Apple Gidley is an expat extraordinaire. She began her life as an expat at the age of one month old, when she moved to Nigeria with her family. Since then she has relocated 26 times to 12 different countries.
Apple recently published Expat Life Slice by Slice, a memoir of her life, which is chock full of great advice. Apple was kind enough to give me a copy of the book to read, and to join us for an interview. Some of the interview questions come from me, other questions come from fellow readers (Thank you all!).
1. Moving frequently can make it difficult to stay in touch with friends. How do you manage to maintain strong friendships when you’re constantly on the move? And how much time and energy do you invest in new friendships when you know you will be moving again? (This question is from blog reader Julia Tomiak)
I like people, am naturally curious and get pleasure in hearing other people’s stories so I don’t feel as if I am ‘investing’ in them – rather I hope we are enjoying each others company. I think in the expatriate world we form friendships quite quickly – some do become deep and long lasting, others remain in a time and place. That doesn’t lessen the importance of those friendships because they were precious at the time and contribute to a happy memory.
I think in some ways it becomes harder when we find ourselves a little more settled and it is other people doing the leaving, but in reality the same rules apply. If we are lucky we meet someone who immediately feels a kindred spirit – those are the people we stay in touch with no matter how far the distance or how long the separation and pick up where we left off – a conversation merely interrupted.
2. How do you find hobbies, social connections, and your own sense of identity, as options change with each move? (This question is from blog reader Lauren Shirley)
I don’t think my sense of identity changes with location. I am who I am regardless of where I live or what job or role I happen to be fulfilling. Though I suppose motherhood defined me for a while when my life was enmeshed in those early days of children, and when most of my activities were child related. Relocating with children certainly eases entry into a new location through playgroups or school activities.
I have always volunteered not only with events in my children’s lives but also something wholly local. Often where there were no other foreigners, or very few, and that allowed me the chance to really get to know people from that particular country. It’s amazing the opportunities that occur if one shows interest in a country and her customs, and if one is prepared to stray from the expat circle. It’s not an either or decision, but rather giving and taking of both.
I realized the other day my mother taught me to play Mah Jong when I was ten and living in Malaysia. I have played it on and off ever since and have met some fascinating people while ‘twittering the sparrows’ – some have become lifelong friends, so hobbies and sport have also played a part.
3. In your book, you write about how boarding school is often a good option for expat teens. In the U.S., very few families send their children to boarding school. As an expat parent and a former boarding school student, what advantages do you think boarding school can provide?
Oh wow, there’s not a hard and fast answer to that and it naturally depends on the child. For example our son went but our daughter did not. He thrived but I don’t believe, and neither does she, that she would have.
Most teens have a subliminal belief that their family will always be there to mop them up no matter the transgression, and so their friendships are far more nebulous and therefore more important. The advantages of boarding school to my mind are that the child’s peer group stays the same through those turbulent teen years and provide a sense of continuity in their life when their physical home may be changing every two or three years. They get the benefit of different cultures through those relocations, and the benefit of meeting other expat teens during vacation time but with the stability of the same school and all that entails.
It is hard for parents to ship kids off to boarding school in the knowledge that there is no way they will be able to attend every event their child takes part in – cheering from the sidelines, or applauding a concert of play. For the teen that can be hard too.
On the upside mistakes can be made away from parental interference which is sometimes a good thing – we need to allow our children the space to make their own decisions and sometimes to make mistakes, though trusting there will always be back up if necessary.
4. You write about how international women’s groups have been a real source of support for you throughout all your moves. What advice do you have for men who are trailing their working spouse? Is there a place for men in these women’s groups?
It can be very difficult for the accompanying male spouse because not only is he in the minority, he also often has to face inbuilt cultural prejudices, not only from the host country but also from other expatriates.
Theoretically there is a place for men in most women’s groups but practically it is not always a comfortable fit. Men tend not to enjoy sitting over coffee chatting, they prefer to be actively doing or watching something and they tend not to share their worries or concerns in such an open setting with relatively new friends and acquaintances.
On the upside, volunteering is again a great way for the male accompanying spouse to become involved in both their children’s school or the local community. Brawn is often a welcome addition during the day when there is a dearth of it!
5. I love your idea of having a visitor’s book that travels with you and your family wherever you go. In it, the friends and family who visit you record the highlights of their stay with you. Do you have any other traditions that have helped you and your family find continuity in all your relocations?
We are a talkative, and sometimes argumentative, family, and have always shared as many meals as possible with each other. Sunday breakfast was always a favourite. We have always also played board games, and often when new to a country we would try and find games relative to that place so we all learnt together. We share a love of water sports and that has been the basis for many fabulous family vacations even through the worst of teenage years.
Our Rogue’s Gallery, a wall of framed photos that was invariably one of the first walls to be finished, was our memory wall – grandparents, uncles and friends all jostled for space and became part of the bedtime routine as we went along and said goodnight to each. I still have a Rogue’s Wall but now, as my children no longer live at home, they feature rather than being part of the supporting cast!
6. How has relocating affected you relationships with friends in “original passport country” – the ones that have never expatriated? (This question is from facebook fan Globatris AB)
I left my passport country when I was a month old, so the nearest I can answer that is by going back to my boarding school pals whose lives I shared for seven years. There is a core of friends from those days, who have mostly remained in Australia, with whom I stay in sporadic touch but we are all aware of where each of us are in our lives. We meet when they either stay with me wherever I am or when I go back to Australia, sometimes ten years between visits, and yet we are never stuck in a groove looking for conversation. It is one of the joys of my life. Maybe made easier by the fact they always accepted I was a little different, flitting off to foreign countries twice a year for holidays home.
If you’re interested in learning more about Apple and her book, or you’d like to purchase your own copy of Expat Life Slice by Slice, check out her Amazon page.
Disclosure: Apple was kind enough to give me a complimentary copy of her book, thank you!