Laura Dennis, our latest expat, is a professionally trained dancer who gave up aches and pains and bloody feet in 2004 to become a stylish, sales director for a biotech startup. In 2010, with two children under the age of three, she and her husband sought to simplify their lifestyle and escaped to his hometown, Belgrade. While the children learned Serbian in their cozy preschool, Laura recovered from sleep deprivation and wrote a memoir, Adopted Reality.
Her transition from Los Angeles to Belgrade with two young children had its ups and downs! Like, most expats, Laura made the best of it by letting her adventure teach and lead. This is what Laura had to share with us:
Learning Resilience from My Expat American Toddler
To say my two-and-a-half year old daughter’s transition from Los Angeles to Belgrade was difficult would be an understatement.
I have to give the gal some credit; she turned two, and life got busy:
- D became a big sister, and now mommy had a new baby to pay attention to.
- We moved to a new home, in the same city.
- Six weeks later, the four of us flew to Serbia and stayed with my in-laws, who D didn’t remember.
- Two weeks after that, we went on vacation at the Montenegrin seaside.
- A month later, we (finally!) moved into our apartment, where we’ve been for the past two years.
I started life as an expat fully expecting I would duplicate my busy stay-at-home mommy lifestyle. I envisioned mommy-and-me classes and play-dates with other wine-loving mommies. Ha.
This was not meant to be.
Most women return to full-time work after a year of state-supported maternity leave, so there were few moms around with whom to socialize. It was hard to find people with matching schedules who spoke English. Worse, smoking (even by moms around their children) is common.
Since there were no “art appreciation” classes for toddlers, or bi-weekly “musical playtime” sessions, I quickly realized I would need to find D a preschool to pass the time—for both her and I.
The first few weeks, D had a temper tantrum every single morning before school. I didn’t fully understand why it was so difficult for her. After all, she was only two, right? How hard could it be? But D was an active, chatty toddler. Back in California, people used to comment that she had “a lot to say.”
Did I mention she knew less than ten words in Serbian, most of them cognates?
What I failed to realize was this garrulous little girl was used to being able to explain her every thought and desire. Here in this cute little Serbian preschool, the teachers were great, but they spoke no English.
It was total immersion. Trial by fire. Sink or swim.
After a short time, D learned some coping mechanisms. We expats could take a few pointers.
1. Be content to be a patient and active listener.
We don’t have to talk all the time to make friends. In fact, by just sitting quietly among the group, others will eventually include us by nature of our mere presence.
D could not care less about cars and trains, but if she only has boys to play with, she takes a sudden interest in so-called boys’ toys.
2. Find your own way to be unique and outstanding.
For her first two winters here in Serbia, D insisted upon wearing a long-sleeve leotard and tights to school every day. (Yes, yes, don’t worry; she wore a hat, coat, gloves and leg warmers outside.)
Soon enough, everyone knew her as “the ballerina.” Whenever someone commented on her get-up, D would perform her latest choreography.
I think this unique style allowed my daughter to get much-needed attention, without her having to create drama to receive it.
I learned later that her “dancer style” caused some chagrin for the other mothers who insisted on corduroys or jeans over tights, and three+ layers on top. Apparently the mothers could no longer say “No one else is allowed to wear dresses to school in the winter!”
3. Seek out English-speakers when you feel the need to vent
D found a creative solution to her need to chit-chat.
Even though her teachers and classmates didn’t speak English, a few of the parents did. Various moms and dads would stop me on the sidewalk to tell me about the long conversations they have with D each day when dropping off or picking up their own child.
4. Most important: Learn the language as quickly as possible.
This is a no-brainer. During D’s first year in Serbia, I heard her speak about twenty words in Serbian. But after that first year, she was suddenly mistaken for a native Serbian speaker.
We’ve been here for two years, and now she translates when I’m trying to communicate. We meet grandmas with their grandchildren at the park, and it’s D who introduces her brother and me. She always takes the time to explain in proper Serbian, using the “respectful” form when speaking to elders, “My mama doesn’t understand a lot of Serbian. You will need to speak s-l-o-w-l-y to her.”
I’m really proud of my little girl.
We’ll be in Belgrade for another six months. Then it’s back to “real life” in Los Angeles. My husband and I are wary to leave, if only because D and her brother feel so at home, happy and engaged in their little lives here.
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Adopted Reality is a September 11 memoir unlike any you’ve read. This thrilling, psychological adventure brilliantly follows the ups and downs of bipolar. After Laura reunites with her birth mom, a series of life changes spiral out-of-control. When a beloved uncle dies in the Twin Towers, the tension that has been building explodes. Will Laura ultimately find her own Adopted Reality? Now available on Amazon.com in paperback and ebook.