Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Torn Between Two Worlds

Recently Josh and I have been having a lot of discussions about our future beyond our time in Barcelona and where that might be.  Is it in Europe, the USA or maybe even somewhere else?  And honestly we are torn between the best of both worlds... what is best for our family?  What is best for us for work?  What is best for safety?  Lifestyle?  There are so many factors that play into these decisions and while they don't have to be forever decisions, they are what is guiding us over the next several years.

As I said to Josh the other night as we were having one of our many talks, while I have no regrets over us having moved here in the first place and that I would do it again in a heartbeat, I also feel that it has f*%$ed me up too - that my eyes are open more to the pros and cons of both options and I don't know that either is a perfect fit.  I no longer feel that I belong 100% in either place.  It's a weird feeling of limbo, almost purgatory - you are neither here nor there.  No where feels like home now.  I love life in Spain but yet, there are many pieces that prevent it from feeling truly like home.  And home, well, it will always have a special place in my heart, but I feel that I have changed and I don't know that I fit in there quite as well as I used to either.

However, that being said, like the weather in New England my opinion on this changes every 5 minutes. When I started writing this I felt compelled to stay here in Europe and today as I write, I ache for home. It all depends on the day and mood I guess!

This life here in Barcelona; it has been a challenging life for me.  By no means does that make it a horrible life!  I mean that it's difficult in that every day presents me with new challenges that take me to the brink and back.  Sure they are things that in some cases have become easy, mundane even... but that doesn't mean that life isn't constantly presenting me with even the silliest of things to deal with.  However, with this "hardship" means that I have also realized that I'm a much stronger person that I ever gave myself credit for.  Maybe I never needed to be strong in this way before.  Maybe I needed this challenge in my life.  However a life that is always a challenge can also be exhausting.  And there are just so many days where I just want to accomplish things that I set out to do and OMG, accomplish it!!   On the first try...

So how do we make this decision??  There is no easy answer.  What are the pros and cons to life at home or in Europe?  I've made a "little" (I use that term loosely as you know I'm not one to mince words) list of 15 criteria that I think are important.

1.  Living a life less ordinary

Did you know that there are only about 6 million people (excluding military) that are considered to be American ex-pats?  That's only about 2% of our population that are taking an opportunity to live a life less ordinary.  They have left for a variety of reasons - visit for vacation and never leave, fall in love with a country or with a person who lives in that country, come for a job, retirement, etc etc.

If you thought those numbers were interesting, did you know that only about 33% of Americans have passports?  That means more than half have no plans to ever even leave the States, much less live somewhere else.  And to add to that, this is a significant increase within the last 10 years, in part due to the need to now have a passport to enter Mexico and Canada.  So while more people are leaving the US, many may not be travelling far.

This puts our family in a minority.  There are so few people out there living this extraordinary life that we are lucky enough to experience.  And so few have even taken the time to do the kind of extensive travel that we have done in the last 3+ years.  Is this something we can so easily give up?

I recognize that the US is HUGE... that I could fly across all of Europe faster than I could the US.  That a good chunk of Europe could actually fit inside Texas.  And that many people might not find the need to leave as there is plenty to experience right on our home soil.  And while this is true, I think there is something to be said about experiencing other cultures and languages, not to mention history that goes back thousands of years beyond ours in the US.

2.  The economy

A friend of mine asked me the other day what the draw is to living in Europe.  Right now the economy is in the shitter big time, not that the US is all that much better... so why stay in a place that is in such an economic depression that doesn't look to be improving any time in the near future?  Well, I don't have a really good answer for this one other than, knock on wood, it hasn't really affected us negatively at this point.  It's not to say that it couldn't, but in this moment, things are good.  In fact, because of the deflated economy we got our new apartment at a super deal compared to what it normally would go for.

And in the US, well, as we know, anything could happen there as well.  The economy is in a better position right now than in Europe but that doesn't mean it's perfect either.  Last I heard, I'm pretty sure California is broke???  And there are several states not that far behind.  However, I think that there are more opportunities for us to grow both of our careers than in Europe and in places that don't necessarily have to be Boston.  I also think that beyond growing our careers, people are paid better in the US and so from a financial standpoint, we would be better off living there during our working years.

3.  The American Dream

What exactly is the American Dream?  According to an essay that I read, the American Dream,  "Some say that the American Dream has become the pursuit of material prosperity - that people work more hours to get bigger cars, fancier homes, the fruits of prosperity for their families - but have less time to enjoy their prosperity.... Yet others look towards a new American Dream with less focus on financial gain and more emphasis on living a simple, fulfilling life".

The first prospect to me is the life we used to live at home.  The constant need to keep up with the Jones'.  It's the rat race of life.  It's the inability to unplug from work because you are always expected to be a part of it, even when you are on vacation.  

It is a life where we live to work rather than working to live - which I think is more the final statement - less focus on financial gain and more emphasis on living a fulfilling life.  This is where Josh and I want to be.  It's not to say money isn't important, but it's the idea of going back to working to live rather than living to work.  Don't get me wrong, our careers are important to both of us.  But they don't define who we are.  We are more than our careers.  Just like we are more than parents too.  Interestingly enough, here in Spain (I'm assuming the rest of Europe is similar), it's actually considered rude to ask people what they do for work.  We are people who are well rounded and have a variety of interests that we want to pursue.  

So can we achieve the American Dream?  Well, as I said, I think many of us manage to fulfill the first of these statements where we work hard to gain more.  But is that healthy?  I don't think so.  I don't think that we can achieve the latter in the US until we are of retirement age.  I think there is too much pressure to continuously achieve and keep up with our peers to let us take a step back and refocus on a simpler life.  That being said, I think we can achieve portions of it but not without sacrifice of other important parts of our lives.  

4.  Culture

Before moving to Europe I can say that my exposure to culture was pretty much limited to the outskirts of Boston - Jamaica Plain, Dorchester, you get the picture.  It was pretty limited and I really hadn't given it much thought that I was missing anything.  Sure, I wanted to travel but with 2 little kids, I didn't see much until they got older.  Until we came to Barcelona for our discovery trip, I had never even left the US beyond Canada (see I was one of those who didn't even have a passport til I was an adult!) and the Bahamas.

So you can imagine the culture shock when moving to a new country.  Siestas, late lunches and even later dinners, a culture that enables you to live and let live.  And of course, all of this is in a language that we don't speak fluently.  It's all very different from that at home.  Small mom and pop shops instead of huge conglomerates (that's not to say there aren't a few but people go there less than the mom and pops).  Add in the kids' school where there are kids from 40 different countries, many of which have done extensive travel throughout the world and you suddenly feel a little inadequate in your little US world.  We've met amazingly interesting people from all over the world.  Not all have become friends, but many have left their impact on our lives.

The US is full of culture that I don't think I saw before moving here.  It's only upon reflection do I better see what a melting pot the US is, especially in the cities.  But that means making sure we take the time to explore those parts.

5.  Travel

It goes without saying that travel here in Europe is significantly easier and cheaper than that in the US.  Sadly I have seen very little of the US and our time here has really motivated me to rectify this - it's a shame that we haven't seen more of it and I look forward to exploring places like the Grand Canyon with Josh and the kids in the future.  And this summer, New York City!  Yes, I've been but honestly I've never seen the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty - I can't wait for the kids and I to visit while we are home on vacation this summer and start adding some new places to our list!

The United States is huge, but it's also expensive.  And travel is not cheap.  While we will whittle away at our list of places to go, it will most definitely take more time to achieve than it will in Europe.  I can honestly say I've been to more places in Europe than I have in the US.  That's kind of sad.  But with ridiculously low travel costs (no joke, I flew to Scotland for 37 euros roundtrip - can you fly Boston to DC which is about the same distance for that little?), we have been able to go somewhere new just about every 6 weeks, with months where we are able to do one, two or even three trips!!

6.  Language

Ha!!!  This is my Achilles heel.  Where I said above that this just doesn't feel like home... I'd say that language is probably 75% of that problem.  And it's a problem that I'm constantly working on to rectify.  But it's a long slow process.  There are some days where I'm super excited about how far I've come and others where I just can't take one more word or thought in Spanish and just want to bury my head in the sand.  I'm proud of what I've accomplished in 3 years and hope to keep up with it when we move home but realistically, I'm sure life will get in the way.  However, on my end, right now I am taking lessons with a private tutor, participate in an intercambio (language exchange) weekly, and have been making more and more attempts to have random conversations with anyone who crosses my path.

And so, I will do my very best to ensure the kids keep up with it when we go home.  Josh and I have already talked about hiring tutors to make sure the kids don't lose their language skills.  It is so important in this day and age to speak more than one language.  I think I was pretty naive about this before moving here but now I'm so much more aware and see language all around me.  Even this past summer when the kids and I were at the Boston Children's Museum I noticed that the signage for every exhibit wasn't just in English but in Spanish as well.

I've found that many people here don't just speak two languages but many speak three or four.  I know that this is in part due to proximity to other countries nearby.  But in the US, even before we moved here, I always found it frustrating and annoying how people would say "hey, you live here, speak the language".  Do any of these people know how HARD it is to learn a new language?  I think this is such an ignorant thing to say - you have no idea how hard these people are working (or perhaps not) to learn English and the system in the US is not like in other parts of the world.

Here, if you at least attempt to speak the language, people will help you.  They are kind.  And often times, they will speak English to you (if they can) because they WANT to practice it.  I feel like in the US, we often look at those who don't speak English perfectly as a bit of a pariah.

Aidan and I were talking about this the other day.  At tennis over the weekend, a little girl came up to him and spoke to him in very basic English.  He appreciated it so very much.  He said that while he understands the instructors speaking in Spanish (and often Catalan), he doesn't respond because he feels like everyone is watching him.  Even when he just says sí, he says that everyone stares at him, like look at the American kid speak Spanish.  I reminded him that when he goes home someday to remember this and perhaps show a bit more patience and tolerance to a new kid in school or a kid that might not speak perfect English.

7.  Quality of Life

So Josh rarely participates in this blog, but when I was passing this idea by him, he pretty much took over this part of the entry.  And so, while I am retyping it so it's not a jumble of notes, I want to give credit where credit is due.

Try to google "best quality of life" or "best places to live" and often times you'll find many of the top cities in Europe.  One of the pieces that these surveys takes into account is happiness.  It's not just about wealth, but about being happy in your life.  While the economy here isn't great at this point in time, this is likely in part because there is a good work/life balance.  It is not all about the bottom line.  Many people would disagree with this being important.  And yes, companies need to make money.  But you'll find that many companies here that are based in Europe, also find it important to have that balance.

Part of this balance is having the weekends for families.  Many shops are closed starting mid day on Saturday (some close for siesta and reopen later but many close for the day at siesta) and are not open at all on Sundays with the exception of 2 to 3 weekends a year around Christmas time.   This is a time for families.  Whether out for a stroll, having a beer or glass of wine in a square with friends while the kids run around and play, or just staying home to cook the extended family meal on the weekends, this is a time where quality of life really comes into play.  This took Josh and I a long time to get used to.  We're used to running errands on the weekends.  To doing yard work (which we have no yard at the moment so that helps eliminate that) or general household chores that we don't have time for during the week.  But with nothing open, nothing gets done.  Except to disconnect and relax.

Another example of this ability to disconnect is vacation time.  Here it is LAW that you get a MINIMUM of 4 weeks of vacation time.  And you are expected to use it and to not check in and to not do work during this time.  Unless things have changed, many companies at home start you with one, maybe 2 weeks and you slowly can gain time after that.  Josh has been with Vistaprint for 12 years and has 4 weeks of vacation time - but it took a long time to earn that!  And with people not staying with companies as long as they used to, it gets harder and harder to accrue that time.  Not to mention that when you do take vacation time, it's not truly vacation because often times you are expected to check your email, to not totally disconnect because someone may need you for a meeting or a call or just to get some information.  In this day and age where everything is instant, the idea of having to wait a week for you to respond on a project while you are away just isn't acceptable.  This makes taking the time off of work to, let me say it again... disconnect... is near impossible.

As you can see, this quality of life blurb is an important one and has a variety of aspects to it.  Another example, maternity leave.  In the US, you are lucky to get 6 weeks and it's not always paid.  In most of Europe it's 6 months, if not more.  And it's paid.  Wouldn't it be nice to stay home with your infant for just a little longer before sending he/she to daycare??

The food.  There is no Whole Foods or Trader Joe's here.  The food is pretty much organic because that's just the way it's done.  The meats and vegetables last only a few days in my fridge rather than for weeks.  There are hardly any preservatives in the majority of food here (of course with the exception of canned goods).  It's healthier, no doubt about it.

And this is a big piece of us coming home at some point that concerns me.  I miss choice.  God, I miss choice so much but at the same time, choice is not always a good thing.  Do we really need 50 types of cereal?  I think here I might have a dozen.  And we're just fine for it.  But all those sugary, salty, preservatives and chemicals and so much more.  I can't even imagine what we would be putting into our kids.  And just to put it out there because I know this one that Josh always comments on - the soda here, it has sugar listed at it's first ingredient.  Take a look at your coca-cola and let me know what it says, but I'm pretty sure it's corn syrup.  Now, I'm not saying that sugar is good for you either, but it's not manufactured like corn syrup is.

And finally, to round off this section, I should also note that the life expectancy here is pretty exceptional.  Especially here in Spain - as a matter of fact there was just an article in The Guardian about this -  I have no doubt this is in part, not just to the diet here, but also the work/life balance.  The people here seem to have it down pretty pat and I'm hopeful that one day we can manage to train ourselves to slow down more.

8.  Safety

This morning as I was getting ready after the gym, I was thinking about running at home.  I don't know why, I just was.  Maybe it was the weather (which today here is actually rainy and chilly) that made me think about what we will do when we move back some day.  But regardless, the thought that went through my head was that at home, when I run outside, I run around our block...over and over again.  I don't ever leave the neighborhood.  Why?  Because I don't feel safe.  I'm not worried about kidnappers, not that kind of unsafe.  But more so with cars, etc.  And yet, here I am living in a decent sized metropolitan city where I run outside all the time, albeit in the earlier hours of the morning when there isn't so much traffic.  But it made me think of safety in general as well when I was thinking about that.

I feel incredibly safe in Barcelona.  I can't speak to other cities or countries in Europe since I haven't lived in any of them.  And at home, I felt safe there too.  Because it's home and it's all I knew.  But now I know more.  And it concerns me.  In the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting, I'm worried about the safety of my children.  Are they ever going to truly be safe - in school, in a movie theater, walking down the street?

I was thinking of our house on the cape this morning too - we live a few miles from the beach.  I'd love to think that when we move back (expected when Aidan is 11 and Liam 8) that Aidan could bike to the beach.  But immediately after thinking that I thought, OMG, no way is he biking to the beach!!  Someone could steal him!!  Now this isn't a new thought on my mind, it was just one that I happened to have this morning.  Maybe I'll change my mind when he is 11 and I see that he's much more mature than the 8 1/2 year old that he currently is.  But the point is, I don't worry about someone stealing him or Liam here.  They are NOT allowed to roam our neighborhood just so you know, I mean we do live in a city, I'm not stupid.  But that doesn't mean that at 11 I wouldn't trust him to take the metro because I'm pretty sure that I would.  And that's in a city.

In the US, we've been programmed for fear.  I don't want to live like that and I don't know how to deprogram myself from doing so.  Maybe it will just be being back and in our own environment that will do it.  Who knows.  But regardless, I feel that my kids are safer here in Europe, especially in Spain where they are incredibly in tune with kids.  Kids are put on pedestals here (yet not to the point of being spoiled, they are just truly cherished).  With strict gun control and this desire to treat children like royalty, I really don't fear for my children here.

9.  Friends and Family

My friends are my friends no matter where I live.  At least my true friends.  I've found that moving abroad has definitely changed a few of those friendships, not all for the good but it has strengthen others.  Go figure.  Regardless, I love my friends here, don't get me wrong - they are awesome.  But living a life of an ex-pat has its draws and that is the constant merry-go-round of people coming and going.  It's dizzying.  And it's heartbreaking.  And though we now have friends all over the world (that we will at some point come and visit!), there is something to be said about stability.  I'm making more and more local friends which helps in the constant exodus - slowly gaining stability in a life that is anything but.  However, I still miss the stability of my friendships at home.

Family would be a big reason for us to move back.  It constantly breaks my heart that the kids are growing up without their grandparents, aunts, uncles and extended family around.  Everyone has been so wonderfully supportive of us and our decision to move abroad for what was only going to be 2 years.  Can we really keep the kids away for much longer??

10.  Commercialization

I mentioned earlier in this post (are you sick of this post yet?) about choice.  And not having much of it.  I miss choice.  I crave choice.  What I wouldn't give for 50 flavors of Yoplait yogurt.  And I don't even like yogurt that much.  But it's the idea of getting to choose that is appealing.  My grocery store here is about 1/5 the size of my Super Stop n Shop in Attleboro.  And that's being generous.  It might be even smaller.

Regardless, when I enter my grocery store, I am not constantly bombarded with images from the latest movie, cartoon or character begging me to buy their product.  The stores here are much smaller, even when you leave the city.  And there is limited choice not just in the grocery stores.

It's also a society that isn't as concerned, as far as I can tell, about keeping up with the Jones' nor with particular brand names.  Yes, people like certain brands, you'll find that everywhere.  But it doesn't feel as pressured here to have the best of the best all the time.  Add to that the fact that things here are much more expensive and you'll find people buying a whole lot less but being more picky about what it is that they choose.

11.  Cost of living

As I mentioned above, the cost of living here isn't cheap.  We're lucky enough to have an ex-pat package that helps us to alleviate some of the costs.  But aside from food, things are pretty pricey.  A good example is toys.  Yes, I know, my kids have more toys than god.  But the majority of them were brought from the US because here, they are exceptionally expensive.  For example, about a year or so ago, I was in a store and I saw a Star Wars Mr. Potato Head.  Now both of my kids are too old for Mr. Potato Head but the reason he stood out to me was his price... 50 euros!!  Yes, good old Mr. Potato Head cost about $60 US.  Can you imagine?  If all your toys cost that much, you probably wouldn't have that many of them.

Utilities are much more expensive and so used sparingly.  We don't even own a dryer these days.  We did in our old apartment and the cost to run it was insane.  And with the temperate climate I can dry my clothes outside pretty easily 85% of the year.  Not to mention when we had one it would blow a fuse 9 out of 10 times which wears on your.

From the perspective of what it takes to manage a household, I think we could do it cheaper in the US if we were to take the things we learned by living in Europe (ie, living without all the excess crap) and actually apply it to our lives at home.  I lease a VW Golf here - I'm not so worried about buying the most premium brand I can afford like I was in the States.  I'm more concerned that it's reliable and can get me from point A to point B.  Without my multiple trips to Target, Baby Gap and Toys r Us per week, I think we could live like kings ;)

12.  Weather 

It's really kind of hard to pick a place to live and not consider the weather.  If I were only choosing between Boston and Barcelona, sorry but Barcelona would win hands down.  We've had about 6 weeks now of pretty cold weather.  Cold being mid 50s.  Yeah, that's downright freezing here.  And the nights have been in the upper 30s to lower 40s.  Since mid January thru most of February.  It's miserable.  Ok, I've rubbed it in enough.  Sorry, but yes, if it's between Boston and BCN, there is no contest.

However, we're talking about the future beyond our time in Barcelona.  And so there is no guarantee we would remain in Spain or go back to Attleboro.  Who knows where we will end up.  All I can say is that at least as far as I'm concerned, this now thin blooded girl will be looking to be warm!!!

13.  Stability

No matter where we go, it's important for us to have stability.  This has been the drawback to life as an ex-pat.  Not knowing whether we should extend or to go home, constantly making changes to our game plan, it has thrown me off my game.  I want to know that we will be some place for a definitive period of time!

14.  Commute

As I stream my Boston radio as I write this... it's currently 7:15AM (EST) and all I hear is traffic is backed up end to end on the Pike.  Yeah, we just don't want to do that any more.  Josh used to leave for work at 6:15AM and with any luck would make it to work within an hour.  If he was off by even 10 minutes leaving the house you could kiss that time goodbye and easily add on 30 more minutes.

Maybe this means we are better off living in the city no matter what country we live in.  Or finding work closer to home?  Or the opposite and move our home to be closer to work.  Regardless of where we live, he no longer wants to endure that commute and I can't say that I blame him.  Thankfully I work from home :)

And finally, most importantly...

15.  Aidan and Liam

The lessons our kids have learned here go way beyond language skills, they have learned about new cultures.  They have learned that life goes beyond the borders of Massachusetts - their school is made up of kids from 40 different countries.  They have learned compassion for others, gained a sense of adventure and how to adjust to new environments...

They are seasoned travelers.  They now look at flights as long flights (flying across the ocean) and short flights (a quick 1-3 hr hop locally).  If it's a short one, they go, "oh, that's no big deal".  They love exploring new places - I really don't think they would care if those places are in the US or in Europe.

Josh and I both like the idea of educating the kids in Europe or somewhere other than the US.  That doesn't mean that the school system is bad in the US, that's not what I'm saying - we are incredibly fortunate to have great schools in Massachusetts.  We just like the idea of them having an international education.

Beyond education though, as I mentioned above, I hate the idea of keeping the kids from our families for an even longer period of time than we already have.  Do we stick with our 5 1/2 year plan or go beyond that?

What does that mean for them when we go home someday?  Will they be bored after experiencing this whirlwind of a life?  Or will they just be so thrilled to be back on American soil that they won't care?  I do know that Aidan especially has missed his friends so much.  And no joke, it took him 3 years to adjust to life here and he now loves it.  So how do we potentially move him again to somewhere new?  And how do we survive the aftermath of that?  He, especially, craves stability.

Liam only remembers life here.  He has friends at home but the relationships are not that of what Aidan had at home since he was so little when we left.  His closest friends are here in Barcelona.  But we are fortunate that he is an easy going kid and will go with the flow.  We have no doubt that whatever we decide for the future, he will take on with his usual positive attitude.

In the end, there are so many pros and cons to life both here and at home.  Maybe we should more to the Caribbean and start this list all over again???  Regardless, I'm terrified of making the wrong decision but at the same time, I know when the time comes, whatever we decide, it will be as a family and that we will take all of this criteria, and I'm sure much more, into account.  No decisions are being made today so really, this is just an exercise in the what if's... but better to be prepared because as I said, like the weather in New England, wait 5 minutes and it will change.


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