An Airport Encounter With Grace

Folks, I’m a bit in survival mode here at the moment. I’ve been without a car all week. We have an uncharacteristically grumpy, teething baby. We have a feverish two year old who only wants Mama… all the time. We have a Daddy who is leaving on Sunday for a week. And we have two very tired parents, because what we don’t have is nearly enough sleep.

Yesterday, however, I decided that when people here ask me how I am, I’m going to try to avoid giving them the shell-shocked stare of someone under siege and then launching straight into a disjointed account of my biggest problem of the moment. That goes for this blog, too. So this month I’m not going to write a post exploring how to cope with epic toddler tantrums (although if you’d like to see me write on that at some stage, let me know). Instead, I’m going to post something more light-hearted that I wrote four years ago. It’s about grace that I experienced in – of all places – an airport.

Image credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net (artur84)
Image credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net (artur84)

Until this morning I had thought that perhaps my capacity to invent new and stupid things to do in airports had finally been exhausted. After all, it’s been almost two years since I’ve done something dumb on an epic scale.

Given my track record, two years is a pretty long time to go without a major self-inflicted airport disaster. In two years I have not left my wallet at home and gone to Colorado without any money or credit cards. I have not neglected to get a visa for Czech Republic and been stranded in Germany. I have not sat, content, at the wrong gate in Chicago airport until a mere twenty-seven minutes before my flight to London left from an entirely different terminal. I have not shown up at the airport for a flight to Washington only to be informed that I was supposed to be on that flight all right, just a week earlier. I have not misread a flight itinerary for a trip to Ghana as leaving on Tuesday, not to realize until Monday at 9am that it actually left on Monday at 4pm. I have not lost my bank card and then had to hastily borrow a thousand dollars in cash from church friends before a Sunday departure for two weeks in Kenya. I have not illegally entered home country number one as a tourist on the passport of home country number two after realizing, on the day of departure, the implications of the fact that my passport for home country number one had expired.

And, in a particular triumph, I have not been rude to any incompetent immigration officials, in any country.

In other words, I’ve been good these past two years. Really, really, good.

So good, I thought that maybe these days of tragi-comedy airport disasters were over. I truly hoped so. Because, contrary to what some of my nearest and dearest may believe, I don’t do these sorts of things on purpose. These sorts of situations are in no way fun while they’re unfolding. They make my palms sweat, my heart race, and my general stress levels spike (which, given that most of them have occurred during my travels as a stress management trainer, is a particularly aggravating irony). They are a serious assault on my image of myself as smart, competent, organized, and independent.

I am not quite sure why, but a disproportionate number of these incidents seem to involve airports. And so it was this morning.

This morning I got to Grand Rapids airport in Michigan an absurdly safe two hours early for my domestic flight. I spotted my gate number – B1, found a nice chair in the sun, rejoiced over the free wireless, and paid no attention to the surrounding chaos until I heard the words “final boarding opportunity” and “Chicago” right after one another.

I slammed the laptop shut and jumped up, wondering how it had gotten so late, only to turn around and see that between me and gate B1 stood… security screening.

Security screening, which I had completely forgotten I had not yet passed through. Which, in fact, I had completely forgotten even existed.

And there was a very long line of people stretching away from it down the terminal, past where I stood.

So I want to say a very sincere thank you to the woman at the head of the line who let me go in front of her when I showed up panicked and begging. And to the half a dozen people behind her who came to my defense and said it was alright for me to totally disregard my rightful duty to the line, “they didn’t mind at all”, when the security people accosted me with a belligerant “ma’am” and demanded to know if I had waited my turn.

Not only were these people in line kind, they were nice about it too. They smiled at me, which I totally did not deserve.

It was, in a pure form, grace.

Hours later it all still leaves me drenched in shame and shaky gratitude and determined to treat gently those who cross my path very flustered after just having done something unbelievably silly. Perhaps even to treat gently those who are doing something unbelievably silly but aren’t the least bit flustered or regretful.

And to smile at them.

Have you experienced grace from strangers lately? Do share the tale…

Epic travel fails and other misadventures of expatriate living

A few words of introduction to my post for today…

The essay below was written several years ago now, in an attempt to redeem one of the silliest things I have ever done in all my years of traveling. And, oh my word. There have been a lot of silly things I’ve done involving airports and planes – including misplacing my only debit bank card just before a two week trip to Africa and after all the banks had closed for the weekend. I got out of that one by ringing around my Bible study group and getting five people to each float me $200 in cash. The incident reminded me yet again that it is a really good thing to be part of a Bible study group, folks, because you never know when you’re going to need a thousand dollars in cash on three hours notice.

So, my theory about epic-travel-fails is this: The more you travel, the more relaxed you get about the whole process and the more careless errors you make. When you look at it that way, spectacular travel screw-ups are really a sign that you’re a seasoned travel pro.

Like I said, that’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.

Now, before I get to the essay itself, I’m going to spell out the take-home here for you just in case you don’t have three minutes to giggle over a cup of tea. This community is, after all, a place to learn from other’s mistakes wisdom about living overseas, and I’d hate for you to miss the practical take home because you were in a rush. So if you remember nothing else from this post, remember these two things:

  1. You cannot travel on an expired passport.
  2. You cannot enter a country that you are a citizen of on the passport of another country that you are also a citizen of.

Got that? Good. Now… the backstory

Aus passport

This, I thought as I stared at my passport, is possibly the stupidest travel-mistake I’ve ever made.

And that’s saying a lot.

During the last five years I’ve been stranded in Germany for a week on account of neglecting to get a visa for the Czech Republic. I’ve traveled to Colorado and left my wallet, all my money, and every credit card I own safely in my gym bag at home. I’ve turned up to the airport in LA to discover that I’d booked a flight to New York on Wednesday all right, but the Wednesday of the previous week. I’ve walked off an American Airlines flight in Chicago and sat down at the first gate I saw that said “London” and had the right departure time, without double checking the flight details on my boarding pass (which might have helped me notice that my connecting flight to London was, in fact, with British Airways instead of American). At various times I’ve forgotten to pack my malaria medication, my phone charger, my power-point presentation, and, yes, on one especially memorable occasion, my underwear.

Given this, you might find it ironic that I make my living at least partly by training humanitarian workers to cope more effectively with their “high transition lifestyles”. In other words, how to hop on a plane, go dashing off to a disaster scene to aid the recovery effort, return home, reorient, and then turn around and do it all again two weeks later. Oh, and stay sane in the process.

One point so obvious that I rarely mention it during workshops, is that it’s helpful to have a valid passport when you’re trying to board an international flight…which brings me to noon on December 15, a confirmed seat on a flight from LA to Sydney leaving at 10pm that night, and… an expired Australian passport.

Here’s how it happened.

Once upon a time I was born in Canada…

OK, OK. But it is relevant. Because of where that most joyous and happy event occurred I have an Australian and a Canadian passport. And it’s a lot easier for Canadians to get visas to work in the US than, well, the citizens of any other country. So at the moment I’m living in the States on a Canadian work visa. That means that I have to use my Canadian passport to enter and leave the US as I go dashing off to all those disaster scenes. Got that?

In July I noticed that my Australian passport was going to expire in October. But the thought of trying to navigate the maze of red tape that would inevitably surround my attempt to renew my Aussi passport in the States while living there on a Canadian visa made me feel exhausted.

So I hatched a brilliant plan. I would just go home to Australia at Christmas and take care of it there. If, for some obscure reason, the Australian immigration officials were upset that my passport had expired I could just pull out my other one, enter the country as a Canadian, and then get busy renewing my passport on home soil.

The plan, clearly, was flawless. But, because I am responsible and organized, I rang the Australian consulate in Los Angeles to run it past them, and a cheerful fellow named Malcolm and I had a brief conversation that went something like this…

“My passport is about to expire. I could get it renewed while I’m here, but I think it would just be easier to wait and renew it at home at Christmas, don’t you?”

“Yeah, mate,” Malcolm said. “Just do it when you get home. She’ll be apples.”

In retrospect, missing from my side of the conversation was the, perhaps vital, fact that the passport would expire before I was due to travel home. But, to be fair here, missing from Malcolm’s side was a detailed query somewhere along the lines of, “wait just a minute, you don’t happen to be a dual national living in the States on your other passport and thinking of using said other passport to enter Australia after your Australian passport expires, are you?” But at the time I hung up satisfied that I’d covered all my bases.

The next six months I was very busy. Busy traveling to Kenya, Colorado, Indiana, Canada, New York, and South Africa. Busy teaching people how to live life that way and be happy, healthy and well-adjusted. Like me.

That busyness might explain why it wasn’t until the morning of December 15 that I had the time to locate the website where an American friend who was going to fly over to visit me for New Years Eve could apply for their Australian tourist visa online. As I cut and pasted the link for him, I noticed a statement saying that everyone except citizens of New Zealand had to apply for a tourist visa before boarding arriving at the airport to board their flight to Australia.

Huh, I thought, I wonder if everyone includes Canadians, and whether that might cause a small hiccup if I suddenly pull out my Canadian passport, visaless, in Sydney airport.

So, trying to do the right thing here, I call the Australian consulate again. My pal Malcolm was gone. Perhaps he’d been fired for not asking enough questions. And in his place, I got Andrew.

“Hey, Andrew,” I greeted him warmly. “I just want to check that it won’t be a problem for me to enter Australia if my passport’s expired.”

“What are you talking about?” Andrew said. Clearly, whatever it was that I was talking about, he didn’t think much of it. “You can’t travel on an expired passport.”

“Huh,” I said, moving on to Plan B. “Okay then, will I need a tourist visa in my Canadian passport to get into the country, since I’m also an Australian citizen?”

“If you’re a citizen of Australia you can’t enter Australia on the passport of another country. It’s illegal,” Andrew said, in a tone that asked where I was in kindergarten when everyone else was learning international law.

There was a long silence while I digested this.

“Right, then,” I said. “Um, could you help me brainstorm my options, because my flight to Australia takes off at ten tonight.”

What?” Andrew said. I don’t know how he managed to pack incredulity, exasperation, and pity for my obviously deficient intellect into one word, but he did.

I wanted to defend myself. I wanted to tell him – hey buddy, I’m a smart, capable, person. I have two masters degrees. I direct a training program for a non-profit. I’ve written a novel, and… and… I can cook. These things happen. They just clearly haven’t happened to you lately.

But I didn’t defend myself. I chose the only option that I thought might get me somewhere. I begged.

“Please! I have to make that plane. I haven’t been home in a year and a half!”

“Well,” he said grudgingly. “You’re probably going to need to apply in person in the consulate at LA for an emergency travel document. That’ll take five working days. Your only other option is to call the airlines, explain the situation, and see if they are willing to call Canberra and get authorization to uplift you without a valid passport. But, the airlines don’t generally go for that sort of thing, and Canberra might not grant it anyway…”

As he spoke I had a vision of spending the first precious week of my holidays hanging out in the lobby of the Australian consulate in LA, and a second week trying to finagle another seat on a flight to Sydney before Christmas. There had to be another way.

“So,” I hazarded, looking around furtively as if the foreign affairs swat team was about to swoop into the office and take me into custody right there and then. “Hypothetically speaking, if a citizen of Australia was to show up at the airport and present another country’s passport, what do you think the chances are that the airline would figure it out and stop them from boarding?”

“I cannot advise you regarding that course of action,” Andrew said primly.

What is my country coming to? Doesn’t he know it’s his job to represent Australia around the world? Doesn’t he know that he is duty-bound to proclaim our national motto “no worries mate, she’ll be right” with nonchalant assurance in any and every situation? And where was some of that convict spirit we’re so famous for?

As I walked into LAX that night and presented my Canadian passport, safely impregnated with an electronic tourist visa that I’d applied for online, I was sweating. I like to think of myself as someone who could, if they chose, break laws with panache and style. But I could feel all my style clinging to me damply.

My grand plan was just to make it onto the plane and get to Sydney, whereupon I would confess all my sins and throw myself on the mercy of the immigration officials. I figured they would probably be cross, but I couldn’t see they’d have much choice about letting me into the country. I mean, they couldn’t very well deport me back to the US, could they? Can you even be deported from your own country?

But as I disembarked in Sydney I had second thoughts about the wisdom of confessing. Who knew whether, in my absence, Australian immigration officials had become as mean-spirited and irrational as American ones? Maybe they would deport me. I hesitated, and then joined the lengthy queue for non-citizens.

While I mourned the fact that I was wasting my one opportunity a year to sail through an immigration checkpoint in the citizens line (not to mention the money I’d paid for the tourist visa for my own country), I had plenty of time to wonder whether my name would flag the existence of my other passport and bring wrath and, I suddenly realized, possibly a hefty fine down upon my head.

In teaching others how to cope well with high transition lifestyles one of the things that I always talk about is the importance of having a sense of humor. And, when things like this go wrong, I can usually shrug and see the bright side in that fact that I provide so much raw material helpful for keeping mine in good working order. But at that moment I couldn’t see the funny side of the situation.

Possibly, as my father would point out later, because there wasn’t one.

Way too soon I was next in line. I glanced at the immigration agent and debated my options. Would it be too obvious to proclaim excitedly, “I’ve been looking forward to this trip for years, and I can’t believe it’s finally here!” Maybe my accent would give me away, even with a well-placed Canadian, “eh?” So I handed over my passport, reminded myself to breathe, and tried for my normal mien at this stage of the immigration process – bored and exhausted.

With just a glance and one casual anticlimactic flick of his wrist, it was over. Never have I been so glad to see a stamp come down and hear the words, “welcome to Australia.”

I was home.

Well, home as a tourist, anyway.

Welcome-to-Australia

OK, your turn. Don’t leave me hanging out here looking like an idiot all by myself. Tara Livesay has already shared a wonderful tale of taking a mastiff on home leave (bottom line: don’t), but I’d love to hear from the rest of you.

If you’ve had an epic travel fail or some other expat misadventure, tell us about it in the comments or leave us a link to a blog post that tells the story.

Airlines We’ve Known

It’s Friday. Friday means different things in different parts of the world. For some of us, Friday is our day of worship. How well I remember Scotch Presbyterians arguing that “One could never worship on a Friday” when Pakistan changed its weekend to Friday and Saturday.  A year later said Scots were worshiping on a Friday.

For others Friday signifies the start of the weekend where all things feel possible. At least for the middle-class among us.

Still others close out their weekend with Fridays, rushing to finish tasks that will remain undone until the next weekend if we don’t get to them.

So in the spirit of this start or end of a weekend we offer something fun today.

A chance to rate your favorite airline.

Airports

I flew before I walked and can’t count the number of flights I’ve taken, or airlines and airports I have had the privilege to meet. At the risk of sounding annoying and “remembering the good old days”, when it comes to airlines, it was the good old days.

When I was tiny international flights often included overnights in major cities world-wide at the cost of the airline. All inclusive packages with meals and transportation vouchers to and from the airport were the norm. In-flight meals, drinks and toys were complimentary and we even got little wing pins to proudly place on shirts or jackets that said “Fly the Friendly Skies.“ Extra baggage didn’t come at an exorbitant fee and you could often talk your way out of the cost through smiles and thanks.

So in “Airlines We’ve Known” we want to hear from you: what airlines do you recommend and why? What airlines do you avoid like a plague?

To start us off I vote for Swiss. With their hot towels to refresh you in economy class and their attention to detail and comfort, even with a delayed plane, they rise to the top.  A stop in Zürich, particularly if you have young children, is a treat as the airport has a fully equipped play room/nursery with a special room just for babies. Memories of hours in that nursery remind me that it saved us from what could have been miserable times of waiting by gates during long lay overs – we owe this airport our sanity. A close runner-up could be British Airways as I have always had lovely flights on British Air.

Virgin Air gives a cheap but uncomfortable flight to London, and if you are patient you can usually find British Air tickets for almost the same price. I have heard that Singapore Air could probably get a world-wide award for the best airline (which I tend to believe as the efficiency in Singapore is legendary) but I can’t speak from experience on the airline. Lufthansa could be up there as a competitor, though not winner, and after our recent trip to Egypt, we would swear by the Egypt Air New York/Cairo Nonstop flight.

I’ve been told that Iceland Air is the bottom of the barrel internationally so I will not be swayed by their cheap prices, realizing I will pay the cost some other way (like having to make sure of change in my pocket in order to use the bathroom). I assure you I am not being dramatic – Ryan Air out of Ireland I’ve been told does have a “pay when you go” policy on using the loo. You may be able to change my mind on that if you’ve got a good story or review.

So what about the airlines you’ve known? Who gets the awards from your experience? Would love to have you weigh in – Favorite Airlines, Worst airlines, Worst airline stories – we want to hear it all!

 

Image credit: forestpath / 123RF Stock Photo

 

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A Cautionary Tale: Expats & Expets (What not to do)

This month I’m writing in the air while I fly away from my island home. My feet will touch the ground in five cities today before I arrive at my final destination. Leaving the kids and the work behind, of course my mind is filled with all sorts of ‘A Life Overseas’ things, but I cannot bring myself to write about anything serious. Instead I’ve chosen a completely inconsequential topic for your Monday.

Waco 003

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I think we are all familiar with the term “expat”.  By dictionary definition, an expat(riate) is “a person who lives outside of their native country.”

Today I’m discussing the lesser known term, ‘expets’.

An expet is a pet that lives under the care and protection of a family/couple/individual that carry a passport from one country, but live with, enjoy, and raise their pet in a different country. An expet can be acquired in the passport OR host country. (TCP – Third Culture Pet – and all the challenges apply here as well.)

I will stop here to say, the animal haters need not read any further.  This post isn’t for you.  I, too, was a hater until recently. I understand you, even if I can no longer support you or your shriveled up little heart.

Owning a pet simply for the sake of owning a pet is a thing in many parts of the world.  Owning a pet is NOT a thing in many parts of the world.  I submit to you that if you owned a pet, once you move to a new land where pets are not so common, you may really miss owning a pet.

Most expats with an expet have a dilemma when it comes time to travel to fundraise, rest, or take care of any other personal business.

It feels a little bit inconsiderate to ask a friend to take our pets for many weeks or a number of months.  These friends have their own pets and are staying behind to carry an extra workload, that you leave  them, as it is.  On the flip side, it feels weird to travel with our expets.  How exactly does one justify flying a dog through the air?

(Just wait, I will tell you.)

Left without any great options; we choose the lesser evil.

~            ~            ~

Many years back, our youngest daughter was due to be born at the same time our first-born daughter was heading to the USA to begin university.  Because two such major life-events were happening in the same time period, we planned a four-month furlough.

The kids’ masterful and spectacularly executed campaign began early in the furlough planning.

“Mom, we cannot leave Peanut here. Haitian culture doesn’t ‘do’ pets. Nobody will feed her or take care of her. She might get sick or die while we are away.”

That sounded dramatic, but not impossible.

“You guys, she will be okay. We’ll ask a few people to watch her in case one of them forgets – there will be a back-up plan.”

It was easy to tell they’d done some role-playing; the college bound child was more than ready for our response. “Mom and Dad, this is the last time I will live with Peanut in Haiti, I am already leaving my Haiti home. Having Peanut with us would help me with the transition time.”

(Enter unhealthy and debilitating parental guilt.)

And so began the dumbest decision  – that created a domino effect of dumb decisions that we have yet to put to an end when it comes to our expets.

It was late August in Haiti. The average temperature is 100 degrees by noon.  In order to check a dog on a commercial flight the forecasted temperature on both ends and any stops during the itinerary must not be warmer than 85 degrees.

Paralyzed by the parental guilt mentioned above, we looked for plan B.

We arranged for our two oldest girls to fly on a private missionary mail service plane with the dog to Florida.  Once in Florida the temperatures didn’t allow a commercial flight to our destination.  That obstacle was also taken in stride; I would fly commercial to Florida and rent a mini-van.  So began the cross-country trek toward Minnesota.  A very pregnant mom, five kids, and a giant slobbering expet named Peanut. My better half remained in Haiti, where he probably felt quite smug watching this all unfold.

~          ~           ~

Soon after my husband joined us, we welcomed our last daughter to the world the same week we bought bedding for our first to take to her dorm room.  It was a wild time in our lives. Three months of utter chaos that included meningitis, MRSA, scabies, a C-Section, multiple stomach flus, losing our house-renter and therefore putting a house on the market, strained relationships, postpartum hormones, moving a kid to College and packing up a large tribe to return to Haiti with the frazzled nerves and sleep deprivation caused by all of the aforementioned items.

Good news though. Our Haitian born Mastiff, Peanut, was introduced to snow and ice that Christmas. That is super important, obviously.

The time came to head home to the Caribbean. Troy found out that flights out of MSP when it was too cold would not allow a dog to be checked. Minnesota temperatures, do you follow them?  It is utter insanity.  In our defense, it was hard to think ahead.  Mostly because we don’t do that.  Who knew in late August in Haiti that a flight in early January out of Minnesota would be cold?  Certainly not us.

We booked flights for Troy and five of the kids. I was to stay back with the newborn and get our oldest moved into her dorm before returning to Haiti a week later. We pleaded with the arctic weather systems, Mother Nature, God, and anyone that seemed slightly powerful  – to please make the day that Troy and the kids left Minneapolis be a warmish one. Peanut needed to go home to Haiti.

(See my shocked face.)  You guessed it, the dog could not return on the flight we booked. It just so happened to be the coldest day yet that winter.  I waved goodbye from the truck as I turned to look at my newborn and my 100-pound Mastiff.  The kids yelled, “Bye Mom, we can’t wait to see Peanut when she gets home… Oh, and you!”

A  NEW plan was hatched. My Dad would drive Peanut to Texas. I would fly with the oldest and the newborn to Texas to get settled in at University and sob my eyes out and all that.  If the dog cannot fly out of Minnesota, we will drive the dog to a different city that has more favorable temperatures for dog-flights.

The day my Dad pulled up to the hotel  (photo above, dog did some of the driving) just next door to the Baylor University campus, it finally hit me.

We brought that dog to the USA because we are idiots, not because we are such loving and considerate parents.

Sneaking a Mastiff into a hotel is not a thing.  That, my friends, is a fact.

After a couple of days I hugged my oldest goodbye in the middle of campus, strapped the car seat tightly in its rear facing position and asked the dog to poop before we headed toward DFW area.  I cried the entire 90-mile drive.  I’d like to say it was grief of leaving my daughter behind. Truth-be-told, it was mainly dread over returning a rental car, getting the dog and her enormous kennel, the baby with stroller and car seat, and lots of luggage in and out of a shuttle and  hotel and then out of the hotel and into the airport at an hour we all abhor.

4am arrived. The dog, the baby, the luggage – all painstakingly loaded into a hotel van while sharply dressed business women and men looked at their watches and gave me the side-eye.  What? You don’t travel like this?  Whatever man, you don’t know my life.

With nursing baby, frightened dog, and precisely weighed fifty-two pound bags ready to go, I waited in line for my turn to greet some of the world’s most helpful and kind customer service agents.

“All of that is yours?”  – was the greeting that morning. I answered apologetically and bounced up and down to keep the baby happy. The agent began our check-in and placing our bags on the scale.  “All your bags are two pounds over.”

I needed a friend so I pretended not to know that. “Oh dear, I’m SO sorry. Lots of stuff to get home”, Ha ha ha light frivolous laughter – we are so happy to be here together at this counter this morning ha ha ha. Good times.

The agent wasn’t amused.  She looked at the giant dog in the kennel behind me and asked to see the papers.  I proudly produced them.  Her brow furrowed as she looked down at them.  Lydia fussed in my arms, Peanut whined in her kennel. The entire American Airlines waiting area looked on with disdain as the agent pounded on her keyboard looking up the reasons I should perish.

“Your veterinarian letter is supposed to be within seven days and it is dated 9 days ago.”

I wish there had been a record button inside my head at that moment. The gymnastics happening and the panic that ensued was life altering.  I explained that I was car-less, home less, friend-less.  I explained that what I did have was a dog and a newborn baby and a bunch of kids in Haiti waiting on me.  She didn’t budge.

I called both my Father and Mother, who were many hours away. “Good Morning, sorry to wake you – PRAY FOR ME and find a vet that will call me right away.”  Without context and half asleep, you can understand how confusing that was.

I explained to the agent that Haiti would never even ask to see my dumb Veterinarian letter, it was a formality and if they arrested me in Haiti I would be okay with that.  I mean really, how long can they hold a lactating half-crazed American woman, anyway? I begged her not to make rule enforcement her job. I assured her that I would take the risk and never blame her if it backfired.

She dug in. I dug in.  It wasn’t hard to cry.  So I did that.  For ten or fifteen minutes we waited one another out.  I pointed out that I had no way to move all the stuff and the kid and the kenneled up dog so she’d have to look at my sorry face all the live long day if she didn’t let us go. I planned my sit-in.

A supervisor was called.  The negotiations began all over again. The baby started wailing due to feeling the tension.

In the end it was Lydia’s loud crying, my insistence that nobody in Haiti would care, and my Mom’s prayers that seemed to set us free with boarding passes in hand.  The dog was taken by someone to go to the special loading area for dogs that don’t understand the rules.

As expected, in Haiti, the letter for the dog was accepted – no questions asked – and for a few moments I was everyone’s hero.

This brings me to the end of my tale. You might think, what’s the point, Tara?

The point is: don’t be stupid.

Let your friends take care of your pets. They’ll live.

 What about you?  Do you travel across international borders with your pet?

 Or  leave your pet behind?  If you have children, has the pet thing been complicated?

I wish I could tell you the questionable decisions surrounding TCPs stopped with Peanut.  Nope. Two other expets have joined the family. Meet Hazelnut and Chestnut, one of them just recently traveled by plane with us with a properly dated vet letter that nobody ever saw. He left a little parting gift at DFW gate A27.

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Tara Livesay works and lives in Port-au-Prince, Haiti
blog: livesayhaiti.com | twitter (sharing with her better half): @troylivesay

You Take Yourself With You (And Other Important Things About Living Overseas)

Airport Check-in

The call from the American University in Cairo came on a Sunday morning, a business day in the Middle East. I had worked the night shift as a nurse and arrived home in time to eat breakfast and  hug my husband and three children, sending them on their way to church while I got much needed sleep.

As I lay on my bed in the warmth of that August morning, the phone rang. It was an administrator from the American University in Cairo. I don’t remember much about that phone call but her final words to me were these: “Tell your husband that his future at the American University in Cairo looks very promising”

Two weeks later we were in Cairo with our youth, our passion, and our three little ones. 

And that’s when it got hard. Because there are some important things that we didn’t realize when we were on one side of the pond – the side where churches applauded us and raised prayers on our behalf; the side where Christian fellowship was easy to find and when I was tired I could open up a box of macaroni and cheese for dinner.

Here are some of the things I learned as I unpacked my bags and hung my heart.

  • You take yourself with you. You pack your suitcases with your belongings, and you pack yourself with your past and your problems. All those quirks and insecurities? They are magnified in cross-cultural situations. Think you are an introvert in your passport country? Try being at a party knowing two sentences of the local language. Struggle with expressing yourself? With anger? With self-righteousness? It will all come back at you in spades.  You don’t become a different person on the airplane. The beauty is that the God who called you, who knew you as you were being knit in the womb, who knows your comings and your goings, he knows that and he has chosen to use you – the real you. The late Ruth Siemens says this: “We are all damaged goods in a spoiled, enemy-occupied world.”  The good news of that quote is that he longs to transform us and he uses our time overseas to refine and change us. 
  • You leave a hero, you arrive a servant. When we left for Cairo someone at our church said “It’s like reading the Old Testament!” and indeed it was. The miracles that happened defied common sense, were beyond earthly understanding. And throughout we were the main stage, we were the center of attention. As hands were laid on us at a church service I remember a young pastor saying “Lord, we pray for this unique, gifted couple” and I felt overwhelmed with humility and fear. After 20 hours of travel, children bleary eyed from Benadryl, we arrived. We left with cute clothes and perky smiles, we arrived with bad breath, smelling like limp wash rags. We didn’t even know how to ask for water or where to find the nearest bathroom. We fell from the skyscraper to the dusty ground, hitting balconies on the way down. It was so hard and it was so good, a quick transition from hero to servant.
  • There will be times when you hate where you live. Nothing will be easy. From visas to setting up a telephone, life overseas involves tremendous patience. Patience with never-ending bureaucracy, patience with the concept of “Mañana” or in our case “Bukhara”. Patience with the people you are supposed to love, realizing it was easy to love one person in your home country, but not so easy to love millions of them when you are in the minority. We had to learn “In’Sh’allah, Bukrah, Maalesh” the IBM principal of Egypt translated as “Tomorrow, God-willing. Don’t worry about it!” I  learned that it’s okay to have a complex set of emotions about the places I’ve lived, loving them one day and hating them the next.
  • Travel challenges you, travel changes you.  I love travel. I’m a third culture kid – I flew before I walked. But it’s still a challenge. Crossing time zones, making connections, dealing with tired kids and spouse? It’s all a challenge. Travel is a bit like a mirror that shows your real character, and it’s not always pretty. Travel is exotic only in retrospect, rarely in real-time.  It’s during those times where you pray desperately that you will learn more of what it is to reflect the character of Christ, to love the unlovely, to cope with the unpleasant.
  • Loneliness is a part of the journey. Sometimes I think that when we sign up for this life of pilgrimage there should be a clause that says: “This life will bring you to points of loneliness that you can hardly bear. Signing here indicates that you have been warned.”  David writes this in Psalm 13:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

The Psalm poetically voices the anguish of a heart that feels alone and abandoned. This is what it feels like at times to be away from those you love, to be in a place where you have to learn everything from how to cook to how to say thank you. Loneliness is part of this journey. There is no easy way to say it, there are no platitudes. But if we read farther on in the Psalm, we see the author come to a place of peace:

But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.

Our years in Egypt took us through pregnancies, conflicts, and marriage crises, and they are still counted among our best.  Our hearts learned to trust in his unfailing love, to rejoice in salvation, to sing the Lord’s praise.

What about you? What are some of the things you learned as you got off the plane and entered into your new life overseas?

Marilyn Gardner loves God, her family, and her passport and can be found

blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.

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Image credit: flik47 / 123RF Stock Photo

Airplanes are Time Machines

We joke that airplanes are time machines. When we come back to South America from North America it feels as though we step back in time. The clinics feel outdated. The cows on cobblestone streets look like the pioneer days in the movies. The open fires in homes and restaurants tended by women in skirts with babies slung on their backs set a scene of a bygone era.

I suppose we could also launch a mind bending conversation about the relativity of time. Like how you “skip” a day when flying from L.A. to Sydney. Or how you can “go back” to yesterday by flying from Tokyo to Honolulu. Such a thrilling life for international travelers! We’ll save all that for the science forums.

I’d rather touch on something even non-nerds can converse about: the cultural concept of time.

Yang Liu created a collection of captivating infogrpahics and put them in a book. After spending significant time in Germany and China she compares: standing in line, dealing with problems, social dynamics at parties, etc. You can see a larger sampling on Brain Pickings.  For the purpose of this post I want us to consider just this one:

Yang Liu's infographic on punctualityOn the left, in the blue box, we see the Germanic concept of punctuality. On the right, in the red box, we see the Chinese concept of punctuality. What would the image portray as an infographic on punctuality for the region where you reside?

The Bolivian rhythm is quite different than the Nebraska rhythm I was raised on. Adjusting my definition of “late” has relieved some tension. Others have tried to sanctify punctuality, as if it was included in the beatitudes. That is a mite too exhausting for me. I choose rather to ascribe to a different addendum to the Sermon on the Mount:  Blessed are the flexible for they shall not be bent out of shape.

Culture shock still creeps up on me every once in a while, though. It usually hits me when I think I have something all figured out. I thought for sure I had the slower place down pat. Then some challenges arose in a particular relationship with a Bolivian.

Consistently, my expectations were not met. I hoped for growth. I taught for growth. We went round and round the issues, and still I didn’t see what I wanted to see in the life of this other person.

When I was venting my frustrations to a very wise lady she helped me see this situation in a new light. She asked if I loved the other person. What good Christian would say no? Of course I love this person. She then said that it was time to lift the timeline. Oftentimes when dealing with relational issues we cannot put a timeline of expectation on the other person. When we are committed to the relationship we will trust that God is helping the other person to grow and change in His timing.

Since that moment, when I see myself become impatient with another person, especially this person, I remember that I let the timeline go. What a great freedom!

The Message bible says in Matthew 11:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it.

Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.

I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

The unforced rhythms of grace for others.

The unforced rhythms of grace for myself.

The unforced rhythms of grace to live in company with God.

Learn the unforced rhythms of grace

What is time like in your region of the world?

Are there some areas in your life where lifting the timeline expectation might relieve some pressure?

 – Angie Washington, missionary living in Bolivia, South America

blog: angiewashington.com twitter: @atangie  facebook: atangie

Traveling Missionaries

Being a missionary carries a great cost, but does have some benefits. It is not all doom and gloom, complete with vows of poverty and poor fashion choices for clothing.

In today’s day and age it is easy to benefit from one aspect of the missionary life. Frequent travel. The nature of missions involves being traveling missionaries. We have left home to go somewhere.

There are great opportunities and value given to those who find themselves on the road often. It is easy to believe that obtaining these perks are not something “spiritual” missionaries do. I would like to contend it is the practice of the wise

I’ve written several posts on my blog regarding how to benefit from these perks. Some of the topics I have covered are:
Racking Up Frequent Flyer Miles.
Finding the Best Flight Deals
Avoiding the Middle Seat and more Travel Tips.

Some rights reserved by Moyan_Brenn

These posts have been some of my most successful. I will not repeat what is in them, but would like to offer a few points based on my experience and mention the benefits of following the advice to the Life Overseas community.

1. Always, always collect your miles. You might not be a missionary who’s job involves multiple trips, but simply earning miles for moving to the field or your visits home can earn you a lot of free travel. When you move a family to the field, you can earn miles for EACH member. One trip can net miles in the six figure range.

2. Don’t see benefiting from hotel points or airline miles as un-spiritual. I believe God would say it is wise. Last Christmas our family traveled home to the USA from South Africa. We purchased the international tickets, earning nearly 80,000 miles for this. While in the USA, we did not pay for a single domestic flight to see our families or supporters saving several thousand dollars. In fact, we used 7 free tickets to visit family and supporters. We were even able to use this commodity to bless others. We gave others three tickets. We might not have a lot of cash, but this is a currency we can be generous with.

3. Miles or points can benefit your ministry. I have flown free within Africa on ministry trips, Often it costs less to fly 10,000 miles to the USA than it does 2,000 within Africa. If I pay for the high mileage tickets, it helps me fly free on the lower mileage but higher priced ones. Also, on the hotel side of things. Having a free night in a hotel on a long international layover beats sleeping in an airport anytime!

4. Mileage can serve us in emergencies. This is a savings account of sorts. Recently, our family needed to respond to a family emergency back in the USA. Within 2 hours of hearing of this, I had a mileage ticket booked for my wife to travel internationally. She departed the same day we found out. If I were to buy this ticket, it would have cost me several thousand dollars.

5. Travel currency can benefit you with rest and relaxation. Even missionaries need rest. God commands it after all. We might fight the guilt battle which says we can’t do this (maybe believing we are indispensable), but God tells us to. As you read this, my wife and I are on a much needed break. We have flown to a foreign destination and are spending time in hotels, completely FREE. With the year we have had, we needed it!

Not sure where to start? It’s simple.

The next time you fly or stay in a hotel, make sure you have signed up for that airlines or hotel chain’s loyalty program. Try to pick one which serves your frequent travel destinations and stick with it.

It’s called wisdom and it carries many benefits; financially, emotionally, and “vacation-ally”

How have others in the community benefited from travel perks? What stigmas do we need to expose which tell us missionaries we are not able to do such activities or that they are “un-spiritual”? 

– Chris Lautsbaugh, Missionary teacher and author with Youth With A Mission, living in S. Africa.
Blog: NoSuperHeroes   Twitter: @lautsbaugh   Facebook: NoSuperHeroes

Searching for home after a global upbringing

It’s book month on A Life Overseas!! I love books and I’m especially excited to be able to share a little about my latest book, Love At The Speed Of Email, with you today. I’ve got three electronic copies to give away (PDF, MOBI, or EPUB versions available). Find out how to enter below.

Love At The Speed Of Email is a memoir – the story of how I met my husband while he was in Papua New Guinea working for a humanitarian organization and I was in Los Angeles working as a stress management trainer. It’s more than a love story, though, it’s a recounting of my struggle to find an answer to the question “where’s home” after being raised five different countries and then embracing a career that kept me perpetually on the move. I suspect that this struggle to define home is one that those of you who were raised as third culture kids (or who are raising global nomads yourselves) will be all too familiar with.

The section that I’ve chosen to share with you comes from a chapter called Airports and Bookstores. I was twenty-six years old, in Hawaii, and having the time of my life at the first creative writing workshop I’d ever attended when I realized for the first time that I might have a real problem when it came to this concept of home …

***

Borrowing inspiration from the tale of the prodigal son in the Bible, our instructors had told us to write a “coming home” story. We should, we were told, write the prodigal who was us as an adult, coming home to ourselves as a child.

“Pick the clearest recollection you have of home and use that,” they said.

Everyone else reached for a pen or a laptop. I just sat there.

I was still sitting there ten minutes later.

Eventually I went up to the front of the room, to the giant leather-bound book of synonyms that was sitting on a podium, looked up home and wrote down these words: Birthplace. Stability. Dwelling. Hearth. Hearthstone. Refuge. Shelter. Haven. Sanctum.

I went back to my seat and stared past the book of synonyms, past the palm trees standing still under a blanket of midday heat, and out into the hazy blue of an ocean that promised a horizon it never quite delivered.

The list didn’t seem to help much.

Birthplace conjured Vancouver, a city I’d visited only twice, briefly, since we’d left when I was one.

Stability then. Unlike my parents’, not a word that could be applied to my childhood. In stark contrast with their agrarian upbringing, I’d spent an awful lot of my time in airports.

Maybe that was it, I thought, wondering whether the sudden spark I felt at the word airport was a glimmer of inspiration or merely desperation.

There was no denying that as a child I’d thought there was a lot of fun to be had in and around airports. More than one home movie shows me and my sister, Michelle, arranging our stuffed animals and secondhand Barbies in symmetrical rows and lecturing them severely about seat belts and tray tables before offering to serve them drinks. When we were actually in airports, we spent many happy hours collecting luggage carts and returning them to the distribution stands in order to pocket the deposit. We were always very disappointed to find ourselves in those boring socialist airports with free trolleys.

In Hawaii, I was tempted to start writing my story about home but didn’t.

“Your clearest memories of home as a child cannot possibly be in an airport,” I scolded myself, still staring past my laptop and out to the white-laced toss and chop of cerulean. “Home is not a topic that deserves flippancy. Work harder. … What about dwellings and hearths?”

That year my parents were living in the Philippines. My brother was in Sydney. My sister was in Washington, D.C. The bed I could legitimately call mine resided in Indiana. I had lived none of these places except D.C. as a child, and they were such awkward, lonely years that the thought of going back, even in a story, made me squirm. We lived in Washington, D.C., for three and a half years before moving to Zimbabwe, and what I remember most clearly about that time is that I spent much of it reading.

I’ve been in love with reading since before I can remember. Our family photo albums are peppered with photos of me curled up with books – in huts in Bangladesh, on trains in Europe, in the backseat of our car in Zimbabwe.

I can’t remember my parents reading to us before bed, although they swear they often did – sweet tales about poky puppies and confused baby birds looking for their mothers.

“You were insatiable,” Mum said when I asked her about this once. “No matter how many times I read you a book, you always wanted more.”

“Awwww,” I said, envisioning long rainy afternoons curled up with my mother while she read to me. “You must have spent hours reading to me.”

“I did,” my mother said in a tone that let me know she fully expects me to return the favor one day. “But it was never enough. So I taped myself.”

“What?” I asked.

“I got a tape recorder,” she said. “I recorded myself reading a story – I even put these cute little chimes in there so you’d know when to turn the page. Then, sometimes, I sat you down with the tapes.”

“Nice,” I said in a way that let her know that I didn’t think this practice would get her nominated for the motherly hall of fame.

“You loved it,” she said, completely uncowed. “Plus, I needed a break every now and then. You were exhausting. You never stopped asking questions. You asked thirty-seven questions once during a half-hour episode of Lassie. I counted.”

I can’t remember any of this. My earliest memories of reading are solitary, sweaty ones. They are of lying on the cool marble floor of our house in Bangladesh, book in hand, an overhead fan gently stirring the dense heat while I chipped away at frozen applesauce in a small plastic container. But it’s when we moved from Bangladesh to the states when I was nine that my memories of books, just like childhood itself, become clearer.

Of all the moves I’ve made in my life, this was one of the most traumatic. Abruptly encountering the world of the very wealthy after two years of living cheek by jowl with the world of the very poor, I discovered that I didn’t fit readily into either world. My fourth grade classmates in Washington D.C. had no framework for understanding where I had been for the last two years – what it was like to ride to church in a rickshaw pulled by a skinny man on a bicycle, to make a game out of pulling three-inch-long cockroaches out of the sink drain while brushing your teeth at night, or to gaze from the windows of your school bus at other children picking through the corner garbage dumps.

I, in turn, lacked the inclination to rapidly absorb and adopt the rules of this new world, a world where your grasp on preteen fashion, pop culture, and boys all mattered terribly. Possibly I could have compensated for my almost total lack of knowledge in these key areas with lashings of gregarious charm, but at nine I lacked that, too. I was not what you would call a sunny child.

So I read instead. I read desperately.

I read pretty much anything I could get my hands on. One of the few good things I could see about living in the states was the ready availability of books. Some weekends Mum and Dad would take us to the local library’s used-book sale. Books were a quarter each. I had a cardboard box and carte blanche. On those Saturday mornings I was in heaven.

Like many kids, I suspect, I was drawn to stories of outsiders or children persevering against all odds in the face of hardship. I devoured all of C.S. Lewis’ stories of Narnia and adored the novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett, especially the ones featuring little girls who were raised in India before being exiled to face great hardship in Britain. But I also strayed into more adult territory. I trolled our bookshelves and the bookshelves of family friends, and those bookshelves were gold mines for stories about everything from religious persecution to murder, rape, civil war, child brides, and honor killing.

In retrospect, even at eleven I wasn’t reading largely for pleasant diversion, for fun, for the literary equivalent of eating ice cream in the middle of the day. I was extreme-reading – pushing boundaries – looking to be shocked, scared, thrilled, and taught. I was reading to try to figure out how to make sense of pain.

It is entirely possible that had we remained in Australia throughout my childhood, I would still have spent the majority of these preteen years feeling isolated and misunderstood. After all, in the midst of our mobility I never doubted my parents’ love for me or for each other, but this did not forestall an essential loneliness that was very deeply felt. I suspect that I would still have grown into someone who feels compelled to explore the juxtaposition of shadow and light, someone who is drawn to discover what lies in the dark of life and of ourselves. But I also suspect that the shocking extremes presented by life in Bangladesh and America propelled me down this path earlier, and farther, than I may naturally have ventured.

It was largely books that were my early companions on this journey. They were stories of poverty and struggle, injustice and abuse, violence and debauchery, yes. But they were also threaded through with honor and courage, sacrifice and discipline, character and hope.

Many people seem to view “real life” as the gold standard by which to interpret stories, but I don’t think that does novels justice. For me, at least, the relationship between the real and fictional worlds was reciprocal. These books named emotions, pointed to virtue and vice, and led me into a deeper understanding of things I had already witnessed and experienced myself. They also let me try on, like a child playing dress-up, experiences and notions new to me. They acted as maps, mirrors, and magnifying glasses.

In those lonely childhood years, books also provided refuge. They were havens and sanctums.

Did that make them home?

When the writing exercise ended after half an hour and we were invited to share, I’d come up with only two ideas.

Set the scene in a bookstore. Or set it in an airport.

I hadn’t written a single word.

***

Thanks for reading! You can enter to win a copy of Love At The Speed Of Email by leaving a comment below and addressing at least one of the following questions.

  • Where’s home for you?
  • What comes to mind when you hear the word home?
  • If you’re raising third culture kids, how are you addressing this issue with them?
  • Any favorite Bible verses, quotes, or stories to share on this topic?

I’ll pick three winners randomly from the comment list on Saturday the 9th of March and send out an email to the winners. If you don’t win an e-copy and you’d like to read more, or you prefer a paperback copyLove At The Speed Of Email is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and elsewhere.

Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos

Blog: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red