As expats and diplomats, it’s the life – we come, we go, we arrive somewhere else. With summer undeniably in full swing now, and the calendar pages turning over once more, I’m faced with the fact that we have only 9 weeks to go before departure. Upon arriving, three years seemed like eons – Denmark would be our longest post to date. But the days, then months, and then years, flew by like they did at the last post and the post before that. Our experiences are always in a state of flux, so as we get nearer the end, there’s a bit of nostalgia…a tendency to want to hold on to the good things of whatever our posts or assignments may have brought us, and let go of the tougher moments.
I’ve learned with each subsequent post that every move has it’s own special qualities but there are several things that they all have in common. And now with children, our assignments are even more a formative part of their existence as well. For the kids, they don’t fully understand always what’s next or when it’s coming. Keeping track of the memories of a particular place ends up being a critical part of keeping track of the memories of our own experience.
I have a working list of pictures I like to make sure I get before every move – there are still two months left here which is a good time for anyone in the ubiquitous summer move seasons to get started. Between work and the bucket lists and the many rounds of good-byes, time will fly, so set aside a few minutes here and there to make sure you get these key snaps, little windows into the memory of a place that was.
1. Your House
When I was growing up, I always thought it was funny that my parents had pictures of a former house or apartment building. But as a transient now, our houses become an important part of my own memory. You might think that that you’ll always remember whether you had tulips in front, or whether the door was glass or wood, but one day those details will fade. Just one picture of the house from the outside ends up inviting you inside to tell a million and one stories of once upon a time, when we lived in…
2. The Inside of Your House
Just as above, one day you’ll long to see the hallways of the place where your kids were first young, or the dining table that hosted so many good friends, or that terrible piece of furniture you just couldn’t get rid of. Maybe one day our children will laugh at how we decorated…maybe one day they’ll ask to see their rooms. The inside of a home is a very sentimental thing, and while you can most certainly take the photos yourself, take it one step further and have a family session at some point during your stay, and include a few photos of an every day around that particular home.
3. The Routine Stops
Always buy the newspaper from the same guy? Stop by for coffee every weekend? Fresh flowers on Friday? At some point, the novelty of our posts wears off, and they become routine places where we live, just like other places we’ve lived before. These are the places that become part of our everyday, but while still showing off their own unique cultural aspects. And as much as we might take a local spice vendor, or that corner bakery that we have walked by a million times, for granted, there is always the high chance that what is commonplace today will be a luxury experience tomorrow. One of my favorite diplo-spouse bloggers, Elise Hanna, captured her time in India so beautifully. Sure her photographs are the exotic for me, but they were also windows into her every day life for her. Those pictures are absolute treasures and provide a lot of inspiration for me in terms of asking myself, what do I want to remember about our life here when we go?
4. Your Place of Work
For diplomats like us, that’s the Embassy. But it would be no different for any other expat. Day in, day out, it’s where we go to work. But probably also to socialize, to pick up mail, to do any number of things. The trip becomes so mundane at some point that it never occurs to you that it will be in the past, or that the building might grow, shrink or even disappear. For diplomats specifically, security situations change all the time, which in turn spur on changes in the structures of our workplaces. And with many of the modernizations of embassies, the grand buildings of the past are going away. Even if it’s not grand, snap a picture for posterity.
5. Your Children’s Schools
If I had to pick the most formative thing from our time in Denmark, it would have to be the school we ended up at. The forest school approach, not to mention the staff and the fellow children, have become such an important part of our lives that I started a whole separate blog about them to capture some of that for her. These places form their young minds and leave their mark in some way – make sure to capture any special or memorable teachers as well.
6. Nannies & Staff
In many parts of the world, if you are a diplomat or expat, you will have the means to hire help, whether it be nanny, driver, cook…vegetable chopper (yes, that’s a thing, but no, not here in Denmark). The point is, these are people that you let inside your home and your life and in many ways, become a lifeline to an outside world that we would never know without their help. If someone was a part of your home, or your family’s life, make sure you get them in the frame – and make sure you leave copy of the picture for them as well when you leave. You will have become part of their lives too.
7. The Best Friends
And not just your kids’ best friends, yours too. The ones that you call when the power generator goes out and you know you can enjoy the last of the cold drinks together. The ones you took that epic trip with. The one you can tell without being embarrassed why a local culinary adventure went poorly for you. The one who understands what it’s like to be far away from home when you need home the most. You know who they are – some might be fellow expats, and when you’re really lucky, some of them will be local to where you live. All of them will be special to you.
8. The Place That Made You Realize You Were Going to Make It
A life abroad is often portrayed as a life of adventures. And it is. Most of the time. But it can also be a life that’s lonely, or difficult, or not what you expected. Every place will surprise you, both good and bad, and every place will make you go through a rough patch sooner or later. This is the photo to take to somehow capture the “after the rough patch”. Was it after tears on the first day when you couldn’t figure out the parking meter only to conquer it the next day? Was it three months in when you realized you didn’t know anyone for the holidays, only to love the tree you decorated by yourself for yourself? Everyone has that moment where they hit the trough – capture in some way the moment after, when you knew that you were going to make it, and that things would be quite alright in that place.
9. The Thing You Didn’t Expect
With all the information that we read in guides and blogs and forums and expat groups, we think we know a place before we even get there. But as much as we might know about the museums or the restaurants or the price per square foot or what the scam du jour is among expats, there will always be something that surprises us, something we didn’t plan for. Find something that really blew your mind – whether in a good way or not. Could be personal, or could be particular to the place. What’s the thing that really caught you by surprise? Often times, you’ll have a hard time articulating it later, so try to catch it now.
10. The One With Your Whole Family In It
You know how it is, there is always someone out of the picture because they’re the one taking the picture. And there’s a high probability that person’s the mom. But take a day and grab a selfie, set the self-timer, ask a stranger….try to get a picture of all of your family, and do it in front of something iconic. Take a day, play tourist, scoff at the person who says it’s corny to get a picture of the Eiffel Tower, or the Taj Majal, or Tokyo’s Cherry Blossoms. When you leave your assignment, you’ll transition from a person who lives there, to a person that passed through, just like any other passerby. So why not make sure that all of you have a picture together, in front of the places that passersby pass by?
11. The “Now Leaving” Picture
You know the roadsigns that read something like “Now leaving the EU” or airport signs that say bid you farewell? There’s a sense of finality of crossing the other side of that threshold. Once a upon a time you were on the opposite end of that sign, welcoming you instead when your head was filled with thoughts and worries and excitement about what would be like to live in that place. Now that time will be completed, marked by the bookend of your departure.
12. Your Empty House
I left this one for last because it’s the one picture that seems to have the most conclusiveness about it. It’s the picture of what was once your home, now empty of the things and people and noise that once filled it when you lived there. I’ll be honest, it’s a sad picture for a period of time – at least it is for me – but conversely, I’ve found that often times, it’s also the picture I need most. The “empty house picture” is what I close the door on, no longer my home but a shell of what was. And that frees me to not grieve it as much – it’s now a space for someone else, for another family, for another adventure while we are now released, free to start again and go find our own.
I hope this list will be helpful to others as the summer moves and transfer seasons start in full swing. If you do end up taking the pictures on this list, they lend themselves well to a little “yearbook” so to speak of your key moments at post or at a particular assignment. Sometimes, when we try to capture the entire experience, it can be so overwhelming that a physical record, like prints or a book, never get made. Here are a few of my favorite ways to capture these kinds of memories:
- Remember a special place like your home with a house portrait or a commissioned oil painting (we have a couple of these of special memories and they’re fantastic – look out for commission projects a couple of times a year)
- Hardcover, lay flat albums are expensive but stand up to the wear and tear of life around the globe – these are some of the most beautiful ones on the market (and here is another favorite)
- For little hands that needs their own memories, a board book option is wonderful for their own strolls down memory lane, or a story book for those first bedtimes away from post
- If photographs aren’t your thing, maybe video is, even if from your phone? Annabelle does wonderful things pulling together clips from my phone into family treasures – and she just launched a travel video option called Juniper (remember this trip to Croatia, that’s her work!)
- If you keep track of your life more on social media, love these guys for creating Facebook “yearbooks” – it’s amazing how many personal and family moments come back to me, overlaid with historical context and pop culture. I make one for every year now (be on the lookout for great coupons that pop up on Facebook for them)
- If you love it, frame it – framing the photographs are one way (like here and here), but if you didn’t get a picture special to you, you can always do things with maps (either new or vintage found where you live) and geo-coordinates as well.
- Sometimes, the classic solution is the best one – make prints! Square are my favorite, especially to capture the random things that end up on my phone – we like to put them in a big bowl. Always a conversation starter. After all, isn’t part of the point to this wacky transient life to have adventures and stories to tell, to relive and to remember?
PIN IT for LATER!