Thursday, November 19, 2009
Call Me Multipatriate!
Because it's been several years now since ExpatWomen.com made me Mentor of the Month, and because I'm asked these same excellent questions over and over in my daily life meeting "foreigners" here in Buenos Aires, I'm posting this interview here.
ExpatWomen: Cherie, your biography illustrates snippets from your amazing life. You’ve survived breast cancer, twice, you’ve survived the death of your spouse, and you’ve lived in France, Mexico and Argentina (in addition to the US). Can you please share with us your best memories to date, from each of the countries that you’ve lived in?
Cherie: Some of my best memories of France and Mexico have to do with food! Unfortunately I can’t say the same for Argentina, where I probably couldn’t survive without my ever-present bottle of Lemon Pepper.
I was also enchanted by the history and architecture of France and Mexico. Mexico in addition has a spiritual quotient underlying everything, and which helped me to feel fulfilled.
One Sunday soon after I moved to Buenos Aires from Mexico, I was feeling lonely and was missing the ever-present processions under my balcony in San Miguel de Allende, when I looked out of my window and Lo! If there wasn’t a procession passing by. Small and a bit raggedy—just an image of the virgin, a priest, and parishioners singing as they walked—but it made my day. Platitudes apply here: God is where you find him, happiness is right there, under your balcony, waiting to be discovered, etc.
I have many wonderful memories of Mexico, but one was attending an intensive language school, La Academia, for 2 ½ months. It was five days a week from 8 to 6, and covered not only speaking, writing and grammar, but folklore, literature, history, sociology, and even cooking! I just loved it, and met many wonderful people. Eleven of us even made a fieldtrip to Mexico City one weekend and had a blast. But because I lived there and wasn’t on “vacation” as most of the other students were, it was too hard to keep up the full program of five months. I would collapse every night when I got home, too tired to even eat. But this experience was certainly a highlight of my time in Mexico, and there were many highlights.
And France…well, you know what Ben Franklin said, “Everyone has two countries; the one in which he was born, and France.”
ExpatWomen: What have been some of your biggest challenges in living in France, Mexico and now Argentina?
Cherie: The biggest challenges, always, are the language and culture. If you don’t feel secure in communicating, you might opt to stay home or socialize only with English speakers, thereby missing out on a lot. Expats, even if they know the language well, always risk making faux pas because of not understanding the culture. But if you stay home alone, you risk loneliness and feeling isolated. It’s a conundrum.
This is true for me here in Argentina, where they speak their own special Spanish, Castellano, and my Mexican Spanish hasn’t helped me a whole lot.
In addition, transportation around Buenos Aires is my biggest challenge, even after more than three years of living here. The city is huge, all the streets are one-way, and even though they have an excellent system of public transportation, it’s not easy to figure out how to use it.
I have to say that I didn’t feel that challenged living in France. I felt at home there, except sometimes socially with the language, and I easily got around. Paris can be crossed on foot—not possible in Buenos Aires. At the time I lived there, I remember, the only things I missed, except for my friends and family, were the L.A. Times and Seinfeld!
Since my cancer therapies, I’ve forgotten about being ill. The doctors had done all they could with surgery, heavy dose chemo, and radiation, so they just cut me loose with a pat on the head. The second cancer 6 years later was unrelated to the first, and just bad luck. Nevertheless it remains a fear of mine to be sick and alone in a foreign country. Recently I purchased Argentine health insurance so I’m feeling more secure about that now.
I know many people totally change their eating habits and daily lives after cancer, but what happened to me was that I wanted to enjoy life more and so refused to worry about it. I had always taken care of my body and it hadn’t prevented the cancers, so I decided to squeeze the juice out of what I had left. And that’s one reason why I traveled. It is such a privilege to live in another country and enjoy and learn other languages and cultures, a true growth experience.
ExpatWomen: Do you think the challenges of an expat woman are the same, from country to country? (Please explain your response.)
Cherie: I don’t think as a woman I faced different expat challenges just because of being female, or that the challenges of expat men are any easier or different. What make it different are the conditions under which a person is living in another country. It can be a lot easier if the person is there for work reasons, or is an expat as the spouse of someone who is working there, or if the person has a spouse or companion and is not alone, as I was. It also would be another kind of experience if you knew there was a deadline; like going in, you knew that no matter what, you would be leaving after, say, two years.
In some countries, of course, foreign women are perceived as easy sexual “targets,” perhaps because of films and TV. But some women appreciate the attention that they never got in their homelands. In any event, I personally have never had any problem whatsoever in this area.
As in everything else in life, sufficient money not to have to worry makes everything easier. It’s not realistic to become an expat with the idea of finding employment fin the new country to support yourself, even more so if you are middle-aged. My advice is expatriate yourself only if you are financially independent. In my case I had early retirement because of my illness.
In many respects, because of dancing and writing, I’ve had an easier time living far from “home.” When I moved to Mexico, I had the goal of finishing the memoir I began when living in France. Last year I accidentally started writing a blog, which helps me feel connected to like-minded people all over the world. And because of the internet, many of my articles written far from home have been published. Next year a piece I wrote will be published in an anthology on San Miguel de Allende.
Basically since my husband died in 1991, I’ve been searching for “home,” like Dorothy in Oz, I suppose. But a few years ago I realized that Home Is Where My Cat Is. Phoebe, I couldn’t have done it without you!
ExpatWomen: In your experience as an Expat Woman, does anyone stand out in your memory, as someone who really helped support you a lot, at a time when you really needed it?
Cherie: I have to say that the people who have been the kindest to me in other countries, were the local people, not my fellow expats who perhaps had enough on their own plates at the time.
When I was recovering from chemo in France, my neighbor told me I must come over for lunch and dinner every day. I said, oh no I couldn’t possibly impose like that. But then pretty soon I just started going over there every day to eat. The whole family was so wonderful to me I can’t express it. They told me that I will always have a home in France, with them, and I know they meant it.
In Mexico after my second breast cancer treatment, I suddenly had a weird side effect and since there was no oncologist in San Miguel de Allende, I went to a dermatologist to have her look at my incision. She recommended an oncologist in another town, and I took what I called the “burro bus” to get there. The bumpy bus stopped at every dusty burro trail and took three hours to travel fifty miles. I had to return several times, and when my Mexican friend Nelly heard about it, she insisted on taking off work and driving me over herself. This made her my friend for life.
Last year in Buenos Aires, I had to move from my rental apartment where I lived for two years as the owner’s daughter needed it. After four months of constant searching, I finally found another one at the right price and which I liked. My friend from Toastmasters brought her husband, a retired accountant, to the contract signing to make sure it was fair and legal, as foreigners are sometimes taken advantage of. Another lifelong friend.
The day after Christmas 2006, I fell at the gym and broke two ribs. One of my classmates went with me to the ER, and brought me home. She called my boyfriend who then came to take care of me for several weeks as I was totally helpless.
I hope I have been as good a friend in my past as these people have been to me.
ExpatWomen: From your experience, Cherie, how do expat newcomers find and develop support networks, so that they have someone to call in the morning at 2am? Do you have any pieces of advice to assist in this process?
Cherie: Every country has its expat network, whether it’s an online mailing list or a club where people actually get together. When you first arrive, I recommend joining everything and meeting as many people—expat and local—as possible. Soon you will figure out what activities, and which people, are your style.
Making friends anywhere isn’t easy, especially as we get older. That’s why it’s important to look for common interest groups. I joined Toastmasters International in Buenos Aires because it has always been a life-long dream of mine to speak well in public, and in so doing I’ve met some wonderful, varied, and interesting people. Looking for groups that you belonged to in your home country, like the Lions, for example, or a tennis club, is a great place to start.
After my first cancer treatment and I was recuperating alone in the French countryside, I joined the “gym” class in the town hall of the village. I met people, but more importantly, my body felt better and stronger. Plus I had the fun of participating in the Mardi Gras parade as a Dalmatian!
I’m lucky in that the world of tango is small, and anywhere I go in the world to dance, I find people I know, or at least recognize.
In San Miguel de Allende, I joined a Cancer Support Group, hosted a writers’ group in my home, was active in my church. I made friends with waitresses, shop owners, volunteered at the orphanage and taught English. It’s true that it was easier in a small town than a huge city, and that’s perhaps why so many gringos retire there.
Wherever I go I have a lot of parties in my home. I love bringing people together.
I think the key to success as a guest in another country is to participate, participate, participate.
ExpatWomen: Can you tell us a little about Buenos Aires – the city, the culture, the people, and why you have chosen to live there?
Cherie: Basically two words: Tango and Cheap, although with prices rising every day here, who knows how much longer it will be cheaper than Mexico or my home town of Hollywood, California.
But tango was born in Buenos Aires, and it will always be the Mecca for dancers from around the world.
I’ve always been a dancer, and now have danced Argentine tango for ten years. I’ve been lucky enough to work as a teacher and Tango Tour guide with my partner, Ruben Aybar, an Argentine. I’ve been able to slowly build a good life here in Buenos Aires, but it hasn’t been easy.
The people of Buenos Aires, or portenos, are generally ethnically European and feel strong ties to Spain, or Italy, or Germany, or England, or wherever. They’re self-conscious imitators at times such as in their architecture of a hundred years ago and wide boulevards, sidewalk cafes, and outdoor newsstands. And I think they have very strong subconscious feelings about being so far geographically from that world, especially nowadays when few can afford to tour Europe on vacation. Argentinians feel a bit forgotten by the rest of the world, and so their culture is somewhat nostalgic and sad. That’s where the tango comes from. I identify with these emotions as I’ve lost so much in my own life.
I thought when I moved here over three years ago, that I needed a big city, full of theater and concerts and galleries, but I find now that my life is full with friends, my reading and writing, and my tango work.
ExpatWomen: What would be your top 5 tips for women moving to Buenos Aires?
Cherie’s Top Tips:
1. Bring your pet and as many of your treasured books, linens, paintings and photos as possible;
2. Don’t expect it will be easy to make close friends in another language, and don’t expect your friends back home will remember you forever;
3. Have high-speed internet hook-up in your foreign home;
4. Bring your favorite salsas, packaged foods, spices, condiments, peanut butter;
5. Expect to spend a whole lot more money than you plan on; and
6. Volunteering is a great way to meet people, learn the culture, and to feel good about yourself.
ExpatWomen: And lastly Cherie, do you have any words of wisdom for our Expat Women?
As a dancer, I can’t say enough about the importance of exercise. Wherever you live, you will be healthier and happier if you exercise. I personally love to dance, but there are many other ways to keep moving. Just do it!
P.S. Three years later
I'm still blessed to be in a wonderful love relationship and to work with him in performing and teaching the tango that we both love so much. Who knew?