6 Years and 6 Things

Recently, the folks over at HiFX contacted me about contributing to their expat tip page which is part of a new campaign they are working on to give expats some helpful and honest advice and it couldn’t have come at a better time since this week marks the 6 year anniversary of when I left the United States.

6 years.  That number still amazes me.

Since then it has been a roller coaster ride of ups and downs (mostly ups) in which I have lived in 3 different countries, 2 different hemispheres, had 6 different jobs, met some of my best friends, and stumbled across a French man who became my husband.  As I think about everything that has happened over this time period, I consider all the things I wish someone had told me beforehand, the tips I would have liked to have had.

So, without further ado, here are 6 things (get it?  6 years, 6 things…très cute) that I would have liked to have known beforehand:

#6. Making plans is hilarious.

When I left Washington D.C. and my job and life and friends and family and country…and…(yeah, you get it) for Wellington, New Zealand I repeatedly kept telling everyone that I would be back in one year.  Conversations would go like this:

“Oh my god, I can’t believe you are leaving!  I’m never going to see you again,” said by wailing friend.

“Puh-leeeeese, it is a one year visa, it’s like I’m going on a vacation.  I’ll see you this time next year,” said by over-confident and foolish me who had no idea what I was talking about.

It was 3 years before I even so much as visited D.C. again.

Woody Allen is credited with saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans” and I couldn’t agree more.  Over the past 6 years I have repeatedly announced things that were going to happen, like when I would return to the USA (…there have been multiple timelines for this – sorry Mom), how long I would stay in a particular country (just 1 year in France, right…), what type of work I would have (I will finish my Master’s Degree and get a job in HR…), etc.  Every time I would proclaim a particular plan something would happen to change it (I think the Universe has a perverse sense of humor), often, these changes weren’t bad they just weren’t in line with my original “plan.”

It would have been nice to have been aware of this little joke earlier as I would have been saved many awkward conversations in which I backtracked and had to announce changes to my “plans” (I can’t take the word seriously enough anymore to write it without quotes).  Now I just dodge questions as best I can and try to go with the flow and I suggest that any new expat does the same.  Don’t get too sure about what is going to happen or not going to happen, instead be open and prepared for all sorts of different eventualities.

#5. Be careful about your living situation.

Oh la la la la la la (this should be heard in French accent).  I cannot stress this enough and it applies whether you are 20 years old going for a year overseas or 35 years old and moving for an indeterminate period of time.  THINK before you sign a lease and get into an irreversible living situation.  Listen to your gut if something seems off, consider your finances beforehand, and know what your walking-away point is.

It can be really easy to get desperate about where you will live upon arrival in a new country, there is a need to be settled, and living in a hostel or temporary housing can be the pits.  But you know what is worse?  Living with crazy people people with whom you do not get along or moving into a house you can’t afford or a neighborhood that seemed fine at first but is actually super-inconvenient.  It is not always easy but try to be patient and wait for the right living situation, not merely the simplest…you won’t regret it.

#4. Take good opportunities!  

ARGH.  I still think about a job offer I had in Wellington, NZ – it was perfectly suited for my past experience and would work well to get me where I wanted to go professionally in the future.  It couldn’t have been more perfect…but when they offered it to me (and agreed to give me a visa – yes, I was this idiotic) they said they would need a 2 year commitment…well, I had only been in NZ for a couple of months at that point and I thought, “well, I’m not going to live overseas for 2 years” (see #6 about making plans) so I said I couldn’t do it.  ACK (read: epic stupidity)!

This was 5 ½ years ago and it still plagues me.  Don’t get hung up on timelines because nothing is set in stone.  I could have taken that job and still left after 1 year if I wanted, I mean, it wasn’t a blood oath (…or was it, things get crazy in New Zealand), or I could have ended up staying longer and building something really interesting.  It could have been amazing or it could have been a horrible experience, I will never know, the only thing I do know for certain is that I regret not finding out.

Now, I’m not saying jump at every little thing that comes your way but opportunities don’t come knocking all the time – when they do, take a beat and consider what your end goal is and then maybe say yes to something that seems a little scary.

#3. There will always be something to miss. 

“Being an expat is soooooo amazing, I never think about the past or the future I just live in the moment and I’m never going to be sad about things I don’t have anymore.”

EIH!  Wrong answer.

So being an expat is exciting and full of new things –TRUE – but you are also setting yourself up for some tough times…as my Mother constantly likes to remind me: “you’ve chosen a hard life” (Mom loves a truth gun) and she is right, per usual…so annoying.

You are going to have friends, sometimes best friends, scattered throughout the world and you are going to miss major events in their lives.  You are not going to be able to see your family as much as you might want to.  When you go back home you will miss things and people from your host country, if you stay overseas you will have a pang in your heart for your home and the things that you love there.  No place will ever have it all again and you will be doomed to be that obnoxious person who is constantly making mental comparisons in your head about which place is better (I say “in your head” because if you share these thoughts out loud people will find you super irritating).

This is one of the big tradeoffs that one makes when deciding to embrace the expat life and it is a hard one.

You will also miss certain junk foods.  KRAFT BLUE BOX 4 EVA!

#2. Oh my god, pay attention to your frequent flyer miles. 

There isn’t much to say on this other than the sad fact that MB and I are morons and didn’t rack up our FF miles the way we should have.  If we had been responsible, we could be super special card members with all sorts of lovely perks.  Consider yourself warned, I get irritated every time I think of it.  Le sigh.

#1. You are not ruining your life. 

When I left the USA there were a lot of people who thought I was nuts (don’t try to deny it – I saw your faces).

What people said:

“Ohhhhhhh muh-gawd, that is totes amazing, I sooooooo wish I was brave enough to do that.  You’re like, an inspiration.  It is going to be ree-diculous.  I can’t wait to hear all about it.

What people thought:

“Um right…brave my arse, she has lost her dang mind.  She is walking away from her job, her life, everything.  She is 27 years old not 19, when she comes back she will have to start from nothing.  This is an EPIC mistake.”

I get it, I was pretty freaked out about what I was doing as well.  Leaving a decent career (even if I wasn’t suited for it) and an established life was scary and there were a lot of nights before and even after the move that I was afraid I was destroying my future…but I didn’t.

It can be really easy to get sucked into societal pressures, parental pressures, and even pressure from friends about how you should be living your life and what timeline you should be on.  Don’t worry about it – if I had listened to everyone else (including my internal voice of reason) I wouldn’t be married to an amazing man, living in France and following my love of writing.

Be confident about your choices and chase them with intelligence and hard-work, don’t let the naysayers (internal or external) pull you from your path.  (Insert appropriate “Robert Frost, life is a journey, two roads, blah blah blah” quote here)

*While this post is directed at expats, I think that it applies to life in general no matter where you might find yourself living…especially the part about frequent flyer miles, keep up with that stuff, people! 

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My Dirty Little Secret

“I HATE EVERYTHING – nothing is ever just easy,” I am stomping around the house in full tempter-tantrum – Scarlett-style.

MB looks at me silently with no reaction (he has learned to let me just wear myself out…much like one might do with a 3 year old).

He sighs as I continue to slam around being disagreeable.  Could I be enjoying this?!  NO!  Of course not…

“I went to Picard…NOTHING.  Then I tried the Petit Casino – you know, the one that always has them and they didn’t have anything either,” I wail.

“Well,” he says tentatively.  “Maybe at Carrefour?”

“NO,” I say loudly, for some reason feeling satisfied to crush his possible solution.  “I have never seen them there, they don’t carry them at all*!”

MB looks at me, “I could call the stores,” he suggests.

“I guess,” I say, sulkily.  “I don’t know what good it will do, even if we find them we will have to take a tram to go and get them.”  I’m not ready to be mollified yet.  “GAWD!  I just wanted to make crawfish etouffee – I bought all the other ingredients and stupidly took for granted that I would be able to find the crawfish at the stores.”  I’m ranting again and flailing about with drama.  “But NOOOOOOOOOO…I mean, why would a store stock the same merchandise every time?  That would be too easy and convenient for the customers and your country HATES easy and convenient!”

MB retreats into the bedroom with the telephone to call the stores and I am left feeling…meeeeeeeeeeeh…a little ashamed of myself.  I don’t mean to pull out the “country card” but it is certainly the quickest thing to revert to when I’m feeling frustrated.  These are not proud moments

***

“My, my,” My Mother says into the phone.  “You are really living the life, aren’t you?”

I have just finished telling her about our weekend jaunt over to Munich.  There was all-you-can-eat schnitzel and fairy castles, what more could a person ask for?

“I sure hope you are appreciating it,” she continues.

I smile and roll my eyes at the same time (this is the reaction to a special mixed emotion that only my Mother can summon forth – it is simultaneous irritation and amusement).

“I know, Mom,” I reply.  “I do!”

“Well,” she continues.  “I sure hope so…”

I’m waiting for it.  I know what is coming next.

“Because…”

Queue ominous and foreboding thunderclap. MWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!  Feeling scared yet?

She goes on, “Your life will not always be like this.”

I sigh into the telephone, unsure of exactly what my response should be.  Do I say, “thanks for letting me know” or “I appreciate the warning?”  Do I pretend that I am still fourteen years old and say, “GAH MOM, you’re such a downer!”  OR do I tell her the truth?

The expat life is great.  I am living in Europe for the first time and enjoying traveling around and seeing all the sights, I have an amazing French husband, and I get to write all day long (sometimes this is awesome and sometimes this feels like I have sentenced myself to a lifelong homework assignment).  I mean, it’s pretty much a Meg Ryan movie over here without all the neurosis (and bad plastic surgery…why Meg, why?).

…Except when it isn’t.

I regularly think about how much I am enjoying my time here and all the cool experiences I am getting to  eat have but sometimes…I hate it.  (EEEK!  I’ve done it now – I’m just waiting for the black helicopters to start circling.) 

Alright, alright, calm down – I don’t hate France, that isn’t it, it’s just that some days I hate being an expat and France gets caught in the crossfire, a convenient thing to blame for a bad day.  The only thing that people hear about is that I get to go to Munich or Italy for a weekend – it sounds so romantic and exciting to have all these European countries at one’s fingertips…and it is.  What they don’t know about is how when I need to get crawfish for a dish I want to make and can’t find it after spending two hours walking around to different stores that I have to wait for my husband to come home and call every supermarket chain in the city because I can’t just do it myself.  I mean, sure, I can speak French but try asking a complicated question over-the-phone with grocery store level customer service (read: no customer service) in a second language…I dare you.   Or how if I want to go and see a movie I have to search to try to find one that hasn’t been dubbed or how if I want to run a quick errand it is impossible because I either a) spend ages looking for parking or b) take public transportation as opposed to the glorious, glorious parking lots of my hometown.  OR how when I am sad or having a bad day I can’t just pick up the phone and call home because it is probably 3 o’clock in the morning.  It can be lonely and it can be alienating, everyday tasks and chores are more complicated and things that are normally really easy aren’t anymore.

Okay, okay so I can hear you rolling your eyes at me and I get it – I’m not this bratty all the time and I know it’s still a pretty sweet deal when you get to travel and learn about a new culture, I realize that my life isn’t hard; but bad days happen everywhere…even in the middle of a romance novel setting.  And while there are certainly some pretty sweet perks to being an expat, it isn’t all roses all the time…usually you will love every minute of it but some days you will have disgraceful temper tantrums about groceries and wish the time zones were the same so you could call your best friend (who, by best friend contract has to agree that you are being completely rational) and tell her about it.

So, the old adage rings true: I should listen to my Mother and remember that my life won’t always be like this.  Some days that idea makes me sad and other days…well, other days it seems alright with me.

 

*Carrefour does actually carry crawfish occasionally but it is in very small, expensive packages and not worth the effort.  Just wanted to clarify so that people didn’t think I was maligning the glorious Carrefour!!!