The truth is, that I learned how to open myself up to the world at an early age.
My parent’s expats adventures in the Middle East and the United States meant that as a child, I was always dreaming of or remembering faraway places. Photo albums full of picnics in Central Park, family excursions to Niagara Falls, long drives to Disneyland and childhood memories in Bahrain were talked about routinely, as much as what we would be eating for dinner tonight. As a child growing up in Karachi, Pakistan, I continued these adventures in my head – through books where I would lose myself in other worlds through words.
The adventures of 10 year Gerald Durrell as he described his experience of moving from England to the magical Greek island of Corfu, spoke directly to my soul:
“Each day had a tranquility, a timelessness about it so that you wished it would never end. But then the dark skin of the night would peel off, and there would be a fresh day waiting for us – glossy and colorful as a child’s transfer and with the same tinge of unreality.”
― Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals
My soul craved adventure, but I wasn’t sure if I could do it alone. With no one to catch me if I failed.
With just one suitcase and a bag, I left my home in Pakistan when I was 19 years old. I wasn’t sure if I’d even be able to find the right gate to board at the airport or catch the right flight to Dubai to connect to Amsterdam. I felt nervous just looking at the one-way ticket in my hand, not knowing what to expect when I reached the other side of the world. When I landed in Boston, I was so excited that I forgot to call or email my parents in classic teenager fashion. The Dean of International Students on my college campus had to interrupt an orientation meeting and ask me to call my folks.
It was scary but exhilarating being on my own for the very first time.
There was a thrill in anonymity.
There was excitement at the possibilities ahead.
There was freedom in paying my own bills.
“I realized I had finally found my tribe, ironically in a sleepy, tiny town in Western Massachusetts. People who, like me, wanted to step out of their comfort zones, no matter how unnerving it felt. This was my first tribe; and it has remained my strongest since. Having found like-minded people on one continent, I slowly learned the way to do it over and over again, even through cultural barriers and language mix-ups.”
I had led a predictable and sheltered life until now, but this was the moment, the decision that changed everything. I took spontaneous road trips to New York City with my American roommate, made friends with Bulgarians and Ghanaians, learned how to swear in Swahili, and realized my mind was buzzing when I studied international economics and world politics. I realized I had finally found my tribe, ironically in a sleepy, tiny town in Western Massachusetts. People who, like me, wanted to step out of their comfort zones, no matter how unnerving it felt. This was my first tribe; and it has remained my strongest since. Having found like-minded people on one continent, I slowly learned the way to do it over and over again, even through cultural barriers and language mix-ups.
The winds changed, the tide beckoned and I decided to go to England for a year to study the EU economic model. Love intervened in the shape of a 6 foot German, who introduced himself as an Italian and turned my world upside down. Like most good love stories, this one started off with an Italian boy and ended with two weddings in Germany and Pakistan in front of our respective families, and a life shared over eight countries, three continents and two kids born in different corners of the world growing up with four languages.
Life together was scary and yet so, so good. I was worried about who I would become. Was I leaving my culture behind? Or was I just embracing a whole new culture and way of doing things? In spite of the odds, I decided to go into each adventure with my eyes wide shut and a heart wide open.
“But traveling the world over is very different from living the world over. Being an expat means different rules apply to you. You are no longer just a foreigner or a tourist passing through, you have to learn how to live in a new country, to belong there, to make friends there, to find a job there, to learn the local language, to build a life there and still be brave enough to be able to walk away from it all, when it’s time to go. And you have to ask yourself: who have I become?”
I traveled all over the world and spent weekends gazing at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, haggling in the bazaars of Cairo, escaping to Paris for some art, culture and romance, marveling at the fjords in Norway, learning the streets of Stockholm by heart, feeling the adrenaline as I climbed Table Mountain in Cape Town, and of course reveling in the magic and tranquility of Corfu. Something on this idyllic Greek island that had touched my soul so many years ago, made me feel I had finally come full circle, as I stood there realizing how my journey had brought me to Corfu; the place that had instilled this feeling of wanderlust in my soul to begin with.
But traveling the world over is very different from living the world over. Being an expat means different rules apply to you. You are no longer just a foreigner or a tourist passing through, you have to learn how to live in a new country, to belong there, to make friends there, to find a job there, to learn the local language, to build a life there and still be brave enough to be able to walk away from it all, when it’s time to go. And you have to ask yourself: who have I become?
As an expat, life was often difficult and I almost felt like quitting – many times. Just throwing in the towel and going back to a place where I was understood. I struggled to learn German on the streets of Berlin and often felt lonely. It was a challenge to adjust to bleak, winter days in Denmark and go months without seeing the Scandinavian sun. It was an even bigger challenge to be initially unemployed in every new country I arrived in and try to figure out if i had a chance in the local job market. I was nervous to move continents twice during both my pregnancies. After a difficult first childbirth in Singapore, I found myself re-hospitalized with a severe case of pre-eclampsia, away from friends and family, in a new country with a 3 day old new born to care for. Pretty soon I found myself trekking across continents again, pregnant for the second time and arriving in Dubai. I struggled to cope with the soaring 40 degree Celsius (113-120 degree F) summer time temperatures, when the sun beats down on the Arabian Desert mercilessly and life shifts indoors.
My mind would often tell me I was lost. My heart would tell me to relax. My soul would tell me, I would get there, because it would show me the map and give me the courage to follow it. My soul; which had been stretched, transformed and overhauled, is what has gotten me through every expat adventure. The beautiful memories, the incredible friendships, the amazing experiences are all etched onto my soul and help me on my journey almost every day.
I realize I am now the proud owner of a global soul – like Voldemort’s soul, mine often feels split into seven pieces as well. One for each of the seven countries I’ve lived in. The difference though? My split soul is actually good for me. It means I keep my ties and my memories attached to each of the beautiful countries I’ve called home. It means I have seven tribes to call my own. It means I’m no longer afraid. It means I view the world in an interconnected way now, and feel richer, satisfied, fulfilled and grateful for having the chance to experience so much of its beauty.
Mariam Ottimofiore is the expat writer behind the blog ‘And Then We Moved To’ (www.andthenwemovedto.com) where she talks about life on the expat trail, raising her two multicultural and multilingual children and traveling the world. You can connect with her at the upcoming Families in Global Transitions (FIGT) conference in the Hague (Netherlands) from March 23rd -25th, where she will be attending as as a Parfitt Pascoe Writing Resident and presenting an Early Bird Writers Forum on “Building Your Online Tribe Through Blogging When Abroad.”