Round Trip: Living Abroad, Bringing New Ideas Home
Erie is my hometown, but I have another childhood home, too—I spent many summers with my mom in Löddeköpinge, Sweden, visiting our family there. Driving down the forest road to our tiny cottage was magical, as though trolls and fairies actually might peep out from behind the trees at any moment. I don’t get back as often anymore, but the land of the midnight sun still holds my heart. Like me, a lot of Mt. Lebanon people have deep connections to other countries where they have lived.
Bree and Mike Evan of Parker Drive both grew up in Pittsburgh. Generations of family are from here; after going to Duquesne, Bree planned to stay forever. Describing her earlier self, she laughs, “I was the person not leaving.” Instead, she lived in the Bay Area in California for eight years and then moved to England before coming back to Pittsburgh last year. The most daunting thing about the process was the logistics; their kids, Addison, Lillyan, and Garren were 5, 6, and four months old when they left. And of course the dog had to come.
As stressful as some of the preparation was, Bree says it was liberating, too. Apart from important family keepsakes, they sold or gave away most of their belongings and gave up their cars. That made for lasting change: moving back to the States, they chose Mt. Lebanon because they loved the experiences they’d had in London of being able to get around on public transportation and walk to shops and cafes. The absolute best thing about their years abroad was the amount of traveling they could do; the kids now have an amazing sense of history because they’ve seen places many people only read about in books. What would she tell her younger self? “The world is small. People are the same.”
Jen Ohrman, who spent a year and a half as a middle schooler in Iran in the 1970s when her father’s work took them there, also experienced that human sense of universal community. There aren’t many Americans who can claim to have been a cheerleader in Tehran. Iran was in the midst of profound political change at the time that eventually forced her family home. But even in the midst of wild political shifts, Jen recalls a regular life, with friends both Iranian and international, at school and in her neighborhood.
“It was hard to come back” Jen says, “but [an experience like that] makes you who you are.” She’s passed that wanderlust on—her son Jack traveled as a young adult to Germany, Nepal and Sri Lanka. “If you really want to grow,” Ohrman says, “you have to get out of your comfort zone.”
Kelly Brown, who grew up in Mt. Lebanon, moved to the native France of her husband, Oliver Desnain, for what she thought might be a six-month or year-long trip to learn French. Fifteen years later and with daughters Audrey and Chloe, they came home to Mt. Lebanon for their girls’ schooling.
France taught Kelly to slow down, she says. There, when friends invite each other, it’s not a quick meal and a glass of wine. It’s five or six hours over a serious meal. Food is valued in a different way; the kids aren’t excused to go make ramen when they don’t want beef stew. One major takeaway, Brown says, was more compassion for people who struggle with new cultures and languages—are we as patient with others as they have been with us?
Justin Goff and Nana Massie spent time in Japan and South Korea, as well as in Scotland, while earning graduate degrees together. They landed near Mellon Middle School in Mt. Lebanon, where Justin grew up, in 2013 when they were expecting their first child. They, too, want to pass on their international experience to kids, Sam (3), Jaime (2), and baby Rosie, the older two of whom attend an Italian bilingual preschool. They agree with others interviewed that living experiencing life in other countries promotes a broadness of spirit and understanding. “It’s more complicated than Twitter,” Nana says. “Every story is not two-sided—it’s 500-sided. This isn’t a 140-character world.”
Living in unfamiliar cultures taught Justin to permit himself imperfections, he says: “I used to be so afraid of making mistakes and embarrassing myself. Eventually, though, my desire to leave the apartment overcame my fear.” At the end of the day, Justin says, “Nations are in conflict, but individually, people in South Korea, or Japan, or the U.S. all want the same thing: community, security, health.” Or, as Jen Ohrman learned in Iran, “Anyone can speak love and kindness.”
Having already travelled on short term mission trips, The Rev. Dan Merry of Southminster Presbyterian and his wife Beth and two daughters Brooke and Heather (then in eighth and 11th grade) spent a year in Malawi where he worked with the Synod of Blantyre. Dan says it turned out to be their “best, most difficult” year as a family. As he puts it, “We took two provincial South Hills girls, and they came back citizens of the world.”
Asked what he’d say to others considering travel abroad, he says: “Go!” Dan’s father worried it wouldn’t be safe. The pastor’s answer: “Where is safe? It’s more important to go.” This year, Dan’s daughter Brooke went back to work in the medical field, and he continues to travel with his church on regular trips as well.
Margaret and Andy Vines of Magnolia Place say their kids were the perfect ages when they traveled to Linköping, Sweden for Andy’s work. Andy had already spent time in Indonesia, Mexico and Brazil as a child, which might have had something to do with their eagerness to move to a new country and integrate completely. Linköping isn’t an international town; they lived in an ordinary neighborhood, not an expat community. After the first year, their kids, Maggie, Matthew, and Steven entered Swedish public school. They thrived. Andy attributes their success to all of them having made a conscious choice to be open to the experience. If people move to other countries convinced there is only one way to do things, they won’t last, Andy suggests: “Different is different,” he says. “It’s not wrong.” Would they go back? Steven, their middle son, who attended second- through fourth grades there says, “In a minute!”
Of course, Mt. Lebanon also has many residents who have emigrated here from other countries and been influence by American culture. No matter how long people live in another country or how much they like it, for expats of all stripes, it seems home stays home. Carina Perilman, born in Venezuela, came to Mt. Lebanon years ago when her husband wanted to return home to the South Hills. She is conscientious about passing on Venezuelan values of family interdependence to her own children. Kids should be kids, she says—in Venezuela, you live at home until you get married; you don’t have to teach your kindergartener to go it alone. Carina speaks Spanish with her children and includes them as she can in connecting to Venezuela.
Mimli Roychoudhury has lived in the U.S. since age 10. but still feels she’s “home” when she returns to her native India. Having lived in Germany, Switzerland, and England, as well as traveled widely, she loves knowing how big the world is and is glad to share that with her daughters Moushumi and Reeshmi Huffman. She and her husband David Huffman moved to Parkridge in Mt. Lebanon from Oxford two years ago. There are so many amazing things out there, she says, and the result of embracing differences is empathy. “Everybody’s the same in some way,” she says. “It doesn’t matter where you live.”
And finally, what story about Pittsburgh could be complete without sports? Nicki Levitan met his wife, Jennifer, who grew up in Minnesota speaking French, when she moved to his native South Africa after college wanting to do something new. After later living in the U.K. for seven years and in Pittsburgh for three, they settled in Mt. Lebanon to raise their young daughter in the Sunset Hills neighborhood. Having only known vaguely about the Steelers before moving here, Nicki was initially surprised to see fellow bankers wearing football jerseys at the office. But he loves it now; the U.S. has become home. The family now roots for the Steelers to beat their opponents, but there’s one thing they say can’t be beat about South Africa: you haven’t seen a sunset until you’ve seen a South African one.
These are just a few of stories of Mt. Lebanon’s international community. Thanks to everyone who volunteered to participate—more people than we ever could have interviewed. Those who shared their experiences made it clear that our hearts can circle the globe, with gifts awaiting at every turn.