Our first chat features Karen McCann. Karen and her husband, Rich, moved from Cleveland, Ohio to Seville, Spain. Her new book, Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad, is a breezy and engaging look at how moving overseas hits the reset button on your life. I loved her book and her sense of humor. Now that they split the year between Spain and Northern California, she is somewhat of an expert on moving between cultures.
By Karen McCann
When I moved to Seville in 2004, people started asking me what I miss most about America. I always say my family and friends, because of course it’s true, and besides, if you don’t say that, everyone thinks you are totally heartless. But to be perfectly honest, what first springs to mind is Saran Wrap. Oh, they have plastic wrap in Spain, but — and I don’t mean to shock you — it doesn’t come with a little metal serrated edge for cutting off a piece the desired length. The cardboard container (so deceptively like the US kind in appearance) has perforated ends that let you poke your fingers through to get a two-handed grip on the roll. You then invite a companion to grasp the plastic wrap and pull, while a third member of the party finds the scissors and cuts off a piece of the desired length. By the time I have mustered the personnel and equipment for the task, the half lemon I was planning to wrap has withered, as has my interest in the whole procedure. Nowadays, I try to find recipes that call for complete lemons, and I insist my guests drink enough gin and tonics to use up the entire lime.
As you can see, living abroad means that even the simplest activity requires considerable thought and ingenuity. You can’t count onanything being the way it was back home.
This can be disorienting, especially at first, but it has its benefits. Moving to a foreign country lets you reinvent yourself in a way that rarely exists outside of the witness protection program. No one knows anything about you except what you choose to reveal.
Have you ever noticed how the people you grew up with always seem to have the longest memories about the things you’d most like them to forget: undesirable boyfriends, dubious jobs, certain weekends in college? I grew up longing to write fiction, and in my youth I made the mistake of telling people I was working on a novel. I finally realized that nonfiction was my forte and that my efforts at fiction were best consigned to the trash bin. But for decades afterwards, well-meaning acquaintances kept cornering me at parties to ask how my novel was coming along. And I’d have to find a cheerful way of explaining that it was an unmitigated disaster that forced me to abandon one of my most cherished childhood dreams. Kind of a buzz-kill, any way you put it.
Living to a foreign city means never having to say, “Oh yes, my crummy unpublished novel…” It also reduces to virtually nil the chances of running into people from the past you’d rather avoid: ex-bosses, disgruntled former lovers, the mean girls from high school, people who want to ask about your career in fiction writing.
Of course, sooner or later you’re likely to go home again, if only for a brief visit, and that’s where things can get tricky. My husband and I maintain a cottage in my native California, and Rich moves back and forth between Seville and San Francisco with the ease of a man strolling from one room to another in his own home. But I often become overwhelmed by all the unexpected changes in the social, political, economic, and cultural scene. What’s taken for granted — what defines words like “normal” and “home” — changes, if only subtly, every time. That’s one of the reasons Rich and I make regular visits back to the States. America is something you have to stay in practice for. We don’t want to lose our touch.
Going back and forth so often, I’m rarely on automatic pilot anywhere. And that’s OK. Unlike those of my friends whose goal is a life of untrammeled ease, I like facing up to the challenges of life in transition. It adds a lot of zest to the daily round.
Many years ago in Seville, Rich needed to make a small household repair, and after consulting the dictionary, we set out for the hardware store muttering “destornillador, destornillador, destornillador” (screwdriver, screwdriver, screwdriver). Unfortunately, when we arrived, my mind went blank and Rich blurted out a similar word, ordenador (computer), causing such mutual confusion that we had to flee the scene without buying either a screwdriver or a computer.
At the time we felt foolish and frustrated, but once we got over our embarrassment, we enjoyed a good laugh and have told the story for years. That’s when I realized that what expats need most is a well-developed sense of the ridiculous. When a simple trip to the hardware store becomes a test of skill and wit, I know that even if I walk away without a screwdriver, at least I am acquiring the tools I need to keep my brain — and my sense of humor — ever more finely honed. “There are good days, and there are bad days, and this is one of them,” Lawrence Welk once remarked. And that is the essence of expat life.
An award-winning journalist, author, editor and blogger, Karen McCann has been living in Seville, Spain, since 2004. Wanderlust has taken her to more than thirty countries, including many developing or post-war nations where she and her husband volunteer as consultants to struggling microenterprises. Today, she spends her time writing, blogging, painting, exploring Seville, and traveling the world, with frequent visits to California to maintain ties with family and friends. For more about her book and her travel adventures, check out her blog, Enjoy Living Abroad