Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Reverse Culture Shock

Hey there. We've now been back in the US for about eight months. Honestly, it feels like much longer. Sometimes our four-year stint in Luxembourg seems like a dream. Wait, did that actually happen?! Being back in our old house in our old neighborhood has undoubtedly heightened the odd sense that we must have just imagined it all.

Before we completely adjust back to American life and forget what it was like to re-enter our home culture, I thought I'd quickly share a few experiences of reverse culture shock.

Driving everywhere
In Luxembourg we managed without a car for a year and a half, but only because we purposefully arranged our living situation to make this possible from the start. While we might be able to get away with this in certain areas of the city, the fact is that Portland (and America) is much bigger, and our house here is in the suburbs. Granted, we're at the border of the suburbs and the city, so we have relatively good bus access. Not only that, but we both work from home, and the kids' school is across the street. So we still are able to easily live with one car and the occasional Uber/Lyft. Nevertheless, driving everywhere is a key part of the culture here and we had to readjust to that mindset. And by the way, the roads here are so dang wide!

Everything's easy
You don't fully realize until you're back in a place where everyone speaks your native language just how perpetually tense you were in every interaction abroad. We constantly braced ourselves for miscommunication, confusion, frustration, misunderstanding, scolding, humiliation, and failure each time we set out to accomplish the simplest of tasks. Back in the USA, we speak the language and we know how all the systems work. And if we don't know, we're confident we can find out. Add to this the friendly customer service culture, and life feels like a cinch. Sure, the over-the-top American eagerness to please can be a bit obnoxious at times, but we laugh it off and thank our lucky stars we (mostly) understood what they said and got exactly what we wanted in a reasonable amount of time.

Endless options and variety
We can attribute the stark contrast between the US and Luxembourg partly to their comparative sizes, but there's no denying that America is the land of options aplenty. I'm trying to think of cases of more options in Luxembourg. Cheeses? Castles? No doubt there are a few more. But when we set out to buy anything here in Portland, whether online or in person, a product or a service, we are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of choices.

Food
Not only are the food and restaurant options expansive in the US, but we also really missed the flavors. We learned that the central European palate is much more refined than the American palate. While they are probably distinguishing all kinds of subtle flavors, all our American brains register is "bland." With the possible exception of some parts of the middle of the country, we Americans like our flavors and spices turned up to 11. We are now bombarded with flavor every time we eat out, and we absolutely love it. Also, free tap water at restaurants is amazing.

Job permanence
Luxembourg is a land of transient expats. Most of our friends and colleagues moved countries and/or changed jobs every 2-4 years. Therefore, it's quite jarring to walk into Target or the gym or the post office and see the same people working there as before we left. I even see the same people in the same jobs since I was toting around a baby and toddler. Why haven't they moved on to a different job yet? Oh, wait, that's actually totally normal!

School culture
Obviously, there are lots of differences between public school in Luxembourg and the USA. Since we first moved to Luxembourg and faced a school culture that was different for both us and our kids, we've tried to instill the idea that one is not better than the other. I think they have a good grasp of this philosophy, and they are hesitant to judge and compare when asked. Nevertheless, here are a few key items we've been adjusting to in Oregon school:

  • Tons of opportunities (and expectation) for parent involvement and volunteering.
  • Lots of technology use, such as class sets of iPads and laptops, learning software that automatically adjusts the level as you go, email addresses and Google drives and blogs for the kids, etc.
  • Baffling playground rules like "no running on the wood chips" and "no pushing each other on the swings."
  • Lots of positive reinforcement from the teachers in the form of games, contests, verbal praise, emails to the parents, stickers, candy, earning rewards and parties, special privileges, etc.
  • Teachers rarely, if ever, yell at the class as a form of discipline or correction.
  • Lots of school community/social events.
  • Larger class sizes--approximately double!
  • Fewer and shorter tests.
  • Lots of fundraising.

Junk mail
This is kind of a random one, but it's very noticeable and extremely annoying. We get so much mail here and 95% of it goes straight into the recycling bin or shredder. What a waste!

Politics
'Nuff said.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Snow Days


December and January saw a couple of big snowstorms, by Portland standards anyway. Meaning: about a foot of snow.

Yes, you have our permission to mock our city. We're just not equipped for this level of the white stuff, only because it's so rare. We're talking abandoned cars, 30-minute commutes turning to 5+ hours, closed freeways, and a general shutdown of the whole metro area. School has been canceled 9 days this winter. Let's hope we're done.

Once again, a lazy blog post is better than no post at all. So, I'll leave you with some snow-based photos until next time.

the chill before the storms

at home

out the same window a bit later

in the same window a bit later

at the schoolyard

closeup

and then they tackled each other

walking to a friend's house

Monday, January 9, 2017

Home for the Holidays 2016

back in our old house for Christmas
This past holiday season, for the first time since 2011, we celebrated Christmas and Thanksgiving in the USA. In our own house! In our hometown! With our own extended family! Amazing!

I didn't take a ton of photos, as I was mostly savoring the moments as they happened. Most of these I already posted on Instagram at some point, but I thought I'd gather a few together here.

Don't be too impressed, it was pre-built.

This tree stood up on its own at Home Depot. We were sold.

decorating

Chrismas with my side

Christmas with Pete's side
Malcolm + Connect 4 = hours of entertainment for all

cousin's first Christmas

it's fun to watch cousins open presents

more cousin fun

brother fun

NYE at Nana & Grandad's

made it midnight

And here are some bonus events from the end of the year/start to 2017, since I'm too lazy for separate posts. In reverse chronological order:

14th anniversary January 3rd, 2017

December birthdays

joint family party

D's party with school friends

James' October birthday

James' celebration with family and friends
Family: the hardest part of living abroad, the best part of being back!


Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Luxembourg Wrap-up: Our Moving Process


pizza on the last day

Part of the appeal of an international job transfer is the sweet expat package that typically comes with the deal. Depending on the employer, you may receive money toward housing, the expensive tuition of private international school for your kids, and a certain number of flights home per year.

When we moved to Luxembourg originally, we received none of these perks, mainly because Pete was not transferred within a company for a set period of time like most traditional expats. Rather, this was his first role at the company: he accepted the job in Luxembourg on a local, indefinite contract.

What we did get was help with the actual move. Pete's employer paid for movers to pack up our Oregon house. Our possessions were divided into a smaller air shipment and a larger sea container shipment, and all the shipping costs and our plane tickets were covered. Had Pete transferred to the Seattle office this summer per our original plan, the same set-up would have applied.

When Pete decided to quit his corporate job and work for himself, however, we sacrificed this moving back benefit. Rather suddenly, the cost of 4 summer plane tickets and getting all our stuff back to the US fell squarely on our shoulders. In addition to this unplanned expense, we were also facing the unknown financial future of self-employment. But still feeling confident in our choice and its timing, we were determined to make it all work somehow.

After researching and discussing various options, we opted to liquidate all our furniture and large possessions, and then mail anything we felt we absolutely needed via express post. We stole this idea from Thrifty Travel Mama and her family, who moved their possessions back to the States from Germany via DHL boxes. Their situation was similar to ours: few possessions, tight budget. We used the Dutch equivalent of DHL (TNT) that partners with the Luxembourg post office, and they charged us €100 per 30 kilogram box.

60 kg of stuff (note: we didn't use the Streff moving company, just their empty boxes!)

Throughout the moving process, we were constantly asked, "Why not ship a pallet with a moving company? Wouldn't that be cheaper and easier?" In case you have the same query, here are a few reasons:
  1. We only made the decision for Pete to leave his job and to move ourselves back to Oregon less than 2 months before we actually left. Many moving companies require more notice than that to schedule a shipment, especially during high season/summer.
  2. We didn't know exactly how much we'd want to bring back when all was said and done, so potentially overpaying for a pallet's worth of stuff, or paying a fixed amount for a predetermined total cubic meters/weight/number of boxes, wasn't cost effective. One company charged the same amount for 5-15 large boxes, for example. We thought we'd likely come out closer to 5.
  3. We were able to gradually mail things back in a specific order relative to how much we still needed the items on a daily basis in Luxembourg, which gave us the flexibility to ship boxes and stay in our apartment up until right before we flew back, and bought us a lot more time to pack.
  4. We knew that paying by-the-box would force us to examine each possession carefully to decide if it was really worth shipping back. This tickled our minimalist fancy, for sure. And we figured we could gradually replace things back in Oregon as we regained our financial footing, rather than dole out a huge sum upfront to move everything.
  5. Sea shipments with moving companies can take months to arrive, and even standard air shipments on a pallet can take a couple weeks. Because we were only bringing back our most important items, by definition we'd need them again right away. TNT boxes only took 2-3 days.
there goes our first smallish test-box

There were definite downsides to this method, though. The biggest pain was the sheer amount of time and effort it took to sort and sell EVERYTHING. In regular moves, even the international kind, there are items that don't get properly sorted. These items end up in miscellaneous boxes to be dealt with later (or never). If you've ever moved, you know those random catch-all boxes are a lifesaver when it's getting down to the wire. Sometimes, entire sealed boxes of keepsakes are even passed along from move to move, never opened at all. Alternatively, a few boxes and large items are temporarily stored at a family member's house.

None of the above were options for us this time. Every individual item from every nook and cranny of our lives was carefully weighed, sometimes literally, for worthiness.

Another formidable obstacle was that Craigslist and garage sales aren't part of Luxembourg culture. Most expats sell and give away stuff in Facebook groups. I logged several hours a day for a month and a half photographing and posting each of our possessions one by one in various groups, arranging pick-ups and managing no-shows. It felt like a full-time job at times! Deciding exactly when to let go of each item was also a mental and logistical puzzle. There were a few other hurdles such as how to organize, list, and value the contents of each giant box for customs purposes when you only have 4 lines to write on, but thankfully Thrifty Travel Mama had already blazed the trail on how to overcome those issues.

Then there were non-moving issues that added to the stress. The kids picked up headlice at school about 2 weeks before we moved. This was our first (and hopefully last!?!) time fighting lice, so I had to figure out that whole thing out in a foreign country in the middle of moving. The short story is that despite my best efforts, I got it too and we brought it back with us to the States! Sorry, people on the airplane! I am eternally grateful to Lice Knowing You in Beaverton, OR. It's all gone now. On the plus side, Pete got to really appreciate his baldness.

gotta love multiple mid-move lice treatments
The other major hiccup was that James got really sick and went on antibiotics the last week of school, causing him to miss the last day. We flew out just a few days after school finished, and James still was recovering and taking medicine right up until we boarded the plane in Frankfurt. Keeping the antibiotics cold in a crappy lunch cooler during a very hot spell in ice-averse Europe once we left our apartment was an adventure in itself. Suffice it to say that Daphne saved James' bacon by using her German skills to score a flimsy plastic bag of frozen shrimp from a very confused restaurant owner at a truck stop in the middle-of-nowhere on the way to Frankfurt.

But back to the moving process. As we began the great sorting project, our 3rd bedroom served as the staging area for anything we wanted to ship back.

that was basically it, except for our clothes for the suitcases

Taking one last look through the old baseball card collection before letting it go. Pete, I'll take this photo down if it makes you too sad.
last photo of kitchen artwork before taking it down

Clearing out the pantry. We feasted on this pot of curried lentils for days!!

Pete weighing our largest box. Just subtract his body weight!
taking the largest box to the downtown post office
getting low on furniture!

getting really low on furniture
By the night before our friend was to drive us to the Frankfurt airport, we'd whittled everything down to cleaning supplies, suitcases, musical instruments we'd take on the plane, and mattresses. In the morning, a friend picked up the mattresses, we piled the suitcases and instruments into the hallway, and finished cleaning before the landlord inspection.


all checked out!

Pete took one last load of blankets and cleaning supplies to the recycling center, and while we waited for our car dealer friend to come pick up our car, we took a walk into town to say goodbye to Luxembourg one last time--and turn in our wireless router.

with Ellie the Elephant and our mini-version

Once our car was gone, our lovely friend Beth drove us to Frankfurt and treated us to a final dinner at Vapiano.



Then after spending the night in Frankfurt, we took a taxi with our instruments and suitcases to the airport. James downed his last dose of antibiotics, we threw the entire lunch cooler in the trash (semi-frozen and leaking plastic bag of shrimp and all) and got on the plane!

ugly PDX carpet = we're home!
And how about those boxes? In the end, we shipped 8 of them, and all made it safe and sound. All except one box arrived in Oregon before we did. We were not charged any additional customs fees, and only suffered a few broken Christmas ornaments and mugs.
the last box!
So, now we've had experience on both ends of the international move spectrum: a cushy corporate-sponsored move and an extremely DIY version.
boxes double as fort for nephew

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Luxembourg Wrap-up: Saying Äddi

I'm gonna do it. I'm gonna get some catch-up posts in before the end of the year!

I already wrote a post about the farewell concert that functioned as our official going-away party in June. Before we departed Luxembourg in mid-July, we had a few other casual meet-ups with friends to say goodbye. While we didn't get to see everyone before we left, let alone take photos of everyone, I'm posting those we did manage to grab.

None of this documentation will matter to anyone besides us and the people in the photos. Nevertheless, this blog has become our main family record, and we want to remember our time in Luxembourg the best that we can. Something about living in a foreign country speeds up and intensifies friendships, so I know we'll never forget them. But photos help too!

By the way, here are just a few of the passport countries represented by the friends in these photos: Canada, USA, France, Germany, Belgium, Scotland, England, Ireland, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy, Denmark, Portugal, Paraguay, Brazil, China, Nigeria.








first Luxembourgish friend

Classmates at the park:


they brought gifts, so sweet!

water fight!


James T and James T
Last day of school:

James became really ill and missed the last day. So sad he didn't get to say a proper goodbye.



D's teacher the last 2 years.




After I took these photos, Daphne stood in the middle of the playground and yelled "äddi" to every item at school, one by one. I got a video, but am pretty sure she'd be mad if I posted it.

Next up: how we moved our belongings back!