Many people dream of living in another country, experiencing a different culture and learning a new language. My guest Natacha lived in Greece and Amman as a US Diplomat. I had a chance to interview her to find out about her life living abroad.
Here’s my interview with Natacha and read all the insights she shared with me about her journey working abroad.
BlackgirlZen: Tell me about yourself?
I was born in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. My parents resettled the family to Montreal, Canada when I was four years old. Out of 4 children, the youngest, my brother was born in Canada. Upon my parents’ separation, my siblings and I moved to New York with my mother for the first time when I was 12 years old. We lived in Brooklyn, New York, for two years and we moved back to Montreal.
After two years of residence in Montreal, we moved back to Brooklyn, New York where I graduated from Sheepshead Bay High School. I completed one year of undergraduate studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada but secured my Bachelor’s Degree in Criminology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. My spouse and I married in 1995, and we have three children; a 21-year-old daughter, 17-year-old son, and a 10-year-old son. I have been serving as a civil servant for 16 years.
BlackgirlZen: How long did you spend abroad?
I lived overseas for approximately eight years. In 2008, I was selected to serve at the U.S. Embassy in Athens, Greece. After five years of residence in Greece, I secured a job promotion and moved to Amman, Jordan in 2013. I returned to the United States in 2016.
BlackgirlZen: Which countries did you live?
Given that I was serving as a U.S. Diplomat, representing the U.S. government, I worked on U.S. Embassy compound and resided in designated housing. During my residence in Greece and Jordan, the U.S. Embassy made the necessary arrangements for my abode based on specific criteria such as rank, family size, desired proximity to the U.S. Embassy or children’s school, and other essential items needed to relocate.
BlackgirlZen: Did you find it hard to adjust to the culture and people?
Given my background, the adjustment period was relatively short for me. Greece was going through a tumultuous financial period when we moved in 2008. While we waited for our housing to be ready, we stayed at the Hotel Grande Bretagne for approximately three months. We lived through a lot of demonstrations and riots to include the burning of Christmas tree at Syntagma Square. However, we never felt unsafe or in physical danger; even when demonstrators try to the burn down the hotel (I slept through it). The Greeks are enamored with children, and at the time our youngest was 2, so the people were very protective of us. Even the taxi drivers would not let us get off in areas they felt were unsafe for us to be.
When we moved to Amman, I had previously been there on short-term assignments; therefore, I was already familiar with the culture and the people.
Though my husband is an American who first applied for a U.S. passport upon my assignment overseas, he is a former Marine who had traveled abroad with the U.S. Military and was deployed to Iraq during Operation Desert Storm / Desert Shield.
If given the opportunity to travel to a foreign land, both my husband and I believe in total exposure to the culture. We enjoyed the arts, the food, the lifestyle and even some of the customs.
BlackgirlZen: Did the kids have any problems adjusting to their new homes and schools?
The kids adjusted well to their new homes and schools. They made friends and socialized a lot more than now, being back in the U.S. They were exposed to other students with diverse backgrounds, which served to enrich their knowledge. The private education they received overseas gave them an edge over the educational programs in the United States. My kids indicated that they preferred the learning style abroad, which was more interactive; versus the textbook and standardize testing style offered in the United States.
BlackgirlZen: What was the deciding factor that made you want to work overseas?
I did not plan my move overseas. One day I just decided that I needed to gain experience in a different field within my agency. I applied for various positions both in and outside of the United States. I just happen to be selected for a job position in Greece.
BlackgirlZen: What did you enjoy best about being overseas?
I enjoyed traveling as a diplomat, representing the United States. The experiences made and exposure to various cultural norms was overall priceless. Living in Greece allowed me to afford relatively cheap travel to other parts of Europe; France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Spain, Prague, Switzerland, Romania, Malta, Czech Republic, Hungary, and a few more.
BlackgirlZen: What were your favorite restaurants or hangout?
Sightseeing was my favorite activity. As diplomats, we participated in a lot of events hosted by the embassy and hung out at each other’s places. In Greece, Souvlaki and a Horiatiki Salad (the real Greek Salad) was my favorite meal. Thanasis at Mitropoleos in Monastiraki had the best souvlaki and most friendly service.
In Jordan Jafra, located in the City Center of Amman, offered excellent Mediterranean cuisine with a pleasant atmosphere. The shish taouk, consisting of chicken chunks marinated in yogurt, lemon juice, and several other spices is one of my favorite. Falafel and hummus are of course a must.
BlackgirlZen: Was it cheaper living there in Greece and Amman than the US?
Because I was not responsible for the significant expenses (rent, utilities, private education), living overseas was very affordable for me. Also, it would be quite difficult to compare given that the cost of living fluctuates from State to State. The most significant expense for me was the exchange rate, given the value of the dollar was lower than the currency in both countries where I resided.
BlackgirlZen: How did you select the right place to live and school for the kids?
The selection was made for me by the U.S. Embassy.
BlackgirlZen: Have the language barriers been an issue?
The language was not an issue because I worked at the U.S. Embassy. Though it is rare to come across Americans who speak a second language, in most countries around the world, English is expressed as a second language. Even when dealing with vendors outside of the U.S. Embassy who rarely speak English, the foreign service nationals working at the embassy served as translators.
BlackgirlZen: Did you get a chance to learn the language?
Yes, I attempted to learn both Greek and Arabic. I did better with Greek. I sometimes get a kick out of going to the Greek establishments in the U.S. and saying a few words. Their surprise is always priceless. We always end up having long conversations reminiscing.
BlackgirlZen: What did you have to do without (favorite things)?
I cannot complain about doing without because we lived well overseas. If there were American products that we wanted, we were able to order them through the embassy as if we were still residing in the United States (regular postal service). However, we did most of our shopping on the local market. Except purchasing a traditional garment for our pleasure, clothing items were probably one thing we did not buy on the local market. For the most part, clothes on the local Greek market consisted of expensive name brands. Clothes on the local Jordanian market tended to be on the cheap side, except the very traditional garment.
BlackgirlZen: What did you miss the most from home?
Law and order. Though Greece is a member of the European Union, you find that the country operates a lot like a developing country. Surprisingly, Greeks behaved a lot like the Jordanians. Don’t expect them to respect personal space or for them be orderly and line up for services. In both countries, they act as if it is all about them and they must be first. In both countries people do not follow the rules of the roads; the pedestrian right of way is nonexistent. Both countries have no regulations about indoor smoking, or if they exist, they are not followed.
BlackgirlZen: Any challenges finding someone to do your hair?
Yes of course. However, once I made friends with other black diplomats, I always ended up finding an African connection to do my hair.
BlackgirlZen: What things should people consider when choosing to live in another country?
Though the experience was priceless, I don’t think that I would willingly choose to live in a country where women are treated as second-class citizens. For me, that was my biggest annoyance during my residence in Jordan and while traveling around the region.
The second most important thing is race. Unfortunately, race is not only an issue in the United States. Though because of my status as a diplomat most of the time I was protected from exposure to harsh discriminatory practices, I was not exempt.
In Greece, it is a problem, period. Recently, a black young man was killed during a racially motived incidence, and the Department of State had to issue travel warnings for black travelers to Greece. Additional, sex trafficking of black women to Greece is a major issue. As such, it is not uncommon for Greeks to perceive black women as being prostitutes.
Both in Greece and Jordan, Filipinos are not treated with respect because they travel to those countries to serve as housekeepers. Diplomats who may be mistaken as being from the Philippines are often approached about serving as housekeepers or treated as if they are irrelevant because they are believed to be the hired help.
With regards to the back race in Jordan, because a lot of Africans enter the country while fleeing from violence from their own countries; they are most often poor and without status. As such, they are treated as unwanted second-class citizens. Jordanians can be quite rude if they believe that you are from Africa. However, once you speak with that authoritative tone known only to Americans, they back down and automatically want to be friends because they realize that you are American.
BlackgirlZen: Did you get a chance to visit other countries while living you were there?
While in Jordan I visited Israel, Egypt, Bahrain, Palestine, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Algeria. I also went to the great white cage diving in South Africa. I took a hot air balloon ride in Egypt. I made to Accra, Ghana; New Delhi India; Tangier, Morocco. I visited several cities in Turkey.
BlackgirlZen: Were you concerned about your safety in any of those countries?
I think the way foreign countries are portrayed on American television introduce unreasonable fears about safety in those countries. I never felt unsafe in any of the countries that I lived in or visited. During many of my visits, I rented cars, took taxis or public transportation without experiencing any problems. I think all travelers should visit the Department of State’s travel site to learn about the country of interest and to be aware of any concerns.
However, even if there are concerns, that should not deter a traveler, it should just make him or her more vigilant. After years of residence overseas, I felt more fear during a short visit to D.C. around the federal buildings on Massachusetts Avenue, than my entire time abroad.
BlackgirlZen: Which country would you recommend that people Must visit?
Thailand and China combination. The food was terrific in Thailand, and the historical sightseeing and the floating market were unparalleled. Though I did not like the food in China, the Great Wall of China was amazing. Jordan and Israel can be a combined trip to visit the biblical, historical sites and dip in the dead sea, which will also be a lasting and fantastic experience. Greece of course, with some of the top ancient historical places such as the Acropolis; Cape Souniou; the Temple of Poseidon, Olympia, Meteora, the old city of Corinth and more.
BlackgirlZen: Any country you wished you visited?
Russia and Australia.
BlackgirlZen: Is there a country that you would recommend as the best place to live?
Austria or anywhere in Germany. The people are friendly. These countries are well organized and super clean. People obey the rules of law.
BlackgirlZen: Do you see any benefits of living and raising kids abroad?
The experience was priceless for my kids. The exposure to diverse cultural norms broadens their minds. The education overseas was not only better, but the diversity in the schools became part of the learning experience. Returning to the United States and interacting with children that have never left the States where they were born or traveled outside of the United States, makes my children appreciate the time they spent overseas even more.
BlackgirlZen: What do you like the most about being back to the US?
Being close to family.
BlackgirlZen: Final question, how has working abroad changed your life?
Being cognizant of enormous opportunity that I had as a naturalized citizen to serve and represent the United States as a diplomat. The possibility to acquire citizenship as a foreign national was rare in both countries where I resided. Further, both countries limit a woman’s ability to transmit citizenship to her husband. I am hopeful that America will remain a nation that welcomes immigrants.
Thank-you Natacha for the wonderful interview. I hope my followers find it very helpful.