Living abroad: three advices to make your life easier

My husband is american and after we got married I went through a lot of adjustments when moving from Brazil to the US. Some were easier than others, but I learned a lot from each experience I had. I thought sharing it may help others on adapting to a new country, language and lifestyle. Here are my three advices to a smoother transition:

1. Stay in touch with your roots

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Stay in touch with friends and family is such an easier thing to do nowadays. Whatsapp, Imesssage, Skype, Viber and FaceTime are some of the technological tools and apps we all can use in our favor to talk to those who we love and know us better. They might not understand your difficulties entirely, but including them in your new life is always a way to reassure yourself that you don’t have to loose the relationships you already have to create new ones.

Something that took me a while to realize, also, was the importance of local food on our daily life. Discovering Brazilian grocery stores became a habit and I try to restock on sweetened condensed milk (to make brigadeiro) and frozen cheese breads every opportunity I have. Having that one comforting treat once in a while is a way to maintain cultural traditions I had ever since I was a kid.

Finally, since I love to read, I started purchasing more and more books written in Portuguese, so I can still practice my mother tongue and keep up to date to the literary scene in Brazil. When I get tired of speaking and writing in English, I find comfort on reading the best Brazilian prose I can find. Some people also purchase Latin TV channels that include TV stations from their countries, but to me the investment was never justified. I don’t really enjoy Brazilian TV as much as literature, so it didn’t make sense.

2. Find other expat friends

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Getting to know expats who are living in the same city as you and networking with other foreigners has two huge advantages: they can help you understand how to position your peculiar point of view about your new country’s culture as one of your professional strengths and they are very likely to understand everything you struggle with when you first arrive. Plus, there is no better people to mock your new country’s weird cultural traditions with. They probably share the same views.

3. Keep yourself busy

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Finding something to do with your free time is such an important advice. When I first got to the US, I couldn’t work because I was still waiting for my visa, so I stayed home for longs periods of time. The feeling of being an outsider was deepened by my loneliness, and that wasn’t helpful at all. Being so dependable of a car in Ohio was tough, but after I bought my own I started driving our dogs for parks and dog parks and getting in touch with locals that were doing the same. Having a silly chit chat while exercising my dogs was a much appreciated way to interact with others, exchange recommendations for local restaurants and grow my social network.

Those encounters are great, but more important than that is having real friends. I was lucky to become good friends with my husband’s friends, but I missed having my own. Does it sound selfish? I guess I needed a life support system that was independent from him, his friends or family. Finding a job and meeting people with common interests here in Charlotte definitely changed that feeling. Studying, attending courses and local networking events or finding local communities online, these are all things one can do to meet new people and develop new friendships. The other day, somebody posted an invitation for women to play volleyball at a Charlotean park every thursday night on a local facebook community. I thought it was a great way to connect with others. If only I could make it.

#GipsyFeelings

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Moving to different countries and states brings a very specific mix of feelings, from extreme enthusiastic anxiety to deep self doubting despair. It all starts with the notion that you can do it, it won’t be a challenge, on the contrary, it is a change much needed. New opportunities ahead, new horizons, a clean slate, a fresh fresh start. Its all very exciting, you can feel butterflies on your stomach, you research everything you can about the new city and you start to believe it is way better than the place you live now. Sometimes that is totally the case, but after moving you also realize that you might have been too hard on your criticisms and too enthusiastic on your praise.

The first time you visit, if you’ve never been, is as awesome as you would expect. Maybe better. Each restaurant or bar discovery is treasured, you start picking your favorite local spots and soon your choices will give hints of your taste, your social persona, your identity. It is very cool to see the neighborhoods with tourists eyes, get to know them, form an opinion and choose your new home accordingly. Having local tips, reading local news and blogs always helps.

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Packing is always a hustle. The troubling thing is, most of the time, we decide we need to take with us more stuff than we actually need. It is a good opportunity to let some things go, maybe that old high school jeans that doesn’t fit anymore, the one you keep just to make sure you stay on your diet. It helps a little bit, but no results so far, years have gone and the button still doesn’t close. Let it go!

Lastly, as moving day comes around the corner, you get that rush of worries: what if it doesn’t work out? What if I don’t fit in? What if I can’t find a job or make new friends? What if? Truth is, “what if’s” are conjunctures we conceive when we take risks, when we fear the consequences and doubt our decisions. There’s no way we can know if all the “what if’s” will become reality, not unless we decide to live, face the challenges and the fears. That might not be easy, but for some reason you thought a change was necessary, so stick to your instincts and give it a try. It might actually surprise you!

Expats Social Networking through Internations

 

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In April me and my husband moved from Ohio to North Carolina. Being an expat, I didn’t feel it was a big change. Of course we would have to adapt to a new city, get to know new people, make new friends, but that was nothing I didn’t had to do before. I knew I had everything it takes to go through with it once more.

This time, though, I felt I needed to be more engaged in creating a network of expats, people in the same situation as me, who would understand what it feels like to not speak your mother tongue for weeks, who appreciate skype, whatsapp and all the modern technologies that help you soothe that homesick feeling that catches you by surprise now and then.

I found out about Internations, the expat social network, and their monthly reunions through a google search. I signed up, talked to a few people online asking directions and tips of what to do. It was very nice getting to know the parts of Charlotte they lived and loved.The monthly meetings take place every last thursday of the month. There were europeans, south americans, chinese, us citizens. People from everywhere. Many accents, many nationalities, one thing in common: the experience of living abroad in the same city.

The first, and only, meeting I attended took place in April, just two weeks after moving. It felt good being able to talk and share experiences, but it was particularly good to be able to talk in Portuguese for a few moments. Sometimes, having to speak English all the time, makes me forget how much of language, and more specifically our mother tongue, shapes our view of life, our identities. For instance, in Portuguese we have a particular word to express that feeling of longing and missing for something or somebody, which is “saudade”. A word that I can’t really explain or translate to English in a satisfactory way, I always feel like I am simplifying its meaning. As a human emotion, we all must share the feeling that word describe, but I always wondered if the fact that we Portuguese speakers had a particular word for it meant that we had the necessity to use language to further determine our feelings. Thoughts of a linguistic mind.

On a different note, the meeting was a great step for networking in Charlotte. Having contacts in different companies and jobs is vital for a journalist who is trying to find her way into business. I met an older american guy who had many talents, amongst them being a life coach. He advised me to meet as many people as I could that night, and to create a plan of action that would help me get back on track. One of my first thoughts was how much I missed writing on this blog the last few months, which as you guys can see brought me back with new posts, new ideas. I can’t wait for next meeting, on the 28th. What else will it bring my way?

 

A change of life

Every time I go back to Brazil, it takes me a few days to readapt to the crazy, busy, metropole type of life Sao Paulo provides to its citizens. Traffic suddenly becomes a big concern, since driving 9 miles can take 1:30 hours during peak hours, usually from 7am to  10am in the mornings and from 5pm to 8pm at night. You plan your life geographically,  avoiding to go places because you might get stuck in traffic for so many hours that it is just not worth it. Thankfully, that’s not something I have to worry about in my new town.

IMG_0476It has been less than a year since I actually moved from Brazil to Columbus, and it surprised how quickly we adapt to good things. For instance, my house in Brazil used to have walls all over for safety reasons and my suburban american house only has trees and, well, imaginary lines. The streets had public lights, also for safety reasons, but nights here are so dark I spent three months feeling scared to take my dogs outside to go potty. Eventually, I grew out of it, thankfully. Not only that, I realized how beautiful the sky gets when you can see it without the intervention of street lights and tall walls. It is so quiet here, I don’t miss the city noises at all.

Suburbs trumps Sao Paulo in two other topics: quality of air and friendly neighborhood, almost like a community. Quality of air is a no brainer, since Sao Paulo is one of the most polluted cities in the world, and I feel the difference everyday. But the way our neighbors welcomed us, bringing us cupcakes and banana breads, introducing themselves and offering to help us in anything we might need, that was a surprise. We always hear about how friendly and welcoming Brazilians are in comparison to other countries, and for some reason I thought it would be difficult to break the ice. After the first months I could tell that our neighbors were more friendly than any other I had the chance to meet in Brazil. I witnessed the couple that lives across the street taking out the trash for the family next door, feeding their cat while they were away for summer vacation. I also realized they talked about groundhogs and how to get them away of both their yards without endangering other houses. Everybody says Hi, for the very least, when they drive by. Small gestures that make all the difference when it comes to adapting to a life in a new country.

When two forces collide

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Flores Raras (in English, Rare Flowers, although I believe the movie has been called Reaching For The Moon in the USA)  is a brazilian movie about the relationship between the american poet Elizabeth Bishop and the brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares, a movie I would dare to say I could only watch while visiting Brazil. Few opportunities I had while living in Ohio to watch foreign movies, mostly because they are not available in any theatre in a radius of 40 miles from my house. Even movies like this one, mainly spoke in English, would have a tough time to find its way to ohioan theaters.

The movie is not perfect, it actually has many flaws, one of them being the sometimes overly butch interpretation of Lota, performed by brazilian actress Gloria Pires, while trying to portray somebody confident, impetuous and strong minded. Lota’s character is a dissonant contrast in comparison to the brittle Elizabeth Bishop, performed by the australian actress Miranda Otto. Bishop is characterized as an alcoholic whose self esteem and confidence only grows during her 20 years relationship with Lota, despite their cultural and social differences that sometimes get in the way. This period is when her poetry reaches its full potential and the poet won the Pulitzer Prize, in 1956. It is also an intricate political and historical time for Brazil, something that is brought to light a few times during the narrative.

The relationship between the two women is beautifully portrayed, alternating delicate,  tender, loving scenes, with sexy scenes without appealing to the vulgar, cheap elements of sex, trying successfully not to become a source of harassment, or a porn movie.  According to the director, Bruno Barreto, that was one of the concerns during the shooting.

From my point of view, their encounter is much more interesting from the creative, professional point of view, like a collision between two gigantic forces from different natures and cultures. In their own way, two courageous, bold women who defied conventions by assuming their own lifestyle. In that sense, the movie satisfies my literary curiosity by showing a little bit about Elizabeth Bishop’s life, which is always interesting.

The perks and quirks of moving

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I feel weird talking about home in a country that drowned in debts and economic recession precisely because of how banks and financial institutions gambled with peoples lives regarding their house loans and their dream to own a house, simply because they were seeking to live the american way of life. To this people, their house is definitely their home. My house started becoming my home the moment I said goodbye to my parents, at Guarulhos airport in São Paulo, a few steps away from customs.

After I got engaged in 2011, during Christmas, we had to have the big uncomfortable talk about where we would live. Eric* is american, I am Brazilian, and we would have to pick, at the very least, between the two. It was easy to convince me we would be happier in the US. My husband does not speak portuguese (Please, people! We don’t speak spanish!), he has a hard time driving in São Paulo and he has a steady job, while I was having my first professional experience after earning my master’s degree. It was not my ideal job, and my paycheck was appallingly ridiculous. I was tired of spending one hour in the car every morning just because of traffic, and, on my way back home, at the time my parents house, another hour. The biggest city in South America is also extremely polluted, crowded and loud. Don’t get me wrong, I love my hometown to death, but when weighing in, we would have a better quality of life in Ohio.

We got married in november 2012. I travelled to Columbus two times while we were engaged. During the first trip, I would just drive around in my fiancée’s car, trying to get to know the city. I used to take pictures of houses for sale, but we had decided together our focus were apartments to rent for a year or so. On weekends, I would take Eric to my favorite places, and we would see our options. I would secretly research prices of houses for sale online as well, trying to see if I could find a good deal that would make us change our minds. I wanted to see the big picture before committing to something and make sure we would live somewhere we would have everything to be happy.

After three weekends of intensive apartment hunting, I finally convinced him it was time to find a realtor and check out some houses. One day, I actually walked in alone a real state broker’s office and just requested a meeting with any of their realtors without Eric knowing I would do it. He thought I was crazy and hasty, but he went to the meeting and met our realtor, Vince. My last week in town we dedicated to house search with him. If in the beginning I had my doubts renting was a waste of money, after I saw the house prices and the mortgage conditions I was absolutely sure it was. For a decent house, we would pay maybe an extra 200 dollars per month, but it would be our own. We would be investing in us, in our comfort, our future. Paying mortgage made much more sense to me. The main reason being the fact that we would be able to say our house was our home.

Second time was much easier, in some ways, and much more stressful. Eric had finally accepted that I wanted a house, and that this would be a better investment for our soon to be family. We saw what felt like hundreds of houses until we found one that suited us both and made an offer. It was a major step in our lives, and one we will never regret. Apparently, there was a much better offer on the table. Our realtor called us and implied that if we didn’t raised our initial offer we would loose the deal. We stood our ground, thinking the seller’s were trying to get us to give them more money without even entering the negotiation phase. Plus, we weren’t sure we wanted to go over our budget. Two weeks after loosing what we thought was the perfect house, we found another one – this time we had the street smarts to negotiate, go ahead and finish the deal. I went back to Brazil, and in one month Eric and I were getting married.

As much as I wanted to live in the US on our house, it took me a while to realize and accept I was moving out of my parents house, out of my well known home town. It felt like I was diving into the unknown like Scrooge McDuck in his stash of golden coins, and buying our own place sometimes felt like an ultimatum to make it work, otherwise we would loose money. It is funny because for months the house was all I could think and worry about, but as soon as we got it, I started to have ambiguous feelings towards it. It all seemed very real, and terrifying.

Our wedding day was the happiest one of our lives, and we had the most perfect honeymoon in northeast Brazil. Eric came to Ohio first to close the deal and move in, and two weeks later I joined him. In the beginning, we had a big house and no furniture, just air mattresses. We had to buy everything, since this was Eric’s first house too. Up until that moment, he lived with his brother, paying rent for his room. The dream we had for the last months were becoming true. I had mixed feelings, somedays being overweeningly happy, and others just missing friends and family, but I never doubted that we have made the right choice. As I was learning our house little noises, I started to fell in love with it. Our bed arrived, our TV, our sofa arrived, and all that emptiness was being filled with carefully selected furniture I thought would make our house feel more and more like home.

Looking back at all the trouble we went to buy a house, I think about how little did I know back then. Our beautiful house is our home, but what made it our home wasn’t the fact we have our names in a peace of paper and a monthly pay to make sure it stays that way. Truth is, my house didn’t feel completely like my home until we adopted a dog, Pinga, filled the family room with our pictures and bought Kayo, our second dog. It didn’t feel like home until we fixed the shower in the master bedroom, organized our clothes in the closet and spent cold winter nights watching TV on the couch. It didn’t feel like home until we both fell asleep in that couch, instead of going upstairs to the bedroom. It didn’t feel like home until our friends came and had some beers on a saturday night. More importantly, it didn’t feel like home until Eric and I shared that loving reassuring look one Christmas day, one year after getting engaged, and I was sure we did good on the country, city and house choice, because we were so goddamn happy. I guess I learned the hard way that the old saying “home is where the heart is” is absolutely true.

*Eric is not my husbands real name, but at his request I am using a fake name for this post.

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Recent attacks on women’s reproductive rights

1. Women’s reproductive rights struggles in Texas

After Sen. Wendy Davis (D), Texas, put together her 11 hour filibuster against a controversial anti-abortion bill that would diminish access to abortion services across the state last tuesday, Gov. Rick Perry (R) requested a second special section for today, hoping now he would be able to pass it. This session may last a month. The governor’s decision is, as reported by The Huffington Post and The Texas Tribune, just one of many strikes on women’s reproductive rights and women’s health care under Perry’s administration. In 2011, they produced a law saying every woman considering an abortion should have a sonogram and hear a description of their fetus. Researchers from University of Texas at Austin, as noted by The Texas Tribune, estimate “that 144,000 fewer women received health services and 30,000 fewer unintended pregnancies were averted in 2012 than in 2010.”

It is outrageous to find that women’s health care has been compromised. It is erroneous that abortion is just treated as a matter of “killing a life” and not as a broader social issue and a women’s reproductive right. A right to choose. A right to have access to Planned Parenthood clinics, a support system that could help young pregnant women to make their own decisions.

We’ll have to keep a close eye on what happens in Texas for the next few weeks, hoping social pressure may be the one thing that makes Republicans rethink their votes, since the bill is likely to pass if they remain the same.

2. And also in Ohio

Gov. John Kasich, from Ohio, signed the state’s budget bill with strong anti-abortion language. As reported by The Columbus Dispatch, the bill takes effect today and have significant measures against women’s health and reproductive rights. Here is a list of all measures:

a) Significant abortion provisions were not changed.

b) Planned Parenthood was cut off 1.4million dollars in federal family-plaining dollars and who gets the money was reviewed

c) Abortion clinics now have tougher requirements: they have to have agreements with hospitals (but public hospitals are out of the question). This measure would cause the closing of some of Ohio’s abortion clinics.

d) Doctors performing abortions have to do an ultrasound and, in case they hear a heartbeat, it must be informed to the patient. He also has to explain the chances of the fetus surviving to a full term. By the way, a fetus is redefined as “developing from the moment of conception”, not likely the more common definition, which is when a fertilized egg has been implanted on the uterus.

e) Crisis pregnancy centers will receive funds, but the way they give the informations is arguably biased.

Taken together, all this measures make Ohio the state with the most stringent laws on abortion in the US, as noted by Think Progress. The article does point out that 52% of Ohians that answered a pool from the Public Policy Polling Group about the budget said they were against it specifically because it included attacks on reproductive rights, such as defunding Planned Parenthood and shutting down abortion clinics.

The picture of a bunch of mid-aged conservative men all around the governor signing the budget couldn’t be more emblematic. Apparently, women and voters had no voice on the process. It’s a shame.