Friends Abroad

A friend of mine from college sent me the link to this article a few weeks ago.  Her mother is an expat (from Spain, to the US), and she mentioned that she saw a lot of her mother’s friendships in the article.  I read the entire thing, nodding…

There is this subtle understanding in the expat world that it is easier to make American friends outside America.

When we moved here, I worried about making friends.  Here we were, moving to a country we had been to ONCE, where we didn’t know a soul. Despite my Irish surname, I have no known family connections to Ireland.  Brad was hired specifically to IBM Ireland – so we didn’t even know any of his coworkers.  We had two very young kids, and I was pregnant with a (super) surprise baby.  We had no idea about the medical system here.  We didn’t know the least bit about living in Ireland, and just had to jump in with both feet.

As I jumped, a group of women – mainly expats – caught me. They recommended hospitals and doctors, pointed me to local grocery stores where I could get the American foods I was craving, explained the driver’s license process (it’s a long one), listened to my complaints and frustrations without judgement, and generally made me feel at home.  They shortened and lessened the learning curve.  Their knowledge empowered me.  If they could figure all of this out, then I could to.  If their families could survive and thrive in the expat environment, then my little family would find its footing as well.

My friends in Ireland are a diverse lot.  In some ways, I don’t think that I would have been friends with some of them if we had met in the US.  Back home, it is very easy for us to self-select a group of friends that are like-minded.  Friends that are the same age, or same stage in life, similar socio-economic background, with similar views on parenting, religion, politics, etc.  Here – all of that extraneous material is stripped away.  Much like trees in the wintertime.  My expat friends here are different ages, ethnicities, parents (or not), religious (or not), each with a diverse set of values. Most have lived in America at some point in their lives.  The main thing we have in common is that we are, or were, expats.  Most importantly, they are kind and trustworthy.  I loved this quote from the post:

“It’s not as if everyone gets naked and frolics in the hot tub of life abroad. Far from it. There are cliques and groups and people who don’t like each other with an intensity bordering on manic–in other words, it’s just like real life–the one outside the expat bubble. What is different is the closeness you feel to those you do like–and the speed at which that closeness develops.”

Wine and Cheese (Doodles)

It is so very true – I consider these women to be as close as some of my lifelong friends, even though we have only known each other for a short amount of time.  The kind of friend that doesn’t hesitate to be your emergency contact at your child’s school (no relative to put on that one!), sit with you at the hospital, or babysit your children when you’re in a bind.  They are my Irish extended family.  They join you for holiday celebrations, or help out at your child’s birthday party.  One of these women will move back to the US next month.  I wish her well, and I hope that she finds a group of friends there that are just as supportive as our group is here.

 

The Best Onion Dip Ever

Happy New Year’s Eve!  Are you celebrating tonight, or enjoying a quiet evening in?  Whatever you’re up to, I hope you have a great time.

I wanted to share a recipe I found last week that makes the most amazing onion dip.  Here in Ireland, many of the standard American party foods are not available.  There are no Fritos, Velveeta, proper Lays potato chips, ranch dressing (gasp!), or french onion dip.  Now – the Irish have plenty of their own “snack foods”, but they just don’t cut it when I’m craving good ol’ American-style snacks.  We had a small get-together on Christmas Eve with some friends, and we wanted to serve some dishes that reminded us of home.  I ran across this recipe in a Holiday Entertaining magazine from last year, and had to try it.  The results were amazing – this is so much better than the stuff you can buy at the store.  Don’t be put off by the amount of time it takes.  Seriously.  While the onions roasted, I finished other things in the kitchen.  You could make this dip for your New Year’s Party tonight!

Caramelized Onion & Shallot Dip

Serves 16 – but let’s be honest, 2 people could pack it away with enough motivation!

2 lb large yellow onions, thinly sliced.  I used our mandoline, but you could also use a food processor.

2 large shallots, thinly sliced. About 6 oz/170g total. Our shallots are tiny – I think I used 6.

4 sprigs thyme

1/4C olive oil

Salt and Pepper

1 C dry white wine (I used stock/water in a pinch because I didn’t have any wine at that moment.)

2 T Sherry vinegar (I used balsamic.)

2 C sour cream

1/4C minced fresh chives

1/4C plain, whole-milk Greek yogurt

2 t onion powder

Preheat oven to 425F/220C.  Mix onions, shallots, thyme sprigs and oil in large roasting pan or rimmed cookie sheet. Season with salt and pepper.

Roast onion mixture, stirring and scraping down sides of pan every 10 minutes until mixture starts to break down and turn golden brown, 45-55 minutes.

Discard thyme sprigs. Add wine and vinegar; stir to scrape up any browned bits from bottom of pan.  Return onion mixture to oven. Continue roasting, stirring occasionally, until deep golden brown and completely caramelized, about 15 minutes longer.

Let onion mixture cool to room temperature.

Transfer onion mixture to work surface and mince. Transfer to medium bowl. Stir in sour cream, chives, yogurt, and onion powder.  Season with salt and pepper.

Dip can be made up to 3 days ahead.

Enjoy!

Recipe can be found online here.

Friday…err…Sunday Finds

Hello everyone!

I hope you have had a lovely holiday week. It has been busy here, (and thus, quiet on the blog).  The days leading up to Christmas were quite full, but now we have settled into some nice, peaceful days.  St. Stephen’s Day (Dec 26) is also a holiday here in Ireland.  The weather was particularly bad, which actually made for a great day for playing with new toys, reading, and generally enjoying the family time.  I gathered some bits and bobs, as the Irish would say, from around the internet.  Happy Reading!

This Guinness commercial has been around for awhile.  Although it rarely snows here in Dublin (too close to the ocean), it’s fun to dream of the white stuff.

Beautiful photos of Ireland captured by the Irish Air Corps

I loved this (annotated!) video of the last episode of The Colbert Report.

This article made me think that perhaps all that Christmas decor isn’t ‘holly-jolly’ after all.

The day I got my first period.  Not exactly the type of story you expect to see in the Guardian.

What it’s like to be an expat during Christmas. Ha!

And finally, Tiny Prints has put together a great New Year’s Eve Party Game Planner.  It has great ideas on how to fill the hours leading up to the ball drop.  With this, all that is left is to send the invites!

I hope everyone had a great Christmas!  The picture above is from one of our favorite pubs, The Hole in the Wall.  They go all out with their Christmas decorations.

x Rheagan

Are the Reasons to Stay, Reasons Enough?

Every expat, no matter how long they have lived in their host country has a “bad day”.  A “bad day” in expat speak is one of those days when you want to chunk your entire life in your host country into the trash and board the next plane back home.  Most of the time, I am very happy with our life in Ireland.  Yeah, it’s far from home, the cars are tiny, there is no Tex-Mex, and the weather is less than ideal, but I can usually look past those inconveniences and see the benefits of living here. We live in a lovely neighborhood, our kids attend great schools, work-life balance is genraly better than in the US, and most importantly, we have wonderful friends.

I think the fact that I have so few “bad days” makes it much harder when one hits me full force.  Like Saturday. I had a few errands to run at the mall near our house.  Brad and Isaac took the car to GAA practice, but that didn’t bother me.  The bus that stops at my neighborhood delivers me straight to the shopping center.  Super convenient!  Patrick, Liesl and I headed out to do some shopping.  The thing about shopping Ireland – there are no big-box stores.  No Wal-Marts, Targets or Costcos. So if you need a few random items, you probably have to visit more than one store.  In every store I entered, I encountered multiple instances of poor customer service. (The Irish are generally quite friendly, but customer-service is not one of their strong points.)  At one store, an employee followed me around, I think because she thought Liesl would break something.  When I went to check out, the cashier accused me of using a stolen credit card because it wasn’t chip-and-pin.  I was furious, but felt really stuck.  I needed the items,  I didn’t know where else I would be able to purchase them, and I was already there. I paid with another card and left, seething.

We had some extra time, so I decided to pop into Marks & Spencers (probably the store most similar to Target), to look for new dresses for Liesl.  She has hit a growth spurt, and her clothes are getting shorter by the day!  Of course, when we get there, there are many dresses to choose from, but only one in her size.  Really M&S?  Only one dress available for a 4-year old, at a large store in the middle of a metropolitan area?  Sadly, this isn’t that uncommon.  Once a store runs out of inventory, they don’t necessarily order more.  The Irish have this phrase, “It’s better to be looking at it, rather than looking for it.”  Meaning that if you see what you need, you should probably buy it right then because you never know if it will be there the next time you pass through the store.  We pick it up, plus a 3-pack of tights and head to the checkout queue. Two people cut me in line, and when I finally got to the till, the cashier rings up my items to €45.  That’s right…the equivalent of almost $60 for ONE dress and a pack of tights.  This wasn’t a dressy-dress, or a holiday dress.  Just a basic corduroy dress for casual wear.  And just then, all the frustration of the morning, and living on this tiny, cold, expensive island caught up with me.

I could have driven a nice car to Target, parked in a huge parking lot, picked up all the items I needed plus a mocha at the in-store Starbucks(!), and the entire trip probably would have cost less than the dress and tights at Marks & Spencers. I would have boarded a plane right then.

When we moved here, the opportunity outweighed the negatives.  The travel!  Experience a new culture! Live outside your comfort zone! But after awhile, it just begins to wear on you.  Ireland is the 5th most expensive country in Europe, after the perennial favorites – Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Luxemborg.  At least in the Nordic nations, your cost of living is balanced out with high social benefits like free childcare and high-quality schooling and healthcare.  It costs more to live in Dublin than almost anywhere in the US.  The labor market is quite sticky here, and childcare costs are some of the highest in the world.  The housing market is so expensive that it is unlikely we could purchase a home here for quite some time.  All of this has been wearing on me for awhile, and the experiences of the morning left me wondering, “Is it really worth it? Is it worth taking a step down in standard of living for a higher quality of life?”

My response used to be, “Of course!  Anything is better than the rat-race of the US.”  But now I am not so sure.  Will we look back on our time in Ireland as a grand (mis)adventure where we had great experiences, but didn’t accomplish much, in terms of worldly gain?  Or is it that I’m just being selfish and materialistic?

I think, whether you are an expat or not, making peace with your life’s decisions takes time and effort.  I know I probably shouldn’t compare life in Dublin with life in America.  The population bases, the economies, and the cultural perspectives are very different and we haven’t even touched on challenging subjects like tax policy!  But the fact that I know I have a choice in where I live makes those comparisons unavoidable.  Life would be so much cheaper in America, but does that make for a happier life?  In Ireland, I have many of the things that matter strongly to me. I do know that I have a  great support network here.  Right after posting the tweet, I had several friends call and text me to check in and make sure I was ok. No matter where you live in the world, friends matter.

But I still wonder:  Are the reasons to stay, reasons enough?

Friday Finds

So many good things around the internet this week!  I should know – we have been deluged with rain since Wednesday, which has meant lots of time indoors. It’s raining again now, so while I hope for drier weather tomorrow, I’ll get right to the links for your weekend.

Motherhood:

A humorous read: A Day At Home with A Newborn.

Our ‘Mommy’ Problem.  “Somehow, as we’ve learned to treat children as people with desires and rights of their own, we’ve stopped treating ourselves and one another as such.”  Does our culture demand that mothers be “all in all the time”?  How does this square up to the “lean in” pressures are well?  There are no right or wrong answers here, but I found this article encapsulated many of the frustrations that mothers face.

Finding your passion:

Great Forbes interview with Ina Garten of Barefoot Contessa.  From nuclear policy analyst to restaurant owner to cookbook author.  I wish I possessed her vision and ability to take that “big leap” from one career to the next.

I am curious if this planner would actually help me identify my passions in life. Also, why can’t I come up with a fascinating idea when I am stumped for “what’s next”?

Expat Life:

Cultural miscommunication, even when you share a common language.

I am a triangle. This blog post has made the rounds in the expat world, but it is still one of the best explanations of what happens when you move overseas and the reverse culture shock if/when you move back.

And my favourite/favorite video of the week: The New York Times 36 Hours in Dublin.  The video shares some of my most loved places in Dublin, from Fallon & Byrne and the Green Hen, to the National Museum.  The video conveys the earnest spirit that so many Irish possess, and makes me proud to live here.

 Have a great weekend!

x Rheagan

10 Tips for Flying with Toddlers

A few weeks ago, I wrote up my 10 tips for traveling with an infant.  Traveling with an infant is great, but flying with toddlers definitely requires that you up your game a bit. They are bigger, louder, more mobile, and more independent.  This list is written with long-haul/international flights in mind, but many of the tips are useful for short trips as well.  For those who will be flying the friendly skies with children ages 9 months – 3 years, here is a list of 10 tips to keep in mind.

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[li_item icon=””]1. Do yourself and your child a favor, buy them their own seat, and bring their car seat along.  I can fly “infant in arms” until the child is about 9 months old, and then I reach my limit. Other people have different opinions, but I have found that after about 9 months, the baby is not as comfortable in my arms for the duration of a long flight.  (Short-haul flights, I can usually tough-it-out until the kid is 2.)  Your car seat must be approved for air travel. We bought the FAA-approved Britax car seat, and it has performed beautifully.  We liked it so much, we now have two of them.[/li_item]
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[li_item icon=””]2.  To carry your car seat, and your kid through the airport, check your stroller and buy one of these.  It’s basically a luggage cart for your car seat.  If your trip is just a one-time thing, beg, borrow or steal one from a friend, but for multiple trips, it is worth the money. You snap the car seat onto it with the LATCH connectors, tilt it back, and pull it through the airport.  It is lightweight, folds flat, and you can store it in the overhead bin, or under the seat. You can also strap your kid into the car seat as you pull it along, but if we have the time, I prefer my kids to walk in the airports. (See #6).[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]3.  Before your trip, go to the dollar store and pick up a few fun toys, games and stickers for the trip.  For our last trip, I bought each child a small pencil bag, and put inside some crayons, colored pencils, and loads of stickers.  I bought each child a new coloring book as well.  When traveling with a toddler, I try to set a “1 toy per 20 minutes” rule.  Meaning, I will get out a new toy every 20 minutes or so, but I will not be the “on-demand” toy factory.  If you expect to be traveling often, make a box of “travel toys”.  Our set of travel toys includes: a set of lacing cards, a set of small dinosaurs, Mini Magna doodle, play-doh, triangular crayons (an ingenious idea – they don’t roll off the tray table!) etc.  The kids know that most of these toys only come out on the plane, and therefore, are more excited to play with them. We also load the iPad with shows they like, and a few games, but most of the time, they want to watch the TV on the airplane.[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]4.  Buy a set of over-ear headphones for each child. The ones provided by the airlines don’t usually fit little kids’ heads, and ear buds usually bother them. Also, it can be something special to bring out during the flight.[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]5.  Bring your own food. MORE THAN YOU THINK WILL BE NECESSARY.  Trying to convince your grumpy, tired 2 year old to eat mystery “chicken mornay” may be a hard sell.  Bring sandwiches that travel easily, such as PB&J.  I bring plenty of small foods, such as cheerios, goldfish, teddy grahams, or box raisins.  The box raisins are super handy because the kids kill a bunch of time trying to fish every last raisin out of the box.  They are also high in fiber, which helps counteract travel-related constipation.  I also bring a few apples and granola bars.  Each child has his or her own water bottle.  We encourage them to drink plenty of water.  Pro-tip:  If traveling with your spouse/partner, split the snacks into two gallon-size ziploc bags, in case you are separated on the plane.[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]6.  If you have time, let the kids walk in the airport.  This is a handy way to burn off excess energy and get the wiggles out.  It is tempting to strap them into the stroller or carrier, and just get on to the next gate, but then they don’t have any time run about.  If you’re worried about a toddler running off, get a leash/harness, or let them walk part of the way, on the less-crowded concourses.[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]7. When you get to your gate, sit close to a window so that they can watch the planes, or off to the side, where there is more space for them to run around (within reason).  If you are fighting jet lag, keep moving.  When we have a layover on an international trip, we try not to sit down too much until we get on the next flight.[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]8.  If traveling with your spouse or partner, consider sending one person onto the plane early, with the car seat and carryons (if possible), and then wait until the latest possible moment to board the plane with your child. There is nothing worse than trying to entertain a child while you are still sitting at the gate![/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]9.  Clothing: Dress everyone in easy-on, easy-off, non-fussy clothes.  This is not the time to dress your child in that adorable dress with lace and tulle from your aunt.  If necessary, change into that adorable outfit in the airport bathroom when you get to your destination. I dress my daughter in leggings, t-shirt, cardigan or zip-front sweatshirt.  My sons wear comfortable jeans or athletic pants, t-shirt, zip-front sweatshirt.  Pack each child a full backup outfit, including underwear and socks, in a one-gallon ziploc bag.  Should the worst happen, you just have to reach into your bag, find their ziploc, and take that to the bathroom to change.  You never know when someone might get air sick, or spill an entire orange juice down the front of their clothes.  Pack an extra shirt for yourself as well.  If your child is recently potty trained, have them wear pull-ups.  We flew a week after Liesl was potty trained, and I told her that the pull-ups were her “airplane panties”.  She never had an accident, but it was cheap insurance.[/li_item]
[li_item icon=””]10.  Be flexible and Have Fun! Set some ground rules, but don’t be afraid to make the trip fun as well.  For example, screen time is really limited at our house, but if Liesl wants to watch Doc McStuffins all.the.way from Dublin to New York, I let her.  They rarely get juice at home, but if they want juice every time the flight attendant offers drinks, juice it is!  If they want to do jumping jacks at the gate, they can.  Or we go out of our way during a layover to find the “really big” planes and watch them take off.[/li_item]

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I find that the kids reflect our attitudes, especially in travel.  When things don’t go as planned, if we treat it as a “Grand Adventure”, they will too.  Travel with kids is a lot of work, but given the choice between traveling with kids, or staying home – I’ll choose travel any day!

Our experience with an au pair

One of the challenging things about becoming an expat is how often I have to eat my words, “I would never…”  When you’re  thrown into a situation you really never expected, no amount of planning can account for all differences in culture and environment.  Some examples in my life include:

I would never have a baby in another country.

I would never fly with an infant younger than a month.  What sort of parent does that?

I would never be the stay-at-home parent.  I have two masters degrees. NO thank you!

And the latest one to bite the dust:

I would never have an au pair live with us.  That’s just too awkward.

A few weeks ago, we had a chance to host a temporary au pair in our home for 12 days.  A friend of mine was looking for someone to take the au pair she had originally contracted with.  Her family was going out of town, and she didn’t need the au pair as expected.  We decided this was a great time to try out an au pair and see how it might work for our family.  Au Pairs aren’t really common in the US, but they are very common in Ireland. There are all sorts of au-pair arrangements: live-in, live-out, temporary, full-time…  One program for temporary au pairs is called Workaway, also known as a “Cultural Exchange Volunteer”.  In this arrangement, in exchange for room and board, you can contract with an individual to work in your home for 4-5 hours per day.  They could do housecleaning, cooking, child minding, or other forms of light manual labor.

I was really nervous about the whole idea, even though I am the one who volunteered to host her!  We spoke with her several times and exchanged numerous emails.  I know that constantly watching 3 young kids can be mentally and physically exhausting.  What if she didn’t like kids?  What if it was too stressful for her, or we didn’t have good communication? What if all she wanted was a free place to sleep while she did some sightseeing?  What if she stayed out late partying every night?  What if I met her and decided I didn’t trust her?

In reality, all my fears were overblown.  Jenny stayed with us for 12 days, and it was AMAZING.  We picked up Jenny from the train station, and from the start, she was outgoing, kind, fun, and responsible.  She had just turned 25, graduated from university, and completed an internship.  She decided to do a Workaway trip to practice her English, and see Ireland, before starting her full-time job back in Germany.  She played with the kids, helped out around the house, and was genuinely interested in how we came to living in Ireland.  She watched the kids for 4 hours a day, while I worked.  One day, she took the kids to a museum in town.  She even watched the kids on Saturday night so Brad and I could sneak away for a date, and then came to church with us the next morning.  The rest of the time, she did sightseeing in and around Dublin.  We gave her a train/bus card (Leap card), so she could get around on public transit.

I was nervous that it might be awkward having someone else living with us, but we have a spare bedroom, and it really worked out well.  Her English was great, and more importantly, she jumped right in to our family.  It was wonderful to have someone dependable at home.  One of my friends described having an au pair was like having a wife, in that there was always someone at home to watch the kids, move laundry, load the dishwasher, and all the other little things that can fall by the wayside, especially when life gets busy. We will definitely consider an au pair as a viable option for childcare in the future.   Do you think you would consider an au pair, if you had the opportunity?

 

Oh, the picture above was taken at one of our favourite coffee shops in Dublin, and Liesl is at that stage where she gives a fake grin in every picture…