We’ve hit a small pause in the Painting Pictures Third Culture Kid series, to be continued. There are two incredible posts in the works but due to various other commitments, they are put on hold. So for now, I quickly pulled a journal entry I’d written a few weeks ago, updated to blog-appropriate, and voila. Here is a peek into what I write for myself.


Lucy has been putting a song on repeat in the car so that all the way to school, home from school, to the grocery store and home, the beach and home, we listen to the same song.

“Do you remember when Maggie used to put A Mighty Good Leader by Audio Adrenaline on repeat?” I said to Tom.

He nodded, we laughed, and instantly a flood of memory paralyzed me from further conversation. I almost couldn’t breathe. Driving down Rue de Venice with Maggie and Henry in the backseat. They wore white judo uniforms, yellow belts that almost hung to their feet because we never mastered the tying technique. Two water bottles rolled around at their feet. I would run while they were at practice, then we would buy fresh, steaming, baguettes from the patisserie next door to the outdoor community center where judo practice was held. The three of us would scarf one entire baguette on the drive home, rolling the fluffy middle between our fingers and leaving seats full of crusty crumbs.

A Mighty Good Leader rattled the windows. Maggie wanted it louder and louder. She reached over the console to hit repeat. I turned repeat off. She turned it back on and smiled and turned up the volume again. Every Sunday and Tuesday night for a year. Two years? Three? Until they grew tired of year-round judo and started playingfootball (soccer) instead, until they outgrew what we felt Djibouti had to offer an English-speaking kid academically and they went to boarding school. Until their younger sister gained full control over the music in the car.

judo in djibouti

The memory of those drives was hot and dusty, smelled like dirt and the diesel exhaust of Ethiopian lorries hauling goods from the port of Djibouti to Addis Ababa. Smelled like post-run sweat and baguettes and muddy feet from the dust-covered judo mats. And I wanted to cry. Was this nostalgia? For the years when the kids were home with us? The years of judo and learning how to tie judo belts and tennis shoes, the years when the kids were young and I was still their hero?

I think it was that, and something else, and not some kind of simplistic realization that I love Africa. Which I don’t. It was the realization, obvious and yet I was oblivious to it, that almost all of our family memories smell like Djibouti, look like Djibouti, are framed by desert and ocean and camels and the Islamic call to prayer.

This international life is more than the present choice of being an expatriate, it is the trail of memories left in our wake. No matter when or if we leave, Djibouti is what will forever hold our memories of pregnancy and potty training and toddlers and the first day of school and losing teeth. Djibouti is what will frame and color and scent my mind’s picture of the Christmas morning ritual of wrestling. Kids learning to walk up uneven tile steps, the backdrop of headscarves flapping in the wind during football games. The idea that a green fuzzy carpet-like decoration is just what our Jeep needs. For better or worse (and I choose to believe for better) Djibouti has changed us from the kind of people and family we might have been.


All future memories will be formed in reference to this past, this Djibouti past. I don’t know why this thought shook me so deeply that I couldn’t speak or why writing about it makes tears bubble in my eyes. Perhaps it is because in that moment, in that memory, with A Mighty Good Leader playing in my mind while Lucy’s repetitive song rattled the car windows, I recognized the profound effect Djibouti has had on my family at a new level.

I often think of our choice to live in the Horn of Africa as the current choice, the present reality. And it is. But it is also the choice we made last year and the year before that. It is a history of choices, it is how we have decided to remember our past, live our present, and shape our future.

What choices have shaped your future and has that surprised you?