I’m sitting here trying to think of something to write. I’m not even sure what to say. It’s March 20th here and although spring starts in Russia on March 1st, I don’t think Sakhalin got the memo. The wind is howling and the temps are below freezing. Maggie, our 13 year old dog keeps going into her crate, making a nest to escape from the wind whistling through the windows.
It’s been over three years since we moved to Russia’s Far East, and now our life as expats is coming to a close. I’ve lived over a quarter of my 30 years of married life as an oil patch gypsy. Nine years at countless airport check in counters, too many times photographing our luggage in case it gets lost, reams of colored curling ribbon tied to our suitcases so they stand out, and hours of holding our tempers at bay when filling out mounds of paperwork for a specific country’s visa.
Will I miss Russia? Of course. I will miss the friendships, the Sakhalin sunsets, hosting parties for 60 people in our house, the feeling of accomplishment when I pronounced something correctly in Russian and garnered a smile from the Russian cashier behind the counter, the pristine snow when it blankets the trees.
But it’s time. Time to leave expat life behind. Time to sort our household belongings into piles: things to move home, items to sell, stuff to donate. It has been an incredibly emotional relocation process this time, partially because it marks the end of our expat life and because of the rollercoaster of emotions being so far away from family when loved ones are seriously ill. The love and support we have felt from our neighbors and friends is immeasurable. These are true friendships and memories to treasure, and will carry us through as we journey home to Texas.
Well…I guess I figured out what to write after all.
It’s been over 30 years since Doug and I said “I Do”in front of my Uncle Bill, Fr. William Bichl, SJ (may he rest in peace–he passed away suddenly just before Christmas 2015). Living an oil patch life is not easy – contrary to what many people believe. It’s definitely not glamorous, nor is it “pampered”. I don’t “do lunch” every day and shopping is not my past time. Since 1985, I’ve willingly sacrificed my career to move with my other half, and our children (now grown) have changed schools many times to follow our oil patch life.
But now, as I sit here listening to waves crash on the Oahu shore, I realize some may think I am “out of touch” with reality for taking a vacation to Hawaii. But please absorb this for a moment: I’ve been living in frigid Far East Siberia for 3 years now and the flight to Hawaii is the easiest and shortest getaway to sunshine; I can’t drive in Sakhalin and I depend on dispatch sending a car when one is available when I have to go grocery shopping which entails going to 3-4 different stores to get my regular grocery supplies; for 8 years I have lived overseas so my hubby could do his job – painfully away from both our families. We’ve missed weddings, births, and a funeral – which rips at the very soul of our being.
I have yet to see the National Parks in the USA except for the Grand Canyon. I’ve never seen a concert at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavillion in The Woodlands. Austin, Texas is a stranger to me. I have never been to Put-In-Bay, Kelly’s Island, Cuyahoga Valley Recreation Center or….Mackinaw Island in Michigan.
My 30 years in the oil patch have sent me to exotic places and carried me through the ups and downs of the the price of oil – but we still yearn for home. For family dinners with extended family – inlaws and grandparents and cousins around a table saying grace and swapping stories like the Reagans in “Blue Bloods”. For now, we get that semblance of home when we read texts from our kids who are deeply ensconced in their own worlds–one on a business trip to “nowhere Texas” researching oil and gas leases for his company for whom he is a contractor, and our daughter who is beginning her last semester of nursing school at one of the best programs in the country—I take a breath and realize we did okay. As guilty as I sometimes feel for uprooting the kids—we did okay. They are fine. The trials and tribulations of their teenage years – the moves – the worries – the school issues – —- it turned out okay.
My office the past umpteem years may not have had a nameplate and I may not have been employee of the month, but I know deep down I still had an important job – and I think I did just fine.
It’s part of expat life–saying the goodbyes, the good luck in your next assignment, the I’m sure we will meet again. But it’s the other goodbyes, when people leave on extended holidays that are sometimes just as hard. Knowing someone is going home, or enjoying a nice getaway while you remain behind–that’s tough. Saying goodbye to pets for weeks or months at a time – that can be excruciating. I’ve been the one leaving for 4+ weeks and it’s an emotional roller coaster. Knowing those temporary goodbyes to friends are difficult just proves what good friendships are made here in this assignment in far east Siberia.
One of my friends left today for 5 weeks at home…and we already miss them. Maggie was peeking out the window as they piled their luggage in the back of the LandCruiser, probably wondering if their dogs were going too. Tail wagging as she was whining, I reassured Maggie we would have playdates with Lucas and Chad–that their “parents” would be back, and I promised we would send photos of doggie playdates. (Yes I do talk to my dog, dog owners will understand)
It’s hard to describe to people back home how much we expats depend on each other here in Yuzhno. This is like no other overseas assignment we’ve had-despite being on a compound in Kerteh Malaysia, because there we could drive. We had some semblance of freedom. This is so different. We cannot drive for safety reasons and that’s okay with me. But sometimes we stay-at-home spouses feel trapped. We don’t have an office to go to every day, so we fill our days with grocery shopping at multiple stores to get everything we need, walking our dogs several times a day, volunteering somewhere if possible and researching for hours on end how to get the best price for airfare off the island, whether going home or on vacation. This in itself is the biggest frustration for me. Booking trips that coordinate with the few flights on and off Sakhalin so we’re not panicking when we get stuck on the slooooow bus from the airplane to the proper terminal seemingly miles away, and end up running through an airport trying to make a connection. I can only imagine how difficult it is for the young families carting children and backpacks as they dash to the gate.
I know these may seem like petty things but this is a glimpse into my empty nester expat life here in Russia. And while Maggie and I will look forward to our daily playdates with Lucas and Chad, we will be keeping a little countdown calendar until their “parents” return to their Russian home,
That itch is happening again. The unsettled feeling. The wandering thoughts that pop into my mind at the most random moments of the day. The transfer. The reassignment. The next posting.
Every three years. Like clockwork. New assignments. New places. New friends.
Inventorying every item you own and putting things in nicely organized digital piles: storage, move, donate.
We’re edging closer to our three-year mark here in Far East Siberia so naturally, my mind wanders. Will we extend? Will we be reassigned elsewhere? Where else can we go? The questions put me in memory-mode, thinking about how things have changed the past 28 months.
Of our 3 foreign assignments, this one, hands-down, is the most transient of all. People move in and move out throughout the year. They come for a rotation, and leave before you get the chance to learn their name. What used to be a community of empty nesters has morphed into a playground of pre-schoolers. Many people go on extended trips home and when they come back, it’s like meeting new friends all over again.
Activities we used to look forward to have come to a halt. Priorities have changed. Timing is a challenge.
But that’s okay. Change is good, right? It forces us to come up with new ways to entertain ourselves – even if that means going back to school and taking a class online that challenges and pushes us; hauling out a sewing machine and re-learning skills you left behind 21 years ago and finally digging into investment research.
With so many of my friends moving on or retiring, I’ll still be here. I’ll be the one online in the wee hours participating in “real-time class discussion”, with the fabric and sewing supplies strewn about the dining room and the half-highlighted financial newsletters on the floor. Change is good, right?
Cambodia. Not exactly on my list of must see places, but now that I spent 6 days here, I am so glad we had this opportunity. Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s all I knew of Cambodia was from TV newscasts and the pictures in the paper.
It is a country of contrasts: a beautiful place, yet so dirty. Cambodians are a resilient people who smile through intense poverty. A country where there is no infrastructure and driving here is a free for all: No stoplights. No stop signs. No lane markings – it’s one great big game of chicken.
Families of five on motor scooters weave their way between trucks and cars and I cringe when I see “Dad” the only one wearing a helmet. Mom sits sidesaddle holding her infant while two toddlers squeeze between the adults, holding onto nothing but the thin fabric of a shirt. It’s their culture. It’s what they know, but I still shudder.
On our first full day to ruins, our driver Khey told us he lost his father to the Khmer Rouge when he was only 3 months old. His Dad was educated and considered an “Intellectual” so he was killed. Khey also “lost” 4 of his siblings—lost is not the appropriate word but it paints a better picture than slaughtered. Khey wasn’t able to go to school, so as a grown man, he makes his living as a tour guide.
The day we arrived, we took a river cruise on a boat that probably wouldn’t be legal in the USA. A young man and his 8-year-old son captained the vessel and although the water was very low, we managed to have 3 hours of sight seeing on the chocolate colored water. It was a holiday for Buddhists that day so the fishermen were at home, making for tight passageways down the river. We were the metal ball in the pinball alley of boats and debris. Our young deckhand stood on the bow with a giant piece of wood in his hand and pushed us away from other boats so we could pass. On far too many occasions, he had to climb out on the metal contraption that held the “propeller” at the stern, stand on the blades and tear at the plastic bags and fishing nets that got tangled around the propellers. If the water were higher this wouldn’t have been such an issue.
We passed a shirtless man in water to his waist, painstakingly worked on repairing his wooden boat using tree sap to make the seams watertight. Women of all ages sat in the boats repairing fishing nets by hand, with no light other than from the various fires burning near the houses. Children ran back and forth across the makeshift wooden bridge spanning the river, made from small tree limbs with at least 18” between each rung. Seeing them effortlessly walk across the bridge reminded me of the fear-inducing trek across the monkey bars at Hayes School back in my day. I can still smell the metal on my hands as I gripped the rungs, the burning sensation from twisting my hands across the monkey bars, swinging my lanky legs back and forth to make it to the next rung. But me walk across the top of the monkey bars? No way.
The smallest child I saw walk across this makeshift bridge must have been no older than 4. He held the hand of his “big” sister (she looked to be about 6 years old) and together they negotiated the gaps with ease.
It was a memorable first day in Cambodia. We saw floating villages of fisherman, sipped an Angkhor beer at a “dockside” restaurant as we watched the sun set and then continued our “cruise” until we managed to run out of gas just shy of the parking lot. Fortunately our young deckhand was able to squeeze the last bit of gasoline out of the 2 liter plastic Sprite bottle sitting in the boat. We puttered along for the last 15 minutes, making our way down the river – in the dark – with no lights.
The highpoint of that evening was the excitement shared by both our driver Khey and the young deckhand on the boat when they saw the contrails from a jet in the sky. Neither had seen it before and the look of wonder on their face was something I will always remember. Convinced it was “otherworldly” they turned to us and asked if we knew what were the strange markings in the sky. “Those are from a jet, a big airplane”, said Doug. Khey and the boy continued to look quizzically at us, unsure what we meant. Days later, we still talk of this being a highpoint in the trip. Something so simple to us was a magical moment for 2 people in this far away place. As I grow older it seems the simplest things we encounter become the most magical, memorable moments. And that’s just fine with me.
Ah yes….it happened again. Although this time my heart didn’t skip a beat–it was too tired. My travel-weary body woke from a deep sleep at 1:40 a.m. this morning. “Where the heck am I and why are flannel sheets on the bed?” It was a moment of confusion. I really wasn’t sure where I was – until I heard the soothing sounds of Maggie snoring. Yes, that’s right. Listening to my 12 year old dog snooze away on her therapeutic mattress bed made me realize I was home in Russia, thus the flannel sheets. Between the quiet gurgling of the humidifers and Maggie’s yoga breathing, I was lulled back to sleep. Being the first day back, there were things to unpack, Christmas decorations to put away, groceries to buy … and jet lag is not my friend. It drags me down and makes me nauseous. As I get older it takes longer for me to bounce back. But today, I tackled it head-on and went outside in the -9 F (“feels like -20F”) weather to explore the forest on snowshoes. The dry, cold air and the crunch of the snow beneath my feet is all I needed to overcome the weariness. Mother Nature and frigid cold – it’ll cure what ails ya!
My heart just skipped a beat because I forgot which airport I was in for the moment. As I snapped photos from the Star Alliance lounge and tried to think of a caption, I seriously couldn’t recall if I was at Seoul Incheon or at LAX International. Not good Missy. Not good. I guess that’s what happens when you fly as often as I do. Although my college friend Laurie Wills Fitzgerald is the Queen of travel – it seems every week she is in a different exotic location. But I guess I’m racking up those miles too – thus the lounge.
Tonight I am chillaxing in the Star Alliance Lounge at LAX International Terminal. It’s extra special because my brother in law David Woo was one of the architects who designed this masterpiece. It is stunning. There is a giant wall of videos that rotate between calming ocean waves, surfers, birds on the beach, starry nights, black and white stills from Hollywood’s heyday–it’s so relaxing. Isn’t that what air travel SHOULD be? LAX got this one right, that’s for sure. Then of course, as in any International Terminal, you have the shops. Not just any shops—we are in LA after all. Burberry, Gucci, Boss, Armani, Michael Kors, Hermes, Chanel and…Victoria Secret. Plus numerous Duty Free shops for liquor, perfume and all sorts of other “stuff”.
I prefer to stay up here and look at the people milling around. Although I do have a 13 hour flight to Seoul in about 2 hours so I suppose I should get my booty outta this chair and do some walking around. Hmmm – perhaps I should scope out some of those shops after all. What should it be? Burberry? Gucci? Michael Kors? Victoria Secret? The most votes win! Ready – set – go! More blogs to come…see ya in Seoul.
It only takes a song to take me back – Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song. Some random kids’ chorus from the 1960’s singing the Drummer Boy—that orange tattered well-loved album I had to hear every Christmas season. (You know what I am talking about Bichl siblings) Here I am five decades later and I still so vividly recall my childhood memories. We had it good. A simple life with simple pleasures: playing outside with the neighborhood kids until we heard that brass dinner bell ringing for us to come home, Dad creating a skating rink on our back patio, donning someone’s dance recital costume and tap dancing on the slate, sidewalks – the ones stamped with a “W” in the corner, picking the red berries from the bushes and smashing them into a stew, making popcorn with our upside down bikes and the driveway cinders, (who came up with this idea anyway?) – so many memories.
No doubt it was our upbringing that influenced us and made us who we are today. The traditions we built upon and the memories we made for our own kids. And now – for my older siblings – their own “children” who are starting new Christmas traditions with their own family. The cycle continues. It all started with Mom and Dad. Betty and Ken. The handsome bespectacled broadcaster and his bun wearing beauty Betty.
We were a large family back in the day. 6 kids – Kenny, Cathy, Jacquie, Jim, Lisa and Missy. Everyone was about 2 years apart – until me. We were siblings and friends – although at some point that friendship thing probably went by the wayside. Sharing a room with an annoying baby sister probably isn’t much fun. Now as middle-aged folks ensconced in the AARP world, we are still friends. No matter the distance. No matter the lack of emails and phone calls – we can still pick up like we’re in the backyard or on the front porch of Morrison Avenue, or Lakewood Heights.
Sitting around a creaky wood table. All of us. Mom and Dad at either end. “No thank you helpings” for food we didn’t like – creamed corn. Peas. Salmon croquettes. Liver and onions. Coconut cream pie. Stewed tomatoes – yes, Mom there were a few. But you taught us well. Must have a “no thank you helping” before we can leave the table. Not sure which of my sneaky siblings thought up the cough and ditch, taking a bite of the unwelcomed food and carefully spitting it into the paper napkin, then discreetly stashing the nasty package on the ledge underneath the table. It makes me gag just to think about how much masticated food must have been stored beneath that old table.
In my family, dessert was a daily occurrence, something that carries on to this day by one of my siblings. (Isn’t that right Cathy?) Chocolate pudding, rainbow layered Dream Whip, Pepperidge Farm fruit turnovers, Jello, Ice cream. It was such a treat to end our family meal together with some highly sought after dessert. If there was an extra – we’d “horsengoggle” for the treat. “Einze, Vie, Drie, Horsengoggle” – we’d say it all together and each of us would hold out fingers on one hand. Dad would then count the fingers and starting somewhere, he’d count off each of us kids and the person whom he landed on, got the last dessert. I have no earthly idea if the “horsengoggle” thing was made up by my creative, silly limerick-writing Dad or if indeed we came upon a secret German tradition. Our last name was German you see – Bichl – “there’s even a town in Germany named after us” was something we often heard from our relatives. That was always such a “joy”, having people mispronounce your name – “Missy Bitchel. Missy Bikelle. Missy Beikelle” Oh the number of times I’d have to correct them. (And now I get Stroogis instead of Sturgis. Sigh)
Decorating the tree as a family was a big deal and oh my – if you didn’t apply the tinsel properly, our tinsel captain would let us know. “Don’t just throw it in clumps, lay it one strand at a time”. Really? One strand at a time in a package of 250? It was more fun to watch Patches the devil cat play with the strands or to take a piece and rub it across the top of your lip, creating a slight grey “Mustache” – and a burning sensation—but it was fun! Yeah I was weird.
After our Christmas Eve dinner – I don’t remember what we ate – dessert would often be Christmas Tree shaped ice creams Dad got from the store. Such a treat! When we were old enough, we would go to Midnight Mass. The altar of St. Mark’s would be festooned with scads of poinsettias and two large giant Christmas trees, all shiny and shimmery with ornaments and —- tinsel. The men’s choir in their maroon robes would entertain us all, sometimes in tune, other times well….but it made a memory .
One of us would leave cookies out for the jolly old elf in the family Santa mug and of course a carrot for Rudolph. A carefully crafted note would be written and left by the fireplace where our safety- pinned knee socks hung with care. All of us Bichl kids would go to bed and Mom and Dad would tape a sheet around all the doorways so none of us could see the tree if we snuck down to see Santa.
Christmas morning was magical – we came down in our PJs, walked through the kitchen and sat around the creaky wood table where we’d eat a special Christmas breakfast of cheese soufflé and Mom’s stollen, a traditional Christmas bread in the shape of a tree with green icing! Usually Dad would sneak through the “curtain of cover” and retrieve our filled socks, bringing them to the table for us to open and enjoy the treasures- gold wrapped chocolate coins, packets of tissues, a new pen, mini notebook, rose scented hand lotion and other random items.
Once we finished with our breakfast and opening our stockings, Mom and Dad would stand on either side of the archway and on the count of 3, they would tear down the taped sheet revealing a tree packed with presents. I will never forget the sight of my purple Huffy with the flower power banana seat bike. The Baby Magic doll that opened her eyes with the wave of a magnetic wand. Oh the memories.
I’ve tried to instill some Christmas traditions with my own children and I can only hope they too will one day look back on their Christmas memories with joy- with the warm fuzzy feelings that can carry you through the tough times. When you miss your family – near and far. When you get that lump in your throat just thinking about everyone around a table, and you’re not there. It just takes a song – one simple melody to carry you back on a journey to childhood and to help you remember you will always be part of the memories – no matter the distance.
Smelly Fish, Seat Belts and a Smile
Thanksgiving Day Nov 28, 2013
It’s Thanksgiving Day today but from where I am standing, it’s just November 28. I’m in a small airport in Russia – Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (UUS) but for the few other American expats on their way home, no one here knows the meaning of this special day – the gathering of loving family around a long creaky table, loaded with platters of casseroles, bowls of whipped up wonder and “the bird.” My memories of Thanksgivings with my family growing up and those with my own children are what keep me going on this day so far from home.
This airport is filled with large groups of chatty Korean tourists on their own journey home. We only have 2 check-in counters and lucky me I’m standing next to carry on bags filled with far too many dried smelt-the local delicacy on the island. Truly. There’s nothing like the smell of dried, preserved fish in a crowded, airless space to set the tone for a long flight home. As the trainee behind the check-in counter triple scans our passports, my thoughts wander to who will sit next to me for the next 4 hours.
I stroll down to Row 16 and there she is – a sweet elderly Korean woman with her purple plaid backpack. She struggles to put it under her seat and I offer to help. Then – I smell it. My seatmate is carrying stinky smelt. Heaven help me. I want to gag.
Her face is lined with deep crevices and her tiny eyes are moist as she looks quizzically at the metal contraption across her lap. She holds the seat belt in her hand and isn’t sure what to do. I fly so often, I take it for granted and here this woman doesn’t seem to know how to use a seat belt. She attempts to insert the end under the metal flap and then she turns it upside down and tries again. I sense her frustration and offer to help. I don’t speak Korean so I use nothing but facial expressions and gestures and she gladly accepts. She seems so happy!
It appears my “teachable moment” has endeared me to this traveler and her friends, for now there are 3 tiny Korean woman gathered in the aisle next to me chatting and pointing at me. Is it my curly hair? My height? I try to make myself small and shrink into my seat as they compare filling out customs cards and continue to nod their heads at me and smile.
I must have crossed a Korean friendship boundary for now it seems I have a new friend. She casually puts her snack litter on my table tray, not wanting to clutter her own. Her arm reaches across me, grazing my glasses as she holds her plastic cup out in the aisle for more wine. I could get agitated, but I breathe. I am going home.
The flight attendants come down the aisle with the 100# food cart, effortlessly pushing it as they collect our food trays. Again, my new friend reaches across me with her arm, holding her tray of partially eaten seafood medley and sticky rice in front of my face. She wants to be the first to give her tray to the flight attendant. I didn’t know it was a race. As she leans in across me, her small can of Sprite topples and sprays a bit of the sugary substance onto my jeans. I could get pissed. But I don’t. I breathe. I get to hug my children soon.
In many parts of Russia and Asian countries, you cannot flush toilet paper due to the poor sewage systems. Signs are posted on the stalls and an open wastebasket is set next to the toilet – in plain view so you know what to do. (Yes it IS disgusting). But on an airline like Asiana it would seem people should know what to do. Not so. I traipse down the aisle to the lavatory and close the metal door, turning the latch for some semblance of privacy. Then – I look down. The floor is very wet and I shiver to think what the dampness is from. A crushed paper cup lays on the floor nowhere near the trash receptacle and pieces of paper towel and — shudder – toilet paper are wadded in the corner. Really? Does culture trump common courtesy? I start to seethe – but I hold my breath (I breathe later). I’m going home.
As I walk back to row 16 I scuff the soles of my boots on the runway of grey carpet that lines the aisle. And there again is the Korean crew of tourists chatting and laughing in my aisle. I smile and gesture that I’d like my seat back and they comply.
Flying is certainly interesting nowadays. If you commit to this spirit of adventure and try not to get wound up over every little thing – if you remember to breathe – it works.
You see, I’m a Mom. That’s what keeps me going during these 21 hours of transit. I’m hugging my children in a matter of hours—my grown children – kids who may no longer need me but still want to see me and spend time together. These are the people, who with my husband and our extended family throughout the USA keep me counting my blessings every day. And today, thanks to a 21-hour flight across the International Date Line I’m given 2 Thanksgiving Days! How blessed am I?
It only took an elderly Korean woman who needed to fasten her seat belt to remind me how blessed I truly am.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone.