Archive for Living Abroad

The Global Coffee Cult: A Magical Circle

Global Coffee Cult Barista Magic in London

It’s a certifiable fact of life that a life without coffee is not worth living. But for me, the quotidian quest for caffeine goes beyond this. It intoduces a much needed ritual, something that has been dying a slow death in the digital age. It also gives one something to seek out. So with each new city or town visited comes the search for the perfect cup of Joe.

However, in my daily life in London, my little coffee treks (near and far) seem to have an added element: a sense of serendipity and grace found in simple transactions and connections with strangers — also a rarity in this increasingly ‘faux connected’ yet disconnected post-FB world.

Walking into an Italian restaurant for my morning fix and accompaniment and finding that the bill came to £3.01, a stranger in the queue handed me 1p so that I could avoid every Londoner’s nightmare: the clump of small but heavy change. His kind (but obviously not incredibly valuable) act made my day. For the rest of it, everything seemed to go — stemming from this minor coffee-related act.

Another time, I ordered a cappuccino and the server was about to get me my change when an elderly woman came up and paid for some baked goods with exact change (amounting to what I needed to get back in exact change, right down to ‘and 20 p’).

The other day, after I’d received my coffee at a neighborhood coffee spot, a man asked me if I collected loyalty card stamps and let me take two of his. It’s easy (for me) to assume that these funny little insignificant incidents amount to some kind of divine symetry when it comes to the purchasing of coffee. I have a Buddhist heart and so it’s the simple ‘little things’ that bring me joy. And I’m not even talking about that truly miraculous occurrence: the gratis cup of coffee.

But I’ve also befriended plenty of baristas (the good ones with integrity, who labour over the perfect single cup of coffee) and gotten the chance to hear their life stories and philosphies over a cuppa — from Lilly’s Coffee Cart in Laurel Canyon (LA) to Tania’s Coffee Cart in Hampstead (London).

Such conversations are not always so serious and heavy. One of my favourite baristas, an adorable hip fellow in Notting Hill took to loaning me DVDs of his favourite films so we’d have something to chat over when I came to coffee — a sort of cinematic coffee club à-deux.

Ultimately, I believe, that rich nutty aroma, the warm but perfectly bitter taste, the perk you get from that first cup of coffee in the morning, collectively amount to magic — a magic that finds a way of spreading into everyday mundane and profound transactions.

An American’s Search For London’s ‘Personal Bubble’

American Expat Living in London England

By Shana Ting Lipton

[originally published on Huffington Post | Travel]

…Any externalization of emotion — through sighs, furrowed brows, and general visual signs of frustration, sadness, anger, etc. — seems to be frowned upon, figuratively if not literally…

Anyone who has ever lived in Manhattan is familiar with the term “personal bubble.” Although invisible, it is the nucleus of a New Yorker’s life. It promises — in a city of 8.2 million — a safe zone, not to be penetrated by the masses.

You may be centimeters away from four sweaty people in a crowded space, so close you can smell what they ate for lunch — yet, despite this proximity, eyes shall not meet, actions shall not be acknowledged and personal space shall not be violated. Such unwritten codes keep urban denizens from going mad via overwhelm and confrontation in such overpopulated milieus.

So, masses of Manhattanites grumble to themselves, exhale after a long day, roll their eyes when seeing something irritating and so on, with little fear that their private expressions shall be viewed and then confirmed by another humanoid. Quite simply put: They are ignored.

I’m quickly learning that although there are crossovers between London and New York living, the rules are essentially different in the former. Actually, when I first moved to London, I found the cultural learning curve quite flat — compared to my move to Amsterdam. London, like New York, is highly populated (7.8 million, I believe) and of course a very sophisticated, international city. Londoners are busy, busy, busy and that’s a good thing.

People are generally not too needy but rather independent. There’s a group social dynamic, but because everyone is preoccupied with juggling the many facets of London life, adjustment (for a international city-dweller like myself) is fluid…save for one social no-no I have inadvertently engaged in time and again.

Although stiff upper lips abound around these parts, I have found the aforementioned “personal bubble” to be, generally speaking, absent (save for during Rush Hours on the Tube). However, any externalization of emotion — through sighs, furrowed brows, and general visual signs of frustration, sadness, anger, etc. — seems to be frowned upon, figuratively if not literally, as that would be engaging in said no-no. Such gestures are also called out.

Sometimes this can be heart-warming. You’re having ‘one of those days’. Soaking wet from a windy rain. You have an asthma attack whilst chasing a bus. Its doors close in your face, the driver grins wickedly and peels out. You’re soaking wet, have ripped your stockings and finally, wheezing like an old man, you manage to hobble onto another bus when an ornery driver berates you for swiping your Oyster card when the machine is broken.

That final straw, along with hormones, drive you to tears. Then, a kind stranger leans in and says, “The bus driver was quite rude. Are you ok?” You have no desire to engage as the combination of your tears and mascara have transformed you into ‘The Crow’ but you’re thankful for his concern, nevertheless.

On other days, the lack of ‘bubble’ feels intrusive. Your computer has randomly sent out multiple emails to the same people transforming you into a spammer in the eyes of esteemed colleagues. It crashes. You spend three hours waiting in the Apple store only to hear ‘iCan’t’ (fix your laptop). Downtrodden, you shuffle home, slumped over, exhaling as you think of ways to erase the day’s events when a complete stranger looks you in the eyes and blurts out, “Cheer up mate, it might never happen.” He means no harm but his scant few words have externalised and validated your internal worries.

Then there are the times when someone has shoved you and stepped on your foot, without so much as an ‘excuse me.’ A verbal, “ouch!” is your regrettable knee-jerk reaction. At that point, you’ve invited someone to step inside your bubble and proverbially stomp around with careless abandon in Doctor Martin boots. You will be confronted, and firmly reprimanded, as I discovered: ‘What are you complaining about? It was as much your fault as it was mine’!

Curious and perplexed by these and other confrontations in such a mannered albeit highly populated metropolitan centre, I asked some of my English friends for illumination. They all seemed to concur that this behaviour relates to the ubiquitous ‘stiff upper lip’ philosophy. The idea of expressing displeasure through facial gestures would be the opposite of holding it together, I learned. What was easily ignorable in New York, displays as a neon light festooned billboard in London–especially for someone like me whose face betrays her emotions.

As someone who was born in London but has moved about from Hong Kong to LA to New York to Amsterdam, I’ve spent my life studying cultures and analysing how my behaviours are received in them. I try to adapt as much as I can without being dishonest about my quirks and God-given flaws.

So, I wouldn’t say that this essay amounts to a gripe or a public complaint, but rather an attempt to understand it for myself. But I suppose it’s quite the opposite of keeping a stiff upper lip. Instead, mass-blogging about my take on such social mores is quite simply the literary equivalent of furrowing my brow and expelling air.

Single on de Singel: When I Moved to Amsterdam

Travel Culture Writer Shana Ting Lipton in Amsterdam

By Shana Ting Lipton

My first friends were guys I was
temporarily dating, DJs and even
a bisexual male porn star from
Germany who divulged to me that
he would go to Belgium often to
get testosterone and viagra.

I had been waiting to move abroad since I was seven and I took the first step–desiging an architectural plan for a playhouse on the hillside of my parents’ house.

Later, at the end of high school, I got accepted to the University of St. Andrews in Edinburgh, Scotland (where Prince Wills went) but opted against royal ghosts, freezing weather and great golf, in favor of New York City’s unbeatable nightlife and art scene. But, years later, when Manhattan finally wore me down, my old wanderlust and dreams of foreign living returned.

If you ask anyone who’s ever moved abroad how it all manifested, most will tell you it was a happy accident. Sure, they had always had the dream of moving overseasin the back of their minds, but the reality manifested in an unexpected way (in the same way that people describe meeting their true love).

These days, it’s de rigueur for most single or divorced women to at least consider moving abroad, or at worst to watch films like Eat, Pray, Love and Under the Tuscan Sun and live vicariously through them.

The ‘great journey’ has always been in the male biosphere. For some guys, that means a year in the peace corps; for others, less noble and more seedy pursuits in the bars and massage parlours of South East Asia. My rationale for moving to Amsterdam was equal parts naughty and nice.

One Christmas, my parents and then-best friend ventured off to England and Paris. On a whim, my friend and I took a side trip–via train–to Amsterdam. We were there in the frozen dead of winter all of a handful of days when I decided I wanted to move there.

Beyond the obvious fun and frolicking that went on there (quite tame compared to what I had seen in my years in NYC), it was architecturally, one of the most beautiful cities I’d ever seen. And something–a sense of the familiar–kept tugging at me. It felt like I had been there before. Those open to spiritual matters will understand when I say that I believe I had a lot of karma there.

A year later, I found myself in the uncomely ‘burbs of Amsterdam on the uncomfortable couch of a bloke I had known only as a webpal. Basically I knew no one there–with the exception of him and another dance music world webpal, and I didn’t even really know them at all.

Naked Guy in Amsterdam The Netherlands

Those first six months in Amsterdam were the toughest. And it often goes that that is precisely when most people decide to pack up and leave. Another friend of mine had moved to Rome, and while she made friends faster in the open Mediterranean social tradition, she quickly became irritated with the daily ins and outs and customs.

I remember waiting in line at a supermarket in the center of Amsterdam, behind a shady looking guy. He appeared to be cutting in front of me in line so I shot him the requisite look. He then told me in Dutch (though he was from the Dutch colony of Surinam, I gathered) that he wasn’t in the least bit interested in me and that I was ugly.

I told him I didn’t think he was interested in me. I explained that he appeared to be pushing his cart in front of mine in the line. Recognizing my non-Dutch accent, he broke into “Go home, American, we don’t want you here” adding, “we only want your tourist money.” I didn’t have the nerve to tell him I was actually half Chinese and a European citizen as well.

I went home, cried for about two hours and seriously wondered if I had made one of the biggest mistakes of my life moving to Amsterdam.

I had no friends there either. Well, I had nightlife friends. Because I was working freelance, clubs and bars were the only places I knew of where I might actually meet (or at the very least interact with) other humans.

So my first friends were guys I was temporarily dating, DJs and even a bisexual male porn star from Germany who divulged to me that he would go to Belgium often to get testosterone and viagra. Let’s just say that many parts of Belgium are akin to being the Tijuana of the Low Countries.

Fast-forward four years later (yes, I lasted four whole years), and I had become the editor-in-chief of a magazine about creative locals in Amsterdam. I had many editorial clients. I had friends from Amsterdam and from all over the world. I lived in a beautiful two-story canal house. And I had some pretty swell boyfriends as well. In short, I got a life….in Amsterdam.

Through linked articles on this page, I will share my stories and tips on moving to another country (in which you know no one). These are mostly geared towards single men and women. Not to belittle the experiences of couples–but (based on my own circle of friends), couples always have the safeguard of each other to fall back on when all else fails. Some of my insight will of course be universal.

It’s not easy getting from social pariah to insider…but with some navigation, know-how, diplomacy and patience, it is possible; I am living proof of that.

More Living Cosmopolitanism Essays:

From Accidental Tourist to Purposeful Resident Impromptu Moves Abroad

Moving Abroad Expat Advice

By Shana Ting Lipton

[originally published on Huffington Post | Travel]

It is almost as if that level of life-altering
activity can only be orchestrated when
you’re operating from your gut and in
an “intoxicated state.

In the film A Good Year (based on a Peter Mayle novel), a London investment broker discovers that he has inherited a chateau and vineyard in France from his late uncle. After arriving in Provence to arrange for the sale of the property, fateful events convene to alter the course of his life and residence.

In a similar vein, in Under the Tuscan Sun (based on Frances Mayes’ memoir) a recently divorced writer takes a trip to Tuscany and by pure serendipity finds herself confronted with the villa-fixer of her dreams, which she ultimately buys and renovates.

If one is to believe what one reads in books and sees in films, moving abroad is often the product of one or more happy accidents — from blissful temp-to-perm holidays and unexpected vacation romances to inherited properties, and short-term work projects that turn into geographical happily ever afters.

My own history of travel and moves supports the aforementioned theory. I had no plans to make Amsterdam my home when I took off for my winter holidays there with a friend one year, en-route from Paris. But I fell in love… with the city that is. And love makes you do crazy things, like move to a country in which you know no one.

The temp-to-perm move is in fact a lot like love in that it happens when you least expect it, takes you by surprise. It is almost as if that level of life-altering activity can only be orchestrated when you’re operating from your gut and in an “intoxicated state.”

On another occasion, I conversely made a strategic decision that I was going to move to London. It was purely based on logic and reason: I have dual British/U.S. citizenship, London is an English-speaking publishing capital, and I know many family friends there as my parents and I used to live in London when I was little.

This sort of choice — using my aforementioned amorous analogy — is similar to when a person decides it’s time to get married and settles for a convenient and “good enough” partner instead of waiting for the proverbial soulmate.

So I made the loud proclamation to my LA friends that London was good enough, and I was moving there. I packed up my stuff in boxes, gathered my contacts, and set up meetings. I found a short-term residence in a smart neighborhood. My landlady was an uptight, Chanel-suit wearing grand dame whose charm was only surpassed by the experience of sucking on a lemon.

Fast forward a month later and I found myself sobbing on the phone, typical unrelenting London rain pounding in the background. I was telling one of my Yank friends that I’d made a terrible decision and that London and I were not a match (not in such polite terms though).

I have since toyed with the idea of moving back to Europe. I know friends who talk of moving to South America and Asia. We all seem to find ourselves in a similar “neither flight nor fight” state. On the one hand, there’s a reluctance to over-plan such things — and that difficult-to-shake fear of making such a bold and decisive move. On the other, waiting for that unexpected thunderbolt moment that parts the seas seems reactive.

In 2010′s anticipated-but-flopped film Eat Pray Love (based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir), the main character travels to Italy, India and then Bali on a quest for wholeness. She falls in love in the latter. So her partner proposes an unusual (but more and more common these days) arrangement in which they spend part of their year in New York and part of it in Indonesia — a plan for the unplanned, a meeting halfway. Cosmopolitan living is of course the easy answer for the wealthy.

But perhaps it is the right answer for those of us brave and innovative enough to turn a holiday into a multi-faceted and rewarding real life.

More Living Cosmopolitanism Essays:

Living Abroad: The Love Affair With Place

Place Vendôme Paris France Sights

By Shana Ting Lipton

I see your hair is burnin’
Hills are filled with fire
If they say I never loved you
You know they are a liar…
LA woman, you’re my woman.

-Jim Morrison and The Doors

Your knees buckle, you feel off-center, yet filled with joy. A sense of the ‘anything is possible’ comes over you. You’re not yourself; nor do you want to be. You’re in love. And, to keep this love affair afloat, you’ll do anything…

Even move to another city or country.

Yet, in this case, it is, in fact, the city that is the culprit, the object of your affections. You are enamored–or at the very least interfacing and engaging on a deeper more intimate level–with a locale.

Without such a passion, one might argue, how else could one take such a bold step as to pack up one’s things and move half-way across the world (or across the country)?

It takes blind faith, the promise of euphoria, and an object of great desire to drown out the voice of fear (that keeps one moored in one’s home terrain) and kill the creature of habit (and safety).

And just like your first love is different from a second marriage, and a second marriage is different from a whirlwind holiday love affair, so ‘city love’ differs from place to place (and person to person). More detailed analogies and some true life experience can be of some help here.

New York…cue George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue…now that’s a riveting, mile-a-minute, exciting metropolis to fall in love with. My love affair with New York was intense from the get-go. There was nothing that could keep us apart. I ate, breathed, slept (and often pulled all-nighters with) Manhattan. This was one fascinating, intellectually profound and culturally savvy partner.

But then, after living in the City That Never Sleeps for a few years, the bloom wore off the rose to reveal a crazy, thorned bitch of a city who like some psycho stalker was hell-bent on destroying me.

Manhattan, for me, was a city of young love–perhaps not first love (not nearly as naive and crushing) but an immature, passionate love with nowhere to go but into the pits of Hell.

So it was that after some time of enduring ‘the Smell’ (hot, humid garbage and pollution in the summertime), the constant noise (a loop of car alarms and ambulances) and weather (my ‘love’s’ extreme mood swings), I said “enough” and ended the tempestuous and unhealthy relationship.

Amsterdam, with its storybook canals, crooked little houses and wood-worm eaten house boats was romantic in a spiritual way for me. Everything ‘he’ did seemed fated, written in some great book in the sky.

Nothing was real. All was mystique and wonder…a great way to exist…for a time. But as I grew up, I wanted something of the everyday and commonplace in my city relationship–a way to mix the simplicity of life (cornflakes) with the ethereal and mystical (ambrosia).

Los Angeles, on the other hand was like the buddy that high-fives you at a barbecue and gets you an ice cold beer on command–predictable, laidback, uncomplicated but a bit vacuous.

Like ‘friends with benefits,’ LA and I spent years (on and off as LA is always my base–even when I have brief stints abroad) in a Hotel California type relationship. I could check out any time I liked, but I never really did leave.

LA would occasionally deliver the 2 a.m. booty call–disrespectful and shallow. But Los Angeles was also always there when I needed the proverbial couch to crash on or someone to grab a coffee with and hang out.

These days, as it turns out, I’m looking for nothing less than ‘the all’ in my city love, a harmonious ‘something of everything’ relationship Holy Grail. My ideal possesses: the romance and magic, the reliable everyday buddy effect, and the riveting sexual attraction and cultural and intellectual stimulation.

I’m ready for a city I can realistically love–for better or worse, for richer or for poorer–that will love me back unconditionally, realistically but also view me as a gem.

As a result, I have been spending some time in London–a place that never intrigued me before (in fact, my birthplace). It wasn’t ever exotic enough. It seemed to be a city of urban tests, grittiness, and depression despite its historic architecture and wit and witticisms.

But today, as an adult, I can finally appreciate a partner like London. Right away, I could see what would drive me nuts about the town: its spread-out nature, difficult public transport, smog and dirtiness, uptight citizens.

I could also see something magical: how the Gothic details on the molding of the townhouses came to life in the grey weather, the exciting driving cultural rhythm of this media capital.

My walks around the funny little mewses and roads–mad wind blowing through my hair, street life on fire, trickles of rain on my cheek–felt like an appreciative and adoring lover’s touch.

London, in short, may be the whole enchilada…a real city, a human city–of heights of ecstasy, depths of despair…and, ‘the laundry’ so to speak. London, may well be ‘The One.’

Which Passport to Use For Dual Citizens

Multiple Passport Holders

If you find yourself in that privy niche category of ‘multiple passport holder,’ you might face a conundrum each time you travel. Which passport should you whip out? And when?

If you’re like me, you’ve used the length of the cue to decide which national you should be in that moment. If the U.S. Passports cue is shorter, well then that’s the passport you use. Let’s face it, who wants to wait in a long cue of people? However, this logic doesn’t, unfortunately, always work.

An EU/US multi-national friend of mine insists: “Whichever country you’re in, use that passport.” She claims she was traveling to Holland once and was yelled at for using her US passport. However, when I followed her ‘country-centric’ rule and whipped out a British passport at Heathrow when departing for the US I too was reprimanded.

So, what to do? Using a common circumstance, if you are, for instance, an EU/US passport holder, leaving the US from, say JFK and heading to Paris for a living stint, use your US passport when departing JFK. Upon arrival at Charles de Gaulle, use your European Union passport. However, when you return to the US from Paris, at CDG Airport use our US Passport (otherwise you’ll be required to furnish a Visa to the agent).

So, to summarise:

  • Step 1: US to EU in US Airport= U.S. passport
  • Step 2: Arrival in EU at European Airport= EU passport
  • Step 3: EU to US in European Airport= US passport

Therefore, the only foil or confusion in the country-centric model is Step 3–as you’ll want to avoid having to provide an officer with a Visa!

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The Third Culture Dilemma: Getting Personal
Famous Adult TCKs

The Decision to Move Abroad: Feel the Thrill, Feel the Fear

Munch's Painting The Scream

Haven’t we all known that guy or girl who managed to house-sit in the greatest apartments and homes, for a year? You wonder how they do it. Part of it is luck and intent. Part of it is going with the flow (like the thrill-seeker does) and being open to opportunities.

Several days before my move to Amsterdam, I was at a Halloween party with a friend of mine and brought up my upcoming departure. “WHAT??!!” he was dumbfounded, “You’re moving to Amsterdam?!”

“Yes,” I said, “I already told you this months ago.”

“Yeah, but everyone always says they’re going to move to another country, but no one ever goes through with it,” he’d responded.

He hit upon a key point in regards to planning a big move abroad (or even to another faraway city in your own country). The reason so many people talk endlessly about impending moves and rarely make them is quite simply fear.

Yet, the flipside of that fear is the adreline rush that comes from doing something completely unexpected or at the very least pivoting your life in a completely different direction.

Whether you’re a ‘playing it safe’ coward or a reckless, risk-taker, you’ll likely experience a little of both of the aforementioned (the principle of Yin-Yang holds true in every facet of life). Both are necessary for your mind/body/spirit voyage, but both require a bit of awareness on your part.

Taming the Fear

This is obviously the more prevalent of the two. You’re making a giant move and what if you hate it? What if it’s a huge mistake? What if you miss out on what’s going on in your home city? What if you don’t find work?

A friend of mine from London once gave me beautiful advice on dealing with the fear (which produces anxiety and as a result atrophy). She told me not to plan a ‘forever move.’ She told me to look at short-term options.

In layman’s terms (or in my case L.A.-mans terms), when most people join a gym, they are pressured into taking on a one or two year membership. But then they never end up going. When I joined a health club ten years ago, I decided for once, to go month-to-month. Guess what? I go to the gym three to four times a week and now I buy the one-year membership plans.

In more germane terms, when I moved to Amsterdam, I sublet my place in Manhattan for a year–that way I would have a back-up plan, in case I didn’t like it. I’ll never forget the day that I left that NY apartment. I literally said to myself, out loud: “Well, here goes.” Little did I know I would end up staying for years.

When planning your big move, don’t make it such a big move. Plan month-to-month and take a wait-and-see attitude. Figure out a way to be in that place as much as possible if you can’t make the move right away. Try to budget in two trips there a year (for at least two or three weeks).

I know this isn’t possible for everyone. You will have to do housing swaps, figure out ways to work remotely or telecommute. But, if you want it badly enough, it can be done.

Keeping Your Cool

If you have the thrill-seeker gene, you’re the one your friends dub the ‘wild card.’ You may decide to take off and move in an instant. I’ve known people who have suddenly had an epiphany and sold their worldly possessions and just bolted.

There’s nothing theoretically wrong with this. I actually really admire people who can do it. This is especially good if you’re 22, just graduated from university, and don’t mind sleeping on dirty floors…wherever.

However, if you have a Chic Trek mentality–which I obviously do–you want ‘the best.’ That doesn’t always mean the most expensive. But it means, by hook or by crook, you find a way to bring the beautiful and extraordinary into your life. That sort of brilliance generally takes a little time and stepping back. By a little time, I mean at least weeks.

Haven’t we all known that guy or girl who managed to house-sit in the greatest apartments and homes, for a year? You wonder how they do it. Part of it is luck and intent. Part of it is going with the flow (like the thrill-seeker does) and being open to opportunities.

The other part involves a little strategic, creative planning–not tripping over yourself in the process of getting excited about your move.

List-making is the best. Make lists of contacts you know over there (even friends of friends) and find out what field they work in. Make lists of new companies in the goal-city or companies from your country that are opening up offices there. Make lists of neighborhoods you love there. Make lists of local websites…and so on.

And if you really can’t resist diving into the unknown…make the lists anyway…and then take off in the morning (with them in-hand).

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