27 April 2012

The Expat Survival Kit

London icons, a block and a half from our flat.
And then the day finally comes. ... Although there have been moments of wondering if it will ever happen, given enough time and a genuine willingness to adapt, we will once again become part of the permanent community. ... We have a sense of intimacy, a feeling that our presence matters to this group.  We feel secure.  Time again feels present and permanent as we focus on the here and now rather than hoping for the future or constantly reminiscing about the past."
David C. Pollock
Ruth E. Van Reken 

When I first read the above paragraph last weekend, I immediately commented to Gino, "and then it'll be time to move again."

I speak from experience.  The book I quoted is right: it's taken a lot of effort (and a lot of thinking it would never happen), but the last eighteen months or so London has truly felt like home.  I have meaningful work I love, and Gino and I have built a circle of smart, interesting, caring people as friends.  We have our favorite restaurants and things to do on a free weekend afternoon, and we've worn the "touristy must-do in London" list down to a nub.  We know the relative advantages of Sainsbury vs Waitrose and that you can buy pretty much anything you can ever imagine needing at Peter Jones.  We have become, as the book puts it in another context, competent.  We're good at London, good at being Americans in London.

And next week we'll be moving into corporate housing for a stretch, pending a move to Ireland later on this summer.

I shouldn't have read Third Culture Kids so hard on the heels of Chris Pavone's The Expats, which I downloaded to read on a driving holiday around France.  I've read a lot of books about expat life over  my life, and especially the past four years, and The Expats was the first one that had me nodding along: yep, been there, done that.

The novel made me want to create a survival pack for new expats, especially the new expats brought overseas by a spouse's career.  (The term of art is "trailing spouse."  If you think that alone isn't a blow to the ego of a competent, independent, previously self-supporting adult, you would be wrong.)  It would include a copy of The Expats, because one of the amazing things about moving to a new country is the sheer amount of free time you have to get through when you get there, and Pavone's novel could kill some of that very enjoyably, while giving you a glimpse of what you're in for.  The survival pack would include a bulk package of your favorite treats from back home, a sampler of delicacies native to your new home, and a list of the instructions I wanted to give the book's protagonist:  find some kind of work, even if it doesn't pay.  Take a class in something, anything, you're remotely interested in, or pick a hobby and find a way to pursue it in a group setting.  (And don't worry about being a cliche.  Cliches are often based in truth.)   To the extent that this is in your control, make a few friends who are native to your new home, or have lived there long-term.  Get together with the other parents at your kids' school and form a baby-sitting co-op so you can have the occasional non-parental evening, even when your husband's traveling.  Don't just get through the days--invest them in building some kind of life.  

I started to feel downright cocky about the move to Ireland: I've done this before.  I've got this changing-countries thing down.  This'll be a lark.

And then Third Culture Kids knocked me off my high horse.  No Expat Survival Kit would be complete without a copy of this book.  Seriously, even if you have no kids and no plan to have them--that just means you can skip the "schooling options" bit.  You should still read most of the book, which has tons to say about the process of relocating into a new culture, and repatriating back.  It was one of those books that told me all kinds of things I didn't realize I knew.

Holy cow.  The book stressed me out in advance.  It reminded me of everything I'd forgotten about exactly how hard it is to switch cities, let alone countries.  How you have to prove yourself all over again to a whole new group of people.  How you have to figure out where to get American products, because someday you will find yourself insanely homesick and only Betty Crocker Devil's Food Cake will make you feel better.  How you have to figure out where to get everything and how many things you didn't realize you can't live without until you decided to leave them behind.  How you have to find some way of passing the time while you slowly accumulate replacements for all the bits of your life you took for granted in the old place: Your work.  Your hobbies.  Your gym.  Your favorite restaurant that actually delivers.  Your friends.

At the same time, it made me feel validated.  All the emotions I experienced in the move to London, even the really embarrassingly immature and provincial ones, are chronicled and catalogued and pronounced perfectly normal.  And who doesn't love to have their more shameful moments--that time you burst into tears in the grocery store because you didn't recognize a single brand of peanut butter, say, or the week you bought something new every single day just so that somehow, something would be different at the end of the day than it was at the beginning--pronounced perfectly normal?

Whisky tasting at the Jameson Distillery.
Dublin will have its compensations.
But it did remind me that those steps I recommended above are necessary and the rewards of going through them really are great--but oh, they're hard.  And there's no getting away from it: the reason you know you need all that stuff, the friends and the gym and the work, is that you already had it, back where you came from.  And no one is going to hand any of it to you in this new place--you have to go out and get it all again.

Everyone I've talked to about this has noted the wave of homesickness that hits around the one-year mark in a new place.  The new glow has worn off and you're just integrated enough into the new community to know how integrated you're not.  When I was about at that point, I had tea with a dear friend who was about a year ahead of me on the expat cycle, and I admitted that I was tempted to give up on making a life and just go into endurance mode until someone told me it was time to leave London.  Since someone was going to tell me to go away eventually, what was the point of making London into somewhere I wanted to live?

My friend listened patiently, and pointed out: "if you're as heartbroken to leave London as you were to leave New York, that's not necessarily a bad thing."  And surprise surprise, she was right.  The grief at leaving London, the conviction that Dublin can't possibly be as good... I wouldn't be feeling any of that if I hadn't done a pretty damn good job of making myself at home here.  And four years ago, I didn't think that was possible, either.

About halfway through The Expats, Pavone describes guests at a Christmas party in Luxembourg:
This party was dominated by the sizable contingent who'd circled around themselves as Americans, exclusionary, flag-pin wearing.  Behaving as if they hadn't chosen to live in Europe, but had been moved against their wills, and were putting up a brave resistance.  Freedom fighters.
I've definitely met those people, and as I said, I understand the temptation.  Third Culture Kids notes that one response to moving into a new culture, recognizing that you'll always be an outsider, is to broadcast your difference and cling even more closely to the culture you know and understand.  When I first moved to London, I met several women who played a lot of bridge and went on a lot of day trips and, from the way they talked about living here, generally just tried  to endure the time before they could go home and back to real life.

Having had periods of living that way, and periods of throwing myself at London until it let me in, I can tell you: in the long run it's a lot easier to make yourself at home in the new place, than to grit your teeth and endure being away from home for years at a time.

And it's so totally worth it.  It's not exactly easy to rebuild your life every few years, and it really sucks to say good-bye to what you've built.  But you have to keep reminding yourself: this is your life.  These two or three or ten or twenty years you're spending abroad, you don't ever get these back.  Home is a long way away, in both time and space. Since you have to be here, you might as well put in the effort through the initial rebuilding process (and deal with the eventual, inevitable grief).  Then you get at least a couple years where things are easy again, and you get to go home with years' worth of amazing memories and stories and friends from all over the world.


  1. That's a good tip in general, about not postponing your life because you're out of your element. It's easy to get into that just-deal-with-it mindset about a lot of situations, so I love your reminder: this is your life.

  2. A mutual friend just pointed me to your "expat survival kit" posts as I prepare to end my time in Kyrgyzstan to move to Belgium. These are great tips. I have to admit they are stressing me out, but it's good that I still have a few weeks to process these thoughts and prepare for the move with new things in mind. So, thank you!

  3. Elizabeth, that's been my mantra ever since we arrived in Ireland. It's hard to resist the hunker-down urge sometimes!

    Kirstin, glad this was helpful! Best of luck in Belgium - I'll be checking your blog to see how things go.