A few months after I arrived in Saudi Arabia, I found myself at dinner with a group of teachers. You know, school teachers. Ladies that taught English at Saudi girls’ schools. Old maid school teachers.
Good. Now flush it. Whatever scars you still carry from that time you walked into the teachers’ lounge as a child (teachers? relaxing? aghhh!), it’s time to forget about them. These ladies were cool.
I am now firmly convinced that a memo went around when I was in high school, inviting interested students to come learn how to live an exotic, independent, globe-trotting life, and I missed it. I was never aware that there was more than one path available to humans. High school. College. Job. Maybe marriage. House. Family. The things responsible people do.
These ladies, though, got the memo and went to the meeting. These are women who got jobs in Saudi Arabia and came, alone, to a country that gives off some seriously scary vibes to women so that they could have experiences like no others. Except…they had others. Lots of others. I had to keep stopping the conversation to have them back their stories up.
“Wait—the Khyber pass? Like, to Afghanistan? What do you mean ‘used to be safe’?”
“So, New York first, then China, then here?”
The last, I think, made the best story. As a young, burnt-out PR executive in New York, my friend Jessica sold everything that didn’t fit into a suitcase and moved to China. She spoke no Chinese, knew no one, but managed to locate an expat group. Somebody asked if she could teach English. She thought, “Well, I’ve taught Sunday School. How hard can it be?” Her contact made sure it was okay that the job “isn’t in Bejing,” then when she said yes handed her a card and said someone would be outside her hotel at 6:00 the next morning. (Is this sounding like the way a kidnapping story should start?)
At 6:00 a.m., she got into a waiting car with a stranger and was driven 7 hours into the interior. At a crossroads they met another car, where the driver said, “Jeh-cah?” and waved her in for a trip that took her another 6 hours inland. She was dropped off in a village where no one had ever seen a Westerner. When she ate at a restaurant the owner put up a picture of her, showing everyone in the village that the American lady had been in his establishment. A little girl in her class used to drag her along on inexplicable shopping trips, and it was only after a few months that she learned the little girl was getting paid to bring her into places of business.
After nine months of this, she concluded that she’d found her new calling, went back to the U.S. to get her English teaching credentials, and came to work in Saudi Arabia. One of the other diners had been in and out of Saudi Arabia a few times, and was now doing her last stint while her husband worked as a doctor to native communities in far northern Canada. Another (the one who’d also been in North Korea and over the Khyber Pass) had recently married a Pakistani man, and was now trying to figure out how to get back to the U.S. in time to have her baby there because her husband might not be able to collect his Saudi salary if he left with her.
Dinner conversation. Sure. That’s normal.
On another occasion, in a safety/preparedness presentation by an embassy official, a roomful of expats was asked who’d ever had to flee a country or shelter in place. Hands went up on all sides. I was taking off in India as the runway was being bombed. I was snuck out of Uganda after my mother had to flee. I was shut in during a military coup in Korea. I looked around at the room full of normal-looking men and women. Who were these people? I never felt like such a sheltered white girl from the suburbs.
And it was about to get worse. I met another woman I would rank among the two or three most naturally elegant people I’ve ever known. She was in her sixties, willowy, delicate, with a china doll complexion and every hair always in place. She had such a soft voice I often struggled to hear her. If I was a white girl from the suburbs, she was a cap-L Lady from a Victorian ballroom, gracious, gentle, spotless, perfectly poised. A few weeks after the terrorist attack at the mall in Kenya, she and I happened to be at a lunch together. During a lull in conversation she said, “Does anybody want to go on safari? I understand flights to Nairobi are really cheap right now.”
Boom. Mic drop. I thought I was being pretty global because I was eating Filipino food, but then the Victorian cap-L Lady showed she was actually the coolest girl in the room.
I expected life in a foreign country to introduce me to new foods, smells, sights, expectations, routines, but I didn’t expect to be so bowled away by the kinds of people you run into on the global highway.
Living overseas I met a woman who’d had to act out the animal for the types of meat she wanted when she went shopping in Khazakstan. (The Khazak butchers thought the American version of a chicken, in particular, was HILARIOUS.) Another had to be airlifted from the Middle East to London after she got a life-threatening infection from a feral kitten that had strayed into the house and clawed her as she plucked it from the curtains. I got chilli sweats as I enjoyed lunch prepared by an endlessly kind Thai woman with a Canadian education learning to speak Arabic. A German woman had hated her charmed Bavarian childhood, wearing a dirndl and learning traditional dances, and was designing jewelry from her home at the edge of a rice paddy in Bali. I met women from the U.S., Canada, Finland, and England, married to Saudi men, raising children in a completely foreign culture, and in families where they don’t even share a language.And now, from my sofa in the U.S., I’ve met even more. Canadian Expat Mom, a writer now living in Borneo and on her way to the Congo, put out a call for stories, and has pulled together Once Upon an Expat, an anthology of stories from extraordinary women around the globe. The Facebook group she formed for the contributors has proven, again, that I’ve barely begun to learn how interesting life can be when we step across boundaries. Like my dinner companions in Riyadh, like just about everyone I met while living and traveling abroad, these girls are cool.
You’ll find a story that opens with “My journey to living in Italy starts out as all good Italian stories do—with an Italian boy in tight white pants.” There is more than one story of being naked in France (go figure). Bumping across Africa in a bus. Romance predicted by a Chinese fortune-teller. We have women living in lands adopted by marriage. Women who teach. Missionaries. Diplomats. Businesspeople. Daughters, mothers, wives, adventurers. Stories are arranged by continent, until you get to my heroes at the end, grouped under “No fixed address.”
I think you want this book. These women want you to have this book:
The people from Books Abroad, who will receive the profits and use them to promote literacy and education in developing countries, want you to have this book. And Amazon will help you get it, in paperback or Kindle.
Your summer of travel, from your favorite chair in the shade. Enjoy!