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Writing love letters to life

Scrapbooking the Expat Experience

by Joanna Campbell Slan

To be an expat means to be willing to put aside everything you know – or think you know – and learn life from scratch. As you pack your bags, you tuck memories in alongside your clothes. You think, “I’ll miss that funny little grocer’s on the way home where the shopkeeper knows my name.” You think, “What will I do when I can’t ring up my friend Nancy for a walk around the neighbourhood?” You think, “How will I get by without my favourite brand of breakfast cereal?”

But if you are so lucky as to be a scrapbooker, you take your memories with you as you leave home, and you approach each new adventure with new appreciation because at the very least it may yield the best scrapbook page (or layout) of your life. And if you have children, and you choose to be an expat, you have a particular responsibility to scrapbook your life, because the mileometer in children’s minds runs so fast that without your help, they may lose touch of essential relationships and important touchstones from the culture you leave behind.

That said, let me suggest that you divide your scrapbooking into three time zones: before, during and after expatriation. For those who are unsure about my terminology, I define scrapbooking as the purposeful saving of memories using images, verbiage, and even sound recordings.

You might be thinking, “How does this differ from keeping photo albums?” Essentially, this is a more complete approach than having a photo album, because in scrapbooking the focus is more on saving memories than merely preserving and labelling a photographic image. Therefore, if you visit the Eiffel Tower, and your camera goes on the blink, you could still scrapbook the visit by writing a journal entry about your memories and using a postcard or a rubber stamped image as your visual. Indeed, the nuances of memorable moment may not be readily apparent in a photo.

Here’s an example: While a photo of a McDonald’s restaurant in Cairo will look like the McDonald’s in Tokyo which is very similar to the one across from the shopping centre in Staines, the rationale for the visit may be unique. I recall a visit to the McDonald’s in Paris after my homesick 22-month-old son steadfastly refused any sort of food the French offered. After gobbling down a Happy Meal, he examined his toy and decided his time would be better spent crawling around the fibreglass train with the oversized figure of Ronald McDonald in the conductor’s seat. Hearing my boy’s loud “chug-a-chug-a”, a little fellow of similar age left his mother in her draped gown and his father in his turban and climbed aboard to share the fun. To my son, at that moment, it wasn’t McDonald’s that he craved; it was a need for the familiar. Once that need was satisfied, he could marshal his courage and find pleasure in a new friend. I could have photographed the McDonald’s. That would have served for a photo album. Instead, I photographed the faces of the two boys and wrote about how happily they played side by side. That is scrapbooking. It is writing a love letter to life, not just taking and preserving a picture.

So, how can an expat use scrapbooking to make a departure, a new life, and a repatriation more enjoyable?


Start by photographing your home, including the view from your windows and front door. Document your daily schedule. Add a grocery list. Map out your common routes. Photograph and describe your dear ones, being sure to detail what you cherish about each of them.

This is your “old” life. You can never return to it. When you try, you’ll discover it has changed, and you have too. However, in the very apex of departure, you’ll learn who you are, what sustains you, and what really matters, as you mourn what you will miss.

A New Life

Beginning in a new country feels like being caught in the whirlpool that swirls as water goes down a drain. Everything moves fast, too fast, in a confusing whoosh as it goes by. Nothing seems stable or certain. You have no equilibrium. Each time you pause to look, the scene changes. And it is very, very exhausting because life gives no quarter.

Journalling and photographing every new situation that comes your way will give you distance, the act of capturing all those changes can make you feel somehow as though you are still in charge. The space from the eye to the viewfinder is a step back into yourself. And it is in yourself that the biggest swirl of activity is happening, so that is where you must reach deep to find anchors.

Your “old” life can give you clues, proving how valuable your old scrapbooks and journals can be. A Brownie camera shot from the 1960s shows me with a book in my hands. For me the library has always been a sanctuary. A few weeks into my new life in Sunningdale, Berkshire, I walked to the library caravan that came weekly to a quiet park on Broomhall Lane not far from my house. There was no seating. The librarians were too busy to chat most weeks. But running my fingers along the spines of books reassured me that I was still me! Despite all that had changed, I was still the girl from Vincennes, Indiana, who would walk thirteen blocks to the public library and return home with her arms full of books.


We accepted our life abroad with the knowledge the relocation would only last one year. As we expats seem to do, we tried to take advantage of every new opportunity. In fact, our UK neighbours went to Kew Gardens and Buckingham Palace for their first visits along with us. Yes, I have an Our Life in England album, but there are plenty of photos from that twelve-month period still waiting to be put on pages. Life is like that.

The other day, I opened my album, and my husband and son stopped what they were doing to come and look. We spent a pleasant half hour reviewing our expat experience. The memories do fade, but the warmth is easy to rekindle. I’ve gone back to the United Kingdom five times, and I have a sixth visit scheduled. I decided to work hard to keep my association with the British culture for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the friendships I made.

In March 2005, my seventh book on scrapbooking, The Best of British Scrapbooking and Cardmaking, became available to the public in the UK, the US, and Australia. My goal was twofold: to promote the hobby of scrapbooking to the residents of the United Kingdom and to share the talents of UK scrapbookers with the world.

Even when we pack our bags and move on, we never really leave our “host” culture behind unless we forget to honour the experience. Scrapbooking helps me feel connected to my adopted country and its people.

Much of what I learned as an expat, I learned when I tried to scrapbook my adventure. By writing love letters to life, I gave myself the gift of reflection, and it is reflection that makes an expat’s life the rich tapestry it is.

About the author

Joanna Campbell Slan is the author of ten books including The Best of British Scrapbooking and Cardmaking, which is distributed in the UK exclusively by Search Press:

For more about that book and scrapbooking in the UK, you can visit her website [Obsolete link removed]

For more about scrapbooking in general, visit

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