On graduation day, a parent of a 12th grade graduate said, “Finally we can take vacations outside of the school holidays.” As parents of school children, our lives are so structured and dependent on the school calendar, we probably never even realized this will be an option for us one day.
We already know the date of the first day of school as it’s featured so highly in the planning of our summer vacation. Note to self – Must be back!!
But until then, we’re at the final week of the school year and it’s bittersweet for so many as we farewell friends who are going on to other places or returning to their home countries. Many of us are glad that this is not our year for moving boxes. Our kids may be disappointed to discover that their favorite teacher is leaving but are eager to move up to the next grade and be a year older. We all know that stops at a certain age.
We’re all a little different to who we were last August. Hopefully the newcomers have settled in to life in Germany and embraced the wonderful experiences it has to offer. Those that have been here a while have widened their circle of friends and their German vocabulary. Those long words just don’t seem as daunting.
School's Out for the Summer
Kudos must go to the PTA who worked so hard this year to promote a friendly and caring school community, even in the face of cutbacks on school trips and rising school fees. These parents are the face of BBIS – they are the first ones you’ll see at Orientation Day and on the first day of school. They are also the first ones that parents complain to about administration and education issues at the school.
They are also just parents themselves who are often misjudged as people who have nothing better to do. This is so far from the truth, they have more than enough to do without PTA, but give up their time to strive for a better school community.
Events like Orientation Day, BBIS Bingo and Summerfest don’t just happen – hours of planning, shopping and decorating go into each event. Even this web page is the culmination of hours of work that is usually done on weekends and late into the night. But don’t be frightened off from helping next year’s PTA, they have lots of fun and interesting things lined up from the very first day of school starting with Orientation Day.
For me, it’s been a pleasure and a joy to write these little insights this past school year. Wishing you all safe travels, and a wonderful summer.
As parents we’re labeled no matter how we bring up our kids. The media brands us as free-range, helicopter, and snowplow. The latter, coming to light following the college admissions bribery scandal in the USA.
While “free-range parents” encourage a child’s independence through limited parental supervision, they may be considered uncaring or disinterested by other parent’s standards. Helicopter parents oversee every aspect of their child’s experience, especially their education, and are often measured as too involved. But take that up a notch to snowplow parents, those who do everything for their children from their homework to paying a bribe for their college admission so that nothing blocks their child’s success.
But what of the label expat parents? Parents who put their children into expensive international schools out of necessity when their jobs take them to foreign countries or have returned to their own country after a foreign posting and want to continue on the same education track.
Expat parents, especially a non-working spouse, often rely like their children and on the school community to initially forge their own social groups, having arrived in a country where they have no family or social connections. Are parents more invested when they pay for their child’s education?
Possibly, but they may expect a higher level of teaching and experiences.
At a recent school Director’s Platform, parents were justifiably angry over the administration’s failure to convey a decision they had made six months earlier in disbanding the school bonding trips for the next school year. The trips are considered by parents to be vital towards growing a strong school community, especially for the integration of the new students, and something considered the norm in both public and private schools even for grades 11 and 12.
The parents that attended this meeting don’t deserve labels like helicopter, snowplow or even expat – these parents were Advocates. They are standing up for their children’s all around education – not just one of academics or sport.
Let’s not kid ourselves, education now is a money making business and as parents we are buying a product for our children. It’s about time that parents are labeled for what they really are – “the clients.” When the product we’re purchasing for the next year comes out with fewer features, the administration should not be shocked that parents are disgruntled and request a ‘please explain.’ And we all know what happens to businesses that don’t listen to their clients, but that’s another story.
Every year international schools experience a weird period – it starts sometime in April. It’s a time of secrecy, whispers in corridors, and hurt feelings. Is this some kind of sorcery or BBIS’s own Upside Down you may ask? No, this is real life!
It all starts with an offer to relocate for a career move, but the trouble is it can’t be public knowledge until the paperwork has been signed or the appointment announced. This puts immense stress on a family and the way they interact not only with each other but with other people as well. You question when’s the appropriate time to tell the children, friends and inform the school?
Trying to keep it secret, you avoid all work related conversations and have your own version of 'Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.' Your extreme spring cleaning makes you look like Marie Kondo on steroids – metaphorically not physically, of course – or alternatively you sit paralyzed and hide at home until the contract is signed. Meanwhile you may suddenly take up a new language and have a sleuth like interest in the country or city of your next geographical home. All the while thinking nobody will notice this strange behavior.
Even stranger things!
Regardless of the reasons that you can’t mention the possibility of a new move, the moment word is out you shift into that group that are “leaving,” where life becomes more about moving rather than staying. Friends may have hurt feelings because you didn’t confide in them so friendships can become strained.
Pre–move your to-do list increases tenfold often giving you no option but to cut back on social events, putting you in the weird situation of having to put packing before friends. You can also feel isolated as it suddenly seems everyone’s planning fun events for next year when you won’t be there. Meanwhile, dealing with your own children is definitely another story. Putting the school counselor on your list of people to tell first is always a good idea.
Although staff turnover at a school is normal life, give a thought to teachers that may have to hold on to announcing a move for months as they try to keep everything normal while facing a class full of students. That must definitely be a place of stranger things.
The best thing about my kids going to an international school is the international parents that I get to meet. I love hearing about their home countries but even more so when they share their favorite food from home. It’s better than any restaurant food and there’s usually a story that goes along with it.
In order to make these recipes, people scour Berlin’s supermarkets for specific ingredients, like my quest to find peppermint essence. Even friends searched for me but it doesn’t seem to exist here. So returning from our home countries often means a suitcase packed with “foreign ingredients” -- our favorite cheeses, breads, meats and chocolate – all to give us that taste of home.
But even with the ideal ingredients there’s things that aren’t the same, like national holidays. It’s hard to celebrate Australia Day – a summer day of beach and BBQ’s when you’re in the middle of winter in the northern hemisphere. I loved all of the American holidays when my kids were growing up there. We still celebrate Thanksgiving. Even though we can recreate the meal, it’s just not the same when it’s a normal work/school day and not a public holiday.
What's To Celebrate!
My belief is that life should be full of celebration. Parents of younger children, hang on tight to those parties where you invite the whole class and are totally exhausted in the planning and execution of it. Don’t grumble that a week later you’re still finding sticky patches around the house. Suddenly there will come a day when your teen just wants to celebrate their birthday with a few friends and no parents and won’t even consider your begging offers to make them a teddy bear cake.
But that’s okay because I found there’s a day of celebration everyday of the year. They’re not all as big as your kid’s birthday or International Women’s Day, but I’m totally indulging in Caffeine Awareness Month along with Earmuff Day and super excited for World Sleep Day. But let’s not forget that special day on May 25th when we have our own international celebration at the BBIS PTA Summerfest - the day when there’s so much delicious food you physically can’t try it all. Note to self: take plastic containers for take-aways, but that’s another story.
I love February; it hints that winter is coming to an end. No longer are the kids going to and from school in the dark and I can finally walk outside without looking like Scott of the Antarctic.
But February is when burnout can begin, especially in high school. Grade 12’s have only three months until final exams and the end of their high school days. In grade 11, it feels like it will never end given their study load. Meanwhile, the lower grades have a continual stream of activities and projects going on.
Our kids’ stress levels also add to ours as parents. Aside from keeping them grounded and dealing with everyday life, we have to plan for the next lot of school breaks and ahead to summer. Whether it’s for a holiday or a house move, it can be overwhelming.
Even planning times for the Parent Teacher conference can be stressful, especially with more than one child. Those 10 minute intervals feel like a bizarre version of speed dating. Is it just a
Feel the Burn-out
coincidence that the Parent Teacher Conference is usually a precursor to a school wide outbreak of the flu or a stomach bug? My theory (that has absolutely no scientific backup) is that it’s linked to all the hand shaking. For me, the fist bump is a little too gangsta so I’ll be carrying a large bottle of hand sanitizer as a precaution.
As we slide into the last half of the school year, we’re maybe not as eager to read the latest school newsletter. We may dread opening up Managebac or an email from the school or class rep knowing it’s asking us to be somewhere or do something. Maybe it’s because by mid-year we’re settled in and know the program and how things run and don’t want to burden ourselves with committing to something else.
But instead of getting the mid-year burn out, do as the celebrity trainers say and feel the burn. Be bold and brave and sign up for something that takes you out of your comfort zone -- Summerfest is just around the corner! But that’s another story.
You know you’re a serial expat when you have to file taxes in more than one country. For me it’s four: Germany, the two before that and my home country. In the words of Bart Simpson, “Aye Carumba!”
Positioned beside a heavy duty shredder I embarked on my new year’s resolution to reorganize our family paperwork. My archive boxes were more museum than archive. In these boxes containing our life’s paper trail were photos from my kid's early school days. No doubt hurriedly stashed there due to the impending arrival of a moving truck, and the inability to remember exactly which box contained the family photos.
As I took a trip down memory lane and realized the cute little kids in the photos were now grown and at the other end of their schooling, it occurred to me, how throughout the years and countries, I’ve relied on the kindness of strangers.
A Taxing Time
Arriving in a foreign country with no support network is challenging for anyone. That first drop off or pick up at a new school in a new country, can make you feel like it’s your first formal and you’re the kid that no one asked to dance. The other parents are all talking like they’ve known each other for years, and you feel lonely and isolated.
Then along comes the “life-saving -parent,” the one that says “you must be new” and invites you for coffee, introduces you to the other parents or drags you to a PTA function. From then on your life is never the same.
The commonality of coping with a different culture is the bond that ties us all together, so friendships form quicker than they do back in our home country, where we rely more on family and long history friendships for daily contact and advice.
Before you know it, those strangers that you saw on the first day, are your new network and you feel like you’ve known them for years rather than months. They may even be able to help you with your taxes but that’s another story.
Since my kids have been in school, the New Year really messes with my mind. I'm more than happy to party and celebrate with fireworks at the end of December but as a school parent it’s more of a “Happy Middle of the School Year,” which doesn’t quite have the same ring.
My inbox is filled with marketing for everything for a “new you” along with scores of YouTubers telling me how to get my 2019 organized and channel my inner Marie Kondo.
But we’re only half way through the “2018-2019 Academic Year” and it doesn’t feel like a year when it has two years in its title! It feels like a marathon where kilometer markers are replaced by monthly school activities and ticked off on our way to the drinks table known as the next school break. Roll on February!
It’s also a time when parents changing countries at the end of this school year might start to experience early onset symptoms of One Leg In – One Leg Out Syndrome. Technically not a medical term and not related in any way to Restless Leg Syndrome or the Hokey-Pokey!
Is it Really a New Year?
These parents are dealing with two school years, the one they’re in and the next one their kids will attend in a new country or city. Fraught with paperwork and searching for a new place to live, it can be difficult for them to be in the present.
Symptoms are easy to spot. They start posting items for sale with long term pick-up dates. They have a mild disdain for lighting fixtures and anything with an electrical plug that won’t work in their next country.
But the most serious is their withdrawal from the school community. Aside from trying to fit in all the things they wanted to do before they leave, there seems a futility in meeting new people and retelling their “we’re moving” story. Each school function heralds a “last” and makes them a little melancholy, bringing the realization of a transient life and that the countdown has begun.
So, as we all countdown the second half of the school year, let’s keep an eye on the “Leavers” and maybe stop asking, “When do you leave?” But instead celebrate them being here. Grade 12 parents included, but that’s another story!
I love December and all of the celebrations that it brings. It’s so cheery to see the city bright with lights and Christmas markets, especially when it’s dark so early in the afternoon.
December also makes me think about how fast the year has gone. It was at the recent elementary school winter concert when it really sunk in -- watching the little ones singing so sweetly. It doesn’t feel like that long ago when my kids were doing that but now they’re at the other end of their schooling and more concerned with matters of study and university.
When you’re an elementary school parent, high school seems so far away but it arrives faster than you can imagine. As many elementary school parents celebrate firsts – like the winter concert -- spare a thought for the high school parents, especially those of our Grade 12 seniors, who are
The Year Ends
marking many lasts as their children move into their final months at BBIS.
For some families it may be their first year without their extended family close by and to celebrate seems futile. The kindness of an invitation to get together for a small celebration or meet up at a Christmas market could take a little of that emptiness away. We should never forget the importance of reaching out within our own international school community.
As we count down the last few days of school before winter break you may be like me, looking forward to a break in routine and not so early mornings along with fun celebrations big and small with my favorite people – family and friends. And maybe a few more Christmas Markets.
Happy Winter Break!!!!
My kids can’t remember a time when I took a photo of them with anything but my phone, even though there’s a collection of cameras, lenses and photo albums in our basement. Thick albums with pages of symmetrically placed photos protected by thin plastic, barely resemble the instantly edited and “Instagramable” photos of today. However, they do spark questions like, “Did you really think big hair looked good?” In retrospect, no, but the blame lies totally with Madonna.
In among those photos are the sepia toned photos of my great grandparents dressed in black with stern grimaces and unsettling stares - portraying a life of hardship and no fun. These, in the right frame, can really add to Halloween décor. Apparently photographers in those days didn’t say, "ok, now let’s take a kooky one for Facebook!"
Perhaps it’s social media that has led us down this path of striving for perfect pictures portraying an exciting life – we post our perfect holiday snaps, our perfectly posed families and our perfect food, not our messy kitchens or early morning face.
Hundreds of YouTube videos instruct us how to pose for the perfect picture. The hand on hip may
The perfect pic
make our arms look thinner but when everyone in a group photo does it, there’s a tinge of beauty pageant lineup. And aren’t we supposed to be moving away from that type of thing? #fatarmsmatter.
We rate photos as Pintrest-worthy when we should be questioning whether Pintrest is worthy of our time. How many times have I been down that rabbit hole! And what of our kids that magnify every aspect of a photo they’ve just taken only to take another 10 photos trying to get the perfect look. No one needs to scrutinize themselves that much. It can’t be good for anyone’s self esteem but that’s probably the lure of Snapchat – it only exists for brief moment and the imperfection is gone. Or is it?
So I’m caught in a dilemma. Social media is great for keeping in touch with family and friends when you live far away. It’s great that they can see where we live and what we do – as long as it’s the real thing and not just the perfect picture we want to portray. Then we have to decide on which platform to post it, but that's another story....
Look around at any PTA coffee or lunch gathering and it’s usually all women. An outsider or gainfully employed person may roll their eyes and consider that these women have nothing better to do – they’re the Ladies Who Lunch – the unemployed spouses. But look a little closer at this group and you’ll discover that they’re anything but just trailing spouses.
Along with a foreign move they’ve put their own careers on hold for their partners’, their kids or due to international restrictions. Amongst them you’ll find: doctors, lawyers, anthropologists, criminologists, IT specialists, engineers, teachers, nurses, psychologists, script writers, event managers, designers, architects, and town planners. But they have all had to cope with a similar issue, the loss of identity and a network.
Arriving in a new country, their partners go off to their new job complete with an instant industry and social network. The partner at home deals with the mundane tasks associated with moving boxes and setting up a house and dealing with the rollercoaster of emotions their kids experience with a new school. Their identity gets lost and becomes
Ladies who lunch
entwined with their partner’s as they are constantly asked, “What does your husband do?”
On our first overseas posting, I was at a function where business cards were being exchanged and a person realizing I didn’t have one said, “Oh you’re just a spouse!” Two weeks before when I was back in my home country, I had an impressive business card with an executive title and office address. Suddenly, I’d gone from a respected business person to “just a spouse.” In fact, in that island nation, as a woman, my value was ranked third. First being men, then pigs, then women. It was tough to deal with and tears may or may not have been shed. Phrases like, "I can’t live here," may or may not have been said. It turned out to be one of the most interesting experiences of my life.
The lesson I learnt was that we are more than our business card or husband’s job title. The coffees and lunches are more than a way to fill in time; they are an important social network and the women are more than just a mom or a spouse. Sure you can ask what grade their kids are in and what their husband does, but don’t forget to ask about their career. You’ll discover that Ladies Who Lunch are so much more than that.
I remember the day last week when I finally bid farewell to my summer sandals and the warm weather. Yes, winter is coming!
As expats we encounter two winters. The most obvious being the season of gloomy weather, rain and cold. Going out we’re now packing the Berlin necessities of umbrella, scarf, gloves and hat, and using our psychic abilities to predict exactly what type of coat we’ll need.
But the fashion crisis doesn’t stop there. There’s the boots– ankle, calf, knee or high? Buying a new pair can take until spring with so many choices! However, I’m grateful to the shop assistant who convinced me to buy the warm insoles - perhaps my question about high heels in the snow tipped her off to the need of a “sole” education.
But it’s the second winter, the psychological one, which takes its toll and not only for those who newly arrived in summer. It can begin when life starts to become regular, when the “everything is new and exciting” feeling disappears as fast as the warm weather.
Or when you can’t bear to tell your own introduction story one more time, so you avoid new people
Come the Winter
rather than retell it. The new activities were fun but you haven’t found your ideal group. Even the supermarket is no longer the scary place it once was; in fact, you’ve tried so many strange foods that some are now family favorites.
It could be that you now have more time on your hands than ever because that seemingly endless job of unpacking boxes has finally come to an end. Or the sight of the first Christmas decoration that makes you homesick. Suddenly winter feels like a dark cloud that’s enveloping us.
The cure to surviving those expat winters is more than a UV lamp to help a vitamin D deficiency. It’s persistence. Jump into that fashion crisis - put on those boots, coat, hat, gloves, and scarf and brave the cold. Accept all invitations and join more activities, even if it means telling your story for the hundredth time. Explore the city or plan a short getaway but don’t sit at home alone and hibernate.
I even know some people who create a friendly competition to see who can visit the most Christmas Markets…but that’s another story.
In an underground train station at peak hour, a woman and her daughter are hugging tightly and both crying uncontrollably. Did this look normal to some of the commuters that afternoon? Absolutely not. But for that woman, it was the most normal thing. She had just joined the ranks of thousands of moms around the world who were saying goodbye to their kids as they dropped them off to college for the first time.
Our perception of normal can often be a little warped when we compare it to other people’s idea of normal. The expat life of moving from country to country, school to school, is a bizarre way of life to someone who’s lived in the same place all their life. To hundreds of thousands of military, corporate and government families around the world, it’s life as usual.
The saying “That’s normal for a child at that age” gives little comfort when your teething child is incessantly screaming on a long haul plane flight.
What's Normal Anyway
However, it does make you praise the now normal security laws that prevent sharp objects like pitchforks as a carry-on item and passengers from forming an angry mob in the aisle.
What you thought was normal can make you feel very uncomfortable. Like wearing comfy casual when everyone is dressed like they just walked off the cover of a magazine. Suddenly comfy casual doesn’t feel so comfy!
Is it even possible to define a normal day? After a particularly hectic and stressful week, I asked my husband, when is our life going to be normal? His reply, “This is our normal!”
Which made me realize, you can’t compare your normal to anyone else’s. Embrace your normal, as crazy as it might be, and don’t try to get back-to-normal, because I don’t know that normal really exists.
Talking to new parents at the Welcome Back Coffee I noticed a recurring theme - boxes.
While some of us were coming to terms with an early morning start after a lazy summer, many new parents were attempting some form of normality while living in temporary accommodation and awaiting their shipment of a former life in cardboard moving boxes to arrive in Berlin.
Someone mentioned they had opened half of their boxes but still hadn’t found the things they needed to cook dinner. How is it that the box marked “kitchen,” somehow ends up in the cellar underneath the boxes of Christmas decorations and winter clothes!
Every time we move I’m amazed how one day I have a houseful of stuff and a few days later it’s boxed up on a truck driving away. For a little while there’s a sense of freedom, living the minimalist life with just a suitcase or seven. That is until school starts and the realization hits - you need so many of those things that are shrouded in white paper or bubble wrap and hidden deep within one of a
A Life in Boxes
hundred boxes – somewhere between here and where you last lived.
Then there’s the very important cable box with internet access. The desperation and exasperation a parent feels not only from answering “when are we getting wifi” for the hundredth time but coping with the amount of forms and information you need to access on Managbac.
When we were newbies, it took my kids with no German language skills, less than 24 hours to discover the nearest café with free wifi. The hours they spent there “doing homework” and racking up a substantial drinks tab proved to be a great introduction to the neighborhood.
So to those new parents, don’t be afraid to ask to use someone’s wifi or printer. As you finish unpacking your boxes there will surely be someone leaving who needs them. Whether we’re coming, going, or staying there’s some part of our lives that are in boxes. Even going to the school you have to go through the Blue Box…. but that’s another story.
I didn’t join the PTA for the right reasons. Back when my eldest was in first grade they served wine and cheese at the evening PTA meeting. It was a good excuse for a night out and a pass on dinner and bath time.
That was at least 3 countries and 8 or 9 schools ago. I joined each school’s PTA not to help with fundraising or classroom activities but to get some insider knowledge and discover exactly what type of school my kids were attending.
Every PTA was different, there was the school with so much money that they held monthly themed-and-catered teacher appreciation lunches. Then there was the school with so little money, that the PTA had to fund essentials like printer ink and paper to keep the school afloat.
Some PTAs were an eager and enthusiastic group of type-A personalities that made the smallest bake sale look like it belonged on a magazine cover.
Other PTAs had lengthy PTA meetings debating the wisdom of water over juice boxes for a picnic. That
Confessions of a PTA Mom
was two hours of my life I’ll never get back.
With a move of countries that took us from public to international schools I was sure those school fees would cover everything and the PTA would be superfluous.
But I was wrong. It seems that when you’re not a local, your kids are in high school, and relatives are more than a 10 hour plane flight away, that PTA network is just what you need.
It lured me away from the moving boxes with its social activities in each new city. Wine may or may not have been involved in some cases. My social calendar overtook my teen’s and I met a lot of great people. Thanks to Facebook I’m still in touch with many of the people I met through the various school PTAs over the years.
So sure sign me up for a bake sale or two, and yes the PTA did help me discover exactly what BBIS is really like… but that’s another story!