We tend to hear stories shared when the cycle is completed: The story teller, usually looking back, is able to identify the dramatic moments of challenge, fear, anger, sadness, but he is here now, to tell the story and inspire how to overcome and complete the journey to reach a successful end.
When you live a mobile life you are constantly breaking this cycle many times. Before you completed overcoming all the challenges of a new country, new language, new culture, new friends, new career, before you could proudly look back and see how much you have grown, you are thrown again to your next unexpected challenge.
I am writing today in the middle of the storm; this Boston chapter of my story began less than five months ago. The transition is in process.
My personal story begins in Buenos Aires. I am the second generation born in Argentina, to a family that was forced to immigrate from Eastern Europe. My grandparents were poor immigrants hoping for a better life, my parents were the generation that was assigned to fulfill their dreams. And they did. I was born to educated, hard working parents that proudly adopted the local culture and felt safe until again history pushed them to become refugees, traveling all over Europe in order to find a welcoming place, until we settled in Israel.
Israel, an amazing melting pot of cultures and origins, welcomed us in a way that I will always be grateful for. In my current nomad life, I often look back and appreciate the warmth and the power of the Israeli community.
This was my first international experience: Israel as a nation was my first international education environment, there were others like me, coming from other places, there were other accents, there were other parents not as fluent in Hebrew, it was a place that wanted to hug you fast and make you “local” in no time. So I did. I became Israeli, adopting not only the language but the culture, lifestyle and values. I served two years in the IDF, studied at the University and became a clinical psychologist. I married my wonderful Israeli husband, had my four kids. It could have been the end of the story. I found my home, and as an immigrant manage to build a strong enough local identity to feel at home and belong.
Opportunity and Challenge are many times two sides of the same coin. My husband was working for a few years in an international company, we were offered many times to move abroad. He was excited. He had studied abroad in his past, it was an amazing opportunity for his career, it was his dream. Not mine.
We took a chance and followed his dream.
A new chapter: Belgium. I had my personal experience of transitioning, I knew what it can take, but this time it was different. It was not immigrating, it was transitioning to an expat community, a community of nomads. As an immigrant you are expected to assimilate with the local community, but in such a diverse community where do you belong?
This is where the importance of your tribe becomes so valuable. In the expat world, the country of origin tends to be your first aid tribe. It can be a blessing and a curse, again the same two sides of just another coin. Within your country-of-origin tribe you can instantly feel at home, everything is familiar and easy.
But what about the advantages of opening up to other languages, cultures, people? Well, this is the curse side — if it is too comfortable why would you challenge your comfort zone?
Indeed, many of the non-native, English-speaking communities unintentionally tend to close themselves to others. I was lucky to have the support of the Israeli community but was also invited to be part of the Latin American community, my Argentinian identity that had been pushed aside while adopting the Israeli identity was given a chance to flourish.
That was my second supportive tribe, still a challenge, after all even though Spanish is my mother tongue, I’d been living most of my life in Hebrew! Luckily this group was the most welcoming, non-judgmental tribe, encouraging and inclusive.
So with two supportive tribes someone can assume that it will be an easy transition, right?
Well, when you live your life in a place that operates in French or Flemish, your kids are going to an English-speaking school, a language that at that point they didn’t speak, your support groups are in Hebrew and Spanish, and your profession relies on language abilities, it can be complicated….
There was not much of a choice — I had to learn French. Again, you have to be at the end of the cycle to enjoy it, but the journey can be painful. None of these three languages would really give access to the heart of the expat community that I then realized, was the community that we were invited to join.
So how can you find your way into a community that communicates in what sounds to you like perfect English, when all you have is the English as a second language you learned at school, which for you is actually your third language, while you are trying to acquire a fourth language to communicate with the locals? How can you feel comfortable enough, to believe that you can actually make friends, work and sound yourself in another language?
This is where the common language of sports became the bridge to the English-speaking community in Brussels.
Sports had been part of my life since I was young, when we first arrived in Israel it was my way to feel confident in a new reality where for the first time I lost my ability to communicate. A ball was just a ball, you pass, you throw, you score, you don’t have to say a word. Without many words you can belong to a team, feel included and enjoying some sense of familiarity.
I am not a sporty person, I am a social sporty person. I used to run with my Saturday morning running group only for the coffee after. I applied the same philosophy when we moved: I joined a women’s basketball team that later on became my best friends and many times the motivation was the beer afterwards.
Knowing so well how it relaxed me, I was looking for the same for my kids. The Brussels Sports Association is a volunteer-based organization that offers team sports for the English-speaking community in Brussels. Every skill level is welcome and the coaches are parent volunteers.
I was asked to help with coaching, once again intimidated by many coaches that seemed to know much more about sport and English than me. My first reaction was: I can’t. It ended up being: “You either do it or your son can’t play.”
One thing is very clear when you are on the move, the wellbeing of your kids is extremely important. So encouraged by my English-speaking women’s basketball tribe I took the chance. My first “job” in English was as an assistant soccer coach for a U8 team.
It was an opportunity for my kids to join a very inclusive, welcoming and open environment, where they could run and play and feel less disadvantaged by their lack of knowledge of the language because the way to express yourself is by playing. At the same time I was given the opportunity to lead, plan, communicate and rebuild my confidence in a foreign language. BSA became my English-speaking tribe and the bridge to what led me into a wonderful journey of reinventing myself.
I am very grateful to all my supporting tribes along the way.