This is (Not) Home: Notes from an Expat

Article published on March 16, 2012.

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Kate Moore is an expat mum, newly transplanted from Washington D.C. In the cobblestoned streets of Luxembourg, her days are filled with play dates and coffee mornings, her weekends spent in Paris or skiing in the Alps. Kate is also guarding a secret – one so momentous it could destroy her neat little expat life – and she suspects that another American couple are not who they claim to be; plus her husband is acting suspiciously. As she travels around Europe, she finds herself looking over her shoulder, terrified her past is catching up with her.

As Kate begins to dig, to uncover the secrets of those around her, she finds herself buried in layers of deceit so thick they threaten her family, her marriage and her life.


It is 3:00 p.m. You are standing in the cold rain in front of the international school, waiting for the bell. There are a couple hundred people doing the same thing, clustered in little groups of threes and fours. Ninety percent of these people are European; you are not. Ninety-nine percent are women; you’re not one of those either.

You smile softly at everyone. It’s a fine line between friendly and lecherous, and while you’re pretty sure your behavior falls in fair territory, you have to acknowledge that this is something that’s open to interpretation.

You buckle your children into your German station wagon. You’ve always noticed that speedometers measure up to 150, 160, sometimes 180 miles per hour. But it’s not until you drive on the autobahn in Germany that you understand why. Going 90 miles per hour on a primary highway, everyone passes you. So you start driving faster.

At the bakery, the kids order their afterschool snack, “Un pain au chocolat, s’il vous plaît,” their accents already perfect. They’re four years old and have been studying French for a month. You took your first French class in 1983. But when you start speaking, people grimace, distressed, possibly in physical discomfort.

You go to a variety of playgrounds – the main one in the center with the big pirate shape, and the one up in the forest at Bambesch with the long zip line. You go to farmers’ markets and shopping plazas. To the doctor for a clean bill of health – you need to get tested for TB, and AIDS, to gain your residency permit. To the bureau des étrangers – the Office of Foreigners – to apply for same. To the motor-vehicle place, for a local driver’s license, and a parking vignette, which is a little paper clock thingamajig that you put in your windshield sometimes, so you don’t get parking tickets.

You attend a 100 percent unnecessary meeting with your insurance agent about, as far as you can tell, nothing. Ditto with an accountant, in a glass-and-steel suburban office park, with legal pads and business cards and bottles of sparkling water, choice of still or sparkling. Also with a notary, in a plush downtown conference room presided over by a hyper-efficient assistant. This notary appears to be the most elegant woman in the city, and projects a level of professional power that you don’t associate with your understanding of a notary’s station in the world.

You go to Paris a lot – it’s two hours on the TGV – so you can walk around a big city and eat in good restaurants and get jostled on a crowded subway. You also go to Rome, Barcelona, London. Friends from America are taking a vacation in western Ireland? You fly over to meet them for dinner in a castle. In the morning, you come home.

Home. Home? Is it really here, on this cobblestoned street across from the monarch’s palace? In a country where there’s a monarch?  It might be. At some point you stopped translating into U.S. dollars; things now simply cost what they cost in euros. You stopped carrying a map of the city. Stopped using the GPS for everyday destinations. You still use the GPS to drive places you never really considered going. Bruges. Strasbourg. Delft? Delft is beautiful.

You’ve managed to develop some type of social life, which doesn’t look like the social life you used to have back home, but still. You meet a lot of people for coffee, and you learn some of their secrets. You play in a tennis league that includes compulsory drinking-beer-in-a-bar after two hours of doubles. You go to the multiplex to see Hollywood blockbusters. To wine tastings, and Michelin-starred restaurants, and a one-man play. You even go to a dance club, very late, after a birthday party, and stay out until four in the morning.

You do all this with people who come and go. Work contracts don’t get renewed, or they get offered elsewhere. Businesses expand, or collapse, and even entire countries go bankrupt. People get restless, or fed-up. There are many reasons to leave this place. Some people leave after a couple months’ notice, with interminable rounds of goodbyes. Some just vanish: one day they’re meeting you for coffee, the next they’re gone It’s easy to feel close to people, quickly, because you’re on this adventure together. Then again, it’s hard to feel close to people, ever, because you never know when someone is going to disappear, in a thick miasma of conjecture, the unmistakable stench of secrets.

Some of you have been here a few years, or a couple decades. Some have been traveling around their whole lives – Kuala Lampur and Dubai, San Francisco and Moscow. Two years here, five there. Some will do only one country, for a scant year. There are many different ways to live this life. There are many different versions of you.

You’re an expat. And one day, you and your secrets will disappear.

– Chris Pavone, New York City, November 2011


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