages checking on our safety. The irony of the dangers we are all in hit me a few days later: A friend who texted me for both Turkey bombings, checking on my safety, was the recipient of her own frantic checks a week later…She lives in Brussels and used the train station that was bombed just 20 minutes before it was hit. How can it be that in our world, friends are checking on each other’s safety from bombs on a regular basis? It angers some people, but it bewilders and frightens me. I don’t know how it ends. I don’t know if it can end. And I don’t know if all of my loved ones will survive it. Many loved ones of other regular people have not, and how long can I be lucky enough not to be counted among them?

Glitter: Thin Mints (Duh)

I try to eat healthily, I really do. In most cases, I will choose to eat green things over fried things. Particularly since I reached the age of lower metabolism, I understand what’s at stake. And if you can’t tell by now, this is a Glitter with a big “but”! When my friend arrived in China with treats, some were expected: baking powder I haven’t been able to find, Nutella that’s too expensive here to splurge on. But when she pulled out those Girl Scout Thin Mints, boy, all bets for healthy eating were out! I ate that first sleeve before we got past her jet lag. And the second Glittery sleeve is in a drawer waiting for me to finish it off!

IMG_2107Kerry Nappi was born, raised, and attended Smith College in Massachusetts. In fact, she had rarely left Massachusetts by the age of 22 when she decided she could both expand her horizons and help others by joining the Peace Corps. Thus, she landed in Tunisia for an amazing two year stint that, still, might have proven to be the end of her travel. At 24, she was back in Massachusetts, teaching at a laboratory school at Smith College, and starting to forget her Tunisian Arabic skills already. When she married a New Yorker at 28, it seemed New York would be her only culture shock. Her new husband, Steve, had spent 6 years in a Navy nuclear sub and wanted nothing more than to settle down on Long Island, where he had been raised.

As often happens when you make plans, though, life changes them without much notice.

Between forced job changes and new desires to see other parts of the world, Kerry and Steve moved across the country to Arizona with their 2-year-old for grad school, spent a semester in Tokyo while pregnant with their second child, and then started a new life in Michigan. Since 2000, their family of four has lived in Michigan, Hiroshima, Bangkok, back in Michigan, and are now beginning their newest assignment with Ford Motor in Bahia, Brazil. The kids, now 14 and 18, are considered Third Culture Kids, and Kerry is a Trailing Spouse. For the most part, it doesn’t seem like “trailing” as she is the one who has to forge forward in each new host country, learning the language and making new connections, from friends to doctors to schools, while Steve goes to work and the kids to school.

The life of an expatriate cannot be summed up in a few paragraphs. Volumes have been written about the experience. Perhaps a blog that allows her to focus on a High, a Low, and a Glitter each month is one way to steady that rollercoaster ride that is her current life.

Expat Comings and Goings

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Sunset over Bangkok

by Kerry Nappi

High: Arrival

After nearly four months, our sea shipment from Brazil has finally arrived. I like to think I am not a very materialistic person, and certainly we are not the floor-to-rafters packed-with-boxes kind of people, but it comforts me to be surrounded by those things which evoke memories. There are pieces of furniture and art from different host countries, photos of family, and books galore; even having my own bed is a welcome relief after four months of a hard Chinese bed. My husband thinks “it’s only temporary”, but when does an itinerant life become more than temporary? I say being gone nine of the last thirteen years is pretty darn permanent. The pleasure for me is not only in having these things arrive, but in setting them up and making our new house a home. My family was scattered to three countries and four cities the week of the shipment, so in a few days, I was able to get most of our transported life set in place. Ahhh.

Low: Departure

You may recall an earlier High for me was in finding a small but perfect part-time job in our new city of Nanjing. Well, after five months of medical problems, it appears my older child needs a tonsillectomy as soon as his semester in Washington D.C. ends. This is one of those expat compromises you make when you live abroad without your growing children: When they need you, your responsibility is elsewhere. We knew when we moved here that if I needed to go “home” to the U.S. to help one child, the younger one could be home with her dad largely self-sufficient Monday through Friday6:30am though 6:30 pm. After all, she wakes herself, walks to school, has classes and after school activities all on the same campus, and walks home alone. She does her own laundry and can cook a meal. Still, I like to be here for her. Now I must be in one place helping with one and not here helping with another. When I see that dilemma, I know the loss of the job is a small thing.

Glitter: Accomplishment

I really don’t like traveling alone. People who don’t know me well think I am a brave and pioneering woman, living overseas and learning new languages as often as most people change their iPhones. In actuality, I am pretty faint-hearted, and I suffer from anxiety like my father before me. But sometimes, I do travel alone and tolerate the angst for some reason.
In February, I flew from Nanjing to Bangkok to see a knee surgeon, hoping that at long last, he could do the operations that would right the sports wrongs of the past few decades. I left with trepidation, but I arrived without struggle. Once there, my friend texted me that the train system had been having trouble all day and that it had caused traffic jams throughout the city; I was left with two choices ~ brave the train system or hire a car or taxi to their house. I vacillated, but in the end, I decided to take my chances with the trains, preferring to be moving forward in a train than sitting in a taxi. It took longer than usual, but I was perfectly calm. I knew where I was going and that no matter how long it took, I had a friend and a safe place to sleep at the end. In fact, as I finally alighted at my stop and walked down their street with my suitcase, I felt the euphoria of having accomplished something completely on my own.

Kerry Nappi was born, raised, and attended Smith College in Massachusetts. In fact, she had rarely left Massachusetts by the age of 22 when she decided she could both expand her horizons and help others by joining the Peace Corps. Thus, she landed in Tunisia for an amazing two year stint that, still, might have proven to be the end of her travel. At 24, she was back in Massachusetts, teaching at a laboratory school at Smith College, and starting to forget her Tunisian Arabic skills already. When she married a New Yorker at 28, it seemed New York would be her only culture shock. Her new husband, Steve, had spent 6 years in a Navy nuclear sub and wanted nothing more than to settle down on Long Island, where he had been raised.

As often happens when you make plans, though, life changes them without much notice.

Between forced job changes and new desires to see other parts of the world, Kerry and Steve moved across the country to Arizona with their 2-year-old for grad school, spent a semester in Tokyo while pregnant with their second child, and then started a new life in Michigan. Since 2000, their family of four has lived in Michigan, Hiroshima, Bangkok, back in Michigan, and are now beginning their newest assignment with Ford Motor in Bahia, Brazil. The kids, now 14 and 18, are considered Third Culture Kids, and Kerry is a Trailing Spouse. For the most part, it doesn’t seem like “trailing” as she is the one who has to forge forward in each new host country, learning the language and making new connections, from friends to doctors to schools, while Steve goes to work and the kids to school.

The life of an expatriate cannot be summed up in a few paragraphs. Volumes have been written about the experience. Perhaps a blog that allows her to focus on a High, a Low, and a Glitter each month is one way to steady that rollercoaster ride that is her current life.

The HLG of Settling in in China

by Kerry Nappi

High: Travel

bhutanHaving lived in Asia for nearly seven years before a hiatus of six years in North and South America, our move back to the East meant a return to friends we had grown to love. In that respect, moving to China was a bit like “going home”  to Asia. As soon as we reported our intended move from Brazil, some dear friends of ours who live in Bangkok kindly invited us to join them on their Christmas holidays in Bhutan.

At first, I was too overwhelmed with the move and all the details and complications that came with that to anticipate a trip that huge. With time, I realized that not only had most of the difficult part of planning been done by our friends, but that I really needed something to look forward to as I adjusted to our new home in Nanjing. So all through November and December, I gleefully awaited my son’s arrival from university and our family trip to Bangkok and Bhutan.

Travel, once again, did not disappoint. There’s something about travel that takes you out of your present life to a short new life of newness and possibility. Bhutan has been tucked away in the Himalayas for so long, and travel there only began in 1974. The dzongs and temples and sweeping vistas of mountains and valleys made every day a discovery.  I particularly liked the hotel which had only a wood-burning stove and hot water bottles in bed for heat. The food, particularly the national dish of Ema datshi (large green chillies and cheese made from yak’s milk), was delicious and spicy, and the hot stone baths a welcome salve after hours-long hikes on the mountains.

bhutan2Not only was the travel itself my high, but the week spent with these friends ~ they even welcomed us to their family Christmas celebration in their Bangkok home after our days in Bhutan. Our family memories are now intertwined with theirs.

Low: A good wallow

As much as I recognize that all moves have their difficulties and most of the time, those low points pass by to become distant memories, when you are in the moment, they are acute and painful. Such an example was my low for the month: It was an ordinary day in late November, and my family was off doing exactly what it was they came to Nanjing to do: study and go to work. My friends were in faraway countries living their daily lives (which of course I painted right then as idyllic), and only I had nothing to do and no one with whom to do it.

I let myself wallow for a while that day; I literally stood in the kitchen and sobbed, wondering why it was I had agreed to come on another expatriate posting and what I would do to fill the hours of the next three years. Then I reached out to my wide-flung supporters by whatever means possible and had some good chats which eventually lifted my spirits. Don’t feel sorry for me; my pains are nowhere near those of real suffering, but sometimes you have to just feel sorry for yourself before you move on.

Glitter: New job on the way to mahjong!

In an effort to meet people, I had jumped at a casual invitation to join a Friday mahjong group, and I have really enjoyed learning the game. One Friday, I decided to go a little early to the school cafe where we play, thinking I could as easily have my coffee there and maybe see any one of the dozen people I have met this month. As it happened, a new acquaintance was there, and we started chatting about the programs the school offers for parents, one of which is ESL.

She told me the Beginner and Intermediate classes were going to be without a teacher soon, and that wasn’t I a teacher and would I be interested? Would I ever! I had been planning to look for English work, probably private, after the New Year, but here was an opportunity dropped in my lap that completely aligned with my last work experience ~ teaching English to adults in a small group setting. Before I left that day, I had tracked down the coordinator and worked out the details of my new job, all to start in January, for only three hours a week. This was the structure and opening I had hoped for, and it all came about just because I forced myself to leave my house and talk to people!


Kerry Nappi was born, raised, and attended Smith College in Massachusetts. In fact, she had rarely left Massachusetts by the age of 22 when she decided she could both expand her horizons and help others by joining the Peace Corps. Thus, she landed in Tunisia for an amazing two year stint that, still, might have proven to be the end of her travel. At 24, she was back in Massachusetts, teaching at a laboratory school at Smith College, and starting to forget her Tunisian Arabic skills already. When she married a New Yorker at 28, it seemed New York would be her only culture shock. Her new husband, Steve, had spent 6 years in a Navy nuclear sub and wanted nothing more than to settle down on Long Island, where he had been raised.

As often happens when you make plans, though, life changes them without much notice.

Between forced job changes and new desires to see other parts of the world, Kerry and Steve moved across the country to Arizona with their 2-year-old for grad school, spent a semester in Tokyo while pregnant with their second child, and then started a new life in Michigan. Since 2000, their family of four has lived in Michigan, Hiroshima, Bangkok, back in Michigan, and are now beginning their newest assignment with Ford Motor in Bahia, Brazil. The kids, now 14 and 18, are considered Third Culture Kids, and Kerry is a Trailing Spouse. For the most part, it doesn’t seem like “trailing” as she is the one who has to forge forward in each new host country, learning the language and making new connections, from friends to doctors to schools, while Steve goes to work and the kids to school.

The life of an expatriate cannot be summed up in a few paragraphs. Volumes have been written about the experience. Perhaps a blog that allows her to focus on a High, a Low, and a Glitter each month is one way to steady that rollercoaster ride that is her current life.

Expat Pro

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by Kerry Nappi

High: A neighborhood of friendly faces

It took eight months, a neighborhood of friendly faces, one good friend, and a purpose to help me find contentment in my home-away-from-home of Bahia, Brazil. The last days were filled with small outings with my best friend and her 3-year-old, group gatherings at a pizza buffet we loved, and windy beach days when we all got to try surfing and watched the kids sit on plastic chairs from the barraca and let themselves be knocked over time and again by the waves.

Picture3My second high for these two months was a family trip to Chapada Diamantina, The Diamond Highlands, six hours from our beach home. The vacation had everything we love: sweeping vistas, arduous hikes, lost-in-the-mountains and river adventure, and eating local foods from the street cafes while listening to the sounds of the music festival around us.

To be fair, I am condensing two months of Highs into one, so I couldn’t let pass this chance to celebrate a time with more highs than lows.

Low: Not being available when your child needs you

I’m sure I have said this before, but the hardest thing about being an expat is also the hardest thing about being a mom: Not being available when your child needs you.

Right in the middle of our somewhat major move from Brazil to China, my older child, a freshman in university in the US, started suffering from health issues. Sometimes, I missed middle of the night phone calls; other times, I was facetiming and texting right through the worst of it.

In one case, a new friend in university helped my son by getting him to the ER twice in a weekend. This was a friend I have never met, but who was using my son’s phone to send kind and caring texts to let me know how he was and that she woudn’t leave him alone.

Another time, the illness occurred while he was with family for Thanksgiving break; a loving aunt and uncle were the ones getting him to a doctor and caring for him until he was well enough to ride the train back to school.

But in all cases, I wasn’t there. I usually like being an expatriate, but I never like not being there for my son, as grown up as he tells me he is.

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Glitter: Yinhang. And it worked!

You know you’re a pro at this moving around the world thing when your Glitter in one country parallels a Glitter in another country just a year before. I must admit, starting yet another language, and a tonal one at that, makes me nervous. If you don’t grow up with tones, your ears aren’t attuned to them by the time you get to my age. That’s going to be the problem with Mandarin. However, you don’t get any better if you don’t try, so that’s been my sole intent.

The first week, I used a lot of sign language and our driver’s rudimentary English to communicate. Google Translate and other apps have made international living so much easier. But one time, I just could not communicate the word I needed: bank. So I gave it a shot and tried to pronounce the word as best I could. Yinhang. And it worked! Let’s hope that all my needs will be so easily met and all my language attempts become Glitters!


Kerry Nappi was born, raised, and attended Smith College in Massachusetts. In fact, she had rarely left Massachusetts by the age of 22 when she decided she could both expand her horizons and help others by joining the Peace Corps. Thus, she landed in Tunisia for an amazing two year stint that, still, might have proven to be the end of her travel. At 24, she was back in Massachusetts, teaching at a laboratory school at Smith College, and starting to forget her Tunisian Arabic skills already. When she married a New Yorker at 28, it seemed New York would be her only culture shock. Her new husband, Steve, had spent 6 years in a Navy nuclear sub and wanted nothing more than to settle down on Long Island, where he had been raised.

As often happens when you make plans, though, life changes them without much notice.

Between forced job changes and new desires to see other parts of the world, Kerry and Steve moved across the country to Arizona with their 2-year-old for grad school, spent a semester in Tokyo while pregnant with their second child, and then started a new life in Michigan. Since 2000, their family of four has lived in Michigan, Hiroshima, Bangkok, back in Michigan, and are now beginning their newest assignment with Ford Motor in Bahia, Brazil. The kids, now 14 and 18, are considered Third Culture Kids, and Kerry is a Trailing Spouse. For the most part, it doesn’t seem like “trailing” as she is the one who has to forge forward in each new host country, learning the language and making new connections, from friends to doctors to schools, while Steve goes to work and the kids to school.

The life of an expatriate cannot be summed up in a few paragraphs. Volumes have been written about the experience. Perhaps a blog that allows her to focus on a High, a Low, and a Glitter each month is one way to steady that rollercoaster ride that is her current life.