The ‘List’

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.

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This entry was posted by vanessafuller.

5 thoughts on “The ‘List’

  1. Thank you for link 🙂 Isn’t my list absolutely silly? A friend asked if they don’t have the same versions of things over here and I said probably. But I just haven’t found them yet. And truth be told, I’m still just an infant expat- I have my home comfort needs- which are great and many. Hopefully if I can ever become a seasoned teenager like yourself I will find a much shorter list OR I will just be able to jet around the world whenever I sesire what I miss 🙂

    I can tell you that right now I already know I’ll be missing bicycle life tremendously once we leave. Great post- and I am with you on NPR!

  2. ‘Expat teenager’! LOVE it! Thanks for your post, doll. I’ve been thinking about it every since you posted it. I remember so well those bumpy times in my first months as an expat. And, we went through the unfamiliarity stage again when we moved here. Missing things from Moscow was surreal, I must admit. But, miss them we did!

    I’m rather amazed to see that there are quite a few items which are *still* on my ‘list’. We miss what we miss, and they are indeed comforts to us. (And, you know…there are things I miss from my frequent travels to AMS! That’s an entirely different post!) 🙂

    Enjoy the ride…and if you ever need Old El Paso goods, let me know. We have them here! 🙂

  3. I know what you mean, I think the longer you are somewhere the more you adapt – but going home to missed treats is always fun!

  4. I totally agree that the list changes. When I arrived in Finland I had left behind an ex-husband and a house full of my belongings. I had two suitcases with me, containing some winter clothes, toiletries and some self-help books. My first ‘list’ was pages long and involved much journaling to reduce to a manageable and realistic number. Of course, some things I have missed since before I left, (like my dear cat Boddington, who died aged 17 in April 2010), but the process of moving awoke all those feelings of loss and insecurity and forced me to acknowledge the truth of what was hurting me.

    Whilst it was a painful process, I am now grateful for the time I have spent going through it. It is still ongoing, to some extent, but I am gradually able to see a better way of being. I am not all those things I left behind. I am not those old habits. I am constantly changing, yet always myself; constantly growing and so also shedding old faults, old habits that do not serve me.

    Moving here has been the most difficult thing I have done in my life, but I am grateful for the lessons that it is teaching me. How friends and family are so necessary to our mental well-being and how we need to celebrate where and who we are now, and let go of who we used to be.

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