Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Women pioneers' life: now and back then

When we arrived in New England at the end of a steamy summer, I wanted to make sure we had every possible aspect sorted out to face the cold winter. I was so excited: I had read so much about these places and its history and finally I was about to experience it first hand. We had our winter gear shipped from Europe to our new address, my husband also made sure I had all movie entertainment available whenever I needed it (I had all my TV series, movies, even cartoons that would keep me company in those long lonely, cold and stormy days). Besides having the apartment set up in proper order, we also started stocking up on supplies of stuff we needed for those crazy situations (aliens invasion, nuclear war, etc...just joking.. mainly for awful weather conditions that basically forbid you to get out of the house for a couple of days, if you are lucky).
We undertook this project very eagerly and with a high dose of adventure; we never had to do anything like this before and the excitement was running high. Preparation was the most fun, we wrote down a list of basic things we thought we needed in case of emergency to get us through a couple of days, no more. If worse came to worst, we thought, they would sent the National Guard to the rescue. So here it is:
1. some extra blankets
2. an inflatable mattress (don't ask me why, but we ended up using it many times)
3. a first aid kit and medications (make sure you keep your prescriptions with you and never run low on those!!), tissues and wipes
4. a torch (or even two) and batteries
5. candles (my favorites are bee wax, a bit pricy but totally natural, last longer and give more light, besides the smell that I like)
6. matches and lighters
7. a radio, make sure that before a storm you have all your electronics like cell phones and laptops recharged (in case of a power outage)
8. a stock of bottled water (we usually bought two of the 24 pack), milk, chocolate, canned food, fresh fruits (like apples, bananas and oranges that last longer), dried fruit.

Eventually we ended up needing all of the above! Needless to say that if the roof of your house gets blown away, you need more than the things listed. The area were we lived in was hit hard by a series of natural events: in one year only we went through 7 major snow storms, 2 hurricanes, 3 tornadoes and 1 earthquake. Even though we took weather alerts and warnings seriously, you can't be prepared for the unpredictability of the weather: tornadoes and hurricanes caused heavy damages to houses and people around us. But the apartment building where we lived was untouched by them; it was only snowed down heavily, which in most cases  means a power cut. However, we got lucky once again because the longest power outage we had, lasted about 6-7 hours. And that happened on Halloween: hard to forget! That is when our inflatable mattress came in handy as we hosted some friends whose apartment was affected by the power outage for a couple of days. I was happy I could provide a warm and safe shelter to my friends!
One thing though I learnt is that we could not rely on electronic entertainment alone, so we had to be more resourceful and turned to old-fashioned activities, which we enjoyed immensely. In one season we did seven jigsaw puzzles of 1000 pieces each.
If my expectations were met so far, as the weather went, what I didn't expect was the length of the winter season. Honestly, I quite enjoyed the white landscape and I had to make the best of my situation in the first year I was there. Hence, I turned to my old favorite hobbies to keep myself busy: baking, cooking, reading, going to the sport club for some laps and eventually I spent quite a lot of time doing jigsaws and watching some good oldies, which in that context were almost therapeutical.
I was thrilled because I was living an American adventure but soon my enthusiasm started to dwindle. I couldn't just stay home and play "wify", I needed to get out and stay among people, be productive, useful, in one word become part of the society. I didn't mind back then as I still don't mind now being a housewife but that is my choice, I could never stand for the imposition.
On one stormy afternoon, I began scrolling the list of movies and bumped by accident into "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" and I started watching it. I immediately felt a strong kinship with Milly, the female character. Probably because of the loneliness and the long winter I was witnessing from my window, I had to think of all those women who like Molly had to endure much more. Sitting in my warm and cozy living room, I felt projected back in time, but the wilderness outside was exactly the same. I was also leading my pioneer life, working alongside my husband, doing my woman’s chores: cleaning, scrubbing, washing, baking and cooking (thank God, no wood chopping and food hunting or gathering). The only activities I could do because my status didn't allow me to work. 
The story is told in a lighthearted way but it also entails some critical all time issues like the place and recognition of a woman within her family, her society and ultimately her country. Milly fights hard to gain her place and respect of people around her. I felt for this character who, with the prospect of a better future, rolls up her sleeves and works hard despite the hardships she faces and I felt I was doing the same. I was working for my family, despite a society and a country that had neither place nor recognition for me. 
Milly became my heroine, the epitome of all those women, silent protagonists, who have been the backbone of the American dream. Women who worked along their husbands struggling to provide for their families but content and grateful for what they had built. Milly is the spirit of pioneering which I embraced wholeheartedly. If America hadn't had an army of Milly Pontepee, there would be no American dream to sell today. But for us, foreigners, it is a different story.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Europeans who came back

Every time I meet with people who used to live in North America, I love to hear their stories as re-pats. I guess I can't help myself but I really have to find out if the reasons they decided to come back are the same as mine. Here are some stories people shared with me throughout Europe. 
All these stories have a common link: these people I met are highly qualified/skilled workers who were offered an opportunity that allowed also the rest of their family to experience life abroad. However, after so many years (in some cases a significant amount time, that you'd think by that time you either make it or break it), they decided to go back to their roots. 
A Dutch couple, who were well in their sixties when I met them, spent 8 years in Canada and they offered a very simple explanation to my question: they decided to go back to the Netherlands because they felt their home country could provide a better education for their three children. Likewise a German couple, who spent 5 years in the USA, had a similar story: education was a main factor that brought them back. This is a common issue that many Europeans face when tackling their children's education. We trust our school system, especially Northern European countries that regularly stand out in international student assessments' rankings. However, since the experiences of these families, the situation, as far as education goes, seems to have improved especially for Canada. In fact, in the latest PISA study of 2009 conducted by OECD, Canada placed sixth worldwide improving its education system by leaps and bounds. Education is the foundation that defines our identity, beliefs and ultimately leads us to our professional career; therefore, providing top quality education becomes the prime concern especially for highly educated parents, whose expectations for their children are quite high.
Social and cultural aspects might also contribute in the decision process of leaving. Despite the common belief that wants Americans easy-going and friendly, there are objective difficulties in establishing durable friendships. I don't want to oversimplify or sound harsh but Europeans perceive Americans as shallow when it comes to relationships. Now, this aspect deserves a bit of delving into its cultural causes. I have observed it many times: Americans don't mean any harm, it is only a cultural aspect that has to be understood in order to avoid puzzlement and disappointment. Because of the frequency of their moves from one state to the next, from one job to another, they need to make friends easily, they invite them over, give them their car key, overall being very helpful and generous. They are simply terrific! However, when one moves away, everything it is as good as forgotten. They are very practical, if you have a material problem, they can help you out. Europeans, on the other hand, tend to build more meaningful lasting relationships nurturing quality over quantity, and allowing time to get to know people. Europeans mainly rely on their friends for moral support and confide in them, something Americans don't do because they pay their psychotherapist for the sphere of emotions and feelings. These are very generic considerations made throughout the years and that's just what they are. For the record, I do have American friends and we have been in touch for over twenty years.
Another interesting factor that popped up talking with mixed-couples was the overall quality of life and location. Italian-Americans, British-Italians, French-Americans, all these couple left the USA because, in their case, they couldn't deal anymore with the sense of loneliness and abandonment typical of the great provincial America. The vastness and solitude of rural America is a scenario quite different from the skyline of NY or LA and this comes as short as a shock, especially when you come from the hustle and bustle of European towns. Buying the fresh French baguette from the bakery just around the corner is not the same as driving your car for miles to the closest grocery store and running down an aisle to buy plain industrial bread.
Talking to people about their experiences abroad is quite an eye-opener. In my last months of stay in the USA, I was torn between propagandist ads running through mind "fulfill your American dream" and the realistic vision stating "look around yourself, there is no dream here". I realized I was not the only one who went through this process of revelation; confronting each other's experiences has been enlightening and extremely helpful to see how re-pats are immunized by the charms of the American dream and how they appreciate and re-evaluate things they have back home. 

Monday, October 21, 2013

Una vita all'estero: l'erba del vicino e' sempre la più verde?

L’idea di una nuova vita all’estero alimenta le nostre fantasie mammano che sentiamo o leggiamo di posti lontani che offrono dei veri paradisi alle nuove generazioni e non solo, visto che oramai ci sono parecchi pensionati propensi a migrare verso lidi più caldi e diciamolo pure fiscalmente "accoglienti".
Questa mobilità mondiale sembra contagiosa, parliamo ovviamente di gente che decide di trasferirsi per scelta e non per necessità.
Si va via per un futuro migliore, certo, ma quanti davvero rimangono all'estero e quanti rientrano? Ma soprattutto perché si decide di rientrare?
Anzitutto iniziamo con il mito della vita all'estero. Opportunità di lavoro e studio rendono questo sogno più vicino di quanto non lo fosse qualche decennio fa. Le aspettative sono spesso molto alte e purtroppo si scontrano poi con la realtà dei fatti. Se il primo periodo è definito quello della "luna di miele", dove tutto è meglio rispetto casa (anche il cibo!!) poi ci si scontra con la dura realtà, dove si prende coscienza delle proprie differenze ed è in questa fase che prende corpo la consapevolezza che bisogna adattarsi alla nuova vita fatta di quotidianità. Purtroppo la mancanza d’informazione gioca un ruolo cruciale, spesso ci affidiamo alla sorte, e forse una buona dose d’incoscienza aiuta, ma bisogna conoscere le leggi del paese ospitante, o meglio tutti quegli aspetti burocratici, sanitari e previdenziali che bisogna affrontare. Inoltre, la conoscenza della lingua e della cultura non sono fattori da sottovalutare.
La mia generazione è cresciuta nel mito dell'America, alimentato da quello spettacolo a stelle e strisce che solo gli Americani sono maestri nel creare. L'industria televisiva e cinematografica ha propinato per anni valori nei quali tutti ci siamo riconosciuti: partendo dalla famiglia come valore assoluto, passando poi per il duro lavoro, creando e rinforzando il mito americano. Siamo cresciuti a pane e telefilm come Happy Days e La Casa nella Prateria (sì, sì ammettetelo che anche voi lo guardavate!!)  e tutti abbiamo desiderato, chi più chi meno, di far parte di quel mondo. Ma l'illusione cinematografica finisce qui, queste vetrine del modello americano sono auto-celebrative, relegando lo spettatore non-americano a unico ruolo, ovvero quello del passante che rimane fuori a guardare ammirato e incuriosito. 
Nella realtà dei fatti, per entrare negli USA bisogna ottenere un visto d'ingresso, ma non illudetevi di essere a posto una volta ottenuto lo stampo sul passaporto. I visti sono temporanei e hanno parecchie limitazioni, che nel caso di mogli a seguito dei mariti, sono ancor più restrittivi rendendo la vita di queste ultime ancor più isolata e difficile. Infatti, i visti come F2 e H4 non consentono alla moglie di cercare lavoro. Insomma, la donna diviene a tutti gli effetti, un fardello che non può realizzarsi professionalmente: un angelo del focolare nell'immaginario delle politiche d'immigrazione americana che fa a pugni con gli ideali che l'America sostiene di difendere. Anche per i detentori di un visto H1B, il sogno americano si realizza in parte. Infatti, anche se vi permette di lavorare e magari il vostro lavoro vi piace molto e non avete nessuna intenzione di cambiare, questo visto non vi permette di farlo (a patto che non si trovi un altro datore disposto a sborsare tanti dollari per pagarvi questo visto). 
Dagli anni in cui gli USA erano il sogno per tanti, ora si preferiscono altre mete come l'Australia, che, complice una politica d'immigrazione più lungimirante rispetto ad altri Paesi, riesce ad attrarre molti giovani. Infatti, le politiche miopi di molti Paesi, USA in primis, in fatto d’immigrazione, allontanano personale qualificato che invece ha tutto l'interesse ad integrarsi nelle nuove realtà. Persone volenterose, istruite ai massimi livelli, hanno difficoltà a trovare sbocchi di lavoro per via di visti di lavoro/studio che scoraggiano i potenziali datori di lavoro a reclutare manodopera specializzata. Ma non solo, l'inefficienza dell'apparato burocratico nell'ambito della politica d'immigrazione non riesce a dare una mano concreta ad una vera propulsione economica. Basti pensare all'appello lanciato da molti CEOs di aziende importanti al Presidente Obama per intervenire in questa questione che allontana persone altamente qualificate. Un paradosso per un Paese fondato sull’immigrazione di massa!
Risultato? I Paesi emergenti come Cina, India, Brasile ma tanti altri ancora, ringraziano: i loro talenti, emigrati per studiare e fare esperienza all'estero, delusi da un Paese che non ha più molto da offrire, ora ritornano in Patria pronti e motivati per investirvi le loro competenze culturali e professionali. Forse poi non è proprio così male!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Immigrants' spouses in the USA: a quick guide how to get by!

Dear women, mothers, workers and now foreigners in the USA and also dear men (yes, some guys also follow their wives!),
if you are trying to adjust to your new lives abroad, I will share some tips that might be helpful to make a better and smoother transition for you. What most women find frustrating is the way they are considered, actually, not considered. Don't isolate yourself more than your status is already doing to you, fight back, break the wall of isolation.

Based on what I had to get through, these are some steps that I found very useful:

1) Don't expect any help from anybody! 
Sounds harsh but that is the sad reality. Because you feel home alone, nobody will show up at your doorsteps with a basket of goodies. You are alone and you have to be self-reliant. Depending also on the nationality you are from, things can be very different. For instance, Koreans can rely on a solid support system of expats. Europeans not so much, but once they get to know each other they tend to stick together.
2) Dedicate some effort and time furnishing and decorating your new place.
By now you are even more depressed because the place you have just moved into is crappier than the one you had back home, and on top of everything else that comes already as a big shock, but nonetheless try to make it as homy as you can.  Re-creating a safe and cozy place will give you a sense of accomplishment and will definitely improve your mood. It is important to be surrounded by a friendly and warm environment that can give you the positivity you need. Add some lights, candles and even pictures of your loved ones.
3) Reach out
Become familiar with places and people that can help you connect to other people. Don't be afraid to introduce yourself to other people. A good place to start off is the international student office that should provide you with all the info you need about and for international students and their families. Attend international events offered by the University because they give you the opportunity to meet people in the same situation as yours and you will see you are not alone.
4) Join activities to socialize.
If your English is not so strong, take a class in language and culture. Such activities are usually offered by the University but you can also find similar events at public libraries.
Be involved in activities that you also used to do at home, like joining a sport club. You need activities to keep you busy, to get out of the house and to build a network. You might also consider volunteering, you can start looking for non profit organizations around the area where you live.
5) Invite people over!
I love cooking and having people over for dinner. So for me it was natural to do the same thing while I was abroad. These informal events give you a chance to get to know people better, away from formal situations.

These are the very first steps to undertake when your new life abroad sets in.
I was able to meet a lot of women in the same situation I was, and eventually became close friends with a few of them. Even though we are scattered throughout the world now, I am still in touch with them (and I know they are reading my posts ;)). I am very thankful I met them because besides being wonderful people, their presence made everything more bearable. We shared a lot of tough moments but we also had great times together. 

So what are you waiting for?! Leave the computer now and get out to meet real people!!

Good luck to you all!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Credit cards? Financing? A couple of things you should know before packing for the USA

One thing that really drives me crazy and I still haven't got used to, is how Americans shop.  
In the USA, you can get virtually any deal with the "promise" you will pay sometime somehow.
When we went to look for a used car, since we were well aware of our financial situation, the car dealer wanted us to buy a new car. "Sure" I replied "if you are willing to buy one for me, why not?". Without our consent, the guy ran a credit history check, but guess what? After living in the country for less than 2 months it is difficult to have any credit history, so it turned out we weren't eligible for some sort of financing that we never considered in the first place. I hated the experience of being X rayed by a salesman- when I tell you I am looking for a car in that budget, I mean it, I know how much I can spend and am willing to spend! 
Eventually, we stuck to our original plan and bought a second hand car for the price we wanted, or better, for the price we felt comfortable we could afford. And we paid cash. I could sleep better, because nobody could come and claim it back. An unpaid bill or a deleted payment for any reason can cost you dearly, from losing more than what you initially intended to invest on. You have to be extra careful especially when you are still at school and living on your savings, financial planning plays a crucial role in your everyday life for the next two or more years you will be studying.
What I am about to say is obvious for people who are sensible and have that rare quality called common sense. I' ll get to the point: you buy what you can afford, it is as simple as that. This is the way I was raised, and right or wrong doesn't matter, at the end of the day you do your own maths.
Obviously, there are expenses that need financing (like buying a house), but here I am talking about things that are not really necessary.  I needed a cell phone, and I made sure I got the cheapest plan possible, which I found for $14.99 a month! I was gobsmacked just to see how much people in America are willing to pay for their cell phone plans, and it didn't look like they could afford it.
But the system allows you to spend more than you actually earn and that makes me very uncomfortable. If you can't wait to get the latest technology gadget you want so badly, you can put it on your credit card. With the American credit card system, you are fully in charge of your finances, which is of course a big plus if you pay your debts on time, meaning you do your diligent work at the end of every month, but it can also be a huge minus for those who don't have control over their expenses.
Unlike Europe, where the outstanding balance of your credit card must be paid within the following month, in the USA the card holder decides how much to pay per month (although there is a minimum), so the outstanding expenses roll over to the next month. However, this flexibility comes at a price, the gadget that initially cost $500 let's say, can end up cost you well over $ 600, depending how long you procrastinate the payment.
Credit cards and financing have become increasingly popular in the last twenty years in Europe to "help" a buyer who can't afford to pay the whole sum in one go, breaking it down in monthly installments. However, interest rates are skyrocketing up to 30% (excluding a fee to open the contract). If I appreciate the practicality of it, and take advantage of it, I refuse to give in to its charm. I don't want to work for my credit card, the credit card has to work for me!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

What a laugh!

After discussing very serious topics, I needed a break and this jolly guy made me laugh so much I have been rolling on the carpet with tears in my eyes! Thanks man I really needed it!
Here it goes, the article below enumerates reasons why Europeans are at odds with American culture: based on my experience though I tend to distinguish the East Coast from the big provincial America, some things are just true, some are creepy and some hilarious...I let you decide for yourself! A warning: if you are too touchy or sensitive, don't read it, but if you are in the mood for a good laugh, and have a sense of humor go ahead and..have fun! :)

More about hard life for spouses in the USA

I came across a very interesting article that was spot on with what I was discussing a while ago.

As more and more people are bringing up this issue about visas that relegate women to a status of a "lesser citizen"in the USA, serious considerations have to be made.
There is a bigger community out there of lonely women that had to cut their ties with their own country, family, friends and also their job to follow their husbands. These women are now facing a double solitude: the natural one, so to speak, that happens to everyone when they arrive in a new country and, an even tougher one, because imposed by State regulations that classify and relegate these "aliens"to a lesser status (look at things you can't do on your visa, you'll see how much your freedom is limited in the land of the free). A third scenario, which is equally bad, is deportation. Regardless which category you belong to, it will take a toll, a huge one, on yourself and all your family.
In this way the system penalizes legal aliens and rewards illegal immigrants who definitely enjoy more freedom than women who got into the country legally! So, I have to believe that only the fools play by the rules.

This is the article: