The St. Louis International Spouses Meetup Group welcomes newcomers and breaks down cultural barriers

One report notes that 65 percent of failing expat assignments were the result of the spouse or partner’s dissatisfaction with the new location. Co-founders Susan Gobbo and Danielle do Olival are hoping to change the narrative.

It’s International Women’s Day, and one by one, women from Germany, Switzerland, Brazil, Mexico, Italy, and Iran climb the stairs to the top floor of Russell’s on Macklind. They’re part of the St. Louis International Spouses Meetup Group, and they’re celebrating with relief at having found one another.

“Six weeks I am here,” announces Kerstin Kloppenburg. “We are from Bayer,” Monsanto’s new owner. “I like it, yes, but I am a little overwhelmed with all the school things—every day my twins come back with papers and papers and papers. So many activities!”

The others nod, smile sympathetically. As they order lunch, they chat about how different St. Louis is from the city they Googled, supposedly rife with crime and danger. Neda Mashayekhi, who’s studying graphic design, raves about the culture, the arts, and this group itself: “I was feeling so separated from society. Now I feel like I’m part of something like a family, a big one.”

The group was founded three years ago by Susan Gobbo, a Brazilian physical therapist who gave up her career “for love,” and her friend Danielle do Olival, also from Brazil. Gobbo threw herself into volunteer work and study and, for one of her classes, wrote a paper on “trailing spouses” and how lonely culture shock can be. It wasn’t just her—and it mattered. One report notes that 65 percent of failing expat assignments were the result of the spouse or partner’s dissatisfaction with the new location.

The St. Louis Mosaic Project, which works to bring talented immigrants to St. Louis, agreed to sponsor the Meetup group, which has since grown to 303 members from 55 countries, the women (trailing husbands may be included in the future) all highly educated and speaking two to five languages. And in November 2017, Annie Schlafly started a mentoring program that dovetails nicely, pairing women with volunteer mentors. 

“Yesterday, I met a designer who is from France,” Mashayekhi says happily. She runs an international book club for the group; there’s also a chefs’ club. Members teach about their own cultures and learn the quirks of this one. 

“In Brazil, you never talk to your boss,” says Gobbo. “Here, I went to Dot Foods and the woman I was meeting said, ‘Do you want to meet the CEO?’ Unbelievable. I never met the mayor of my little town, and here I meet the mayor of St. Louis!” (Lyda Krewson throws a reception for the group every year.)

But there’s so much to learn. Gobbo calls Schlafly regularly: “I’m invited for Thanksgiving—do I bring food or flowers?” “For a wedding, can I wear a flowery dress?” Job hunting is even more daunting: After enforced idleness, a trailing spouse’s work experience looks spotty. Schlafly’s also come to realize how often “employers see a long last name and toss the résumé.” 

“Here, it’s about networking,” adds Gobbo. “In my country, you don’t have to try as hard. And we only volunteer if we are experts in something. When people say, ‘Why aren’t you doing volunteer work?’ it’s because we are afraid to make a mistake.”

Sherley Moran and Marlene Galdamez arrive at Russell’s together. They’ve become good friends, and that has made all the difference. When Moran came here from Mexico City, in May 2018, she was happy about her engagement but miserable in every other way: “It was, like, 100 degrees outside with 90 percent of humidity. In Mexico City it’s never colder than 60 or warmer than 85. And I couldn’t drive: They gave me a probationary license, but when we went back for the permanent one, they were talking to each other like I wasn’t even there, saying, ‘Who gave her this? She shouldn’t have this.’” Her green card didn’t arrive until late October. But Moran, an extrovert who exudes happiness even when she’s complaining, found the International Spouses on Meetup and made it to a meeting. When she asked, “Where can I find ceviche?” a woman from Brazil said, “I’m going tomorrow with some friends. Want to come?” And when Moran met Galdamez, the two immediately started speaking Spanish to each other, relieved not to have to think before every word. Moran began biking from her University City home to have coffee with Galdamez in Clayton. 

“Before I found the group, my fiancé was worried for me,” Galdamez recalls. Born in El Salvador, she’d moved to Milan at 19. Coming to St. Louis meant leaving “my job—I’d just finished culinary school—and my friends. I read about St. Louis and got so anxious, I couldn’t eat. I went to the pharmacist and said, ‘I need something. I don’t know what. Just give me something.’”

Once here, she fell in love with her fiancé’s family and her new Clayton neighborhood—but friends were harder to find. Her fiancé had hoped she’d enjoy his colleagues’ spouses, but she did not want to force herself on them. 

“You are always going to be the plus-one,” remarks Moran. “I also think it’s cultural. Hispanic cultures invest time in friendships. We can have a four-hour lunch and have fun and talk. Here, when it’s 1:30 they say, ‘OK, see you next time.’ It’s always ‘What’s next?’” 

The women’s partners are relieved at the change in them. “Now I can say, ‘Husband, I am not coming today, because I am doing this,’” says Moran. “It’s relieving for him, too.”

It means they’ll be able to stay.

Read the article on STL Mag