Where are you from?

Most of the time when you meet someone new, they ask, “Where are you from?” It seems like a fair question. We’re all from somewhere, right?

The place someone is from acts as an identifier, a stereotype, a way to figure who’s who and what they’re like. 

Live outside your own culture for a few years, and where you’re from doesn’t seem so simple. When someone asks me, “Where are you from?” I find myself hemming and hawing as I look for the answer to the question they’re really asking— ”How can I relate to you?”

For expats, the question of where you’re from seems limiting. Saying the name of the city, region, or country isn’t enough to explain who you are because you’re no longer just from where you were born or live, you’re more than that.

I think part of the expat identity crisis comes from speaking another language. 

I once had an American friend tell me the only way she could speak Dutch without feeling like a fool was to create another persona. When she spoke Dutch, she became a tall blonde woman named Hanna, who rode a bike, had a perfect accent, and wasn’t afraid to speak her mind.

Speaking a different language makes you feel different. My children and I often joke about how our voices sound different when we speak French. We become alternate versions of ourselves. I imagine this is part of the where-are-you-from confusion.

But it’s not just us. It’s the people around us who get confused as well because we don’t fit their “picture.”

Once while visiting the U.S. during summer vacation, I stopped at a local bookshop to peruse the shelves for English books—a rarity in our neck of the woods. As I looked through the clearance section, I discovered a package of thank you notes with an artistic rendering of the Eiffel Tower next to a petit “Merci.” I was delighted. 

After looking over the rest of the store’s merchandise, I took my items to the cashier, an overly cheerful 20-year-old who asked me for my zip code.

I told her that I didn’t live in the U.S., so my zip code probably wouldn’t work in her system.

“Really?” she exclaimed. “Where do you live?”

“I live in France,” I answered.

“Wow, your English is so good.”

I smiled wryly and said, “Thanks. I’ve been working on it for a long time.”

Another time I was sitting in the airport waiting to board a flight when a man tentatively approached me. He scrunched up his face and slowly said, “Fffffrrrraaamcais?” (You speak French?)

“Pardon ?” I replied. (Pardon me?)

“Vous-etes française, madame ?” (Are you French?)

“Non monsieur, je-suis Americaine.” (No, I’m American)

“You’re American? I couldn’t tell by looking at you.”

This made me laugh. As a six-foot-tall Amazon goddess, I don’t run into many French women who look like me. But, I was sitting down. Maybe that made me look different.

These stories are just the tip of the no-one-can-really-tell-where-you’re-from-anyway iceberg. 

Whether you’ve lived in the same city your whole life, or you’re a world traveler, humans are a culmination of life’s experiences and cannot be defined only by the town we started in. We are complex, not stereotypical.

So, the next time you meet someone new, don’t put them in a box based on where they’ve been. Instead, ask a better question about where someone is going or, better yet, where they hope to go. Maybe that will tell you who they really are.

The real expat life

A Yankee’s Guide to Decoding Celsius

For an American, moving abroad means math. Constant math.

For some reason, the U.S. clings to an overly-complicated system of measurements. Meanwhile, almost everyone else has moved on to the logical, easy world of the metric system for weights and measures and the Celsius scale for temperature.

While adopting the metric system took some getting used to, I was able to adapt fairly quickly. The real stickler for me, however, was switching to Celsius temperatures. For some reason, my mind could not wrap itself around those low, low temperatures and make much sense of them. How could 32 degrees be hot??

There are some mathematical tricks to converting temperatures from Celsius to Fahrenheit. If doing quick math in your head is your kind of thing, the formula is:

T (F°) = T (C°) x 1.8 + 32

That’s an annoying amount of math to have to do if I’m just trying to figure out if I should bring a scarf with me. Plus, when you’re constantly converting from one system to another, you’re less adopting the system and more working around it. And, really, weather shouldn’t be this complicated.

So, my advice is to throw out the equation and just keep in mind the following very simple guidelines:

(If you need at least a couple points of reference, remember that 0°C = 32°F and 28°C = 82°F.)

Below 0°C: Freezing. Literally.

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What to wear: Heavy coat, hat, winter scarf, gloves.

How to complain about the weather: Hug yourself tightly and exclaim: <<Il fait trop froid!>>

0°C-10°C: Cold


What to wear: Heavy coat, hat, scarf, gloves.

How to complain about the weather: Raise your eyebrows and say: <<Il fait froid, aujourd’hui.>>

10°C-20°C: Cool.


What to wear: Medium-weight jacket, scarf.

How to talk about the weather: Nod your head while saying: <<Il fait frais, non?>>

20°C-30°C: Pleasant.

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What to wear: Short sleeves. Lightweight jacket and scarf that you can remove as the day heats up. The closer to 30°, the more summery your clothing should be.

How to talk about the weather: If it’s sunny, smile approvingly while exclaiming: <<Il fait beau, aujourd’hui!>>

30°C-40°C: Hot


What to wear: Shorts or lightweight trousers, sandals, short sleeves. Or better yet, put on your swimming suit and get yourself to the nearest refreshing body of water.

How to complain about the weather: Roll your eyes and shake your head while saying in an exasperated voice: <<Il fait chaud. Trop chaud.>>

40°C+: You may as well be walking on the surface of the sun.


What to wear: As little as possible.

How to talk about the weather: There are no words. This is simply too hot.

Important Note: In southern Europe, the sun here is really strong—much stronger than in most of the U.S. Therefore, it’s important to note not just the air temperature, but also gage how sunny it is. An overcast 23-degree day could require a light jacket, whereas a sunny day at the same temperature can get quite toasty.

big food

Welcome Home; or, Back in the USSA

One of the great pleasures of being an expat is going “home”.

You get to be a tourist in the place you are from.

A big trip back is an opportunity to catch up with friends and family, eat all the foods you miss, and (re)introduce your kids to the things you love. My daughter was 4 when we left the states, so she thinks she remembers living in the midwest, but she probably just remembers the stories we’ve told her. It’s important to me that she keep contact with her American roots, so it’s wonderful to reconnect over summer break. It’s also a terrific opportunity for me to appreciate where we come from and see it with new eyes.

Fresh Off the Plane

It takes me three airplanes to get “home”. I put it in quotations, because when I land in Kentucky it’s nearly obvious that I’m not from around here. In the south of France, I may be the most bluegrass-y person around, but when I’m around these parts, I tend to stand out in my style of dress, of speech, and of attitudes. Plus, I just don’t know the local places anymore.

Nonetheless, one thing never fails to choke me up. (This, coming from the woman who doesn’t cry at movies or books or such.) What gets me is passport control. Truly. Entering the US in DC, they have a big line for passport control. First there are self-serve kiosks for checking in; you enter your info and have a photo taken and print out a slip. Then you continue in the queue to wait for the next officer, which takes forever because you can barely stand up after the long flights and time change and the kids are cranky. Finally, he looks through it all, asks a few questions, and then…as he hands back your passport…he says, “Welcome home!” Gets me every time. For some reason, this daily gesture of the passport control officer is deeply meaningful to me. Even just talking about it chokes me up.

Fresh Eyes

Out of the airport and on to the highway…It’s been three years since my last visit in the USA and the first thing that jumps out at me is the cars–they are BIG! In Provence, my Ford Fusion is too big for me. It sits too low and is too long and isn’t the right tool for the job. Here, that same model looks fairly average. Small, even. There are SUVs and Jeeps and great big pickup trucks and luxuriously large autos everywhere. And nearly each one of them is transporting just one person.

Big Big Big!

With all those big cars, the roads also need to be BIG! Long, straight, flat, endless. The lanes are wiiiiiide, with extra shoulders on both sides and maybe even a bike lane. And streets are well-marked, which is handy. In Provence, driving two hours can feel like a strenuous sport–it’s made up of exhausting twisty turny roads going up and down big hills with nary a street sign or guard rail. It takes all your attention. Here in the midwest, you nearly don’t have to think. Smoooooth.

And the parking spots are BIG! And the lanes in the parking lots are BIG! No wonder all those shiny large cars are not yet scratched up–there is plenty of room for everyone to maneuver. Even the little cars in France are generally dinged and scratched and scuffed. Not here. All shiny and new and, well, you guessed it–BIG!IMG_5197

Let’s Eat!

Besides the transportation differences, eating out is the other big area of differences that I am noticing this trip. It is quite a different experience from dining out in Provence.

First, you can walk in anywhere at anytime and eat anything. Almost literally. Where we are in France, there are limited hours of serving and usually only a limited selection of dishes on the menu each day. In the US, the menus are large and larger, and international flavors abound. Every town has a Chinese buffet, sushi bar, and Tex-Mex sit-down. Want breakfast at 3:30 in the afternoon? Then IHOP is for you. Or Bob Evans; even in this seemingly unusual request you have a choice.

Running Hot and Cold

It’s hard to say what you’ll notice as the next difference–the warm welcome or the cold atmosphere? There will be someone stationed at the front door whose sole purpose is to greet you and take your reservation and lead you to your table with menus in hand. Invariably, this greeter is a young lady with a smile and some kind of computer screen in front of her. In France, one is often left waiting about awkwardly, wondering if you should just grab a table or try to flag down the busy waiter. Hoping to not be shunned for not having a reservation. Or is that just me?

Either the big smile or the cold blast will hit you first. Yes, no one does climate control quite like the Americans. There may even be a pressure difference between indoor and outdoor that will make opening the door a Herculean feat. Then the arctic blast hits you. I didn’t pack nearly enough jackets and sweaters for a summer trip home. It takes the breath away. Breath you can see in the meat-locker like conditions.


Once seated and holding a multi-page menu that you are barely given enough time to read, you may notice feeling a bit overwhelmed. The music piping through the restaurant is loud. You kind of have to shout over it to converse at the table. That is, if you can get the attention of your table mates–they are more distracted by one of the fifteen television screens within immediate view, each with a different channel playing. And each one with the volume up.

The food comes quickly, there is that to be said for the American experience. You won’t go hungry and you won’t wait long for it. The dishes are BIG too, but not necessarily of the same quality one might expect in France. There are less than Michelin-starred restaurants in France, of course, but even that is above an average American quick-serve fast-casual restaurant. I recently had a tasty salad with buffalo chicken on top. Can’t get that in France–particularly when you consider that the lettuce was frozen. Crunchy ice frozen. Amazing. How is that even possible? Maybe it was sitting next to the air conditioner.

Here’s a Tip for You

Before you’ve finished eating, the bill is dropped off at the table. No long after-dinner conversation, no flagging down the server. And this leads to my final painful difference.

I have forgotten how to tip. I mean, I remember the function and that I’m supposed to, but the whole mechanism is rusty. They bring the check, I look at it. I put my card in the tray or pleather folder. Then they walk. Away. With my credit card. This didn’t used to be so strange. But now that I am used to the credit machine coming to the table side, it feels really weird. Where are you going with that? Shopping?!

They return with a plethora of paper slips. One is for you to keep, one is for the restaurant. I have signed the wrong one three times already. Now, time for some higher math. How much? 10%? 20%? 25%? In Europe, waitstaff get a living wage and healthcare and benefits and can actually survive on what they make. Not so in the US. I had to convince my Irish and French colleagues that the minimum wage for a waiter or waitress is actually $2.13, compared to the federal minimum wage of $7.25. It is a complete shame. No wonder that there are restaurants changing this model and they seem to be succeeding wildly.  Thus, in France we don’t tip as much. It isn’t as obligatory as it is in the US. And I am obviously out of practice at filling out the papers and doing the math.

Welcome home! What are your favorite and least favorite things about returning to your home country as an expat?


Playing With Fire

“For heating, there’s a proper English stove,” our new landlord proclaimed proudly. “We had to order it special from the UK.”

This ought to be interesting.

“It takes a little bit of planning, but if you figure things out right you can close the flue when you go bed and still have hot coals in the morning,” he continued.

“I’m sure we’ll manage,” my husband, Mike, observed. “I’ve done a lot of camping.”

With those words of confidence, we were on our own.

Welcome to the 1800s.

We moved in at the end of November, Thanksgiving Day to be precise. We were just grateful to have a house. As it was warm on moving day, we didn’t really think much about heating until the sun went down.

However, by that time, it would have taken too much effort to clear a path to the fireplace, so we bundled up in scarves and coats, ate a Thanksgiving Dinner of breakfast cereal and headed to bed.

The next morning was brisk, but we were hard at work so it wasn’t until that evening that we decided to try our hand at making fire. Cavemen did it. How hard could it be?

In addition to the logs in the woodpile, we had procured kindling, fire-starter cubes and a lighter with a long neck–all the tools needed to start a hearth-warming blaze. Unfortunately, instead of a blazing inferno, we started with a house full of smoke. Once the fire got going, it still took an hour to heat the house.

I had always associated a fireplace with leisure. The crackling of a fire creating an ambiance of comfort and coziness. It was the sound of the holidays, snow days, and romantic getaways. Now all I wanted was a source of continuous heat that didn’t make my hair smell like a campfire or the smoke alarm go off.

We didn’t get the hang of things until the spring. When the next fall arrived, we started regularly smoking-out the house again…until Mike discovered the right combination of flue levers and firestarter. (For those interested, he found that he had to start a small fire first to warm the chimney so the smoke would rise up instead of into the house.) Now we had a warmer house and fewer smokey evenings. During the day, I just always wore a coat.

You may wonder why we didn’t install some kind of electric-heating system. The fact of the matter is, we had two wall-mounted electric radiators near the fireplace. However, the cost of electricity is so high, we had been warned not to use them unless we wanted to pay through the nose.

Good thing Provencal winters are mild.

The real expat life.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao