The accidental tourist
Film shows women coping with moving overseas — and giving up careers — for spouse's job
Maria Vaccaro appears to have that enviable European ease with languages. Her dark eyes animated, she slips quickly from chatting with her husband in French to being interviewed in English about being born in Italy.
But when she came to Palo Alto in 2005, she could barely say hello in English. Vaccaro moved from Belgium when her husband came to work at Stanford University as a cancer biologist. In Europe, she had been a filmmaker working in national television. But because of the language barrier she found herself unable to work in the States.
So she decided to communicate in another language she knew: video. Her movie "Women in a New Land," which tells the stories of four expatriates in the Stanford area, depicts the often difficult paths that women travel when they follow their partners to another country.
Aided by funding from the Bechtel International Center of Stanford (often called the I-Center) and from the Community Committee for International Students of Stanford, Vaccaro finished the film in June and has been showing it on campus. More screenings are planned for Oct. 14 and Nov. 5 at the I-Center.
Vaccaro's story has elements familiar to many expatriates. When she and her husband, Patrick, arrived in the Bay Area, it was a sunny June and everything seemed exciting.
"The first month was magical; you feel like you're on holiday," Vaccaro said in an interview in Stanford's Main Quad. But after Patrick's work began, she was alone at home with nothing to do. She had gone from being a busy filmmaker to someone who struggled to fill her days and find a purpose.
"When you're here with your husband, people don't ask about you. They want to know what your husband does," she said. "You're no longer a professional woman."
Vaccaro took English classes and also worked for a while at Caffe del Doge in Palo Alto to help improve her English. She still looks troubled when she thinks about her transition, saying, "I took about two years to really feel comfortable."
Finding a project she could immerse herself in — the film — was a major step. Vaccaro began interviewing other expat women, many of whom she met at the I-Center. Ultimately, her film focused on a quartet of women with a range of experiences.
There is Claire, from France, whose language and career skills have helped her thrive in a new job in California. But she's been in the United States for more than seven years, and early on she found it "really, really easy to be depressed."
Michelle, from South Africa, ended up going from being a bookkeeper to an artist here. Keiko, a Japanese orthopedic surgeon, was unable to pursue her career here and became a stay-at-home mom.
Svetlana, a Russian cellist, found places to perform but had to give up a job with a prestigious Berlin orchestra to follow her husband. Still, she said: "I have beautiful luck. I can play cello and I don't need another language."
Stories such as these are familiar to Gwyn Dukes, an advisor to international families at the I-Center. She is featured in the movie talking about the center's services, which include organizing social and cultural events for families, hosting workshops about adjusting emotionally to life overseas, and providing information about public transit — many expats do not have cars, and are surprised to find how difficult getting around can be in this area.
Perhaps most importantly, the center has information about productive ways to fill time when one cannot work. Dukes can suggest volunteer work, internships, classes and other activities.
Many people who come to this area with their partners are putting flourishing careers on hold. Expats who are regulars at the center have included architects, lawyers, doctors and an astrophysicist from Italy.
"It's a major challenge to their identity," Dukes said of moving abroad. "We try to create programs with information for people to build their own lives."
The Community Committee for International Students at Stanford, a volunteer group that enlists local residents for English conversation hours and to host homestays, also has a Professional Liaison program. While not an employment service, the program allows international spouses of students and scholars to meet with locals of their occupation, to talk about common experiences and issues.
These days, the working partners in international couples are still typically men, Dukes said. But more couples are going overseas because of a woman's job. This year, the I-Center is holding its first social "meet-up" event for men.
Dukes got to know the filmmaker through several workshops and was delighted when Vaccaro decided to make "Women in a New Land." Many internationals who have seen the film told Dukes it struck a familiar chord, making them feel less alone and giving them ideas about how to ease their transitions.
In addition, Dukes said, the film has also been an excellent way for the working expat to understand what his or her partner is going through: the feelings of dependency, loneliness and anxiety.
That's fitting, because at its heart, the movie is really about relationships, about women choosing to accompany their partners to a strange new country because they can't bear to be apart.
"It's a love story," Vaccaro said. "You come here for love."
Info:"Women in a New Land" will be shown on Tuesday, Oct. 14, at 5 p.m. and Wednesday, Nov. 5, at 3:30 p.m., in the Bechtel International Center, 584 Capistrano Way, Stanford University. For more information, email Maria Vaccaro at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information on the I-Center is at www.stanford.edu/dept/icenter. The Community Committee for International Students of Stanford's site is at www.ccisstanfordu.org.