The Expat Dilemma

It’s Saturday morning. I wake up to birds singing and flowers blooming outside. Out on our balcony, I sip my jasmine tea and get in some journal time. At 9:00 am I meet up with a friend for a leisurely walk down to the beach followed by a Croque Madame and fresh-squeezed orange juice. I come home to an immaculate house even though I haven’t picked up a mop or a broom in ages. Even the laundry baskets are empty, all the clothes neatly folded and put away. Again, not my doing. Our housekeeper comes Monday through Thursday and she cooks too, amazing meals like chicken and vegetables with a creamy turmeric sauce over rice. It’s our favorite! We take the kids to our “fruit guy” and pick up strawberries, oranges, and bananas- only locally grown produce that’s perfectly in season. We stop by our favorite Roman Ruins and Teddy and Penny run and climb. Later, the kids jump on the trampoline, while Justin whips up Lemon Gin Fizz cocktails, picking the lemon off our tree.

I should clarify. I say “our tree, our balcony, our house.” In reality, we don’t own any of this. This giant house, fully furnished and maintained, is paid for by our generous school. Our bank account grows every month because our salary isn’t poured into a mortgage. We don’t pay for water, electricity, health insurance, or rent. We pay for internet and phone service, but those are cheap here. So are the groceries. I can get a baguette for a few cents.

Weekdays are good too. The 4 of us drive to school together (excluding our current distance learning stint). I teach 14 wonderful students and I have hours of plan time to prepare quality lessons. I have a TA as well. She takes attendance, grades papers, teaches small groups, makes copies, does recess duty, and the couple times I’ve had to stay home, she jumps in as the most highly qualified substitute, already knowing the students and all of our routines.

My own children love ACST as well. They get art for over an hour per week. They go to French class daily. They have lots of outdoor time going to recess twice a day in this beautiful weather. (No more checking the weather app to make sure it’s safe enough to go outside in below-freezing temperatures!) They get afterschool activities like swim lessons, soccer, or art. I adore their teachers and I love the curriculum and philosophy here. They write what they want to write. They read what they want to read. No stuffy textbooks or one size fits all curriculum.

If you’ve made it this far without gagging, you’ve made it to “the catch.” Surely life abroad as an international teacher can’t be that good, right? Correct. Nothing I’ve said is a lie, but there are times when I wonder if we are making the right choice. I thought the difficult thing about living in Tunisia would be the language barrier, getting used to the new food, crazy driving, or third-world problems like the fact that we didn’t have running water for 7 hours today (water main break- it happens occasionally). Oh, and did I mention I’ve lived almost a year with no Target, Amazon, or fast food? But those things are very minor inconveniences. The real catch is the “Expat Dilemma.”

I didn’t know there was a name for what I was feeling, but apparently, I’m not alone and lots of expats struggle with the expat dilemma. In a nutshell, here it is: Should I stay or should I go?

What’s more important:

Adventure, lifestyle, money, and multicultural experiences?

OR

Roots, family, friends, home?

One thing I’ve learned this year is that “home” is not a place. “Home” consists of people you love. It’s pretty easy to get used to a new location. In fact, I could live in a new house every year or hop around from country to country every few years, and be perfectly fine. The place is not important. It’s the people. As long as I have Justin, Teddy, and Penelope, it feels like home. Well, it almost feels like home. This home is missing my family and friends who are still back in the States. The hardest part about living abroad is how much I miss them. In a perfect world, I’d just scoop them up and bring them along with me where ever I go. To complicate things, it’s not only a longing to be in the same room as my parents. It’s swirled with a mixture of guilt and self-doubt. 

  • Am I being selfish, taking my kids away from their grandparents?
  • Is it shallow and materialistic to want to keep this lifestyle and save more money?
  • When I look back, do I want my memories to be grand adventures to exotic places or low-key camping trips, and dinner with friends, and baking cookies with grandma?
  • My parents and grandparents are getting older. Should I be home to enjoy those years with them?
  • My children are getting older. Should they be developing relationships with family before they become reclusive teenagers?
  • Is it important to have a “home base?”
  • Do I want my kids growing up around 99.9% white, Christian, Americans? Or is it important for them to have a wider world view?
  • Is it a disservice to my children that they are getting used to a housekeeper picking up after them? Will they be awful, entitled pricks because we are living such a privileged life now? (Love you Teddy and Penny!)
  • Will a Kansas Winter literally kill me now that I’ve experienced a mild climate???

I wrote down my definition of happiness and posted it in my bedroom. It’s my compass for making decisions. The problem is, there are aspects of both lives that fit into my definition. Connect with people I love, change is good, live life to the fullest, yadda, yadda, yadda. The Expat Dilemma is such a maddening quandary because I will never have both and there will never be a right or wrong answer.

My friend, Hannah, put it best: “No matter what you choose, you’ll miss the one you didn’t choose.” When I am here in Tunisia, I miss Kansas. Again, not the location, but the people. I haven’t hugged them in 9 months! But I’m sure, when I’m back in the States this summer, I will miss Tunisia; its charm and quirks, the flowers, our housekeeper and her amazing cooking, the pals I’ve made here, the lack of in-your-face consumerism and the laid-back, slower pace of life. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder, huh?

Obviously, I don’t have the answers, despite the endless conversations, pro/con lists, and ongoing self-reflection. I am extremely privileged that right now my kids can have the experience of seeing a different corner of the world- its history, beauty, and diversity while getting summers in America with the people they love. They can see ancient Roman Ruins AND go fishing with grandpa.

I have no regrets about moving here. It is amazing and I’ve learned so much. I now know I never want to work in an American public school again. I also know I don’t want to get wound back up into the American cycle of debt; only working to pay bills. If I ever do move back, I will live intentionally in a different way. I also know I’ll be in Tunisia again next year as we signed a 2-year contract and I’m looking forward to seeing more of Africa, including a Christmas safari to Uganda! 

The Expat Dilemma:

Roots vs. Exploration

Old vs. New

Comfort vs. Excitement

It’s a tough one, but I wouldn’t trade it. How awesome is it that I have discovered two lives, both worth missing, both rich with experiences and amazing people? Author, Kate Eckman, said, “Being okay if it happens and okay if it doesn’t is a very powerful place to be.” I have two great choices. I am very lucky. I have 6 weeks left in Tunisia this school year and then 2 months back in America with the people I love most this summer. For now, I’m going to push the guilt to the side and let the dilemma take some time on the back burner so I can live in the present moment. Surely that’s the best litmus test for my future.

Learning to Get Lost

A couple weeks ago we took a tour of the Medina. I was thankful to have a knowledgeable tour guide because the old Medina of Tunis is a maze of narrow streets enclosed in ancient walls holding markets, homes, restaurants, and people busy in daily life. So many twists and turns! I have no clue how anyone would find their way around there. There were old ladies sweeping, families buying armfuls of baguettes, and salesmen chatting outside their shops piled high with jewelry, rugs, and antiques. I found myself falling behind the group over and over again, distracted by archways covered in vines, crumbling buildings, murals, and so many cats- just a rush of sights and sounds I wanted to capture. We hurried through clouds of cigarette smoke, “bonjours” and a blur of ornate Tunsian doors.

At the conclusion of our tour we were encouraged to come back on a day when we had nothing planned and enjoy “getting lost.” Normally this idea would make me nervous. Feeling lost stresses me out. I have vivid memories from highschool onwards, calling my dad or Justin in a panic every time I took a wrong turn driving. But hearing others’ stories of slow wandering adventures sounded appealing. I would love to take my time and walk down those stone paths without an agenda or destination, and with my sense of direction or lack thereof, I would most certainly get lost. That place is a labyrinth!

A few days later, I got up early and joined my friend, Rebecca, on a walk around Sidi Bou Said. “Sidi Bou” is less than 10 minutes from my house. I’ve been there countless times and thought I knew it well enough. I know the touristy routes, familiar and well-trodden, but Rebecca lives in that area and has scoped out the best views and trails, often hiking off the beaten path. By the end of our almost 5 mile trek, walking up hills, through little alleyways, into the woods, and along the beach, I realized how much I’ve been missing! It’s been a while since I’ve had that “pinch me- I can’t believe I live here” feeling. This was a wake up call. I actually get to live by the turquoise Mediteranean Sea with ancient ruins and mountains providing a perfect silhouetted background to sailboats floating by in breezy, sunshiny weather. I’m here every day but “sticking to what I know and what feels comfortable” is preventing me from really seeing it. She found these beautiful vistas through curiosity and stepping away from trails she already knew.

It can be frustrating that things are hard to find here. There are no websites, information, or clear signs, but I’m starting to realize that’s part of the beauty. The lack of information leads to stumbling upon treasures and the opportunity to get lost. It also promotes bonding between fellow expats who share their finds. “This place has chocolate chips!” “Have you been to that restaurant?” “I found this cool store today!”  After my walk with Rebecca, I decided our family needs to embrace getting off track a little more.

This weekend we traveled about 2 hours south to the coastal town of Sousse. Our family still feels very new to “traveling.” Our past life in Kansas did not consist of vacations or time to explore new areas. In this new found life, we have a lot to learn about what to do and what not to do when it comes to traveling as a family.

Fortunately, we tagged along on this vacation with friends and picked up a few tips. One of which was to take a 30 minute drive to a little town called Monastir. I wouldn’t have known to do this, but I’m so glad we did. 

Touring Fortress Ribat in Monastir was the highlight of our weekend. Fort Ribat is a huge Military fortress, overlooking the Mediteranian Sea, built in 796. (And it also happens to be the set location for Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Now I need to go back and rewatch that movie.) Unlike other ruins we’ve seen, this one was almost fully intact and we could walk through 3 levels of rooms and passageways. Teddy and I climbed to the top of the tallest tower and got a thrill looking out over the city in all directions.

The best part was the size and unique layout. It was the perfect place for us to get that “lost” feeling. There were alcoves and hidden dark stairways into rooms connected to more rooms and corridors, all interconnected, leading to new areas or deadends- an easy place to get turned around. Penelope is still pretty cautious and sticks close to us, but Teddy gets this adventurous spirit and turns into an explorer, rushing ahead to find the best areas to show us. I’m glad he’s learning from a young age that feeling lost can be fun.

Other highlights from our trip to Sousse were:

  • Giant bird’s nests along power lines on the trip down, like I’m pretty sure they were some pterodactyl relatives…
  • Driving by olive orchards, mountainous views and roadside stands selling strawberries, flat bread, and fried lizards. (In case you’re wondering, we were not brave enough to pull over for a lizard snack.)
  • Amazing freshly squeezed orange juice in the mornings and seeing the proud look on Teddy’s face after he ordered an omelet by himself in French!
  • Room service playdate picnics and conversations with friends.
  • Seeing a flock of flamingos for the first time in nature! (Spoiler- they are white here because of the lack of shrimp in their diet, but still cool to check that one off my Tunisia bucket list.)
  • Falling asleep to the sound of waves and waking up to paradise views

Tunisia (and the pandemic) has given me the gift of letting go of control and accepting what’s in front of me. Perfect example: trying to order a margarita this weekend. The waiter repeated the order, confirming that I wanted one margarita pizza. After some charades-style hand gestures and some help from friends, he got the message that I wanted alcohol, not pizza. I received a drink close enough to a margarita. After finishing, I decided that a pizza actually sounded perfect. Our waiter returned, and I told him I now wanted the before-mentioned pizza. He looked a bit puzzled and then explained that they don’t have pizza on the menu. Moral of the story: If you want a margarita, order a pizza. If you want a pizza, cross your fingers that you’ve asked at the right moment because rules/menus/ standards are pretty fluid around here. Another friend tried to order a burger and they told him no. Justin asked for a burger and got a yes. Always be ready with a backup option and a sense of humor.

It seems there’s a fine line between well-planned travel experiences and spontaneity, but living in Tunisia has helped nudge us in the go-with-the-flow spirit. I have a little more room for uncertainty and a willingness to get lost now. Getting lost in a physical place = getting lost in the moment, and with the right attitude, that’s a beautiful thing. We are still working on how this works best with children. Getting “lost” in the Medina or on a nature hike with children who are hungry and have tired legs isn’t quite what I have in mind, but I’m hoping the more practice we get, the more likely we are to find the right balance of flexibility and feeling “lost” for our family.

Brunching in Tunis

Before we had kids, Justin and I would go to brunch every Sunday; early before the church crowd rolled in. Brunch was our religion. After we had kids, it became less frequent, but it was still our go-to outing when we needed to get out of the house. There’s just something comforting about sipping a cappuccino and chatting over a plate full of french toast and bacon.

We’ve been in Tunis a little under a year and I am pleased to see that their brunch game is on point. Of course, we’ve only scratched the surface. I’m sure the following list will leave out some great undiscovered restaurants, but I thought it would be nice to compile a little list of a few favorites we’ve tried thus far.

A Mi Chemins

This place gets the number one spot for a few reasons. It’s a trendy little spot in La Marsa, located on the 3rd floor on the side of the Zephyr Mall. From the top of the building, you can eat your breakfast overlooking the Mediteranian Sea. If you sit inside, the vibe is very cool and spacious- lots of retro decor, eclectic furniture, lighting, and plants. The service is great. They have fresh juices and smoothies. Although, as with all places in Tunisia, be prepared with some backup options if they don’t have the ingredients for your top choice. I’ve ordered the smoothie bowl which was refreshing and healthy, but my favorite thing I’ve ordered was a platter of fried chicken strips, warm waffles coated in ricotta cheese and topped with the fluffiest scrambled eggs, perfectly seasoned with red pepper flakes. For a while, this spot seemed like a best kept secret and we usually only shared the space with a few other customers. I think the secrets out now though, so depending on the day and time, you might have to prepare yourself for a bit of a wait.

Cook’s

Cook’s is a well-loved Sidi Bou Said brunch spot. It has a local coffee shop-feel, filled with sofas and shelves of books. It’s not big, a bit grungy, and the service and menu are casual and unfussy. If you want a great value, this is the place to go. Sometimes you pay a premium for eating in Sidi Bou Said, but this spot is cheap and easy. My favorites are the eggs benedict with real bacon or the Croque Madame. My daughter ordered a waffle the other day that looked amazing and came with real maple syrup. Pork bacon and maple syrup aren’t always easy to find, so Cook’s gets bonus points for having these comfort staples. I should warn that the atmosphere is usually filled with cigarette smoke and being a small space, it’s hard to get away from. This is pretty common in Tunisian restaurants, but here I find it’s especially noticeable.

Gormandise

Here’s another Sidi Bou Said spot that’s a new discovery as of this morning! (They have a few other locations around town as well.) It quickly rose up my list for its pristine, spotless environment and fabulous menu selection. Plus, it has a separate, completely enclosed smoking section! This is the first place I’ve seen where they have a seperation. It was so nice enjoying breakfast without the smoke! When you walk in you are greeted with case after case of fancy pastries and tarts lining the walls behind glass. Their menu had many pages of entrees and drinks. It was hard to choose. I ordered a juice with orange, carrot, and ginger, a smoothie bowl with greek yogurt, granola, and fruit, and the croque madame. The food was solid and service was great.

Palazzo Caffee Restaurant

The Palazzo is right next to the Tunisia Mall in Lac II. It’s our go-to brunch spot on mall shopping days. Palazzo and Zara- not a bad way to spend a Saturday morning. This place looks very upscale, but the fancy velvet chairs and white curtains are now a bit faded from years of cigarette smoke. You don’t get a great view here but it’s never crowded and the food and service is consistent. They have breakfast combinations that give plenty of variety and value. I always get the Parisian. As with all their meals, it automatically comes with water, juice, and a cappuccino. The meals are beautifully presented on tiered platters with baked goods, omelets, and charcuterie samplings. I’ve never been able to finish the whole breakfast. The kids get the breakfast duo, meant to be shared and again there’s more than enough. My breakfast with all of the drinks was 22 dinar (about $8 USD) and the kids’ choice was 33 dinar (about $6 per kid). It feels like eating at a 5-star restaurant for fast food prices.

Punic’Art

I’m adding Punic’Art mainly for the view and fun menu options, but it would not be a top choice for breakfast. It’s located near Salambo beach and park. If you go on a nice day you can eat right on the water’s edge and feel the salt air. The inside seating feels a bit more like a beach shack and this place can get crowded, so plan accordingly. I’d go here if you want dessert and a Mediterranean Sea location. I ordered the Oreo milkshake and it was amazing! They have lots of sweet options, some a bit over-the-top-decedent, topped with thick whipped cream, candy and cookies. Take it easy so you don’t leave with a stomach ache.

Other: I’ve also been to Ivy and Sabato which are highly recommended but tiny. You have to hit these places as they open or you may be out of luck. They both have smaller menus with quality, local ingredients and a cute atmosphere.

The Power and Freedom of Quitting

Instinctively, I gasped, partly as an exaggerated joke and partly because I was a little worried on the off-chance that tarot cards are legit. Is it silly or is the universe trying to tell me something? And IF there is some mystical force guiding my hand, a bleak skeleton figure wielding a sickle, corpses littering the background and the word “DEATH.”written on the card I picked isn’t particularly comforting. As if the ominous font in black capital letters wasn’t enough, that period stamped on the end just seemed a bit overkill. Pun intended.

Justin was acting as fortune teller, and although he is a master of bullshitting, that’s about the extent of his expertise in this matter and we refer to our little Tarot Card Meanings Booklet to interpret the cards.

Turns out the DEATH. card, although menacing and grim in appearance, actually has a beautiful message. The explanation reads:

Death in this instance should not be literally taken as the end of life. It signifies the end of a cycle and beginning of a new one. It indicates transformation of the individual to a new state of being.

I think back to the many lives I’ve lived. Yes, there is more than one. Everybody has a handful of experiences that put a mark on their timeline and from that point on, life can be measured as before and after, similar to the way we talk about pre and post 9-11 or how we now reference pre-Covid times.

One of my big life-defining events was having children. I vaguely remember the girl I was before I was a mother. I now think back fondly on her freedom and roll my eyes at her worries, which now seem small and insignificant. That girl “died” on December 29, 2011 when Teddy was born. It sounds depressing to phrase it that way, but it’s true. I never went back to being that girl. She’s gone, but in her place is now a more complex, loving, tired, nurturing woman- a little older and wiser, battle-scarred from the sleepless nights, hopefully a bit less selfish.

The DEATH. card got me thinking about life changes and how to take a bit of control over that timeline. It reminded me of the desperate times I fought and pleaded with myself to hang on to a life that was no longer serving me. It got me thinking about the importance of knowing when to quit.

I taught at the same school for 10 years. Growing up, I lived in the same house for 18 years. I went to Queen of the Holy Rosary Catholic School from Kindergarten through 8th Grade with the same group of kids. I took dance classes at the same dance studio from Kindergarten through High School. I have had 1 boyfriend, married him and we’ll celebrate our 13 year anniversary in August. I have lived a very consistent life. I have never quit anything (unless you count quitting Girl Scouts in 1st Grade. That was not my jam). But now, I’m a quitter and it feels great! 

Three fourths of the way through a graduate program for Elementary Art, I quit. It was the first domino to fall in my new quitter mentality. Quitting on a commitment was completely out of character for me. In fact, it never even crossed my mind as an option. I was under a lot of stress and I was no longer enjoying my classes, but I kept barreling through because that’s what you are supposed to do. Quitting was irresponsible, but when someone suggested the possibility of stopping or taking a break, it was like a lightbulb went off in my head.

Sending that email to drop out felt so good. I felt lighter; happier all of a sudden. I read an analogy once about a person looking out from behind prison bars, feeling trapped, but behind him, there is a wide open door. I gave myself the illusion of being trapped by commitments and responsibilities, but in reality, it was always possible to walk away. My mind was the only thing holding me back. I have imprisoned myself in society’s standards, fear of what others will think, or simply continuing a current path, even when it stopped being enjoyable. Now, I look back and think of all the times I forced myself to suffer through or waste my time on activities I didn’t really care about. What was the point?

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Stopping to evaluate my life, my goals and my priorities, has significantly increased my happiness. My life is not perfect, but it’s a lot better than my past life as a stressed-out, overachieving, under-sexed, super-mom, Pinterest teacher. It was a slow and painful death to get rid of that life, but thank goodness she finally passed on because that version of me was a real drag!

If you’ve never done this, I would encourage you to take 5 minutes for this little exercise, inspired by author Max Strome, and shared with me by a buddy here in Tunisia. Get out a pen and paper and time yourself for 5 minutes. In that time, write down your definition of happiness. (If you want to give it a try, do it now, and don’t scroll on because I don’t want my definition to influence your original thoughts and ideas.)

Here is my definition:

Happiness:

Living in the present moment, in awe of what you have. Feeling gratitude for the big and small things in life.

Living life to the fullest, like a child, with wonder and curiosity. Laughing and playing often.

Living with passion for people and ideas that excite you. Never stop learning and growing.

Living in a state of peace with yourself and your surroundings, understanding that we are not always in control and change is inevitable and healthy. No grasping or longing. No dwelling or stewing.

Living with a sense of connection with people and nature.

Being true to yourself. Shackles off. No faking it.

On a piece of paper, this handwritten note is hanging on my bedroom mirror. I see it and read it every day while I’m doing my hair and getting ready for work. It is my litmus test for my right path. I try to base my decisions on this, especially big decisions.

Recently, I was considering a career move into counseling. It’s been an interest of mine for some time and I think I would enjoy it. I began looking into Master’s programs and along with my school research, I talked to counselors to learn more about the job. As with any career, there were pros and cons and I had a hard time deciding if I should make the move. In the end, my definition of happiness helped me make up my mind. I want to have a work-life balance and enjoy what I have around me. I want to travel and spend time with my family. Working nights and weekends as a counselor and not to mention the years of studying just didn’t fit with my priorities. I decided to quit before I even started.

This past year has brought a lot of change, and a lot of it is thanks to being a quitter. I quit trying to please everyone. I quit a Master’s Program. I quit my job. I quit being a perfectionist.

I was always under the impression that quitting was lazy, but what I didn’t realize was that when you let go, you make room for something better. It can be scary to make a big change, but when I went on my quitting spree, I found freedom and a better version of myself. I took pole dancing classes. I started this blog and rediscovered my love of writing. I began meditating daily and went on an amazing wellness retreat. I met new people who have had a huge influence on my life. My friendships grew deeper. My marriage has gotten stronger. I moved to Tunisia and started a new job. I would have never made time for these things if I hadn’t forced some dead weight out of my life.

It would have been easy to continue trudging along, but quitting led me to something better. Don’t be afraid of the DEATH. card. Every end is a new beginning.

Valentine’s Day Inspiration

I love Valentine’s Day! I can remember my mom decorating the house with pink and red streamers and balloons. There were cards and little gifts on the table when we woke up. One year she even pulled me out of school early to make cupcakes and celebrate. Justin has also spoiled me. One year he surprised me with a newly painted bedroom and new bedding when I came home from work. I love writing letters and coming up with surprises for my own kids. I love helping them make valentines for their friends and I exclusively wear pink and red outfits for the whole week. It’s kind of a big deal.

Here are a few of my favorite ideas to celebrate with the people you love, big and small.

  1. Fancy breakfast or brunch. This works especially well if it falls on a weekend, but I have been known to change the date of Valentine’s Day and celebrate on a weekend instead of the actual day just to make it happen. Pictured here are mini pancakes with Nutella, whipped cream and strawberries, with sausage.

2. I love a good scavenger hunt. One year I hid the kids Valentine gift and hid clues around the house to have them find it. Anything to prolong the fun is great, almost better than the gift itself.

3. Speaking of gifts, I usually go with a picture book or stuffed animal, but I’m also a big fan of new pajamas, robes or slippers.

4. This year, I’m simplifying the scavenger hunt idea and taping hearts all around the house for the kids to find. Pink hearts for Penny and red hearts for Teddy- equal amounts of each. If you have more than one child, you know why this is imperative. They will collect their hearts that either have little notes or “coupons” on them, and when they finish, they have to put their hearts together to spell out a message because on the back of each heart is a letter. Spoiler alert: The message is “Happy Valentines Day.” Creative, I know. When your kids are young, you gotta keep it simple.

5. Coupons- I’m a big fan of this idea and have reused it for many years. It’s free and it emphasizes spending time with each other rather than material possessions. Usually coupons for the kids are things like staying up later, dessert, free hugs. Anything works. They love “spending” them, and it makes the coming weeks fun because we have little positive activities sprinkled in each day. (Coupons also work for spouses. I won’t share those ones because they can get a little X-rated… )

6. Because I love writing, I also usually sneak in a way to write love notes to the family. One year, I made them mailboxes and they each had to check their mailbox every day leading up to Valentine’s Day to get their love note. I’ve also written notes on their bathroom mirror with a dry erase marker or posted notes on their bedroom door. Hiding notes in a lunch box is fun too, especially if you slip in a piece of candy with it.

7. Valentine’s Day is for friends too. Last year, I threw a Valentine’s party and made personalized conversation heart decorations. We listened to music and ate and played games. Eventually the decorations turned into a game. Who can throw one of those gross conversation hearts into someone’s drink. That I don’t recommend because a conversation heart gin and tonic is pretty awful tasting. I mean, I still drank it, but it wasn’t good.

8. This year, my friends are doing a long distance countdown to V-day. Each day, we message each other on WhatsApp according to the day’s theme. February 2nd, we sent our favorite love songs. On the third, we shared quotes. Today we are doling out marriage advice. That should be entertaining.

I hope some of these ideas got you excited about celebrating Valentine’s. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money or take a lot of time, but a small gesture can mean a lot. This weekend I’ll be shopping for gifts. Justin and I have a signature cocktail in the works and I’m guessing we will order takeout and have a pretty chill day. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Shopping, Animals, and Weird Plants

A discussion of the nuances and entertainment of living in Tunisia

Shopping

Most things are cheap in comparison to America and after 6 months here, it still amazes me. I walk away from shopping feeling like I got a steal and would have gladly paid 5 times as much. A quick estimated conversion in my head, dividing by 3, gives me a rough estimate of how much it would cost in US dollars. That 10 dinar pizza is really like 3 and a half bucks! And this isn’t really a tipping culture so when I give the delivery guy a few extra dinar, he looks a bit stunned.

Clothing shopping is an interesting experience, one that I found entertaining at first, but now find a bit annoying. The first time I walked into Zara, I took a shirt off the rack and it was immediately scooped up, out of my hands by an overly helpful sales associate. I tried on a coat and was literally helped into it. The sales guy, always about 2 feet away, followed me everywhere I went, held my stuff, complimented my choices, and eventually whisked me off to the “personal shopper” dressing room. Amusing, until the day that you just want to shop in peace.

I’ve had someone take me by the hand and put a bracelet on my wrist (and I was even looking at bracelets). I’ve had sales people hold up product after product and ask if I want this or that (and repeat that sales technique about 20 times). Once we had an unsolicited tour guide highjack our walk and then we had to pay for the unwanted “tour.” I’ve also been in stores where they aren’t quite as aggressive, but nevertheless, I am followed, always watched. Last time I was in a department store, buying shoes for Penny, I looked around at one point and realized there were about 10 employees just staring at us, like something out of a horror movie. Surely we can’t be THAT interesting! When I finally checked out, the man behind the counter asked if I spoke French. When I said no, he immediately started talking with two other employees in French and was not discrete in the fact that I was the topic of conversation.

But… I have “sucker” written on my forehead. I have purchased one too many items in Tunisia simply because it was easier to go along with the sale than repeatedly decline in a language I don’t know.

I should mention that I’ve also found the exact opposite situation here as well. There are some places that make it so hard to buy from them. Won’t answer the phone, no location or hours listed, not searchable, and completely disinterested in helping you. It’s like you have to beg them to take your money. 

One thing I haven’t gotten used to are the 3 decimal places and lack of decimal point. Sometimes a comma is used in place of the decimal point and sometimes there’s nothing at all to distinguish place value. So a 35 dinar purchase looks like 35,000 on the cash register and receipt. I about had a heart attack the first few times I saw that!

Animals

After an unfortunate gory nightmare that led to a sleepless night for Teddy, we now give advance warning before turning down the street with the butcher shop so he can close his eyes. Penny tells us it’s “gross” but she still looks. I’m kind of with her on that. I hate seeing blood, but my morbid curiosity gets the best of me and every day I can’t help but take a peek at the decapitated cow head hanging from a chain, eyes open, tongue sticking out- the same cow I saw pacing across the street earlier in the morning- now in pieces and almost fake looking. Apologies if that description was too much. I’ve been desensitized.

The local cats are familiar now. There’s “car cat” who sits on the warm hoods of cars in the school’s parking garage. He’s fluffy and dirty and always looks pissed off. There are the playful kitten siblings that are brave enough to roam the hallways of the school. Bob makes an appearance once in a while. He doesn’t have a tail. Around our house we see Gus. He hops the wall into the yard and sits on our patio furniture. He can barely open his eyes. He’s usually limping or showing off a new battle scar from a recent fight. When we don’t see him in our yard, he’s usually found dumpster diving. He’s afraid of us, but I’m afraid for him- afraid he’s going to croak in our garden and my kids will get yet another lesson on the circle of life. At one point we had a litter of neighborhood kittens. It was tempting to want to take one of them home. Actually, we did take one home for a playdate, but we returned him to his brothers and sisters after a couple of hours. These cats have generations of street cats in their bloodline and surely they are more feral than domesticated. I won’t get to find out because being a pet owner doesn’t work out well with traveling the world on a whim.

And finally- this random animal story: One day, we came home to find a man standing outside of our gate looking perplexed. When he saw us drive up, he told us in broken bits of English his bird was in our house. Ummm…. Say what? He asks if he can get it, and when we realized he meant yard rather than house, we invited him inside the gate. I went into the house to retrieve a basket or something helpful for catching a bird. By the time I got back outside, there was a small group of people looking at our olive tree. I soon found out the basket was unnecessary as the man reached into the tree and pulled out a small hawk with his bare hands and then they all left. Just another day in Tunisia…

Weird Plants

I’m writing this on the last day of January, and despite the fact that the locals are wearing heavy winter coats, the climate is mild enough that the flowers have never stopped blooming. There are fruit trees and palm trees and a tangle of colorful flowers almost everywhere you go. We were lucky enough to get rosemary plants and plenty of fruit trees in our own backyard. We have a Charlie Brown-looking apple tree that is literally being held together with tape. We have a beautiful olive tree and a lemon tree that is always producing. But the most common tree in our yard are the orange trees. We have 3 of them. Very exciting! However, as soon as they were ripe, we discovered that they taste awful and no amount of sugar or marmalade-making will make them edible. So now, on a windy day they just fall off the tree and we have orange balls all over our lawn. They are good for juggling so there’s that…

We don’t own any equipment to take care of our yard so we hired a gardener to come out occasionally for mowing and such. He does most of his work while we are away at school and he’s very self sufficient and always comes up with a to-do list, mostly of things I would never even think of doing. A couple of weeks ago, I came home to new plants… but not just any plants! Now, proudly displayed in the front lawn are 4 of the biggest, most phallic-looking cactus plants. Just what I’ve always wanted…

For your viewing pleasure: the manly cacti and a couple other exotic, bizarre looking specimens we’ve come across:

Honorable Mentions

The Metric System

After 6 months, I am no longer phased when my GPS system tells me to turn in two kilometers or when the directions on a box mix call for 500 ml of milk or ask me to preheat the oven to 170 degrees Celsius. I don’t naturally have these conversions in my head so I have to look them up every time… or I don’t. I have found that you can get through life fairly easily without knowing what’s going on. Sure it was uncomfortable at first, but now I’m just used to living in a bit of confusion. I smile and nod or guess or say, “Oui!” and 9 times out of 10 it works out.

Parking

Getting a parking ticket in Kansas is an unfortunate but quick and painless procedure, but here in Tunisia, they aren’t messing around. Park illegally here (which is very easy to accidentally do) and they will tow your car away or put a lock on the front wheel. My time is worth more than my money so the inconvenience of calling and waiting and hoping you can communicate is a huge pain! They come and unlock your car and you pay anywhere from 15 to 50 dinar (I think depending on how they are feeling that day). If deterrence is the goal, it works. My car has been booted twice, and now I am so careful about where I park and will gladly use paid parking lots just to avoid the hassle.

Radiators

When we moved into our house and I saw all of the radiators against the walls I was nervous. I’ve never been in a house that uses radiators for heating. I was afraid one of the kids would bump into it and burn themselves. Some of the radiators are directly below towel racks or curtains and I was sure we would burn our towels and curtains or cause a fire. But oh my goodness, was I wrong. I never want to go back to centralized heating. The radiators are perfectly warm and not too hot to touch. They work great and not only do they warm up the house, they warm towels and robes and clothes and blankets and even stuffed animals! On cold mornings, Penny now insists that her clothes be laid on the radiator before she gets dressed. You know that feeling of warm clothes right out of the dryer? We have that, in an instant, all the time! It’s magical. When I write in my gratitude journal, I almost always include the radiators. I hope my tone isn’t coming across as sarcastic because I am 100% serious. I love my radiators!

There are probably so many other quirky things about life here that I’m not even thinking of because I’m just used to them now. Lord help me with my reverse culture shock when I go back to the States and roll through stop signs, use commas instead of decimal points, and become insecure because no one is staring at me.

Look at Where You Are

An update feels appropriate as we mark this milestone, half of a year living in Tunisia. It’s not what I expected, but then again, I had no prior knowledge about expat life and I couldn’t even find Tunisia on a map. And of course I had no idea we’d be doing all of this during a pandemic. I asked Justin what I should write about today. I was drawing a blank because all of the “adventures” I thought I’d be sharing have been canceled or postponed. At this point I should have been jet setting off to Italy for the weekend, spending my Fall Break in Spain and Christmas in Paris…. But instead I’ve been lounging around the house like the rest of the world. In a lot of ways, it’s been good for me. In my search for adventure and meaning, I’ve stumbled upon something else: peace.

Recently, I was in a state of questioning. Have I chosen the right career? Are we on the right path? I was feeling a bit stagnant and my automatic response is to search for some excitement. I need that high- that next big thing. I was on a roll for quite a while in my life where every year seemed to bring some new adventure- marriage, new job, new baby, another new baby, another new job. I like change. I moved here for the adventure and here I was sitting around, staring at my phone, watching TV, doing a whole lot of nothing. Realizing this made me feel awful and a bit frantic. “We need to go out and DO something,” I would beg my family. So we’d go take a walk, have a picnic at a historical site, order from a new restaurant, but in my head I kept thinking, I need more. The Corona virus is holding me back. My job is holding me back. My family is holding me back.

And then I woke up one morning with this song stuck in my head- not the whole song- one particular line of a song I hadn’t listened to in months, all of a sudden, replaying over and over again. From Hamilton by the great Lin-Manuel Miranda: 

Look at where you are

Look at where you started

The fact that you’re alive is a miracle

Just stay alive, that would be enough

If you know me, you know I’m a big believer in signs from the universe, and this was one of many. This one just happened to be so literal it felt like the universe was knocking me over the head with it; like “Hello! Look around you. You’re in it. Right now. Wake up and appreciate what’s in front of you!”

I thought back to a conversation with my husband where he called me out for always chasing something just beyond the horizon. Will I ever be satisfied? Will it ever be enough? Everyone’s heard the old adage, life is about the journey, not the destination. But this isn’t the first time in my life that I’ve caught myself racing ahead, goal oriented, focused on my future.

Well, as frustrating as this pandemic has been, it’s also been a wake up call. It’s forced me to stop. We have a curfew; can’t be out past 8pm, 7pm on weekends. Can’t cross borders into different governorates (kind of like states) No leaving Tunis- no road trips. The hospitals are at capacity. We know more and more people here getting Covid. We are not only following the rules placed on us by the government, but also trying to be responsible and limit our social interactions. It’s easy to feel stuck.

Luckily, I seem to have turned a corner with one simple technique: gratitude. I should clarify, it’s simple in the fact that it’s not a very strenuous or complex idea, yet it’s extremely effective for finding happiness and peace. However it’s not simple in the fact that it’s not always easy to break old patterns of thought and start positive habits. 

Here’s the basic gist of it though: If you are thinking about what you are grateful for, you are automatically bringing yourself into the present moment, and simultaneously thinking positively. When you concentrate on the good, the little annoyances and problems in your life are no longer in the forefront of your mind. And when you are truly living in the here and now, it’s easier to find enjoyment in life and let go of stress.

But like I said, it’s hard to build a new habit. I needed reminders. One suggestion was to think of a visual signal, like every time you see a stop sign, think of something you are thankful for. I tried that but kept forgetting. I get that driver’s amnesia. I’d get to my destination and then remember, “Dangit, I forgot to pay attention to the stop signs!” (It doesn’t help that no one really pays attention to the stop signs here.)

Finally I found something that worked. I have this smooth stone. Kind of a long story, but I wrote “Be Strong” on it and gave it to my mom years ago when she was going through a tough time. When I moved to Tunisia she gifted it back to me. So I have this stone and I put it in my coat pocket and every time I put my hand in my pocket I rediscover it and remind myself to stop whatever I’m thinking in my head and say something I feel gratitude for.

A few days ago, I was feeling stressed at school. I was walking my class to lunch. It was cold and windy. I was hungry. The kids were loud. I’m sure I unknowingly had a scowl on my face. And then, I put my cold hands in my pockets to warm up and found the smooth stone and I forced myself to say one thing in my head that I was grateful for. I think I said something insignificant like, “The flowers are pretty today” AND I swear the clouds parted and the sun shone down on me that very instant. I genuinely felt thankful for the sudden relief from the cold. And then I kept going. Walking into the lunch room, I was thankful that food was ready and I didn’t have to make it. I passed by Justin’s room and felt thankful that I have a husband who loves me. All of a sudden, the campus was beautiful. The sounds of children laughing were joyful. Everywhere I looked, I could think of some amazing aspect of my life and how incredibly lucky I was just to be here.

It was a revelation. I was able stop my negativity in its tracks and change my mood. The rest of the day I was relaxed and happy, and I got a bit hooked on playing with this stone in my pocket and going through my gratitude list. The best part it is, it didn’t stop when the day was over. Of course, I’d be lying if I told you I’ve been 100% positive ever since. Nope. Not even close. But I have found that I’m not dwelling on the next big thing all the time. I’m not upset when we have a day at home with no plans. I’m not craving change as much as I was. And I am finding joy in the simple things.

I signed up for Masterclass (the online courses taught by famous writers, chefs, etc.). I’m enjoying learning new things. I’ve been reading and journaling more (sometimes in fun places like old Roman ruins). I don’t have to cook most days, but when I do, I enjoy it. It’s kind of therapeutic chopping and stirring and listening to music or having conversations with Justin. Instead of reaching for a quick beer, Justin and I have been taking the time to create signature cocktails. It’s just as much about the process as it is about the product. Getting our produce from the fruit stand or the bread from the bakery doesn’t have to feel like a chore. It’s a fun little outing and an excuse to practice our Tunisian Arabic.

I haven’t written a post in a while because I didn’t think I had anything “exciting” to say. But life doesn’t have to be exciting all the time. Focusing on adventure had me tuning out wonderful, little everyday moments. Don’t get me wrong, I still want to travel and have exciting stories to share, but at the moment, I feel pretty content with daily life. So that’s my update. After 6 months here, this feels normal. My life abroad no longer feels like an extended vacation. I’m used to the sights and sounds and food and driving. We have settled into our house. We go to work every day. Our kids go to school. We know the local cats and the best place to get ice cream. It’s not glamorous, but it’s comfortable. And when we go to our backyard to pick a lemon from our tree or get a glimpse of the beach, I am cognizant that I am fortunate to be here and these are not experiences I’d be having if I wouldn’t have taken this leap.

Away For The Holidays

Christmas means time with friends and family. Traditions. Togetherness. But what if you are thousands of miles away?  5,367 miles to be exact (Eudora, Kansas to Tunis, Tunisia). How can you be apart and together?

In a turn of unexpected events, more people find themselves in this situation, even if they live in the same town as their relatives. The Covid-19 pandemic has a lot of people rethinking how to celebrate from a safe distance.

I think framing it in a positive light is key. We may not physically be in the same location, but there are still ways to feel connected. You just have to get creative. Luckily, I have months of practice living in Africa while my family and friends remain in the States. We have all learned how to keep in touch and I’m proud to say that my relationships are just as strong as they were before our move. In fact, there are some people I talk to more consistently now than I did when we lived in the same state. Of course, I would much rather see them in person, but everyone has made a great effort of making us feel included from afar. 

The following are some creative ideas to help people in long-distance (or Covid-related distance) relationships. Some are more intricate than others, requiring more planning. Most of these ideas are targeted towards families with young kids. I hope they inspire you to think about connection in new ways.

Daily Photo Challenge Sharing

This is not a new or unique idea, but it’s traditionally a solo project. There are lots of photo challenges on pinterest and other sites. Basically, for every day in a month, there is a new prompt, such as “morning” and you take a photo of what that prompt means to you. For the prompt “morning” you could take a picture of your coffee cup or the sun rising, etc.

I took this idea and created a calendar with prompts (some personalized) to share with some of my friends back home. I’ll create a seperate chat on WhatsApp just for this so it doesn’t clog up our other conversation threads. I’m hoping that sharing photos with each other each day will help us get little glimpses into each other’s lives and encourage more communication. Who doesn’t love getting nice text messages throughout the day?! I also made a calendar for my kids and their friends as well- less complicated and not daily, but I think they’ll have fun getting a turn as photographers and having the opportunity to connect with their buddies. Plus, it kind of doubles as a countdown till Christmas.

Bedtime Stories

Part of the bedtime routine in our house is cuddling up with a good book and reading to our children, but what if we allowed our far-away family to join us? There are two ways we could do this. We could let grandparents find a book and video call us at a particular time. A live reading just takes a little coordination to schedule. Currently, we are 8 hours ahead of our family so if they call at noon, that’s 8pm in Tunisia. However, If work schedules don’t allow for a reading in real-time, the other option is recording themselves reading a book and sending it for us to watch when we are ready at a later time. 

Now if you want to get really fancy and you enjoy video editing like I do, you could coordinate something really special with everyone involved. Luckily, my family is on-board with my flair for drama. I took the poem Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore and divided it up into parts. My dad and his wife will read part of the story. My mom and her partner will read part of it. My husband’s parents will read a part, and my sister and her kids will record a part. Once they’ve sent me their video clips, I will edit them together into one surprise video to share with my kids on Christmas Eve Night. They will see all of their grandparents and Aunt and cousins sharing a bedtime tale before they fall asleep. I’m so excited to see how it comes together.

Edit: A friend just shared an app called “Caribu”that might be worth looking into. It’s a video chat app, but it’s targeted to kids and relatives. They can play games like memory match or mazes, read books, and other activities during the video call.

A Shared Meal

Part of the joy of the Holiday Season is coming together to share a special meal. This year, I don’t have access to some of my favorite comfort foods and I certainly won’t be sitting across the table from my family. But sometimes you gotta play pretend! One of the ideas we have toyed with is having each household, near or far make the same recipe on a certain day. We’d take pictures and videos to share along the way and check in with each other throughout the process. Then, when everyone is finished cooking, we would set up a video chat and sit at our respective tables to eat the “same” meal. 

A variation of this idea could be sending out a generic recipe, perhaps for something like sugar cookies, and then everyone gets to put their own spin on it. My kids love decorating cookies (usually with disgusting amounts of frosting and candies that should not go together like chocolate chips and red hots, but to each his own, right?). I think they would have even more fun, knowing they have an audience to show them off to afterwards. And ZOOM calls are always better with snacks!

The Little Things

If you are looking for quicker, less complicated ways to connect more often, here are two other things we enjoy:

  • WhatsApp voice messaging– Texting is great but sometimes it’s so nice just to hear someone’s voice. Plus, my kids have an easier time participating in conversations when they can talk rather than type. Sometimes, I’ll just hand them my phone for a bit and they leave short little messages to grandparents or friends telling them about something they did at school that day or just letting them know they are thinking about them. MarcoPolo is another user friendly app for this. And we’ve learned that you can still feel connected even when you aren’t talking in real time. Sometimes we leave messages for people in the middle of their night and vice versa. Everyone just replies on their own time. I’ve woken up to 60+ missed messages (thanks, “girl chat”) and it’s fun to wake up and read, like my personal social news outlet. I have found that I can still have meaningful conversations even when it’s not in real-time and I am so thankful for that!
  • TouchNote App– I discovered this because sending mail is not always fast and reliable over here. This app allows you to create postcards or letters on your phone and then they print and mail your physical card. Sometimes if we go to a cool place, like a Roman Ruins site, our postcard will feature a picture of us there and then we tell our loved ones about where we’ve been. It may not be handwritten, but it’s the next best thing. Since the company is located in the US, our friends receive their cards in their mailbox within days of us creating it. If we were to attempt to send a card from Tunisia, friends would have to wait about a month or more to receive it. We are going to create our Christmas cards through TouchNote this year, and the nice part is, it already has all of the addresses saved and ready to go!

So for all those feeling disconnected, I feel you. It’s hard, especially this time of year when the weather gets cold and the Holidays are feeling not quite the same. Remember, this too shall pass and while you are in it, you might as well make it a Holiday Season to remember. Sometimes the creative part of our brain shuts down when we are in survival mode, but even a simple message or call can go a long way. If that’s all that you have the capacity to do, that is enough.

The Guilt of Escape

November 4, 2020- 10:00 A.M (Tunisia Time)- The day after Election Day

You know that scene in Titanic where the people in the lifeboats are rowing away from the sinking ship? That’s a bit what it felt like waking up this morning. I see the state of the things back home and I feel guilt for leaving behind my family and friends. 

I feel guilty that I wasn’t inundated with political ads daily. 

I feel guilty that I work for a school that is well-funded, where I am respected as an educator. I get supportive, polite emails from parents wanting to know how they can help me and help their child. It’s a nice change from being ignored by administration, yelled at by parents, and physically harmed by students back in the states.

But I digress… This morning, I assumed I would wake up to election results. I could sleep through the stressful news coverage and just hear the good news in the morning. But instead I’m sitting here, writing out my thoughts because it’s currently undetermined and the margins are way too close for comfort.

I am confused and hurt. Why is it this close? Why do close to 50% of Americans think Trump is the best choice to lead and represent our country? I’m not trying to be snarky. I truly don’t get it. He is a sociopath. He thinks women are objects. He makes blatant lies with no apologies. He incites hatred and racism. He is only looking out for himself. Why do you like him?

Do you know that people from other countries feel sorry for us? When people ask me where I’m from, a little part of me is embarrassed to say America. Sometimes, I consider lying and saying I’m from Canada because I don’t want to be associated with the corrupt government, the hatred and violence of white supremisists, and the idiocracy of those who think they know more than scientists and doctors because they read an article on some random website.

Most of us have been indoctrinated to think we live in the “greatest country in the world.” Well, nowhere is perfect, but I can speak from experience that moving to Africa, I feel safer than I did back home. In Tunisia, the rate of gun ownership is 0.1 per 100 residents. (In case you are curious, that rate in the US is 90 guns per 100 residents- a 900% increase.) I don’t really worry about school shootings any more. (I don’t want to come off as naive. I do understand that Tunisia has it’s issues and I happen to live in a bubble here. It is a 3rd World Country and that comes with obstacles.)

Again, I digress… Is it a religious thing? Is that why people I know voted for him? Is it soley for the abortion issue? You realize, despite his tear gas, Bible photo op, that Trump is as far from moral and spiritual as you can get, right? He doesn’t give a shit about unborn babies. And if you are that concerned about the sanctity of life, why aren’t you concerned about lynchings and children locked in cages at the border and people dying from lack of healthcare or the incompetence of how the pandemic has been handled?

He is a monster. Please tell me you see that. He’s not funny or cool or down-to-earth. He’s an infant. He’s ego personified. I feel like I’m in an episode of the Twilight Zone where everyone is seeing something else I don’t see. 

I’m glad I got out. I’m glad I’m not in America right now. I wish I could have brought the people I love with me. And yet, I understand my privilege. I understand that because most of my friends and family are white, middle class, they will be fine. How messed up is it that those two arbitrary factors make or break you in our country? I’m sad for the place I call home. I can’t stand that it is so divided and filled with hatred. And I really hate that, no matter who wins the presidency, we will still have half of the country that stands behind the ideals that put Trump in office the first time around.

Culture Shock

I was warned multiple times before moving overseas that I would succumb to something called “culture shock.” It sounded very dramatic and unpleasant. I saw the roller coaster-looking line graph. I studied the “symptoms” and “coping strategies.” I tried to prepare myself mentally and emotionally.

Culture Shock Chart 1

Well, I’m happy to report that after about 2 months in Tunisia, this “culture shock thing” isn’t as bad as it sounds (at least in my experience). I really think it needs a new name and a new graph. Maybe “culture adjustment” or “culture curve” or “sometimes life sucks no matter where you are, but right now it happens to suck in a new country.”

If you aren’t familiar with the concept of culture shock, here it is in a nutshell:  Honeymoon, Frustration, Adjustment, Acceptance

You go somewhere new and have a “honeymoon” period where everything is new and exciting. This is followed by hostility and irritability. You are frustrated with the differences you experience such as language barriers, different ways of thinking, new foods, and just feel a general longing for home. Eventually, you adjust to the new culture and gain knowledge and tools to help you live in this new world. And finally you adapt. Life feels basically normal. But… that’s not really the end… When you return to your home country, you get to experience all of these stages again with reverse-culture shock. Fun times!

The view from our balcony, watching the kids play in our yard

But like I was saying, the word “shock” feels a little hyperbolic, and in my personal experience it hasn’t been a continual path forward on the “roller coaster chart.” I have definitely moved backwards on that line graph, sometimes gradually and sometimes like I fell off a cliff. (Oops, now who’s being dramatic?)

The “symptoms” can be confusing. Mood swings. Loneliness. Irritation. Feeling critical. Lack of confidence…. Umm, pretty sure that just describes my past year and I definitely hadn’t left the US at that point… None of these things seem that unusual. 

I was talking with my husband, Justin, about this and he had the perfect revision for the culture shock graph. It’s not a line. It’s a circle. Brilliant! You see, for me, I feel like I’ve just been going round and round between good periods and bad periods, but it always seems to cycle back around.

Culture Shock Chart 2

Here’s how I’ve experienced a change in culture: 

The highs are high! Sometimes, I feel like I’m on top of the world here. I am so lucky. This place is gorgeous and fun and interesting. I’m at the beach one weekend and the Roman ruins on the next. Am I on vacation or is this my real life? And being “fake rich” is the BEST! I’m not actually rich. I don’t own this amazing house, but I get to pretend that I do. And because the school is paying the bills, I have extra money. Then if you account for the very cheap cost of living in Tunisia, it all adds up to a pretty cushy lifestyle.

But other times, it does not feel like a fairy tale. I miss my friends and family. I get irritated with myself that I am not brave enough to hop in the car and go to a store on my own. I love feeling independent and confident and I certainly don’t feel like I possess either of those qualities here. I’m snapping at my kids because I’ve just made them their 3rd breakfast and they still haven’t eaten because they don’t like any of this food. I try to video chat with people back home and between crappy internet and lag time, I feel more disconnected from them than I did before I called. Sometimes I feel helpless and stupid when I can’t communicate with people speaking a different language and I have to rely so heavily on others to do very simple things.

My mom and Frank sent us a care package of American food we’ve been missing.

These highs and lows come and go sometimes within a matter of minutes, but other times I can feel the stress or longing gradually building up and I know I’m on a downhill slope. And this up and down thing has happened over and over again like a circle going round and round. Perfect example: Sometimes the traffic here stresses me out and sometimes it makes me laugh. Just depends on the day.

But again, how is this drastically different from the highs and lows I experienced before I moved? On a particularly hard day here, Justin asked, “If you were back in Eudora right now, do you think you would be happier?”  And my answer was no. 

I moved to Tunisia for a reason. I’m pretty sure I’d be miserable if I was still teaching at the same place, doing the same things every day. I knew last year that I had to throw a wrench in my life in order to move forward in a healthier, happier way. I remember someone telling me the thought of moving to a new country sounded scary, but for me, the thought of staying was scarier. I was apathetic, burnt out, frustrated, and sad during my last year in Kansas. I’ll take these “culture shock” lows over that any day. And the bonus is that it comes with the really high “highs” in between.

So, I’ve been around the circle a few times (or more), and I know my triggers. During “quarantine periods” where we are more isolated, I tend to feel more sad. I always do better when we have activities planned. I don’t like sitting at home. Stressful work situations (like switching to distance learning) can also trigger a downward plunge. (Sounds like my issues are Covid related and not Tunisia related…)

Teddy’s “distance learning” set-up

I think along with the honeymoon/frustration cycle, I’ve been moving forward along the chart as well, getting more accustomed to life here. (Oh boy, the chart just got another new revision!) I am not as “shocked” by things I see and hear anymore. I feel more and more comfortable with every passing week. The little successes (bought a lamp today and had sushi delivered to our house!), growing friendships and comfort with work routines make me feel like I’m quickly approaching the “acceptance” phase. I’ve done a lot of adapting and adjusting to this new life and I feel like I’m in this sweet spot at the moment. I do not take this life for granted. I still feel very lucky to be here, but at the same time I’m not quite as wide-eyed and amazed as I was when we first arrived in Tunisia. I’d say 85% of the time I feel comfortable and living here feels “normal.”

Culture Shock Chart 3

Emotional ups and downs happen everywhere. Culture shock just encompasses very specific ups and downs because there are specific challenges that come with adapting to a new culture. I’m sure lots of people could relate to these phases with a new job, new baby, new relationship, new house or city. Honeymoon, Frustration, Adjustment, Acceptance. I think we’ve all felt those with some change in our lives. I’m still dealing with emotions in the same way. I’ve just swapped my Kansas problems for some new, exotic problems and my issues now have fancy charts.

To sum it all up, culture shock sounds scarier than it actually is. I’m getting used to my new life here and most of the time it feels great, but don’t be fooled! Nothing is perfect. The picturesque photographs don’t capture the behind the scenes details. There have been ups and downs and I miss my friends and family terribly, but adjusting to life in Tunisia has been well worth it, culture shock and all.