LIVES IN BETWEEN

The somewhat different intercultural communication blog

Author: marisainbetween (page 1 of 2)

Attention, unedited babbling

Life has a funny way of sneaking up on you, sang Alanis Morrissette in her 1995 song Ironic. She was right. Life does tend to take over if you let it. It just goes on, with or without you. The show goes on, it must. You need to decide, which role you take on in the play called “The life and death of [insert your name here]”. Are you the actor following a script? Who wrote the script? Are you the director? Or an extra? (by the way, if you haven’t watched Extras by Ricky Gervais, do so!)

That’s a lot of metaphors. Clichés? Maybe.

But do me a favor and think about it. Perhaps tell me about it.

I’ll leave you with some more wisdom from the philosopher on love, life and peace, John Lennon, from his song Beautiful Boy.

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

Off to work.

How a cup of coffee can save lives – Weekly Act of Kindness #2

Now that I keep my eyes and ears open for great initiatives that change people’s lives for the better, I start noticing them everywhere. This week I’d like to share with you the idea of Suspended Coffees. Founded by John M. Sweeney, currently occupying the position of chief kindness officer (what a fabulous job title!), the movement aims to restore faith in humanity by highlighting simple acts of kindness happening all around us (such as being invited to a cup of coffee), and encouraging others to do the same.

Kindness can come in many forms, including the purchase of a suspended coffee, which is the very idea that inspired this movement. A suspended coffee is the advance purchase of a cup of coffee for someone who needs it, no matter why. But it really is about so much more than the coffee. It can provide physical comfort, conversation, a smile or even a laugh, and a sense of belonging. A suspended coffee can change lives, sometimes even save them.

The idea is simple. When you are in a coffee shop, instead of buying just one cup for yourself, you can purchase two or more cups of coffee in advance for someone who needs it, but is unable to pay.

I find this initiative great for two reasons. One, it is simple, direct, with immediate impact. Two, the anonymity of the gesture takes away the unequal power relation that is often inherent in charitable acts (the one who gives vs. the one who receives, the savior and the victim, the rich and the poor).

I work in coffee shops a lot. On one occasion – at Starbuck’s – a homeless person approached me and asked me for 5 Swiss francs to buy a cup of coffee. I gave it to him. Got him a hot drink, and made me feel good. But had Suspended Coffees been available, it would have spared this man the humiliation of asking for my money.

In Switzerland, so far one coffee shop in Canton Aargau participates in the movement. If anybody from that region reads my blog, I’d love to hear about your visit to that café. In Austria (my native country), there are three. I’ll certainly check them out next time I’m there.

What can YOU do to make this world a better place? Weekly Act of Kindness #1

So much for keeping New Year’s resolutions. It’s been far too long since my last post, but what can I say… life has gotten in the way.

However, I have not been idle. I have been collecting content and inspirations for a new feature I’d like to introduce on my blog: the Weekly Act of Kindness.

Bad news are all around at the moment. The world we live in seems to become increasingly inward-looking, nationalist, self-centred, doubtful of strangers. World leaders (including democratically elected ones!) are erecting walls to stop “illicit migration flows”, in other words, keeping out people in need, in search for safety or simply a better life. But the fact that they come from different cultural backgrounds automatically makes them suspicious. All of this deeply bothers me, makes me sad, even a bit scared for the future sometimes.

But instead of being gloomy and lamenting the state of the world which seems to be in decline of solidarity and a basic sense of humanity, I thought I’d do something more uplifting and inspiring – because there are also good things out there. Our eyes and mind just need to practice recognizing them. Somebody once said, kindness is like a muscle, the more we exercise it the better we are at it.

So, what is the Weekly Act of Kindness? Each week I’ll present an idea, an initiative or a project – however big or small – which contributes in its own way to making this world a better place. This may sound cheesy to some of you, but aren’t we all in need of good news, of inspiration? Perhaps some of the examples I bring will even inspire you to do something similar, to take action in the context and limits of your own life. This is my hope and motivation anyway.

So, don’t be shy to share this with friends or share your own ideas with me here on this blog. Every contribution counts, even a gesture as small and seemingly insignificant as an uplifting smile or a friendly hello to the person sitting in front of you on the bus on the way to work in the morning.

Weekly Act of Kindness #1 – “Leave a coat” racks

This picture is what actually got me thinking about the Weekly Act of Kindness idea.

Need a coat? Take one. Want to help? Leave one.

This simple yet potentially life saving initiative helps people from poorer households, homeless people, those who cannot afford a proper warm jacket get through winter. I am not sure who and where it started, but the initiative has been replicated across the US and the UK. Simple. Small. Useful. Wonderful.

Stay tuned for more inspirations. What’s yours?

New Year’s Resolution: To Find My Voice as a Blogger

Possibly inspired by the movie The King’s Speech, I found my new year’s resolution: I will dedicate 2017 to finding my voice as a blogger and writer.

Being a development professional in “real life”, I immediately picture this logframe (short for Logical Framework, a widely used tool to manage development projects, and measure progress and results):

Overall goal: Find my voice as a blogger and writer

Outcome 1: A small piece of writing produced every day (or at least very regularly)

Outcome 2: Different styles and formats experimented with

2016 has been a good year blogging-wise. During a 3 month sabbatical over summer I finally decided to act on my desire to write. I took the time to set up a website and published my first posts. Following various bloggers’ advice on what works best, what a blog should look like and how it should be structured, I have experimented with different topics and formats. I’ve done some typical “how to” pieces” (e.g. Intercultural Communication 101 – How to prepare for your trip abroad), I’ve written posts inspired by real life events (e.g. Thanksgiving Thoughts – Celebrating Extraordinary Encounters), I’ve written book reviews (because when I don’t write, I read, and one of my favorites this year was Americanah), and I also shared some more personal reflections (e.g. about that funny thing called home).

While it has been a great journey so far (taking baby steps, really), I am well aware that I haven’t arrived yet at where I want to be as a blogger and writer. That’s why it is time to look back to the roots, to why I have started this blog in the first place. It might sound cheesy, overly ambitious, perhaps even a bit naïve, but – apart from my love for writing – my underlying ambition for this blog was to inspire people to see the good in each other. To act with kindness and respect for other human beings, regardless of their cultural, social or other differences. I deeply resent all forms of racism and discrimination, and what is happening across Europe and many other countries in “the West” these days is deeply scary and disconcerting to me.

But enough with the rambling. Here is what you can expect from this blog in 2017 in the quest to find my own, authentic voice as a blogger: more opinion pieces on contemporary issues I care about, more experimenting with free flow formats, more creativity, more inspirational stories from people I meet through life and work doing good, more personal reflections, and many more book reviews.

To fellow bloggers: What have you done to find your personal style, your voice?

Let’s see what 2017 holds in store for us, I can’t wait.

Going home for Christmas? Last minute expat Christmas survival tips

I am certainly not the first person to write about the expat Christmas experience: that time of year when you buy overpriced flight or train tickets, stand in endless lines of security checks, and don’t find anymore space in the overhead lockers on the plane because they overflow with Christmas presents. And we bravely endure all of this only to go on what a fellow blogger suitably called a “speed-dating frenzy” with family and friends “back home” (which sometimes is not really “home” anymore, but that’s another story and you can read more about it here).

Over the years, I have accumulated quite some experience in trying to get through this season without major dramas or nervous breakdowns, sometimes more successful, sometimes less so. While I can’t say that I have figured it all out, I have gone through a series of “trial and error loops”, adjusting every Christmas based on lessons learned the year before.

So, in the spirit of generosity, I am sharing with you my painfully acquired wisdom in the hope that it may help you to make the most of this festive period and avoid major disasters. My top 4 pieces of advice are…

1 – Plan well ahead & share your agenda

I find that everybody making requests for my time is flattering (they love me after all and want to see me), but it can also be a pressure to try to satisfy everyone. Reach out to people well in advance to ask them about their plans and availability. Then put together your personal Christmas schedule, and share this document (or, if that’s too much transparency, only the “allocated time slots”) with people. This helps to set expectations straight and avoid misunderstandings and disappointments (e.g. mum breaking out in tears because I stay out late for drinks with friends while she expects me home for dinner… I don’t need to mention my age for you to see that something’s wrong here).

I also found it helpful to present my agenda simply as a given fact rather than a basis for negotiations as to how much time I spend with whom.

2 – Schedule 1 on 1 time with people you really care about

As lovely and fun as large family gatherings or Christmas parties can be, there is nothing more precious than spending time with a friend or family member to have a personal, meaningful conversation. In groups the discussions tend to be about things like politics, the weather or upcoming vacations. In a one-on-one meet up on the other hand, you can really focus on the other person and make the most of the little time you have.

3 – Be open about what you want and don’t want for Christmas (and I don’t mean presents)

Your family might plan a large gathering with everybody including your 2nd degree cousins, but you’d much rather have an intimate, cozy dinner. Your grandmother wants to go to Midnight Mass, but you’d rather stay by the fireplace to continue good conversations or more nutmeg. My point here: dare to express (again, ideally with some leeway) how you envision to spend Christmas. Your family and friends are likely to respect your wishes and take them into account, but they need to know about them. Again, it’s about communication and alignment of expectations.

4 – Plan for some R&R (rest and recovery)

It is easy to get carried away with all the people you want to see, and all the people who want to see you during this short week or two. If you are not careful, you might end up feeling as if a truck just ran you over, flattened out from all the social interaction (this is the introvert in me speaking here), needing a holiday after the holiday. People often don’t realize that you are essentially telling the same story over and over to answer questions like “So, what’s new in life?” However tight your agenda is, ensure you take some time out, get some fresh air, some alone time, or whatever it is you need to recharge your batteries. The key is to listen to your needs and respect yourself.

With this, I wish you a relaxed Christmas full of meaningful conversations and valuable time with people you care about.

As always, I’d love to hear about your experience with Christmas as an expat. Have you got any other coping strategies to share?

Thanksgiving Thoughts – Celebrating Extraordinary Encounters

Last weekend I was invited to celebrate Thanksgiving at a friend’s house. Although this gathering around an enormous turkey is not a European tradition, it lives on through the many Americans who import it to Europe and keep it alive. The origins of Thanksgiving lie in an encounter of two very different cultures: the encounter of European settlers (now commonly known as Pilgrims) with Native Americans sharing an autumn harvest feast in 1621.

Around the wonderfully decorated dinner table sat a colorful bunch of people. A Swiss-American dating a Swiss living in France, another Swiss-American married to a Peruvian who runs a business in Madrid, an Austrian dating a French living in Geneva (guess who that is ;)), an American who just met a Sudanese during studies, a Canadian dating a French, and the list actually goes on. Throw into the mix the occasional “Swiss only” couple from next door, and what you get is a lively and lovely crowd of people having fun and conversing in approximately 4 languages.

To fellow Geneva residents this might seem like just another multicultural gathering. I call it creating encounters. In the spirit of the original extraordinary encounter – where Native Americans taught the Pilgrims how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants – it is this kind of personal interaction that fosters understanding, tolerance and respect for “the other”.

Two disclaimers here:

I realize that all of us at that dinner table come from similar socio-cultural backgrounds, well-educated, well-travelled global citizens, winners of globalization, if you will.

I am also aware of a certain level of romanticism and naivety in my observations here, viewed against the backdrop of a highly problematic relationship (to put it diplomatically) between European colonists and Native Americans throughout history.

Nevertheless, I wanted to share with you through this little anecdote my firm belief in diversity and the creative energy it can unleash. It is my vision and hope that such personal encounters can break down the metaphoric walls politicians literally put up these days. We need more of that. The world needs more of that.

„The Little Virtues“ – Why you should read Natalia Ginzburg

the-little-virtuesI recently discovered Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg. Don’t get me wrong, I knew she existed, I even had some of her books on my Amazon wish list for months (or years?!). Then I came across this article on The New Yorker, which finally made me buy “The Little Virtues”. And I am so glad I did. Instant coup de coeur as the French would say. Her way of writing – plain yet so full of meaning and poetry – went straight to my heart.

The Little Virtues is a collection of short essays published in various magazines and newspapers between 1944 and 1962. Historically, this period covers Fascist Italy and World War II. Experiences of war and oppression, of having to flee in the middle of the night leave a mark in her writing. The topics are as relevant as ever.

In Son of Man she tells the story of war. Of what war does to people. “Those of us who have been fugitives will never be at peace. Once the experience of evil has been endured it is never forgotten”.

In Portrait of a Friend she describes her feelings when she visits her home town she no longer lives in (if you’ve been reading my other posts, you’ll see the red thread here).

“…when we go back, simply passing through the station and walking in the misty avenues is enough to make us feel we have come home; and the sadness with which the city fills us every time we return lies in this feeling that we are at home and, at the same time, that we have no reason to stay here; because here, in our own home, our own city, the city in which we spent our youth, so few things remain alive for us and we are oppressed by a throng of memories and shadows.”

To those of you who live in London, England: Eulogy and Lament is for you: A dry yet funny depiction of London as what Ginzburg perceives a colorless, melancholic city where “they all dress in the same way. The women you see in the streets all have the same beige or transparent plastic raincoats which look like shower-curtains or tablecloths in restaurants.”

Ginzburg also gives parenting advice in The Little Virtues, powerful reflections which I will certainly keep in mind for the day I have children.

And finally, my personal favorite, the story of a lifetime in fast-forward, Human Relationships. A beautifully written journey of a human lifetime, from childhood over adolescence to adulthood, examined through the relationships forged and lost along the way.

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts about the writer, the book, the topic, or anything that comes to mind!

Americanah – Another book review

americanahI just finished reading this fabulous novel and couldn’t wait to recommend it to you here on my blog. It’s one of those page turners (the last time I experienced such a captivation – this is a confession – was with E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey), all the while maintaining a steady level of quality writing and clever observations about sensitive issues, such as race, discrimination and alienation.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013) tells the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, two young people in love, growing up in Nigeria during the military dictatorship. Both of them dream of leaving the country to study abroad in an idealized United States of America, and build a better future for themselves.

Narrated at times by Ifemelu and at times by Obinze, the book takes you on an insightful journey of people experiencing life as strangers in new environments, and then again as strangers when they return back home to Nigeria. Seen through the main characters’ eyes, the story is dotted with sharp observations about the peculiarities of societies and sub-cultures.

In the US, Ifemelu is confronted for the first time with the issue of race. In the UK, Obinze’s fate illustrates the motivations and dangers of illegal migration, and sheds light on a topic that couldn’t be more relevant in view of the current debate about the global “migration crisis”. At a dinner party in London he observes that guests “understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness.”

They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.

Having reflected and written a lot about culture shockreverse culture shock, and what it means to feel at home, here comes a book that makes you see and feel for yourself. As I so often say, sometimes a story is all it takes…

Home Sweet Home? What you should know about reverse culture shock

In my last blog post I wrote about the notion of „home“, and to what extent it changes once you live abroad for a while or are confronted with very different realities through travel to foreign places. You start questioning things that seemed completely normal before, and appreciating things you had previously taken for granted. Old norms and values from your home country are viewed from a fresh perspective.

And herein lies the tricky part: when you go abroad, you expect to encounter challenges in the new culture. When you return “home”, however, you expect to find a certain familiarity and comfort – only to realize: home is no longer home. It feels different. The experience abroad has changed you substantially. And it’s the unexpectedness of reverse culture shock that hits you hard.

What to expect when returning home – The stages of reverse culture shock

The concept of reverse culture shock can help you make sense of your feelings of disorientation and alienation back in your original home country. Like “outbound” culture shock, it has a number of stages.

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Overall, it goes like this:

  1. Initial euphoria: At first, you may be excited to return home – seeing friends and family members again, eating your favorite food at your favorite restaurants, and speaking your native language.
  2. Alienation: The initial euphoria eventually wears off, and that’s when you find yourself feeling out of place in your own culture. This can even lead you to feel hostile and overly critical towards your home country and culture.
  3. Readjustment and adaptation: Eventually, you will gradually readjust to life at home. You will build up daily routines again, and things will start to seem a little more normal, even though they will never be exactly the same as when you left. But don’t be discouraged. Instead, incorporate the experiences you’ve made abroad into your new life back home.

There are ways to better manage re-entry into your native culture, and better cope with re-adjustment to your original home country’s way of life. Being aware of the emotional ups and downs you will be going through is already a good start. Stay tuned for some useful tips in my next post!

Have you ever experienced reverse culture shock? What did you do to cope with it?

That funny thing called home

“What is home to you?” That’s the question I’ve asked friends of mine, some of them living abroad, others enjoying life close to where they grew up as a child. To me, home is a funny concept. Every time I visit my “home” country (the one I hold the passport of), I am confronted with this question. People ask me – their eyes beaming with expectation: “Does it feel good to be back home?” My answer usually consists of a friendly nod and smile. But in all honesty, I don’t know.

Ever since I spent 6 months abroad to study in the US, something has changed. I came back a different person. I was suddenly more aware of cultural particularities in the country grew up in (Austria), and the way people behave and interact with one another. As I continued travelling, I came to see different ways society can organize itself. I started to question, even disagree with, things I had found perfectly normal before. I also started to be grateful for things I had taken for granted (like clean drinking water straight from the tab).

“Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” ― Miriam Beard

Travelling and living abroad broadens your horizon – and there is no way back. It forever changes the way you see yourself and the world around you. This is a blessing and a curse at the same time. Sometimes I feel like I gave up the reassuring stability of “home” for a cosmopolitan life where everything is relative. But only sometimes. Most of the time I feel energized and excited by the richness of cultural diversity I am lucky to experience through work and life.
So, back to the notion of home. Hearing my friends express what home means to them brought me a bit closer to grasping the essence of the concept. The answers I got almost all pointed to one fact: It has little to do with geography or passport. It is not so much about BEING at home. It is all about FEELING at home. It has to do with feeling accepted and loved. With a sense of inner peace and comfort. And this in turn is often linked to the people around us. To the quality of personal relationships we build and maintain. And finally, it is about the relationship we have with ourselves. Home is not a place. It is a state of mind.

Thoughts?

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