Making Lemonade in Europe by Author of ‘The Expats’ Chris Pavone
Suddenly at age 40 I found myself living in Luxembourg, sitting on playground benches in the cold damp, watching my small children clamber up dangerous apparatuses, making small talk with vague acquaintances about the things we used to do, and the people we used to be, before we became people who did this, here. We were expat stay-at-home parents.
All of us had arrived via similar paths: our spouses got interesting or exciting or lucrative job offers abroad. So we packed up everything we could bring, and left behind everything we couldn’t. Which for many of us included the jobs, the careers, the selves we’d spent our lives defining.
Now we had to become other people, chatting with strangers in cafés and parks, at school drop-off and the American embassy.
We traveled constantly — weekends in Rome and London, ski weeks in the Alps, road trips through Bavaria. We took French lessons and cooking classes. We applied for residency permits, and parking vignettes to place in the windshields of our hastily purchased secondhand cars. We went to the butcher and the baker, always sure to have a full fridge for Sunday, or we’d have to eat “gas station food.” We did laundry in machines that took all day to finish a small load, which is to say we did laundry constantly. We drove around a city we didn’t really know, ignoring traffic laws we didn’t entirely understand, in a language we didn’t properly speak.
Every time we got to the end of our to-do lists, we added something new, and started all the chores again, and again and yet again.
There is no one who’s not bored by this, even if it’s happening in a cobblestoned old capital in the middle of Western Europe. Folding laundry sucks everywhere.
Even though this life was often boring, everywhere around me there was material for a novel I might write; I had been a book editor, and now I wanted to write one. Maybe a fun lighthearted romance centering around the hyper-social world of an insular community — extramarital affairs with Swedish tennis coaches, and recreational shopping, and petty jealousies. Or an introspective literary work about the soul-crushing tedium of tending to little children and a household, every single today a stale repeat of yesterday. There were many ways I could re-imagine this life I was living — something more interesting, but not entirely made-up.
So I did. Every morning I carved out a couple hours to sit in café with a laptop, writing about this real world, adding elements to make the story less real but more exciting, one fictional plot twist at a time, until I ended up with a flown-blown espionage thriller.
The core plot of The Expats is complete fiction. But the lemons that went into this lemonade-—the situations and conversations, the atmosphere, the life of the story—were my everyday experiences in a place, and a situation, where I didn’t quite belong, folding laundry.