Expat Days: Peanut Butter, Bubble Wrap, and Home

(Ericka Hamburg photo.)
(Ericka Hamburg photo.)

By Jacqueline Alnes

I still remember our last trip to Costco, 15 years ago. My brother and I followed Mom up and down the aisles, snatching up samples of sugary cereal and hot, salty mini hot dogs. Mom stacked our cart with peanut butter, Band-Aids, cereal, gummies, Neosporin. By the time we reached the checkout, our cart was full, even by Costco standards. The checkout lady, with a smirk, said, “Y2K prep?”

We were actually preparing for something that seemed even more unbelievable, at least in my seven-year-old mind. A few weeks before, my parents had told us that we were moving from Alaska to Indonesia. We were going to become expatriates — “expats.” The Costco trip was suggested by other expats who had sent our family a list of supplies they thought we might need. Though the Neosporin came in handy a couple of times, and my brother and I fought over the last dusty bits of American cereal, I still think back to that original Costco list and wonder what I’d tell someone about to set up housekeeping in a brand-new place.

Nine years after moving back to the United States, I’ve come to the conclusion that you don’t have to travel far in distance to separate yourself completely from things you believe and treasure. So here are my thoughts on how to realign your thinking when heading somewhere really new.

1. Realize that your idea of “home” will change in some way when you return from your travels. I moved almost every two years while growing up and spent six years of my formative adolescence overseas. One result? I went to college on one coast of the United States, and immediately packed up and moved to the other coast for grad school. I’ve learned that, for me, home is not a building or specific place; it’s the security I find in maintaining connections with family and friends who live near and far, and the sum of the incredible places I’ve experienced and grown to love throughout my life.

2. Redefine setbacks in your travel plans as opportunities. Not everything on a trip or a move to a new place will go as planned. This is good. Setbacks will become some of your most cherished memories. When we moved back from Indonesia, my brother made a “couch” out of packing bubbles because none of our furniture made it to us for months. The result? Our family got pretty cozy watching TV from plastic wrap on our tile floor. We still laugh about it. Rather than viewing moments as negative, use them as opportunities to sit back, count your blessings, and find beauty or adventure in your immediate surroundings.

3. Be assertive, but always be kind. Be assertive! Be assertive! But seriously, confidence and a willingness to achieve a goal will take you far in your travels. I was painfully shy as a kid, but my mom taught me assertiveness by example. She waited in long lines to made sure we got the flights we needed, asked about other excursion options when original travel plans fell through, and encouraged us to take full advantage of every opportunity presented to us. She also taught me that generosity and kindness go a long way, no matter where you go.

4. Record your experiences in a way that’s meaningful to you. Photograph, sketch, journal, record video footage – whatever your passion is, make sure you capture your experience. Before I moved to Indonesia, my grandma gave me a blank notebook to fill with travel adventures, and I filled that one up with writing before filling many more over the years. I love looking back and reflecting on the small moments that I otherwise might not have remembered, and figuring out how they shaped me.

5. Pack a jar of peanut butter. Because nothing beats a spoon in a jar of peanut butter when you’re in any kind of travel pinch. Trust me.

Portland-based writer Jacqueline Alnes likes homemade sweet-potato fries, books and farmlands.