As I write this we’re in week 14 of what I once estimated could be a 16-week transition; it’s gonna take a bit longer.
The transition began when our move was confirmed and my daily routine was suspended: in favour of clearing out, preparing our shipment, travel planning; dismantling our life in Congo while researching new schools and new neighbourhoods in Denmark. Meanwhile, we entered June with its usual end-of-year urgency: school presentations, leaving parties, leaving coffees, leaving lunches, last-minute souvenir shopping. Nothing you can skip or bail on in favour of Netflix just this once because it’s the LAST TIME.
I knew that moment would be coming, but it always feels disorienting. I was looking forward to leaving Congo, and I willingly stepped off the train of our life there, but still, as I watched it roll on without me there was that tug when I realised the routines I told myself I was suspending had actually been completely abandoned.
The transition continued through our stay at home in the holidays, cramming in time with family and friends, maintenance of the house, medical appointments, visits across the country, the long-promised camping trip (more packing and unpacking), and trying to do and buy all the things we’d been missing out on.
Then there was arriving here in Denmark. Discovering a brand new place and a brand new language. Orientation visits at the school. Figuring out what is and isn’t needed in the school bags. (Pencil cases out, rain trousers in.) Appointments to register with the state, then the kommune. Spending three hours in the enormous supermarket trying to figure out where everything is. House-hunting. Adapting to temporary accommodation. Half-unpacking. Solo parenting while MT does last visit back to Congo. Adapting to a rental car with a button for a parking brake. Then adapting to a lease car with standard parking brake but automatic engine. Knowing I’ll have to swallow my pride every time I speak to someone: ‘I don’t speak Danish yet’. (Not that that is in any way a problem here.)
The adventure of discovering a whole new country and seeing the possibilities spread out before us.
But still no routine.
Still a sense of being temporary and unsettled. Waiting for the next phase to begin.
Moving house to a new street, or a new town, is stressful and time-consuming. It takes patience and stamina to pack up life in one house, and then set it up again in another one. It doesn’t happen overnight.
But moving house from one country to another? It takes months.
In most cases it’s a 3- to 4-month hiatus, without a focal point. You’ve untethered yourself from one place and all its hard-won routines and familiarity, and you’re not yet tethered to the next one. And you’re not just packing up possessions and waiting to figure out where they’ll fit in the next place.
You’re waiting to find out where you’ll fit in the next place. You’re waiting for the new routines, the new familiarity. And that familiarity – it’s going to have to be hard-won too. You have to get through the unfamiliarity first. And in that unfamiliar context, you have to make a lot of decisions.
Did you know that decision fatigue is a real physical thing? You can google it and find out more.* It’s not just an ironic expression of our tyranny-of-choice, consumer-driven culture. Making decisions is labour-intensive for our brains, and uses up energy. Having no routine means having to make constant decisions about what, where, when, how… It’s why most of us are happy to end a holiday and get back to our routine, even if it seems paradoxical to want the fun to be over. It’s why some creatives, like Steve Jobs and his famous daily uniform, keep their lives minimal.
That’s why I recently referred to this process, exciting as it is, as emotionally and mentally labour-intensive. On top of the emotional heavy-lifting: all the goodbyes and letting-go, possible anxiety, guilt, fear, processing not just your own but your childrens’ feelings…on top of that there’s your untethered brain, having to make big and small decisions in a completely new environment, perhaps through the actual filter of that Google translate app. You may be congratulating yourself on that big decision made of choosing a house, but you still have to figure out which is the full-fat milk, which yoghurt the kids are going to like, where to go for the most suitable Danish classes. Should I join a gym? Where do we buy our bikes? Mobile contract or pay-as-you-go?
Who will my new friends be?
My brain is looking forward to taking refuge in routine.
We’re nearly there. Although we don’t have an entry date for our house yet, and are still unsure whether our shipment has actually left Congo, the kids are in school now. Not having the house or the stuff to think about actually gives me some respite, and I can have this time with my laptop – time to plan the routine into which I’ll be sinking oh-so-comfortably.
But soon (I hope) there will be more unpacking, a lot more decisions to make (although, some of them in Ikea, so there’s that), and we’ll negotiate not just where our things fit, but where we fit, in our new home, in our new community.
And then, the transition will be over. For now.
* See me avoiding the decision of which link to give you.
(One more thing: sometimes I feel a bit sorry for myself through this process. Which is ok, briefly, because it’s not easy. But I remind myself that it’s not that difficult either, especially here in Europe, because I know it ends, and I know it ends with a soft landing. And I remind myself of all the people in our world who are in transition with much more chaos, with not much hope of a soft landing, or a landing of any kind. And no way of going back, because of war, conflict or famine. So I’ve set up a regular donation with Refugee Action – click here to see more.)
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