(Alicia’s) 10 Years of International Life

May 2017 was a big milestone that passed by without mention, probably because of the busy-ness of international school life: 10 years since I graduated from Hope College!  I went from living in MI for 21 years to spreading my wings and living in 4 different countries 10 years later!  Along the way, I’ve picked up 2 other languages (Italian, Russian), and forgotten most of my French… Actually Russian kind of takes over so I’ve forgotten a lot of Italian as well, unless it’s words that I’ve memorized by heart which were penned by Puccini or Verdi!  It could be very easy to look at the last 10 years and not have a clue about how I got from Point A, to B, but I remember hearing this phrase as I went through high school: “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.”  Armed with this open-minded attitude of perseverance, I went off to Hope College in the fall of 2003 and that decision paved the way for my international life.  The following is a succession of events that led to my country-hopping lifestyle.  Thank you for indulging my nostalgia!

Bahrain, 2007-2009

Here I am at the “Tree of Life” in the Bahraini desert.

Towards the end of graduation from college, most students can seem noticeably stressed as they are charting their course into adulthood without employment prospects.  I remember considering a very unusual first job: a volunteer music teacher.  And the reason I was considering this unusual first job is that my end-of-college stress was related to one (maybe-a-bit-ridiculous-but-still-there) thought: If I don’t go overseas to work NOW, I may never be able to do it again! Being a volunteer teacher meant that I would need to fundraise about $20,000 for two years of work since the school I was meaning to work at could not provide enough for health insurance or annual plane tickets.  This is not really a traditional thing for a college graduate with loans to pay off to consider, but remember my mentality: Do it NOW or it may never happen. This mentality drove me for probably the first 5-6 years of my international life.  I went to Bahrain and accepted the challenge of Preschool-Grade 7 General Music Teacher at Al Raja School.  This was a crazy professional beginning, but it propelled my international career forward in ways that no other American school could have. 

Outside of teaching at Al Raja, I came to have a busy and exciting life as well.  I found several church services to attend, participated in multiple choirs, most notably the Manama Singers, seemed to make friends instantly with many young people (also from many different countries) in my age bracket, joined a women’s-only gym with a pool and a jacuzzi, freelanced with musicians, and took on an oboe student.  While in Bahrain, I managed to travel to Goa (India), Oman, and Dubai several times.

My favorite performance in the Manama Singers, where I played Angelina in Trial by Jury.

Favorite Thing About Living and Working in Bahrain: The 35-hour work week allowed me to have more time for my personal life and there was always something to do.

Biggest Obstacle Faced When Living and Working in Bahrain: My first year teaching!  Anyone will tell you that the first year of teaching is Hell and that’s true no matter where you complete that year.  Besides the idea of figuring out how to actually teach, other obstacles included obvious cultural differences between myself and the host culture, and difficulty making Bahraini friends.

Feelings I Associate With Bahrain: Exoticism, Humidity, Globalization

Ukraine, 2009-2013

Beautiful mosaics outside St. Sofia Church to celebrate Easter.

At the beginning of my second year in Bahrain, I started to think about an exit strategy.  I knew I wanted to stay overseas, but did not want to stay in a volunteer capacity, especially considering that the State of Michigan (at the time) was giving new teachers 5 years to complete 18 credits towards a Masters degree in order to renew the certificate, and that would be unaffordable without a salary.  I asked some of my friends how they planned to search for their next job, and the Council of International Schools fair was recommended to me.  I went to the website, gathered my references, prepped my resume, and made my way to the CIS London fair in January.  Through that fair, I secured a job at Pechersk School International in Kiev, Ukraine as a PYP Music teacher for Kindergarten—Grade 5 students.  What’s more, each class had music twice per week, making it a very enriching experience!  This was my first time working within the International Baccalaureate Organisation and so I was able to get some training to understand what exactly the Primary Years Programme (PYP) was. 

Andrew and I celebrated our engagement in Kiev over (American) Labor Day, 2012. Photo by the ever lovely Olha Prytula.

During my time in Ukraine I witnessed many unique things, such as: a 3-week school quarantine due to the swine flu, many colleagues getting stuck during their Spring Break travels due to a volcano eruption in Iceland, a change in President, the first phase of a school renovation/building project, and living in one of the host cities for Euro 2012.  And during each summer, I was gratefully financially stable enough to go back to Boston and work towards my MM in Music Education at The Boston Conservatory.  I also managed to travel within Ukraine and to Austria, Germany, Italy, Dubai, and went back to Bahrain for a quick reconnection visit.  One of my Italy trips from Kiev is where I managed to meet Drew, as I wrote about in my epic sagas called “La Famiglia” Part 1 and 2.

Favorite Thing About Living and Working in Kiev:  I lived in the middle of the capitol city and I left for work each morning feeling that I had the entire city at my fingertips, that absolutely anything could happen, and knowing that there would always be something interesting going on.  I had a true car-less, commuter, “grown up” city lifestyle.

Biggest Obstacle Faced When Living and Working in Kiev:  The expat community was much smaller in Kiev than in Bahrain and so the workplace often had a “fishbowl” atmosphere that wasn’t very uplifting.

Feelings I Associate with Kiev and Ukraine: Nostalgia, Happiness, Independence

Italy, 2013-2015

Piazza San Marco during aqua alta as we visited for the Carnival, February 2014.

After Ukraine I got married and moved to the Veneto, where Drew was working as a logistician for US Army Africa.  This was a complete lifestyle 180 from my life in Kiev: Driving a car instead of using public transportation and walking, not working at all (or having intermittent part-time work) instead of working full-time, being married instead of being single, living in the country-side instead of the city center.  Those changes were very overwhelming at times and our adjustment to married life wasn’t always a cakewalk.  But with love, prayer, and a lot of help from our friends, we persevered.  And of course, we had one totally awesome thing going for us: we were in ITALY!  Now our bias will really come out… Italy is basically the Promised Land to the PashbyMauls.

Drew often had to travel to the African continent (at least 8 different countries) once every six weeks for one-week-long planning conferences, meaning that I was left to my own devices for a while.  I talked to many Army and civilian wives who were “done” with Italy simply because there were no career options for them, since we could only work on-post as we were all in Italy under the SOFA, which limited our ability to work “on the economy.”  After teaching full-on for 6 years, I was delighted to not be constrained to the school calendar schedule.  So here’s how I managed to keep myself busy as a “trailing spouse” in Italy: yoga all the time, being the errand-runner of the family, attending a women’s Bible study through Protestant Women of the Chapel, attending several beginning yoga teacher training modules, long and luxurious and delicious lunches with my next door neighbor Anna and her delightful daughter, voice lessons and performing in concerts with the group Progetto Voce in Verona, and taking Italian language classes with migrant workers (it was close to free!).  Drew and I also played and sang for our small church which met off-post and we would often be guests and have guests over.  Probably the most notable duty we had during that first year married was to host 10 different groups of friends and family as guests in Casa di Maul, and to try and give them the best that Italy could offer them.

After my first year in Italy I was able to get part-time work with two employers: I became a substitute teacher at Vicenza High School (a DODEA school on the main post), and I taught two courses at Central Texas College in their Vocational-Technical Child Development and Early Education program.  Needless to say, I kept myself really busy as an adjunct professor!

Probably one of our favorite things to do in Italy was travel.  We saw so many regions and cities, and we completely embraced the lifestyle, which you can see form our blog as we posted about our time there often.  We also managed to travel to Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and back to Ukraine.

Favorite Thing About Living (and kind of) Working in Italy:  The laid-back, relational, experiential based culture.  The FOOD and WINE.  Our neighbors and dear friends.  Living in a community with only other Italians.  Seriously, they were the best neighbors that we have ever had!

Biggest Obstacle Faced When Living in Italy: Besides the personal lifestyle 180, the main difficulty we faced was the cost of living, which is much higher than in the States for many goods and services.

Feelings Associated With Italy: Passion, Relaxation, Beauty

Uzbekistan 2015-Present

The iconic Registan complex lit up the night before our tour.

As if our young family did not have enough changes to work through, we decided that professionally, Drew was not advancing at the pace he would like to in his career, so we went to the 2015 CIS London fair and I landed a job at Tashkent International School.  We’ve been living in Tashkent since August 2015 and had yet another adjustment as a couple: instead of Drew working full-time, I was working full time, Drew was working on his MPA (still is, but won’t be for much longer), we decided not to buy a car or drive, so we are dependent on taxis and drivers (which we love… glorified hitch-hiking, what could be better?!), and we moved two times, with three different places of residence in the first year.  Since then, things have slowed down a bit for us and we’re in the same house that we’ve been in since June of 2016.  Drew also secured part-time work at TIS as the Activities Coordinator, so he is able to both work at the school and continue to work towards his MPA.  Our life in Uzbekistan is much simpler than it was in Italy because of how busy the school is, and how different the country is.  One of our favorite things to do is spend the weekend in our beautiful backyard floating in our filtered pool!  I also enjoy participating in an expat community choir, taking Russian lessons, continuing to grow vocally as I study with an Opera singer, and Drew and I both have started to play tennis down the street at a local stadium, although the warning that I gave Drew about “being bad at tennis” may not have even scratched the surface of how terrible I actually am at tennis!

Tashkent and TIS are both extra special “mile markers” in my life abroad for two reasons.  First, one of the colleagues with whom I worked in Kiev joined the TIS team this year, making TIS my first “international colleague reunion!”  And also, I met two people working in Tashkent who also graduated from my alma mater, Hope College!  They are doctors at Tashkent International Clinic and I happen to teach their daughters.  It was really awesome coming halfway around the world and finding Hope College graduates.  I certainly suspected that they were Hope grads when I heard their Dutch last name and found out that they were from Western Michigan!

As you can see, these past 10 years have been so exciting and international living has augmented life’s ups and downs.  One of the reasons I wanted to tell you all about it is because it can be very easy to compare our life in one place to our life in another, but this is unfair.  Each country and job has its’ own positives and negatives and reminiscing with a black-and-white “grass was greener” is unproductive and untrue to the nature of how life really is.  Looking back, it is certainly amazing that I have been blessed and fortunate enough to have the experiences that I have.  With 10 years behind me, all I can do is enjoy the present and look forward to the future, with infinite possibilities of destinations available to me and Drew and continue to hope for 10, 20, and maybe even 30 more years of fascinating international life!

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