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March 2013

We are expats, travelers, and other misfits

It was October, 2011.  I hadn’t performed live for well over a year, and it was something I was deeply missing.  Having no band at the time, I spent a few months practicing my solo acoustic set and managed to book a gig in a café in Kosice.

Days before the gig, I came down with a severe cold.  The show should have been cancelled, but I was so excited and determined to get out there and perform again that I went ahead with it.  My vocal performance was truly terrible that evening…so awful that I drove away the 10 or so customers in the place.  Still I kept singing.

Toward the end of the performance, a group of 8 or 9 came in off the street and enthusiastically sat down at the table in front of me.  They seemed pleased as I went into a Bright Eyes cover and a few of them actually started to sing along to a song that I had assumed nobody in Slovakia knew.  Who were these people? 

Later they told me that they were a group of foreign students from Israel, the US, and the UK.  I talked with them and thanked them for coming, but I probably wasn’t as friendly as I should have been.

7 months later, Abscondo was a full band and we had our debut concert in Kosice.  At this concert was this same group of foreign students.  Despite my unimpressive solo performance, they came back for more!  And what did I do? I managed to offend and alienate a few of them by making a comment about religion between songs.  They actually told me that my comment bothered them.  Not great of me.  I failed to understand and respect my audience.  I alienated and divided them rather than bringing them together.

Looking back, I now realize is that this is my audience and these are my people.  We are all Abscondo.

Several months ago I met a lovely young lady who is an English teacher in Slovakia.  She was so enthusiastic about our music that she had the idea to arrange an “English night” at a local bar with Abscondo as the entertainment.  I realize now that she had hoped not just to see us perform, but to attract all of the expats, travelers, and other English-speaking misfits in the local area.  She wanted to meet these people and belong with these people.  I guess she understood our audience better than I did…up until now.

During our “English night” concert, I found out that it was also her birthday.  How absolutely flattering it was (and honoured we felt) that she was such a fan that she wanted us to perform at her birthday party!  She invited all of her friends.  While the club was small and the performance space less than ideal, I remember this as one of our best performances.  The energy was magical, the small audience was completely engaged, and everybody felt connected to the experience.  This is what a rock concert is all about.  We all shared the same feelings and we discussed the same ideas after the show.  We all wanted the same things in life and we understood each other.

You are my audience and you are the Abscondo band audience.  We are expats, travelers, foreign students, and other English-speaking misfits around the world. 

You are the people I will write for, podcast for, communicate with, think about, and perform for.  Whether on trains or planes, you are the people I end up talking with.  You are the people I understand and you understand me.  You are my people.

I became one of you when I fell in love with my wife, who is from Slovakia, all the way back in high school.  I travelled to Europe that first summer after high school and it changed me forever.  This experience, combined with my deep love for her, would mean that I would never again see the world as a “normal American” does. 

I had changed.  I remember having difficulty making friends in University.  I found the conversations and the interests of “normal Americans” uninteresting.  I didn’t understand the way they thought.  Then I met a group of international students.  For one beautiful year in Colorado Springs, my wife and I hung out with and partied with Magnus from Sweden, Enrique from Costa Rico, Kenai and Lukai from Thailand, Hedotoshi from Japan, and Natasha from Russia.  We went clubbing in Denver.  We went white-water rafting.  We hung out every weekend.  We helped each other.  We were true friends and thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company.  I realized that I had much more in common with this group of “internationally-minded” people than I had with “normal Americans”.  This is where I belonged.

What was obvious to me then, and what I still believe to this day, is that there is a relatively large group of people around the world who...because of our international relationships and rich experiences with travel and different cultures...we no longer fit into our own cultures.  We no longer think that the traditions, beliefs, cuisine, and customs of their own cultures are “inevitable”.  We understand that everything we think, do, and believe is a choice.  We live where we choose to.  We do for a living whatever we want to.  We eat whatever we enjoy.  We seek freedom, beauty, and experience.

My life is a clear example of this.  7 years ago I moved from Seattle to Slovakia.  I have not only made it work here, I have thrived here.  I have lived for short times in Cannes, Paris, and Barcelona.  I’ve travelled extensively around Europe.  During this time I started writing music, recording, and put together what I believe is a world-class rock band with an original sound.  Sometimes I eat Slovak food, but most of the time I eat (and cook) Thai, sushi, or Indian food.  I work the hours that I want to at home and communicate with colleagues who live in the UK and Canada.  I travel the world on business and earn a good living.  I have lived here with no material possessions for a few years and then later my wife and I purchased and finished a nice flat.  I have lived here for many years without children and now have a beautiful 3-year-old girl.  I have had good friends from the US and also have been very fortunate to know so many smart, interesting, and talented Slovaks.  Today I feel more integrated into Slovakia than I ever have been.  Yet I will never belong.  But I will never belong anywhere else either.  I know I’m not alone in this feeling.  I know there are people all around the world who feel exactly like me and I know that we are large in numbers.

We do try to get together.  We join Facebook groups.  We occasionally go to meet-ups.  But, in truth, we are quite disconnected.  Sometimes we feel lonely.  We feel like we don’t fit anywhere and probably never will.  This is what I would like to try to change.

I want Abscondo to become a movement for expats, travellers, and other misfits.  I want to perform for this audience in major cities around Europe.  I want to know you.  I want to make all of us feel more connected and I want us to feel that we are part of a growing, thriving community.  Ours are the values are most relevant in 2013 and it is we who will invent the future.

We need to connect.  We need to share ideas.  We need to help each other and rely on each other.  Yes, alone we are strong, smart, interesting, and experienced.  But together our potential is unlimited and we are unstoppable.

Going forward, the Abscondo project will be all about expats, travellers, foreign students, and other misfits.  If this is you, then the songs we are recording now are for you and I can’t wait to share them with you.  The lyrics are about your life, your feelings, your frustrations, and your victories.  I will immediately begin to organize concerts for you and your friends in Budapest, Prague, Krakow, Vienna, and eventually around Europe. 

This blog, the podcast, and everything I do will be for you.  You are my audience.  To “abscond” means to run away, often taking something or someone with you.  That’s exactly what this project has always been about, but I never fully realized it until now.

We are Abscondo.  We are expats, travelers, foreign students, English-speakers, and other misfits around the world.       

A week in my life

I took the train from Budapest last night and sat next to a medical student from Malta.  Like most of us do when we travel, he and I got into a conversation about where we're from, what we do for a living, etc.  The problem I have is when I'm asked where I'm from, I say Slovakia.  Then I have to explain that I'm American.  Then I inevitably have to answer endless questions about why I came here, what my life is like here, how could I possibly have left Seattle.  I'm not complaining or anything, but I'm getting a bit tired of this same conversation after all of these years.  Too often it feels like I end up having to defend myself and explain the rationale for my decisions. 

Of course I understand that my life seems strange to people and I'm sure that they are just curious.  But I don't know how to explain it, or even what I'm supposed to be explaining anymore.  This is just the life I have at the moment.  I'm not saying it will last forever, but it is what it is.  And what exactly is it that I'm up to at the moment?

Let's start with last Saturday and I'll tell you about my week.  My wife was in Florence, Italy at a trade show so I spent last weekend with my 3-year old daughter, Isabella.  The two of us were just recovering from the flu, because a week before that I was at a business event in Barcelona and came home sick.  Anyway, last weekend was a great opportunity to bond, one-on-one, with Isabella.  When she was napping, and in the evening when she was sleeping, I also worked on a proposal for a telecommunications company in the Middle East.  My day job is to sell complex and high-priced software for a Canadian company.  I work from home, which allows me the flexibility to have a band and do everything else I do.

The reason for putting in these extra hours on the weekend is that on Monday and Tuesday I would be with my band, Abscondo, in the studio.  We're most of the way through recording 4 new songs.  At this stage we're in mix-down, which means long hours focusing on every detail.  We're recording in an old nuclear bunker in Kosice, which makes a nice, quiet space that seems far from the outside world.  There's no mobile phone reception down there, so I had to occassionally come up to my car, check my work email, and make it look like I was working.  It is expensive enough to record, but taking days off makes it even more expensive for that's not an option.  The songs are turning out far better than I expected.  Our sound is becoming fresh and different.  I need to figure out what to do with these tracks so that the world can hear this.  Our next session will be an all-nighter next Monday and I am looking forward to it.

On Wednesday it was back to work at my home office.  My boss, who's an American living in the UK, told me last week that he wanted to fly out to Budapest for the day to do some strategy planning with me.  I'm always having to fly to London, so I thought it was generous of him to come out to see me for a change.  I thought about this some more and realized that he must want something (which was true, but I won't get into it).  So yesterday I took the 6:00 am train down to Budapest, in really nasty wintery weather.  I knocked on his hotel room door at 10:00, we talked for a while, had lunch, and then took a taxi to a meeting I had set up with a partner in Budapest. 

Budapest taxis are an adventure.  Our first driver didn't know how to find the address.  Our destination was an office park with something like 10 buildings.  Each of them had a letter and ours was building "I".  Since our taxi driver didn't speak English, when I said "I" he thought I meant "A" (which apparently sounds like "I" in Hungarian).  So I had to get more clever.  I know that in Slovak the letter "I" is pronounced like the letter "E" in English.  So I said it was building "E".  "Ah-hah...ok", he said.  I later found out that I was right.  In fact, "I" is pronounced like the English "E"...but anyway he didn't know where building I was (nor E for that matter).  After 5 more minutes driving around, we got out of the taxi.  I called my contact and apologized.  After 10 minutes walking in the freezing rain, umbrellas inverted from the strong wind, we showed up wet and late to the meeting.

After the meeting (which ended up going well), we asked our contact to call us a taxi.  He told us where it would be waiting, and when a taxi arrived there we got in.  The driver said something which I assumed to be someone's name who called.  At this point, I decided not to overcomplicated the situation and I just said "yes" and got in.  Half-way back to the city, our driver looked back at us very angrily.  "You lied to me!"  he said.  Apparently he had talked to dispatch and they figured out that we got into the wrong taxi.  "Now I will have no work for 2 days!" he continued.  I looked at my boss, both of us shocked.  The driver was so upset, shaking his head and on the verge of tears.  I offered to talk with his boss and explain that we're just asshole customers who lied.  He said it wouldn't help.  I felt bad.  I explained to my boss later that this is typical of Eastern Europe.  People here tend to magnify problems beyond what would seem sane.  No perspective.

My boss is an American who lives near London.  Like many business people I've worked with over the years, his value system seems to be based on holding himself above "common people".  These guys love their luxury hotel rooms and expensive meals.  He was in Budapest for a day and never left the room.  He ordered room service, told me how he ordered an over-priced bottle of wine the previous night, and showed absolutely no interest in a city he had only been to only once before. I don't understand him.

My boss can't believe I live in Slovakia by choice.  He thinks my lifestyle is substandard and that my choices questionable.  Like many Brits (he's basically become British over the years), I think he has a very low opinion of Eastern European women and, subsequently, doesn't think much of any man who falls in love with one.  He has met my wife and seems to like here, but there is a fair amount of bigotry in Western Europe against Eastern Europeans.  I say that I married a Slovak and I feel the judgment immediately.  They think of me as a fool who got married only because of physical attraction and good sex. While some of their opinions are true (I am attracted to my wife and we do have good sex), the truth is we got married because we fell in love.  My wife is at least as capable, intelligent, intellectual, and clever as any American or Brit...yet sometimes I know she faces bigotry in Europe.  I do to, so I'm crazy enough to live in Eastern Europe by choice.

My boss and colleagues do not understand how I can live in a place with substandard food, with no Starbucks, with potholes all over the roads, etc.  My boss certainly would not have approved if he had seen be a few hours later, standing in the cold at bleak Keleti station in Budapest, drinking a can of beer with all the students returning home for the weekend.  Of course I was completely out of place, dressed for my meeting.  But I'm always out of place these days and I guess I have gotten used to it.  Sure, I also know sterile hotel rooms and expensive restaurants well, but my life isn't complete unless I also get to spend time in some old nuclear bunker making music.  On the train, I enjoyed talking with a student who is studying Hungarian literature but who one day wants to get into the wine industry.  I simply feel more alive when I exist in reality and when I talk with people from all different cultures and backgrounds.  Everybody seems to aspire to luxury, yet few really understand that luxury can be sterile and boring.  I'd probably be a lot happier if I got rid of more of the luxury in my life...but I probably won't.

The train came in late.  I shook hands with the student from Malta and wished him well.  It was almost midnight when I finally walked back in the sub-zero temperatures with icy snow blowing on my face.  But I enjoyed the 10-minute walk and certainly did not want to deal with another taxi.

This morning I woke up in a great mood.  I cooked eggs for breakfast (like I do each morning).  I went to the gym.  I answered some emails.  I went to the jam room to practice for an hour.  And now I need to go pack the car because we're driving to my wife's family for the weekend.  Tomorrow we're throwing a big party for my daughter's 3-year-old birthday.  We rented a room in a restaurant.  I'll DJ.  We'll all dress up.  We'll eat well.  We'll drink a lot.  Eva's uncle will dress up as a clown.   Then everybody will go bowling afterwards.  We've done this every year for her birthday so far and I think it is awesome that 25 friends and relatives are coming, for the 3rd year in a row.

I have to go because my daughter woke up from her nap and the nanny went home early.  First I'll check my email once again to make it look like I'm working.

So this is my life.  For now.  I love it.