Women Who Travel

Women Who Travel Podcast: Reflections on Moving Abroad

Host Lale Arikoglu sits down with Lebanese poet Zeina Hashem Beck and hears from listeners about their decisions to live someplace else.
Women Who Travel Podcast Reflections on Moving Abroad
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What do we gain—and leave behind—when we move abroad? Lale chats with Lebanese poet Zeina Hashem Beck, whose third poetry collection, O, was released this past summer, about moving away from her beloved Beirut and hopping between Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Dubai until arriving in her current home of California. Plus, listeners share stories about the challenges, joys, and surprises that come with overseas moves.


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Lale Arikoglu: Hello. I'm Lale Arikoglu and welcome to Women Who Travel, a podcast for anyone who's curious about the world and excited to explore places both near and far from home.

Today we're exploring what determines living abroad. There are people who, say, go and spend a summer somewhere in Europe and it feels for them, at the time, or maybe afterward, that they've lived there. For me, it took much longer, years in fact, to accept the fact that I actually live in America. I always thought, oh, I'll always go back to London. I'm a Londoner. That is my city. That is what I'm tied to. At some point, I think I just had to accept that maybe New York is actually my home. I've spent my entire 20's and now the early part of my 30's in New York. I've grown up here ostensibly and it's formed me as much as London has. Who would I be if I had ended up somewhere else?

Zeina Hashem Beck: I moved out in 2006, out of Beirut. I lived in Saudi Arabia, then in Bahrain, then 10 years in Dubai and now I've moved to California.

Lale Arikoglu: Zeina Hashem Beck is a poet and author who moved from Lebanon several times to different countries. Her writing explores whether or if, or how much, we can put down roots when moving. And also the extent to which we're obsessed with what we've left behind and whether it's possible to have dual loyalties to the old country and the new.

Zeina Hashem Beck: In my dreams, the sea is gone. The streets without people or cats. Then I remember music on your balconies in the cold, dear Beirut. I carry a name in many cities. They're light and they're heavy. Tonight and every night it's you I want to hold, dear Beirut.

Lale Arikoglu: I love that line, I carry a name in many cities. I'm curious about a word that you use a lot in your poems, which is displacement. Is that what your moves abroad feel like?

Zeina Hashem Beck: It's always felt like a displacement because at the heart of it is an economical decision, right? It's about economics. It's about financials. Lebanon has always been a country that kind of spits out its youth and can't really hold all of us and, and give us all jobs. So the decision to move out is really such a common decision among the Lebanese. I would definitely describe my experience as more displacement than adventure.

My aunt, who passed away last month, she's my favorite aunt. She raised me. And she used to say, "When God loves you, He'll show you His land." And she always used to repeat this to me because she knew that I kind of moved from place to place. And so there's beauty in this expression. You know, when God loves you, He'll show you His land. It means that it's beautiful to see other lands and other cultures and, and other people. But at the same time, my experience of moving isn't just that of someone who kind of said, "Oh, I wanna get a job in another country. And I always have the option to go back to Lebanon and age there and reconnect and be among my family whenever I feel like it. And now I've moved to California."

And up until this move, up until the California move, I always thought that I am going back to Lebanon eventually. And then of course after the Lebanese revolution, followed by the complete economic collapse and the Beirut 2020 explosion, my husband and I came to the realization that, well actually, it's becoming more and more impossible to move back.

The smoke behind me, that is where the explosion took place in what the Lebanese authorities are saying was a fireworks factory, uh, near the port. But for the past 15 minutes, there has been a nonstop steam of ambulances, of police cars, of army vehicles, who are seemingly trying to get to anyone who may have been working in that building. 

You were never mine. I never yours. Isn't that true love's ode, dear Beirut? I drove friends to the airport, watched them leave before I left. This wound is old, dear Beirut.

Lale Arikoglu: You were in Dubai for 10 years but you kind of had this period where you ping-ponged between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Zeina Hashem Beck: I think Dubai as a city opened up to me almost immediately. Like there are just places where you go and you know that, okay, I'm gonna be better here. Saudi, I lived in Riyadh for two years. It never really grew on me. I always felt restricted as a woman, as a poet who uses public space to just speak out, you know? I, I didn't have that back then. But it didn't stop me. I mean, I still ran, like, an all-female open mic night at the university I used to work at. And we did a performance that was like all female. The audience was all women. So we were working within our limitations but it wasn't what I really wanted.

Bahrain is a different story. Bahrain might've opened up maybe, eventually. But at the time, I was a new mother. And so being a new mother in a new land was extremely difficult. You know, being cut off, not having friends, not having family, et cetera. I feel by the time I arrived in Dubai, my kids were older, a little bit older, so I had a little bit more freedom. And so that's why Dubai was much easier.

Lale Arikoglu: You get so much more of a sense of belonging when you find groups of like minded people in your adopted home. The great thing about New York is the people here are interested in other people. And so it's really easy to make friends. It's such a diverse city, filled with so much culture and activity and things to take advantage of. Whatever your niche may be, you can find your community or a space that's just for you. If you have green thumbs, it might mean joining one of the city's many community gardens. If you love birdwatching, there's actually a bird watching group that goes to Central Park every weekend. Or if you're really into chess, for example, you can join the chess players in Washington Square Park.

As someone who is a creative and who is a poet, how easy was it to tap into those sorts of communities and how easy was it to introduce yourself as a poet to people in a country that wasn't your own?

Zeina Hashem Beck: I would say in Dubai it didn't take me long to find people who were interested in spoken word and poetry. It wasn't a big scene. I ended up starting an open mic night in Dubai called Punch. And we went from, like, a few people here and there to like booked out nights with like 90 people in the audience, only standing. And so it was wonderful in that sense that, you know, people are—were—hungry for that kind of literary scene, if you must.

But I have to say, if I'm being really honest with myself, that after 10 years, it felt repetitive. Like even before we even knew that there was an option to move to California. I was already saying, "I think I've given all I can to this city and I think it's giving me all it can. And I'm done here."

Lale Arikoglu: I really love how you just described it 'cause I always think of life, particularly in cities, as being reciprocal. Like you give to the place and, in turn, it gives back to you. You got to the end of your time in Dubai and you felt like it had sort of given you everything it could and vice versa. That feels like quite like a nomadic approach to existing within the world. Would you consider yourself a nomad?

Zeina Hashem Beck: Yeah. Yeah. You know, Edward Said has a very beautiful essay that I'm sure a lot of people are familiar with called, I think, “Reflections on Exile.” And he describes the state of being in exile as nomadic, de-centered, and contrapuntal. Contrapuntal to borrow from music is that you are always aware of several cultures and several places at the same time. So yes, absolutely. Nomadic, de-centered, and contrapuntal. Yeah.

Lale Arikoglu: Spending the pandemic here in New York actually really bonded me with the city. I don't know if you could call it trauma bonding exactly, but I think Spring 2020 made me feel a sense of loyalty to the place that I hadn't before. The way London handled the pandemic was different from here. And I quickly realized that the only pandemic experience I would know is the one here in the U.S. For the first time ever, it felt like there was something in the U.K. that I wasn't a part of. But I was a part of New York. And there was a stoicism and a sense of let's get things done that I hadn't necessarily experienced before. I actually think for a city whose reputation can be incredibly harsh and somewhat unfriendly, New York showed a huge community spirit.

It's a bit cheesy but I always say that it will be time to move somewhere else when I stop looking through the back window of the taxi whenever I go over the Williamsburg or Manhattan Bridge on my way home from Manhattan to Brooklyn. When you're going over those bridges and you turn around in the back seat, you have downtown to your left and the World Trade Center where, incidentally, I work and where this podcast is being recorded right now, and then to your right you have the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, all those icons that I grew up watching on TV and in movies.

It's thrilling to explore living somewhere that you've romanticized about for ages. Here's a dispatch from listener Diane Covington Carter.

Diane Covington Carter: I had studied French since I was 14 and I'd had this dream of living there and becoming really fluent. And I wasn't able to actually have that dream until I was in my 40s. I started traveling every year to France. And then at age 50 I moved there for eight months. I noticed right away the politeness and how in America we are just like, you know, on our way and I'm coming through and... But in France, it's like you walk into a bakery and it's, Bonjour, madame. You know? You take this moment to just be there with the person. And then at the end it's merci or au revoir, bonne soiree. If you're in the Carrefour, which is their big supermarket and you accidentally step into someone's personal space, which is quite a big thing there, it's, Oh, pardon. And I'll never forget how a little boy, about four, ran in front of me on the sidewalk and he was like, "Oh pardon." And I was like oh, how adorable. You know? [laughs]

Going to another culture, putting yourself through the kind of humiliation of being the person who doesn't speak the language as fluently as everyone else, is such a powerful way to get a big world view and just, you know, realize how… I feel like it would be very healing if people could go live in another culture in another language.

Then, and another part of it is that I realized that everything that had happened to me in my life had happened in English. And in French, I really had no history. My only history in French was how I loved the culture and the country and the food. I just felt so alive and excited and, you know, that has never left me.

Okay, so here's an example. I went to my close friend, Mitay's, 50th birthday party. And I realized that nobody knew the American Diane. They only knew the French Diane. And the French Diane had no history with these people. And I thought these nice people don't know me. If I stand up and dance in a wild way, they're not gonna go, oh, what's Diane doing? Because they didn't know me before. And it was so freeing. I just got out on the dance floor and I was having a great time. And I asked people to dance with me. And so there's a freedom in being in another language than the one you grew up in and having no history in it.

Lale Arikoglu: After the break, a listener's audio diary about moving to Europe for work. If you're enjoying this episode of Women Who Travel, one of the best ways you can support the podcast is by leaving us a review on Apple Podcasts. We'd love to hear from you.

Moving to a new country involves a lot of on the spot decision making as you learn an adjust on the go. Listener Liz Smith sent us this audio diary about an overseas move that got extended.

Liz Smith: So I moved abroad to Germany in January of 2020. My partner was offered to transfer for his job over to Nuremberg, Germany. I was lucky enough to find a job with his company as well so that I could move easily with him, even though I didn't have a visa. And so in January 2020, we packed up all of our bags and moved over. It was definitely a tough start. It's very gray in Germany in January. And just as we were starting to adjust to everything, COVID decided to come along and really affect all of the world's plans. Originally we were only supposed to be living there for a year and a half. But we decided to extend it and we stayed about two and a half years.

We went to the Mosel Wine Region in Germany. We went all the way up to Hamburg. We were pretty close to Munich so we went down to the Alps quite frequently year round. Uh, and then in addition to that we did the Nordics, Greece, Croatia, Spain. So pretty much most of the mainland E.U. we visited during our time there.

Everything is just so different from the way you recycle. There's five different ways you have to sort your recycling over there. Or when you go to the doctor's office. I was asking to change my birth control prescription. And she had no idea what I was talking about. It happens to be called anti-baby pilling, which I found kind of ironic, uh, that, that's the actual German word for it.

Traditionally, the Germans are not the warmest, most friendly people. I actually think it's kind of nice to have that directness in retrospect. But I did get yelled at several times. I was telling a story the other day that the fire alarms are a little bit different. And so I accidentally set off the fire alarm because I burnt something in the oven. So I was fanning to turn it off. And the neighbor came up and he was like, "Turn it off." Goes back down. He comes back up. It's still going off. He's like, "There's just a button you press at the bottom and it turns it right off." And it's like magnetic. You can just grab it right off the ceiling. We had no idea. And he was so angry. And we were so embarrassed. So it's just a lot of learning those cultural things. People might seem a little angry when they're telling you, but they're just trying to show you the way it's done in their country, which is understandable.

Lale Arikoglu: I also think a lot about how my experience of moving to New York was very different from my dad's experience of moving from Turkey to London. Because while my dad spoke fluent English, it still wasn't his first language. In fact, one of the strangest things I think that has ever happened to me was when I left home and returned for the first time, only to discover that my dad had always spoken with a foreign accent. If I'd moved to a country where I had to learn the language like he did, I could have had a very different experience.

Many of Zeina's poems in her new collection are what she calls bilingual duets.

Zeina Hashem Beck: My little country is not enough. [foreign language] Here the rain is the peasant's god and the driver's curse. [foreign language] No remedy but anti-depressants and prayer. [foreign language] My little country is not enough. [foreign language] I abandon it every day and I return, then abandon it again carrying always bags of pine nuts. [foreign language] And a tin of olive oil in its wooden coffin so the airport security would let me through. Put anything in a coffin and they let you through. [foreign language] My little country is not enough. [foreign language] I lose it every day on purpose and weep. I whisper come back. Follow the bread scent. Follow the lemon and minefields. Follow the wailing of the ambulance. Follow the songs of the dead and the living.

Lale Arikoglu: That was wonderful. It was so-

Zeina Hashem Beck: Thank you.

Lale Arikoglu: ... beautiful to hear it, both in English and then in Arabic, which admittedly I don't understand a word of. And which actually does make me wonder, do you think there are things that get lost in translation either way?

Zeina Hashem Beck: There's absolutely loss. In every translation, there's loss. But you're also gaining a different audience and you're also building bridges across cultures. And that's beautiful, right? This is true of the duets as well. You know? What is interesting for me is that for the bilingual reader, sometimes the translation is a contradiction. So that in Arabic you have one thing and in English you have its opposite. I do think that language, the language you choose to speak or write in at this moment changes your perception, even if it's ever so slightly, so that I always say that in Arabic I am more brutal to Lebanon. I am more heartless to Lebanon. Whereas in English, because I've left it- so I've left it, English is always a departure, right? And Arabic is a sort of return. So that because I've left it and I'm writing in this other language to this different audience, I feel I'm a little bit kinder to it somehow.

Lale Arikoglu: Now you are in California. As you have started to settle and adjust to life there, how have you tried to carry a sense of home in music or in food? What have you brought into your life in California to try and hold onto those things?

Zeina Hashem Beck: Yeah, no, absolutely. Music and food, I'm glad you mention them, because they're essential. The first month- the first few months I moved here and I have- it hasn't even been a year. But the first few months I moved here, every night, every night I would play Arabic music and kind of dance to it. Also I tend to drink and I'm trying to stop that. Like I, I shouldn't be drinking every night. But that's like the sadness, you know? Like I- I'm gonna pour a glass of wine and dance it out. So that's how I kind of dealt with it at the beginning. Now there's like less wine, more music.

But also food. Like the first week I was here, I was- I was crying every day, to be honest. I'd wake up and be like what am I doing here? And my Lebanese friends from Dubai told me, like, "What's wrong, Zeina? Why are you crying one- one day?" And I said, "Well, you know what? I can't find Leban. I can't fucking find Leban in supermarkets." And of course there is Leban in supermar- you can find it, I just didn't know which supermarket to go to and which, like, brand to look for 'cause I was used to certain, like br- you know? So this is how it came up. Like I can't find Leban. Ooh. And I was crying over Leban. But of course it's not just Leban. It's like much larger than, than this. It's, it's, you know, m- your friends, your culture.

Lale Arikoglu: I miss like very cliched obvious things like Marmite. I always have to bring Marmite back. Christmas crackers. Sunday roast, specifically Yorkshire Puddings, Fry Ops, HP Sauce. Like a Brit- a, a, a very, very posh, perfect Scotch Egg. Fish and Chips. All those things. And maybe one of the things I miss the most are pubs. It's like a, a village's or a city- you know, or a town or a neighborhood's living room. It's like a community center and they don't exist here. And anyone who tries to take a bar and compare it to a pub does not understand what a pub is.

Zeina Hashem Beck: The time zones are reversed, right, between here and California and there in Dubai and Beirut. And so I spent entire mornings just catching up with friends over there. It was their evening, my morning. And then I noticed that, well, I'm not living in the actual place I am physically in. I'm living elsewhere and whole days are gone with me just catching up with friends over there so I have to stop this. I have to, like, somehow create a balance where, yes, I could catch up with you, but also I have to live my life here, right?

Lale Arikoglu: I only have to deal with a five hour difference, but that's enough when you have to juggle all that life throws at you. And then there's all of the bureaucracy that comes with a new country, the laws and the red tape that you discover only when you move somewhere. For me, figuring out the U.S. health system continues to confound me. As does doing US. .taxes as opposed to U.K. taxes. It was an overwhelming experience the first time. Just figuring out the nuts and bolts of how a country works can be isolating, especially when everyone around you just knows.

If you are lucky enough to be able to choose to move someplace new, I would say that it's not as scary as you think it's going to be. But then I did have the benefit of being young and dumb, and not having young children like Zeina. And also because I'm privileged and because I can always go back to London. But if I was to offer some advice, I'd say at first imagine that you just want the experience of what it's like to live someplace for a year. Go for it. You'll get something that you won't get if you just visit a place for two weeks. And you'll also never know what could've happened if you don't do it.

Next week, we're taking a break for the Thanksgiving holiday. But given the food focused festivities that are approaching, we thought it would be fun to share a Thanksgiving episode from our friends over at Bon Appetit's podcast called Dinner SOS. Each episode of Dinner SOS has host Chris Morocco with another Bon Appetit staffer as they attempt to solve a caller's toughest cooking question. In the Thanksgiving episode, Chris has to try to save the Thanksgiving dinner of a caller whose kitchen construction interrupted her plans. It's a lot of fun and you might get ideas for things you want to try in your own dinner too.

We'll be back with a brand new episode in the first week of December. And I'm excited to be chatting to actor and director Lake Bell all about our voices, something she says are much neglected aspects of our personalities. How we perceive accents and dialects and better communicate at home and abroad. Enjoy your Thanksgiving excursions and food and family celebrations. And thank you so much, as always, for listening to Women Who Travel.

I'm Lale Arikoglu and you can find me, as always, on Instagram @lalehannah. And follow along with Women Who Travel on Instagram @womenwhotravel. You can also join the conversation in our Facebook group.

Allison Leyton-Brown is our composer. Jennifer Nulsen is our engineer. Jude Kampfner for Corporation for Independent Media is our producer.