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Starting Life Over Again in a Foreign Country

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By Jolanda Heijnen

Jolanda is an international spouse from the Netherlands. She followed her husband who is doing a post-doc at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Before moving to Berkeley, Jolanda worked at one of Europe’s largest steel manufacturers as a Product- and Process Technologist, combining aspects of data science and data analytics.

Here she talks about her transition of moving to Berkeley and the support she received from attending the Friday Morning Coffee, a group for international spouses/partners facilitated by Yvonne Lefort that meets weekly at Caffe Strada in Berkeley.

As I’m writing this story on the 7th of November, I just realized I missed the year mark of my arrival here. On the 6th of November last year (2017), I arrived in the USA. In the first few months after arrival, I would have given you totally different expectations of this international adventure than I’ll give you now, in hindsight based on experience. It’s not over yet, but the difficult initial struggle is over. Though this was harder than anticipated, I don’t regret it at all, and I think I’ve personally learned more than I would have, had it gone according to expectation. Yvonne’s weekly Friday Morning Coffee at Caffe Strada has been a huge positive contribution to this.

My husband started his Postdoc in August last year, after backpacking around South America. At that time, we had been living apart for about two years due to necessity after having been together for nine years, and before that, we lived together for six years. It was about time we started living together again. In November, I joined my husband, after quitting a good job with nice colleagues just a week before departure, and lots of stress related to finishing my job, packing and moving out. In the first month, my youngest sister, who happens to be called Yvonne as well, accompanied me and we spent a lot of time together. We got to do the touristic stuff, mostly using public transport. For example, we visited Pier 39 and walked across the Golden Gate Bridge, and we rented a car to see the Monarch butterflies in Santa Cruz.

Within a few weeks after she left in the beginning of December, reality hit me: I was extremely bored. I no longer had a job, and my main hobbies in the Netherlands were either too expensive being on a budget (a common issue for many in the Bay Area) or hard to get in contact with people to start (i.e. playing bridge). Later I found out that UC Berkeley students were about to go away for the holidays, and the other bridge club required more patience. While still processing quitting my job, and officially becoming a dependent spouse (the requirement for my visa type), I struggled to find things to do.

Cleaning isn’t really my thing. I see it more as an annoying necessity, and also cooking more elaborately starts to get boring when there’s plenty of time to do that every day. In order to find something to do, I decided to try and improve my English writing, focusing on improving writing structure, something I generally struggle with. I’m hoping you’re able to notice a difference. If not, just imagine what it was like before!

Luckily, I had lots of support from friends and family back home through frequent Skype calls, and from my husband here. He arranged for a few meetings with other international couples for the evenings. In one of these meetings, a spouse, working at that time, mentioned the support she got from the Friday Morning Coffee group before getting a work permit. Friday Morning Coffee is not advertised clearly, unfortunately, as UC Berkeley does not promote it. Referrals to the group are often by word of mouth. I’m attempting to send in anyone who I think might benefit. I’m also hoping this piece might help contribute to getting the word out.

Friday Morning Coffee, promoted through the Facebook group Creating a Fulfilling Life in America, consists of a group of international visitors, many with links to UC Berkeley or the Lawrence Berkeley Lab. Most are spouses or partners of postdocs and scholars, or graduate students. Some are long-term residents by now. Many in the group are, or were, in a similar situation: either waiting on a work permit, being ineligible for a work permit at all, starting or raising a family, or a combination of those. For most attendants, it is a good excuse to get out of the house and talk to people, reduce loneliness and learn from each other. Here I met others in similar situations and was able to put my own situation into perspective.

Yvonne founded these weekly meetings and is like the glue keeping it together. She suggests local activities, highlights interesting topics as they come up, and the different cultural approaches to a certain situation. She also held a potluck-style gathering in her garden in the summer and arranged for pumpkin carving for Halloween. She sometimes brings interesting books, or even children’s tales to help people learn about American culture. A few months ago, she brought a book called the “Little Engine That Could,” representing American values taught to children. Since then, I’ve seen and heard it been referenced on several occasions, one of which was an episode of the Big Bang Theory.

Friday morning conversations, infused with some pointed advice, helped me fight through this initial difficult period and appreciate, and eventually start enjoying, my time in the Bay Area. Right now, I think both my husband and I have developed a stronger bond, and I have become mentally more resilient by learning to occasionally let go.

After a few months, my work permit got approved, and though I worked part-time, I worked on Fridays, and therefore did not get to attend these meetings for a while. To me this was the biggest disadvantage of working: I wasn’t able to attend these meetings regularly anymore. Being off on Fridays was not an option due to scheduling problems, though. After a few months, my work permit had to be renewed, and the process started over again. This means I was attending Friday Morning Coffee for a few months again, until I got the new work permit.

A word of caution depending on your cultural background: Friday Morning Coffee is said to start at 11:00 a.m. but generally starts somewhat after 11:00, more like 11:15 or so. (As I’m Dutch, I showed up exactly at, or even slightly before, 11 a.m. the first time, and didn’t see anyone.)

P.S.  If you’re considering joining: Yvonne usually brings a small sign that says “Friday Morning Coffee” and puts it on the table to help newcomers recognize the group. If you don’t see the sign (sometime Yvonne forgets it), look for a group of women (occasionally there are men in the group) and ask if they’re part of the Friday Morning Coffee. Also, be sure you join the Facebook group Creating A Fulfilling Life in America as Yvonne posts a reminder about the Friday Morning Coffee as well as lots of other good information!

My Support Group

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By Ruth Weinhold-Heße

Ruth is a journalist and an international spouse from Germany who is currently living in Berkeley while her husband does a post-doc at UC Berkeley. Here she talks about the Friday Morning Coffee, a group for international spouses/partners facilitated by Yvonne Lefort that meets weekly at Caffe Strada in Berkeley.

Friday mornings, my mood generally is in the pits: getting up early, the long week, trying to convince my 2-year old for the fifth time in a row to leave the house quickly… and, as I mentioned recently, I feel lonely. For friendships with the locals are still quite sparse. My husband and my child are gone during the day. So what to do when one (unfortunately usually the woman) is in a foreign country, the partner is totally occupied with his job, you yourself have no work permit, and the children finally are well taken care of?

Drink coffee? All day long? That’s what I do on Fridays. I meet with other women who, almost all, have accompanied their scientist-husbands. I call it my support group. Because every time I’m there, I feel so much better afterwards. I get to know other women, all of whom are in a similar situation and have to cope with similar problems, and they all have very interesting stories. Even the mix of cultures is exciting:

Miki comes from Japan, Diana from Italy, Anna comes from Poland, Berit is Norwegian, Sarina is German, Xia originates from China and Yvonne is American.

When Yvonne was a young woman, she lived in Germany and out of this cultural experience grew her life’s work: to support women from abroad in adjusting to the United States. Every Friday at 11, she is at Caffe Strada across from campus and listens, asks questions and gives a few little tips. It may not sound earth shattering, but here I’ve learned that there are compostable plastic cups in America that are made from corn, or where you can park and for how long. This gives me the feeling of understanding American life just a little bit better. (Americans don’t just give up their plastic cups but manufacture more environmentally friendly ones instead… although this is not true for all disposable cups. But that’s another topic.)

My Support Group
My Support Group

And even though it’s a pity that I haven’t hung out yet with more Americans, it is perhaps only natural to feel attracted to those who have a similar or live in a similar situation. Almost all of the women have children or have used the time abroad to have children (which is the only thing mostly left for accompanying spouses to do!). We’re allowed to get irritated about American customs and learn, on top of it, how the same things are handled from China through Poland.

Recently, we even took ​​a small day trip. We went to Sonoma, a town north of the Bay Area that is known for its vineyards . Of course, we also did some wine tasting at a small winery whose founders were two Germans, which you can still see by the name (Gundlach Bunschu).

Here’s a picture of my support group, in no longer completely a sober state (except for the drivers who were nursing, of course!).

Note:   This blog post was translated from German into English by Yvonne Lefort.

The original blog post in German can be found on Ruth’s blog:

http://ruthroyal.blogspot.de/2014/05/meine-selbsthilfegruppe.html

 

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