High: Expat Community Cooperation

by Kerry Nappi

High: Expat community cooperation.

It has not been a “high” month. In fact, I had a hard time dredging a high from my memory or “One line a day” diary. However, in recounting that low about the traffic and driving, I am reminded of one of the most amazing aspects of the expatriates in this community. We have a What’s App group for the school commute. It’s used every single day: Where there are back-ups, which lane is closed, which side the naked guy is walking down the highway so one can distract one’s 8-year-old from looking out that side’s window, who is driving whose child home from school.

On the day of the longest traffic delay, the What’s App sprang to life. In the course of those hours, messages flew back and forth. Who was where in the traffic? Who had space in their car? Which route might have fewer cars? Directions like, please send my child to the library until I get there. When half the moms and dads couldn’t retrieve their children, the other half brought them home, or to a place close enough to be reached. In fact, at that meeting point I described in my High, when I got my daughter from her teammate’s mom’s car, I also got two younger kids, unknown to me but who lived near us, whose parents weren’t able to make it through the roads, which were shut down by then, and whom I delivered home. It is a spirit of such cooperation when the challenges are high ~ as well as a perfect union of people and technology.

Low:  3-5 hour traffic back-ups.

Not to be a bore, but my low this month is again a traffic low. My average 3:48 driving time was dwarfed if you factor in the three days in which fatal accidents caused back-ups of between 3-5 hours on the commutes to school. On one of those days, I never even made it.

My car overheated while inching along the road, with temperatures in the low 90s, and while needing AC instead of windows open since you never want to be a sitting duck for street robbers. When I realized I wasn’t going to make it, I texted her to tell her to skip soccer practice, get to the front of school as quickly as possible, and catch a ride with another mom coming our way. No sooner had I heard she would have a ride than I lost power on my phone (never traveling again without a power cord) and couldn’t keep track of her OR use my phone GPS Waze to find my way through back roads. Luckily, we had decided upon a meeting point and I reached it, and her, a few hours later.

I am not, however, callous about the causes of those delays; it does concern me and scare me that so many are dying on the roads here. But in so many cases, these are motorcyclists who are driving between lanes (legal) and much too fast, and who end up on the road surrounded by grieving motorists.

Glitter:  When the ocean claimed yet another pair of glasses…

Another language-glitter month! When the ocean claimed yet another pair of glasses (when will we learn?!), my husband was forced to go through the painful process of an optical appointment and ordering new glasses. In Portuguese. I don’t know why he didn’t take someone with him to translate, nor do I understand why, when he saw the bill, he didn’t turn around and walk away and just use his old prescription until the summer, when we could shop at Target. Nevertheless, being in a new country and totally ignorant of the language puts you in a humbling and scary position and sometimes you learn your lessons the expensive way.

Once his new glasses had come in, and he had paid for them, we began the process of submitting for at least some bit of insurance coverage. Of course, the information we needed was not on the receipt he was given. I arranged to go with a friend to get a new receipt with all requisite information. I figured, she’s Argentinian and speaks passable Portuguese; she can help me through this.

When I got there, though, she wasn’t there. I could have waited, but I decided to try it on my own. I realized I sound like a 2-year-old, but armed with my list of information needed, I explained to the owner about the insurance and the receipt, and the fact that if he could do all this on letterhead I would be grateful. He finally understood my request, and he said he’d call me when it was done. Now, for anyone who has functioned in a foreign land, you know the telephone is the most frightful of all prospects ~ no body or facial clues, no pointing or writing for clarification, too fast and too much talking. Instead, I said, I’ll come back Monday to see if it’s done…

Come Monday, we had the aforementioned traffic jam from hell, so there was no way I could get into the street for the new receipt. It was Wednesday before I could get back. I practiced my questions on the way there in case he was in the back, only when I got there, he wasn’t there at all! The clerk told me, he’s at the other store. Other store?? No! Directions to other store, new practicing in head what to say once I arrived, and new arrival ~ and luckily, he was there and recognized me. In the course of a half hour, we muddled through my excuses for Monday (he remembered the traffic, of course), the receipt editing, and weather chit chat. I left with everything I needed in hand and have now sent it all in to the insurance company, translated for their reading pleasure. I hope they realize what a glittery task that was!

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.

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