As part of adapting and adjusting, most expats find some combination of home and new; strange and different alongside the familiar and comforting. Jonelle muses on the most fundamental of our traditions—food—and what the quest for home foods was like for expats living in a country with few options.
By Jonelle Hilleary
This week as we have been discussing repatriation anxiety, expatriation transitions and what it takes to feel “at home,” I was talking with a friend from the old Exxon team about how we used to have to travel to remote assignments.
Living in post-collapse Soviet Union
To give you a little background, it was right after the collapse of the former Soviet Union and all the supply lines were in complete disarray. There weren’t many stores to begin with and the few they did have were of the Soviet Kollektiv variety — meaning lots of shelf space with not much on them.
One sold cheese and shoes, another sold meat and sometimes nylon pantyhose… Whatever you could get, you could sell.
The early teams used to stay downtown at the old soviet Intourist Hotel—which we had been told, had been sold off a floor at a time, so your room amenities and accommodations might vary from floor to floor, though most every floor had the same indoor-outdoor carpet in one of three colors: grey with black zig-zag stripes, kelly-green with black bars, or royal blue with black and white ziz-zags.
Each floor also had a key lady at a table near each elevator to collect and re-issue your keys each day. (No leaving the hotel with your key—your room was openable by any and all personnel at anytime.)
Oil companies and other service companies sent teams over for a few weeks at a time initially until office spaces were leased and a staff could be hired.
The survival pack
In order to “survive” we also had a fixed pack that someone always carried: 2 currency converters (step-down voltage converters for Intl-to-US electricity); small hotpots to boil water for instant soups or coffee; packets of sugar/sweeteners, salt, pepper, powdered creamer, freeze-dried entrees like “Beef Stew” that could be reconstituted by pouring boiling water over the contents in the pouch.
Beyond this, the team was at the mercy of the Old Intourist Hotel dining room and it’s neon pink “bologna” type sausage that passed for breakfast meat, scrawny chicken that was virtually inedible, and pelmeni (Russian dumplings) for dinner.
A situation common among expats is being homesick for home food. It isn’t always easy to get to a restaurant and decipher a menu in a foreign language. After a hard day of work, not all expats want the hassle with the language and culture barriers that present themselves at every turn.
Sometimes you just want to go home and relax, even if you have to go hungry to do it.
Bringing over food from home
One trip home, our country manager jokingly asked if the next time we sent supplies, we could just skip the “packing peanuts” (the little styrofoam pellets), and substitute bags of popcorn instead.
It turned out to be a pretty good idea! So each week I started going out to the supermarket and buying huge bags of popcorn, ramen noodles, tortillas, Pringles canned chips (crisps), dried soup—anything light and non-breakable or crushable (like chips would have been), along with toilet paper and paper towels, magazines.
This went on for several weeks, buying $300-$400 of supplies at a time, rushing out to the freight forwarder, dumping the popcorn and other goodies around our copier toner packages and water, soda and juice powders, and seeing it off on the late flight to Baku.
Finally, one evening I was checking out with a cashier who had seen me come in several weeks in a row. Leilani stopped mid-stream and said in her most charming southern accent, “Honey, you do know you don’t have any real food in here, don’t you?”
I laughed and, without thinking, replied that it wasn’t for my family, I was sending it to the former Soviet Union.
Leliani looked very perplexed and asked, “Well, they-all hafta eat too, don’t they?”
Once I got Leilani straightened out about what we were doing she became my biggest helper, suggesting new products that we might try out on the team overseas. (Everybody loved the new soft-cookies that we tried the next week!)
The early food entrepreneurs
Everybody could see the need, and a few took it upon themselves to jump in with solutions.
One of our early entrepreneurs came up from Kuwait City and scouted out the needs and later returned with a 40″ ocean freight container box stacked floor to ceiling with file cabinets, some office chairs, copy paper, toilet paper, paper towels, and bottles of water. All the comforts of home…for the office. Dave and Sheila opened up the container and started selling to anyone who needed office supplies.
From there they opened an expat-style restaurant complete with such American favorites as chicken-fried steak, shrimp gumbo, little personal-sized pizza, hamburgers and sweet iced tea.
We could get salads that were washed and safe, soups that tasted like home (somebody’s home) and conversation in English along with American football games like the Super Bowl on Armed Forces network television.
In short, they filled the void we needed to be filled.
Enjoying the new and the familiar
There is a fine line between hiding in an expat bubble, and using bits and pieces of home to bridge the culture shock divide.
I’ve written before about expat couples where the spouse couldn’t make the adjustment, some who made interesting arrangements, and others who thrived as families.
Choosing home-style foods isn’t the worst thing in the world to do, especially if it keeps our expats productive. But most expats, I think, recognize that on a permanent basis there will be a combination of home and new, strange and different alongside familiar and comforting.
When I was working long hours at three jobs during the Russian financial meltdown, I would stop on the street on the way from the university morning job, just before going into my office for the afternoon work, and get a doner—similar to what you may find as gyro in Greece, or shwarma across the Middle East in a slightly different bread or wrapping.
When I finally had a free night, I loved to go to the Sahil (seaside) restaurant for the hummus, cool and creamy tzatziki, and salty taramosalata to eat with breads, cheeses and vegetables like carrots and radishes. A perfect meal for me.
Having fish, usually a variety of sturgeon with pomegranate sauce (narsharab) was another favorite for dinner out with friends.
But, I’ll admit, when I was tired, many times I went home to my flat, dialed the Wharf and they delivered a little personal sized pepperoni-like pizza that was quite tasty when I was too tired to go out or cook.
What it takes to feel at home
As for the question of what does it take to make expats feel at home in our foreign postings, I can say from my experience that there were times it was easy to go too far, to get lazy about being out with people with whom I would have to speak in Russian or Azerbaijan all night—sometimes it taxed my brain too much and I would find myself making silly mistakes in conversation.
But, with my third job running from about 10pm to 2am, there were also legitimately times when I really needed a night of English-language movies and pizza. Or to find an imported CD of familiar old music. Just to enjoy by myself. (I could get away with that luxury since I was alone—no spouse or kids).
My rule of thumb was to try to be local all week, and then give myself a weekend night to recover, vegetate, relax without guilt.
I am glad there were international stores. I liked seeing what other countries found useful and, more importantly, I don’t think I would have been efficient living on the local economy, buying meat off the street or at the bazaar every week, doing all the made-from-scratch effort that local women were used to.
Now that I’m back in the United States, however, there are many times in a month, I would give anything to have more fish and narsharab, or to be able to sit on that rooftop deck having a simple meal of bread and tzatziki and choban salat with lemon.
I’m glad we have choices…it makes life interesting, no matter where we are.
I hope, though, that people who don’t have many local choices at least have someone like Leilani to help families send fun things to add home spice to their days.
Jonelle Hilleary writes about My Life Lessons on her website What the World Taught Me.