A Totally Impractical Expat Interview #5: Pam Mandel of Nerds Eye View

Welcome to the fifth interview in my infinite series of indirect conversations with expats, repats, half pats and other as yet unnamed pats. This time I bring you one of my personal small-h heroes, the ukelele-toting, penguin-friending, apt-word-writing Pam Mandel of Nerds Eye View.

I started this interview series during a week when Shanghai was notably grim and grey and almost painfully heavy, which it often is between, say, always and always.  This is not a city famed for it’s twinkling blue skies and basking rays of sunlight or calm waves lapping at a shoreline dotted with greenery.

 

Even Kevin the Panda had to go on anti-depressants

There are moments, like this past week, when the white-gunmetal-grey heavens part briefly and expose their light hearted underbelly (or overbelly, as it were) and these rare moments make it a much, much more livable place. I felt almost sane again. Which is good. Briefly.

When Shanghai is grim, I want to run away. It’s visceral. I can’t easily find joy here during those times. It’s a lonely place, not beautiful, not particularly open hearted. Unlike Istanbul where I managed to squeeze six years of optimism out of the beauty of the Bosporus and my passion for all things Turkish (in spite of all the crap I had to wade through to in the process), I haven’t yet been able to forgive Shanghai for her bad moods (and mine, by extension). We’re just not that into each other. I could quickly forgive Turkey for her less than beguiling moments because I really loved her. But I’m hard on Shanghai. I doubt Shanghai even realizes I exist. It isn’t a love match. We’re in it for the money, really.

I know the problems mostly lie within me. I need to adapt to Shanghai, not the other way around.  It’s a process that is achingly slow and stupidly painful a lot of the time.  Which is why I really, really related to this next interview.

Pam Mandel is a great traveller but she was not a happy expat. So she went home. Which is where she is now, except when she’s off galavanting with penguins in Antarctica.

After sending me her answers to my questions, she added this brief summary in her email to clarify the complicated chronology and geography of the path she had taken:

I was an expat, I came back to the US. But I was never a full time expat, I couldn’t do it. We commuted — I would go to Austria in the winter, the husband would come to Seattle in the summer, and in the fall, often, we’d be apart. For a long time, this was okay, until it wasn’t anymore, as happens. We did this for A Long Time. Ten years. And for the last four, we’ve lived together in Seattle.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Pam Mandel. *cue applause*

Aloha Oe

Pam and her uke on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

Leaving

NEV Takes Participation Seriously

There was a cattle drive. She went.

I live in Seattle, Washington, with my husband (he’s from Austria). We have a house just where the suburbs start. We’ve got a back yard with a hammock and a hummingbird and you can walk to the beach on the edge of Puget Sound from our house. It takes about 20 minutes.

When I moved to Austria, it was for love. But I never felt at home there, it never fit me. So I moved back to Seattle, and after a rather rocky interlude, the husband joined me. I wasn’t looking to settle down in any way, it just kind of happened that in the years I’d been living in Seattle it became my home like nowhere had ever been and I did not want to give that up.

I’d never had a stable home before. I have traveled overseas since I was 16. When we were kids, we moved often. One year, I went to three high schools.

I spent about a year in Israel when I was 19, and I was an exchange student at 16. I never really thought about those stints as “living abroad”, it was just “living.”

Living in Austria was very difficult for me. I was lonely, I had no friends. I had some fine acquaintances, people were kind to me, but I did not have friends, the kind you laugh hard with or who understand you, really understand you. I was a peculiarity there.

I loved the landscape. I learned to cross country ski, I was crazy for winter there. That’s the thing I miss most, the winter, the deep snow, the blue skies, the brightness of it all.

I was crushed to find I couldn’t make the transition. Crushed. I have always been a traveler, a pretty good traveler who slides easily in and out of places and isn’t put out by discomfort or uncertainty. I could not make Austria work for me and that made me crazy, just crazy. I felt like a complete and utter failure.

Staying

Capricorn

What kind of moron doesn't want a daily life that offers this?

We’ve been together in Seattle at our current address for almost five years. I’ve had a Seattle address for a whopping 17 years.

My decision to be in Seattle was initially sort of accidental. I had a breakup, a friend invited me to come stay with her, and then, I just kind of stayed. My time in Austria was determined by “matters of the heart.”

I wasn’t okay with Austria. My expat fantasies had always been urban. I did not expect to find myself looking at cows from my balcony. And my mate didn’t want to pull up stakes and move to the Big City. Before I knew Austria well, I was very resentful of that decision. After spending more time in the cities, I learned to understand his reluctance.

My German is pretty passable, actually. Just recently, I had a heated discussion about immigration with a German I met while traveling. I’m rusty, but while I lived there, I could tackle health insurance, politics, and grocery shopping. I did not do well in large group situations, though, I was limited to one on one or very small group conversations.

I spent so many days paralyzed by depression. It was awful. I felt like someone else.

I feel very strongly that my depression like symptoms were caused by my living abroad situation. I can be a little moody, but I’m not a sobber, and oh, there were many many many days of sobbing.

It was impossible for me to build up a support network. I had friends in Europe, but no one in my region.

My guy was born and raised in the region where we lived. He was great about the functional stuff — getting my papers, getting me enrolled in language classes, making sure I was well cared for. Socially… that’s another story. His integration into Seattle has been, I think, much easier, but I’m biased.

Maintaining Stability

Front Porch

Pam and husband, at the end of their house warming party for their place in Seattle.

I’m as surprised as anyone to find that I settled in Seattle. I guess you know when no where else fits anymore. I rarely think “I could live here” when I visit places anymore, though I DO love to visit places, still. I don’t think I ever knew it was time, I just think it happened, and here I am.

I imagine there is at least one, if not more, geographic upheavals in my — our — future. It could totally happen.

I moved in some form or other — to travel, to work abroad, to do something, elsewhere, just about annually until I was 30. Then I came to Seattle, but I was still divided between Seattle and my husband’s home in Austria for another ten years or more, I think. It’s only in the last five years that I’ve been at all settled and committed to a place. I’m 47 now. It’s probably worth noting that we don’t have kids — I’m sure that would have changed things, immensely.

Regarding what has been lost and what has been gained:

Language. Ties to a place that isn’t really my home. Perspective. Empathy with immigrants everywhere. An appreciation for my home in the US. Certain odd affectations that make me distinctively un-American at times. A complicated world view. I don’t believe I’ve lost anything. As difficult as it was at times, I wish everyone had the opportunity to experience living abroad. I genuinely believe that being a fish out of water for a bit makes us better humans.

I’m happy now.

I feel very much at home. It’s not entirely the location, though on a day like today, when the sun is out and there is a walk to the beach in my immediate future, I think the location is absolutely superior. I have found excellent friends here, work that allows me to live well and in the way I like, a life that works, mostly.

The Future

The biggest problem I have is that about 2500 miles away, in the middle of the Pacific, is Honolulu. I’m crazy for that place. Hawaiians who know me say to me, repeatedly, “When are you moving to Honolulu?” It’s hard. My husband is already so far away from his home, and we would be moving an inconvenient distance from my family. But that expensive city calls me, all the time, I can hear it. And we both love it there, the sunshine, the messy multiculturalism, the ocean everywhere.

So yes, mostly, I’m at home now, but part of me always wonders about elsewhere. Right now, that elsewhere is Honolulu, but it could change. There’s always a tiny bit of doubt. What if I pitched it all and moved to… ?

Also, we’re going back to visit the inlaws for the first time in four years, and there’s bound to be some effect on the husband. Hopefully he’ll continue to feel about Seattle the way I do — that it’s home — though it’s conceivable he could be washed over with nostalgia and/or homesickness and decide that yeah, he wants us to go back.

And then, well, who knows?


 

 

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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog's title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.