A few weeks ago, a fellow expat living in Holland posted her wish list of goods she missed or wanted her sister to bring from the US. Every expat I know has that ‘list’ of items that they want and simply cannot find wherever they live. Doesn’t matter which country they call ‘home’ or which country issued their passport, they have a ‘list’.
It’s been a month or so shy of 14 years since I ‘moved’ overseas and I’m now in the second country to be ‘home away from home’. My list has changed over the years (mostly in length), and changed significantly from those first few years when I was going home for long stretches at a time a few times a year.
Those first few months in 1999 in Moscow, I gave a lecture in one of my classes about culture shock, something which became quite meaningful on a deeply personal level. Who knew it was possible to discuss half-and-half alongside one of those most basic of anthropological terms. Not only did it help my students understand the concept, but they also provided tips about a substitute (сливки or ‘slivki’, which is basically creamer and widely available) to help ease my discomfort, but I also found a kitten in the process (I had also discussed how sad it was to come home to a flat without my darling kitties). Thinking about that particular lecture now is rather mortifying but also reminds me of just how different ‘my list’ is now.
When we still lived in Moscow, many of my trips beyond the Russian border to any country outside the Iron Curtain involved mad dashes to the nearest book store, stocking up on clothes which fit, and coffee—fresh, luscious, dark roasted coffee. My freezer never had space for much more than large ziplocks stuffed with 1-lb coffee bean bags for the first few months after a trip home. During those years, in addition to coffee, I would normally come back with any combination of the following: books, clothes, cold medicines, ibuprofen, and, as vain as it sounds, Aveda and Origins products. When visiting the US, I would eat all of the TexMex / Mexican food I could find. And, steaks. The bigger, the better. Many a mad dash through airport shops before leaving the familiar ended in what was affectionately labelled ‘Duty Free Shit Happens’, that inevitable panic that ensues when leaving the borders for months at a time.
When we moved to Helsinki in 2007, that whole process of culture shock took over once again and I found myself missing items from Moscow. Mostly, we missed our life and friends desperately. Rather ironically, both my husband and I missed our beloved сливки. We missed the birds that sang outside our flat every morning. We missed the pet shop near our house with the lovely people from whom we bought cat food. We missed Moscow. We missed the familiar.
But something strange has happened over the last few years here in Helsinki. There aren’t many items that I’m desperate to get that can’t be found here or for which substitutes do not exist. Mostly now, I miss friends and family. I miss driving on highways across the US. I miss NPR — Yes, it’s all available online and via podcasts, but I miss turning my radio on in the morning to my favourite station and leaving it there.
But, I do have ‘a list’, in no particular order than:
- Coffee beans from Java Joint (which sadly no longer exists)
- Vintage fabrics for quilting and sewing
- Freshly made tamales (I’ve learned to make them, but it just isn’t the same!)
- Bigelow’s Mango Green Tea (thanks to a fellow expat friend living in Amsterdam)
- NPR live from a radio
- Big bottles of 200 mg ibuprofen tablets
- Friends and family.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. All but one of those items have been on my list for the past 14 years. I’m pretty sure they will remain there no matter where I call ‘home’ and no matter how long I live beyond the US borders.