Approaching Year Four – The Expat Experience

Well, I stopped blogging here since early last year, but a series of spammy notifications reminded me that this blog is still here. It also reminded me that an update may be in order.

When I look back at my pre-prep expat experience and my first three years abroad, I am reminded of the saying that it takes 5 years to fully adjust to life in a new culture. I can say for certain, at least in my own experience, that the first three became progressively easier. And that’s a damn good thing, too, because that first year was harder than anything I’ve ever lived through to the point where I wasn’t sure I would live. It’s something that friends and family will never be able to understand in depth. Only fellow expats really get the anguish that can come with an overseas move and all the outer and inner shifting involved.

I won’t rehash things I’ve already written about in those first two to three years. Rather, I’ll talk about the transformations of self that took place in the later part of the third year. From the bewilderment and complete disorientation of year one, to the depression and emptiness in year two, there arose a growing resolve in year three to stop resisting and accept everything.

Somehow, by some grace, I pulled myself up by the bootstraps. I fully resolved to cut the cords to the ghosts of my old life and my old self once and for all. I surrendered to the emptiness. I came to love the emptiness, in fact. I started to appreciate my situation, that I had what often felt like endless time to myself and an abundance of privacy, surrounded by nature. I began to use rather than fight against it all. I spent time doing yoga and more and more meditation. I pushed myself to experience things alone. I took pleasure in simpler things like preparing healthy food. And I gave thanks more and more for the fact that I answered to no one. My still-fairly-young marriage began to improve, too. We were laughing more. I was having more loving thoughts and appreciation for him, and that was being mirrored back.

Slowly but surely, things started to change of their own accord. But I couldn’t have rushed it. I couldn’t have controlled it at any point along the way. My only job was to allow and trust it. The expat life is its own process.

Now, so much has changed, and it seems as if by magic. I’m living a life I never, ever expected and truthfully enjoying it. Some outward manifestations of my internal change are that I became a yoga teacher, we got adopted by a kitten (despite my allergies), we have a new car (ba-bye stick shift and no air con!), I’m wearing glasses now, and my hair is short! I hardly recognize myself. And that’s a good thing, actually.

There was a part of me that simply didn’t want to be reinvented. But the expat life demands it. So, I’m grateful that I wasn’t “afraid to die” so to speak. It’s really no great loss. I tried to tell myself it was, that my life before moving to France was so perfectly wonderful. However, spending some time reviewing old journals helped me to see that the perfect life I was nostalgic over wasn’t so perfect after all. I had a lot of the same problems and feeling states back home. It wasn’t the outside world that needed to change. I did!

 

 

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Happy Anniversary to Moi: Two Years in France

Today marks a very special time for me. It was two years ago that I landed in France, newly shed of most of my belongings and all I’d ever known. I thought this would be the perfect time to reflect summarily on my experiences in these past two years.

Image Source: Flickr Photo by: Michael Wilson
Image Source: Flickr
Photo by: Michael Wilson

Year One:

Complete and utter disorientation. Bags always half-packed for home. Steadily devolving language skills brought on by overwhelming stress. Mountains of bureaucracy. Anxiety, depression, grief, loneliness, and despair. “Oh, God, what have I done???!” Inability to nurture self and relationships. Awkward dependence upon others and an unbelievably steep learning curve.

Year Two:

Dwindling bureaucratic challenges. Oscillation between optimism and pessimism, socializing and withdrawing. Rediscovering and redefining of self. Healing through turning inward. Knowing more of the language than I think I do and surprising myself on several occasions but still having zero confidence with it. Sick of being dependent, but still not able to do much about it. Trying to create opportunities and relationships; some take off, but most fall flat. “This will never work!” Every day I wake up, so every day I keep trying.

Year Three???

Well, I don’t know yet, obviously. But as I am still here, my intent is to dig my heels in, force myself to find more opportunities to integrate, do some things that scare the crap out of me, and refocus on the language in a more regimented way. To be honest, if it weren’t for the political situation in the US, I may very well have gone home by now where I know I can make a decent living and be surrounded by like-minded friends and community where I can solve all my problems IN ENGLISH!

But here I am, and here I remain, for as long as I do or am allowed, taking it one day at a time, dreaming a little bigger, using my energy in more effective ways, and simply remembering to practice gratitude, courage, resilience, and opening to possibility. Oh, and French!

Virgin Expats – Don’t Panic; You’re Normal!

In my last post, I wrote about how living in a foreign country felt a lot like I imagined a fish out of water would feel…sputtering to breathe, violently flopping and groping for life, longing for the simpler days of the fishbowl.

The more I talk to fellow expats, the more I realize that many of the feelings I’ve experienced my first year in a new land are all too common. There is some relief in that. Actually, there’s a lot of relief in that because at first, I thought it was just me. I thought I was losing my mind!

So I write this post for fellow expats out there, men and women, who shared my starry-eyed hopes of an enchanting life abroad only to discover that the grass wasn’t really any greener, just different. If you have been or are now experiencing any of the following, don’t panic; you’re normal!

suitcase-clipartDo You Regularly Experience Complete Discombobulation?

I am not exaggerating here (maybe a little). Some days I wake up and feel like my head in where my elbow used to be and my toes are in my ears. I drop things, break things, burn things, forget things, don’t know what day it is, and stare out the window as I try to make sense of a list of things to do that might as well be written in Klingon. That wouldn’t be such a big deal if I was by nature an airhead. But I’m not! I’m a highly-efficient, organized Virgo! These things should not be happening to me!!! But they do. It’s all part of the “fish out of water” package. Everything here seems to take 5x as long to accomplish and at least 2x the effort. Setting up a simple account online, for example, requires Google translate, a keen intuition, and prayers that nothing times out before you can hit the “validate” button…assuming you can find it. It’s exhausting and frankly unnerving. Thankfully, some days are better than others. I live for those days. On the rest, I can only surrender.

Do You Feel Isolated & Alone?

I’ve read even expats in major cities complaining of loneliness and feelings of isolation, so I can’t blame it entirely on the fact that we’re living in the middle of nowhere. But I suspect it doesn’t exactly help! The thing is, even when you go to a market or join a group or whatever, you still might have a sense you don’t belong. Faces are unfamiliar, and even those you are getting to know are still much more distant than your friends and family back home, who themselves are receding in a dreamlike fashion. When watching others engaging warmly, it can bring on pangs of nostalgic longing and sadness. Such feelings rise, sometimes stay a bit longer than preferable, but they always fade. Many say the trick is to just get out there and meet people. But even that is not always an easy solution. Add the language barrier to the mix, and in fact, that solution is often just another problem. Maybe the only thing for it is to lean into the isolation and see what’s there and what it has to teach us.

Does Paralysis Strike?

There have been days, weeks even, when I knew I had to do something like decode a letter from the bank or try to make an appointment not knowing whether or not my communication attempt would result in success or not, but I just could not take action. Sometimes, I would experience so much anxiety that I would go through a kind of mental paralysis. My mind would just stop working completely. It was like an advanced stage of the discombobulation I mentioned. I couldn’t possibly do anything more than sip tea and watch Netflix. I wouldn’t even want to answer the phone when it rang and deal with yet another thing I couldn’t understand. The inability to move is a horrible feeling.  But you know what? It doesn’t last forever either. Strike while you are able and rest when you can’t. No biggie (albeit a tad scary).

Are You Having Unpleasant Thoughts & Emotional States?

Loss of identity (who you were) and lack of identity (who you are becoming) is a delicate place requiring an abundance of self-compassion, stillness, and self-care. It is all to easy for an anxious mind to create all kinds of painful stories of blame, mistakes, bad choices, and loss. When doubt enters, expats can be plagued with loneliness, sadness, helplessness, grief, shame, and withering self-confidence. We always have more going on that just a move, too. I, for example, was grieving a parent and entering a change of life and in a new relationship on top of leaving everything else and everyone behind. The stress of so much change spiraled out of control sometimes resulting in depression and despondency that I seriously had to claw my way out of. I didn’t have a lot of help to do it either. Part of me was ashamed to reach out to friends and family who would only offer advice and/or worry. But they couldn’t understand; only someone who had lived it could possibly understand. I tried to get some medical help, but I knew going in they would just try and medicate me, and I knew that wasn’t going to solve anything. So, I did a lot of praying. I also found an expat counselor to talk with, and WOW was that enlightening. She made it all so simple. I was in a process that others have survived before me; I wasn’t alone. And then one day, watching a Star Trek re-run, I just made a decision to refocus…be like a Vulcan and take the reins back from my mind and emotions. I couldn’t have done it before then. When the time was right, it just happened. I stepped over some invisible barrier and new from that day forward, though it would be an uphill battle, it was all up to me. What was I going to believe? What was I going to think? Where would I put my energy? Who would I become? Getting to that point, however, took just about one year.

Are you an expat, virgin or experienced? Would you add anything to this list?