The Road Not Taken
by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
I love this poem. I am no poet, but it describes my ever-diverging life perfectly, and so much more beautifully than I could put it.
I left South Australia in 1990 armed with a boyfriend, a backpack and a boarding pass, and since that day it feels like my feet have barely touched the ground. Now, over twenty two years later, we have added a marriage certificate, three kids, seven countries (some of them twice)and a forty foot container to the mix – not to mention the twenty-something addresses scratched out in my mother’s phone book!
At each point of departure we are sent on our way by friends sadly exclaiming how difficult it must be to pack up all our belongings, uproot our family and move on again. Arriving at a new destination we are greeted with more exclamations of despair at the difficulties we will encounter settling in: how we are bound to have problems with housing, staff, traffic, the food, the water, the traffic, the locals, the weather, the traffic….
After twenty one years of purging and packing up, unpacking and purging again, I feel it is finally time to stand up and be counted: I want to own up to being one of those inexplicably odd souls who actually enjoys her nomadic lifestyle.
First and foremost I love travelling – but not in the sense of being a tourist. In this era of cheap travel, ‘tourist’ has become a dirty word, with its insinuations of second- rate hotels, mind-numbing coach trips and stale set menus. To be a tourist is like licking the icing off the top, but not getting the cake, a sweet but insubstantial mouthful of fairy floss that leaves you still hungry and slightly nauseous.
I prefer to pause for breath, be it for two weeks, two months or two years, and at least pretend to be local. I want to get to know the back lanes and the nearest bakery, using my ‘otherness’ to ask all sorts of impertinent, obvious questions about the locals and their town. I like the feeling of setting up a new home, however temporarily, and claiming some sense of ownership for our latest location. Armed with a map book and a list of housing options, I love the challenge involved in finding my way round a new city and into a new life, of wandering off the beaten track and finding my way home again.
I like the chance to give life a good stir now and again. Gathering moss is not my strongest suit. I get sluggish, unmotivated and unimaginative. I find each new posting gives me a fresh and liberating perspective on life. We have tried settling once or twice over the years, but the siren call of new destinations continues to lure us ever onwards.
I have loved sharing the world with our children, and together we have collected birth certificates, passports and class photos from all over the globe. While those first weeks in a new school can be difficult at any age, I have observed that most kids prove amazingly adaptable, and generally immerse themselves in their new environment more quickly and easily than their parents, given the routine and structure of school life. And the life skills they learn are invaluable: making new friends quickly; saying goodbye to old ones; experiencing new cultures; meeting new challenges and availing themselves of new opportunities. Moving teaches them the benefits of bungee jumping into life, of learning to meet changes and challenges head on, with anticipation rather than dread.
Fifteen years ago I wrote an article in Kuala Lumpur about trans-cultural kids, based on an interview with a relocation expert. She took me through the process of moving a family overseas, the practicalities, the problems and the benefits. And she assured me then that professional studies generally paint a positive picture; that living abroad has more than enough benefits to balance the scale. Our Third Culture Kids will be independent and adaptable, possibly bi-lingual and generally more racially sensitive than stay-at-home kids. They also have an added awareness of their place on the global stage: the world citizen prototype for the 21st century.
As parents, we can give them the wings to fly, although I have noticed over the years that so much depends on our attitude as parents. If our kids hear us bemoaning our fate, complaining about problems and anticipating difficulties, they too will whine and worry. It is up to us to take the lead and teach by example. Even for those of us who may prefer not to live as expats, it’s what we do, and we not only need to accept it, but to grab the nettle and get on with it to the best of our ability. If our kids see us putting on a brave face and attempting to face the challenges, they will learn from us to do the same.
Of course there will be a sense of loss, even grief when they must move on again, but that is life, however we choose to live it. Life has a tendency to change when we least expect it, whether we sit in one spot for fifty years or we move annually, and the sooner our children learn to deal with this inevitable part of life, the easier it will be for them as they grow. We have an amazing opportunity to educate our children, to fill them with enthusiasm, optimism and positivity that will prove invaluable when they turn to face their own adult challenges. They may need time to grieve for the loss of friends and familiar places, but we should try not to let them wallow and forever look backwards.
Our kids have one huge advantage over the ‘army brat’ kids of old. Today our children are blessed with so many ways of keeping in touch with old friends, ways that were unimaginable to us even twenty years ago. No ‘snail mail’ for them, but Facebook and Skype for an instant fix of their families and friends who are scattered all over the planet. And air travel has become so much easier and cheaper. It has, quite literally, made the world their oyster. For those of us given cosy, secure childhoods in one house, one town, one school, such rootlessness can be hard to fathom. Yet our kids will be truly global kids and understand that it is possible to make a home anywhere. They have tasted so many new environments that their horizons are broad beyond our imaginations – that is their reality.
A lesson we learned long ago was how to throw ourselves into the deep end. As expats, we must. None of us have our extended family living round the corner, so we must quickly create our own families from the strangers we have moved in with. We all get so close, so quickly – particularly in hardship postings – that we often fear moving away from the tight knit group we have created. And yet, somehow, there are always more friends to be made. We all discover that some friends are simply for that moment, some will last through a move or two, and a handful will be for life, those with whom we can pick up the loose threads anywhere, anytime, but every one of them has added a depth and colour to our lives.
Over the years I have found myself doing things I never imagined: travel experiences; unexpected job opportunities; new hobbies. In the expat world, there is always something to bring newcomers into the fold. For me, schools were once the obvious entry point, but as the kids became teenagers, having their mother hanging around in their space became too uncool to be tolerated. This time I have had to find my own path, and it has been an interesting change.
It isn’t always easy. Expat years can be tough on marriages and family, but it can also strengthen them. We have had to learn to rely on each other when extended family is not in the immediate vicinity to share the joys and the worries. As I remind the kids from time to time, their siblings are the only people in their lives who can share the memories of every move we have made and every new life we have created, so they should hold on tight. It has been a roller coaster ride of ups and downs, but it has been an unforgettable adventure.
* Adapted from an article published this month in ‘Inklings’.