Why We Do This

In December, I’m reminded this expat lifestyle comes with some sacrifices.  When I was young, the only more special night than Christmas Eve during the Holiday season was the night we decorated the house, a day chosen with purpose by my mother.  She would carefully set aside the year-round knickknacks and replace them with Holiday decorations, and my father would fight and cuss for a couple hours at the tangled tree lights.  My sister and I were in charge of decorating the Christmas tree with baubles passed through generations and dilapidated ornaments made in our elementary school classes, as my parents enjoyed a glass of cognac and watched in the glow of the Christmas tree.  A draft of cold, clean air would gust into the house when another log was retrieved for the fire, and old carols played from the stereo.  They were magical evenings, rituals honoring hearth and home that held a domestic comfort of glow and warmth despite the stinging chill outside.

Oh, Tannenbaum

Oh, Tannenbaum

I’ll be honest- our attempts to recreate this here in Nigeria have been only marginally successful.  To make the morning special, Cian and Áine switched between helping Sarah make Holiday French toast and decorating the tree.  The multicolored tree lights only flash, and the ornaments are cheap, plastic facsimiles of traditional decorations.  Sarah found a collection of carols, but they were renditions we thankfully didn’t recognize.  The whole thing was over in a half hour, and afterwards I put on shorts and went for my tennis lesson and the kids went swimming to stave off the African heat.  Perhaps it is only self-induced disappointment that my children are not getting an experience similar to the memory I treasure.  After all, this is what they know, the kids thoroughly enjoyed themselves, and Áine is very proud of the tree she decorated (but then, eventually so was Charlie Brown).  There just seems to be a loss of tradition, a lack of that magic.  It’s fleeting, but for a moment I felt a tinge of nostalgia for chopping wood, drinking warm apple cider and watching the fire wafting in the wood stove on a cold winter’s night.

A shipwreck along the shore

A shipwreck along the shore.  Photo by Megan Bagdonas

Like my Jewish friends in the States who order Chinese food and hit the movie theater on Christmas Day, the Id Holidays back in September or the one coming up next weekend sends us nonMuslim expats to the ocean.  Earlier this year, a group of us were invited to the US Consulate beach hut, a 30 minute boat ride down the lagoon and out of Lagos.  Despite the thick line of rubbish marking the high tide line and the dangerous surf that makes swimming prohibited, the kids were still able to get ridiculously sandy, and we enjoyed a day out of the city among the palm trees and ocean air.  With coolers of beer and trays of potluck food to accompany the barbecue, we lazed under the thatched pavilion and watched the waves crash onto shore.

Squatting like he was raised in a developing country. I love it.

Squatting like he was raised in a developing country. I love it.

Every once in awhile, as we move through this crazy international life that we’ve created, there are moments that remind me how truly extraordinary it all is.  They are heart stopping moments, when goosebumps ride up my arms, and they are moments of clarity, when the everyday washes away and I step out of the routine box and realize what we are truly experiencing.  At one point on the beach back in September, Cian and his friend Matteo went missing.  With riptides strong enough to drown adults, it was a moment of panic.  Adrian and I raced onto the beach scouring the horizon for the boys.  In the distance were a group of Nigerians chanting, pulling on a thick rope from the sea.  There in the middle of the African cluster were Cian and Matteo, their white skin in sharp contrast to their new friends as they tried to help drag in an enormous fishing net.  After the wave of relief and anger for going astray without permission, I had one of those moments.  As the fishermen tugged on the nets to the beat of their chants, Cian and his friends, trying to help, were pulled along the rope’s length, falling in the sand on a random beach in western Africa, laughing and being helped up by the Nigerians.  It is these moments, when we may not be experiencing anything grand, but participating in our adopted culture and people, I’m reminded why we do this.  We may not have chestnuts or Jack Frost, but what we do have is also something special.



Nigerian Culture Day II: Celebrating the South South

NigeriaPerhaps as a backlash to the reactions when outsiders hear we live in Nigeria, perhaps because of occasional life obstacles we face, our international community is defiantly proud to call Nigeria our home.  Therefore, students count down to our Nigerian Culture Day in the same manner as Christmas.  It is a whole school, all day event, and our PTO, teachers and community pull all the stops.  Stalls of Nigerian food fill the basketball annex, a traditional crafts market covers the tennis courts, and throughout the school, there are workshop sessions, cultural lessons and a variety of entertainment.  Our Nigerian faculty and staff relish the day as well; even the housekeepers from our campus apartments come out to witness the school’s transformation into a celebration of all that is Nigeria.  I saw Joy no less than three different times rummaging just through the food stands.  Despite our host country’s dangerous reputation and plummeting economy, this expatriate tribute glimmers with hope, and the Nigerians of our community rightfully swell with pride.

At the assembly

At the assembly

While last year we celebrated the Fulani and Hausa people of northern Nigeria, this year’s focus was the southern region, known in Nigeria as South South.  The predominant tribe is Igbo (pronounced ee-bo), who have a culture, dress and language distinct from the Yoruba, the tribe native to the western region of Nigeria, including Lagos.  During the late ’60’s, parts of the South South attempted to secede, creating the state of Biafra.  After a three year civil war and an import blockade that killed hundreds of thousands to millions from starvation, Biafran forces surrendered and the region was reabsorbed into Nigeria. That independent strength of the Igbo people, however, is still present.  The South South is also home to the Niger River delta, one of the largest wetlands in the world and the source of Nigerian oil,  which comes with a host of environmental and political issues.  The once verdant delta is too polluted to support its wildlife, and many residents consider the oil business a form of modern colonialism.  As a result, regions of the delta are now more dangerous than the northern districts infested with Boko Haram, and we regularly hear of sabotage and kidnappings in the South South.

Despite this, Igboland is still rich with culture and tradition.  White shirts are traditional, with distinctive black hats, wrap, and walking stick for men and beads with ornate head scarves for women.  Our students wore them with flair.  As I wandered around campus chaperoning my students, I would get an occasional glimpse of my own kids, also decked out in Nigerian garb with their schoolmates, whose nationalities span over fifty countries.  It was a profound reminder of how influential and extraordinary living abroad has been for our family.  At the American International School of Lagos, diversity is the standard, yet on Nigerian Culture Day, for just a few moments, we celebrate the adopted Nigerian spirit in all of us.


Captivated by Marrakech

Into Jardin d'Issil

Into Jardins d’Issil

About twenty minutes outside of Marrakech, at the end of a dirt road separating the Moroccan desert from long aisles of olive trees, is Les Jardins d’Issil.  The twelve acres of meticulously landscaped and maintained gardens are the backdrop for a series of Lawrence of Arabia-style tents, complete with toilets, showers, beds, and air conditioning.  Butterflies drift across the paths between flowers, and birds chatter in the arches of bougainvillea.  Jardins d’Issil has a ten hole mini golf course and a pool, but our preferred place to relax at the end of the day was the restaurant’s patio (which caters amazing meals) with a glass of red wine surrounded by the soft glow of Moroccan lamps as the sunlight dwindled on the horizon.  The combination of sun and wind create the perfect temperature during the day and nights cool down enough for long pants with a short sleeved shirt.  Sarah called it “glamping”, glamorous camping, and that’s just what it was.   Continue reading

Sacré bleu! Canalboat Part Deux

Aine fighting off a fever on the train to Agen

Aine fighting off a fever on the train to Agen

Here was the plan, simple and elegant, designed by veteran travellers- Sarah, the kids and I would arrive in Paris at 6:30AM and sort out transportation to Agen, France, while Adrian’s plane comes in at 10:00.  Adrian Vibers me once he’s landed, we rendezvous at the train station, and we’re off to Agen where we meet my parents who guide us to the canalboat for a week excursion.  Wine, cheese, and salty, cured meats on deck while we coast through locks and canals of southwest France?  Mais oui!  Here’s what really happened- both kids were running fevers (Áine threw up on Sarah in flight), Adrian’s plane arrived an hour late, the internet was not working in Charles de Gaulle Airport for Viber, the annual French strikes stopped the trains to Agen and every transportation alternative was different and undecipherable depending on who you ask.  Zut alors!  Here was the solution- I procured directions to another Parisian train station, power-walked the airport to scour for Adrian (only to find him headed my way), scooped up the family and headed to a minibus that whisked us to Gare Montparnasse, hoping to catch a train there.  And here, mes amis, is the coup de grâce- we made it to Montparnasse at 12:20, racing for a 12:25 boarding and were informed that the train was full and we would not be allowed on.  So with a wink from the conductor, we rammed our oversized luggage onto a train we were 70% sure was going to Agen and hopped in without tickets. Soon, we were speeding south through the French countryside.  My parents never heard from us that day, so it was with fleeting hope they waited at the Agen station for the last Paris train to arrive, from which we disembarked, disheveled and exhausted, but intact and ready for a glass of wine.   Continue reading

Loose Ends

On the beach in Cape Town

On the beach in Cape Town

I gave my last final this past Friday  and a suitcase in the corner of our bedroom has started to collect things to go home for the summer.  Suddenly, our first school year in Nigeria is finished.  Living abroad, my feelings of heading home for a couple months have always been bittersweet- while many of my fellow teachers have been counting down the days (as I used to when teaching in the States), I find myself more content.  Don’t get me wrong; a couple months visiting family and friends at home, having a break from my rowdy and rambunctious seventh graders, and enjoying more than one bagel sandwich and coffee from Dunkin Donuts will be glorious.  What’s gone is that feeling of desperation for a break.  I enjoy living this adventure.  Lagos may be a dump, but it’s my dump.

We’re off for a return trip to France and another canalboat this weekend, then to the Connecticut shore in a house rental for the remainder of the summer.  There will be some excitement and surprises these next couple months, so stay tuned!  In the meantime, here’s some picture odds and ends from the year.  As always, thanks for reading, folks!

For the full lesson, be sure to watch the whole video:


Into Africa’s Rugged Interior

Looking out onto the Congolese jungle

Looking down on the Congolese jungle from the air

Rwanda.  For my generation, the name still conjures horrific images of a ferocious civil war and the genocide of what many estimate a million people.  After a military victory ended the brutality, Rwanda seemed to drop out of the media and fade from attention.  Unsurprisingly, this small, central African country has never come up on my travel radar until living in Nigeria, where a few intrepid teachers and expats have returned with wondrous stories of mountainous landscapes and exciting creature encounters.  The weeks of school since winter vacation were monotonous enough to be devoid of blog fodder, and we were desperate for a commercial break from Lagos. Our travel agent this trip was our friend Darlene, who researched a number of tours until she landed one that would fit our group of five adults and four kids.  Soon we were flying east over the rainforests of Africa, which began as a vast ocean forest of green, then wrinkled into the central African mountains, spread below our plane like a disheveled emerald blanket.  I swear Adrian and I had every intention of looking through the itinerary before we left, but the frowns of disapproval from Darlene and Sarah when we didn’t know what we were doing day to day were worth it.   Continue reading

Winter’s Glamour

Cian, Aine and cousins Tavia and Lexi testing the sleigh

Cian, Aine and cousins Tavia and Lexi testing the sleigh

“I can see my breath!  It’s white!” Cian said excitedly after he walked out of Logan Airport a few weeks ago and, purposefully puffing, entered the New England Winter.  Our last Christmas in the States was in 2012, Áine was almost two and Cian was just entering the Age of Santa.  That year was a brutal winter, brutal enough to ensure our move to tropical Indonesia.  In fact, we couldn’t attend the international teaching job fair in Cambridge, MA that February because of an impenetrable three foot snowstorm, leading to our sudden and exuberant acceptance of the jobs in North Jakarta via Skype.  A stoic Nutmegger, I used to brave the four seasons with a certain gusto.  I vehemently refused the hydraulic log splitter and snow blower, because dammit, I could split wood with an axe and shovel snow like my ancestors with a shovel.  Now, with my return to New England just at the Solstice, when the days are gray and brief, my faux smile was put on for the kids and my feigned excitement for bitter, stinging, cold weather was a thin, pale veil of my current dread of winter.  It fucking sucks. Continue reading