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?

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Top Tips for Fish Out of Water

It’s official. I have been living in France now for one whole year. On some days, I was pretty sure I was not going to make it because either my marriage was going to drive me to a padded room, the next bureaucratic hurdle would give me a heart attack, or my complete disorientation would have me hiding under the sheets for a month. I’m happy to say, despite my worst fears, none of that manifested…though some of it got awfully close for comfort.

I’ve been taking this anniversary to consider how far I’ve come. I hear myself saying, “Honey, you’ve taken on a huge transformative process…bigger than you could ever have realized. Hold on to your heart. It’s still going to take time and lots of strength. Give yourself that time and keep the faith.”

Moving to a foreign land, leaving so much behind, being in a new marriage, not speaking the language, having to learn how to do things all over again in a completely unfamiliar way, all of it was (and continues to be) a HUGE transformative experience. Even after a year, it is still difficult to process at the speed to which I once was accustomed. I’m still learning. I’m still a fish out of water.

fishbowl In fact, being an expat is a lot like being a fish out of water! Think about it for a moment. A fish that is, for whatever reason, not in the water it has been swimming in all its life isn’t long for this world. It can’t breathe. It can’t swim. It’s floundering. It’s flopping madly. That’s just the reality of the kind of transformation expats undergo. Sure, maybe some are better equipped psychologically to handle it. Great! But for the rest of us, it’s living in a state of shock that’s way beyond culture, and usually with none of the support we were use to at our disposal.

There are certainly a lot of expat sites out there, most of them practical, many of them personal, but fewer dealing with the wellbeing of trailing spouses and expats of all kinds. It’s one of the reasons I’m taking this blog in a new direction. It will, of course, still be my story, but I also plan to focus more on wellbeing and things I’ve found that help with the anxieties expats face such as meditation.1283375516

So, I now share with you my 3 Top Tips for Fellow Fishies Out of Water.

Don’t take on more than necessary in your first year.

Whether you’ve planned your move for several months or several years, there’s still going to be even more to do than you ever thought possible, and despite your best efforts, smart goals, and good intentions, you may not be able to put everything in place as quickly as you’d like. When I arrived in France, I had to deal with the usual amount of paperwork (usual for France!) to establish residency, healthcare, banking, and all that fun essential stuff. I also had to learn how to drive again because my husband’s car was not an automatic. On top of that, I had to learn my way around, set up a household, and learn a new language. Plus I was planning to start a business, trying to keep up with three websites, painting, writing, trying to meet new people, and trying very hard not to cry every day. You know what? It was too flippin’ much!!! Some things HAD to be done and they weren’t very fun. Other things I had to let go. I couldn’t live up to the bar I had set for myself. I was surprised to find language-learning taking a back seat. It just was the way it was. I simply didn’t have the energy or focus to keep at it as I had planned. My health and sanity was far more important. I can’t even imagine how families with children manage such a massive relocation!

Find ways to stay connected to what you love.

You’re going to find yourself surrounded by the unfamiliar while all the while longing for the comforts of familiarity. Bringing those two things into balance can require some serious creativity. I came from an amazingly happy and vibrant community in which practically every other person was a massage therapist or yoga teacher and every other store was a whole foods market. I landed in the middle of grape vineyards with no cell-phone reception and the nearest town 15 minutes away. There was no dance church on Sundays. There was no weekly drum circle. There was no community acupuncture. The point is, the things I loved, that fed me and kept me healthy and happy, had vanished. I had to not only discover but create new avenues of connecting with things that inspired and motivated me. I always loved dance so I found videos about dancing to watch. I listened to music that I hadn’t listened to in ages that connected me to different times in my life. I made youtube my constant companion for new yoga workouts and meditations. And Facebook was a majorly important venue for helping me stay connected to friends back home. You get the idea.

Don’t believe everything you read or hear. Go straight to the source.

I’m including this very practical tip here because not doing so has been the cause of all kinds of grief for us, and I’d like to spare other expats that experience. It isn’t easy to get the answers to your questions, especially when language is a barrier. But it is tempting to rely on the internet, either on articles published in your mother tongue or on forums with fellow expats answering your questions. But the truth is, as incredibly helpful and reassuring as these sources can be, they are often filled with hearsay, outdated information, and/or experiences not at all relevant to your personal situation. The best thing you can do if you need an answer to an important question is ask the agency, bureau, expert or organization directly involved even if it isn’t the most economical approach, and even if it means hiring a translator. In the long run, it can save tons of energy in unnecessary worry or costly mistakes. That being said, prepare yourself for the thrill of getting different answer even within those agencies, bureaus and organizations!

And here, some additional tips…

Spend your AM and PM in nurturing activities.

The thing is, life abroad is challenging. I’d often find myself in a state of anxiety, irritability or overwhelm. It seemed to come out of nowhere, but in fact, there was just so much to process on a daily basis! By setting aside time morning and night to just be still, think about the day and all the thoughts and feelings that arose, by emptying the mind and body, you’ll be a lot better prepared for whatever you have to face the following day…and you’ll sleep better too!

Exercise!

Okay, exercise makes it on just about every list having to do with health and wellness. It’s no surprise. Our bodies needs exercise. I know that without my morning workouts, I would be a complete and utter nutter and feel miserable. It doesn’t matter what form your exercise takes. It can be anything as long as you do it. It’s just so so so so so important. Get it?

Indulge but don’t overdo it.

Okay. You find yourself in some bizarre new world with some pretty amazing foods at your disposal. What do you do? Eat them, of course. Some of the most wonderful things about France are the cheese, the wine, and the pastry! It’s okay to enjoy some of the best things about your new life, just don’t make yourself feel worse in an attempt to make yourself feel better.

Expect to feel completely weird 90% of the time.

I suppose not everyone will experience this, but don’t be surprised if you do. You can be doing the most mundane of tasks…pumping gas, turning on the oven, looking out the window. It’ll just hit you. Best not to focus on it.

Keep swimming.

Oh, the days I just wanted to throw in the towel! They would come so hard and so fast and so often. They still do. I’ve been told it takes expats about five years to really settle into life in their adopted country. (I don’t know if I’ll make it that long, but I’m still gonna keep swimming!) The point is, you’ll probably have days like that too when it all seems too hard, too impossible, and feels too wrong. All I can say is, tomorrow you may feel differently.