When I started compiling my thoughts about the idea of ‘hitting the ground running’ as an expat, I realised that I had too much to say in one post! Although we don’t have a very long list of countries under our belt, our circumstances put us through a lot of moves over a short period of time. And even though some of those moves took us back to familiar places, each time was a period of transition, and lessons to be learned.
Hopefully you’ve already seen part one, where I suggested some simple tips and hacks to help a move go smoothly. This time I’m thinking more about mindset shifts that can keep you from getting stuck amongst the boxes, and telling some of my own stories along the way. See what you think…
Say yes to everything (for now)
Within two weeks of arriving in Congo I turned up at a stranger’s house for her kid’s birthday party, I’d been to boot camp (very out of shape), book group (having not read the book) and a coffee morning. I quickly joined a Biggest Loser group (with no expectation of winning), a yoga class, an Indian cooking class (you won’t be surprised to know that was a one-off) and hustled to organise the babysitting for an event called Martini Madness (I don’t drink spirits). I stood in front of a new acquaintance and said oui to a French theatre group (which was life-changing – more on that here).
A few months later, what had stuck was book group, yoga and theatre. (And accepting party invitations of course!)
It might feel like you’ve already said quite enough of a ‘yes’ for the moment, thank you very much, what with quitting your job, leaving your family, moving to another continent, and all that…but it’s just the beginning. And even if you’re the most intro- of introverts, who prickles at the thought of large groups, who only needs one or two close friends, well, you have to find those friends first. They will be where the people are, and you need to be too. You can retreat to your own thing once you know those friends are out there, ready for a one-to-one get-together. And having something regular to get out the house and commit to, even if it’s just for the first few weeks or months, can help you find a rhythm to your new life,
And you never know where the yes will lead: two years later, I made a commitment to the community that had a provided such a warm and busy welcoming, discovering leadership skills I never knew I had. As for that theatre group, which I almost quit at the thought of improv exercises in a foreign language…over three years I became part of an incredible team, was part of memorable performances, and learned the Tango. That ‘yes’ will probably remain the one I’m most proud of from our expat journey.
Start exploring now
It’s tempting to think that if you’re going to be somewhere for a few years, there’s plenty time to explore and travel, and to focus just on settling in to begin with. (In all honesty, I could still very easily give in to this temptation and just concentrate on unpacking and nesting, but luckily I have MT here, who has very little interest in how organised his nest is!) In our first weekend here in Denmark we had also visited two of the loveliest local attractions (Ribe and Fano) and within a few weeks enjoyed our first weekend in Copenhagen.
When we first arrived in Congo, all the chat was about whale-watching, as there’s a short window between September and early October when whales are migrating past that section of the Atlantic coast. It would have taken a bit of hustling to organise a full day out at that time to see them, so we took the path of least resistance, saying, we can always do it next year. Somehow each rentrée seemed busier, and we never did see those whales. And just this morning, I felt a pang of regret when a friend posted photos of that iconic local restaurant I never did get to.
We spent four years living in southern France, and while we had some lovely travels and holidays in the area, the Cote d’Azur and the Bassin d’Archachon are still on my bucket list, and we didn’t make nearly enough trips to Paris.
I was recently chatting to a long-term expat friend in Congo, who had married into the country. I had just got back from our holiday to Namibia. ‘You guys’ – she meant rotational expats, who move every few years – ‘you guys are so much better at travelling. We get stuck in our rut, but you have a deadline, and you take advantage of it.’ Even if you are settling in somewhere for more than two or three years, don’t fall into the trap of thinking, there’s plenty time. Life will take over, just as it does in your ‘normal’ routine. Take advantage of where you are right now, and be ready to impress your visitors with your local knowledge!
Arrive with your own purpose in mind
If you’re expat as an accompanying spouse, and people ask, ‘Why are you here?’ there’s an undeniable factual answer: ‘For my husband/wife/partner’s job.’ Which, true as it is, can be frustrating, as you’re forced to define yourself by someone else’s goals. But to really get going in a new place with a positive mindset, try and find your own why am I here?
When we first left the UK, MT was very careful to be sure that I was coming with him without regret or resentment. He asked over and over again, was I sure that I wanted to leave my career behind to follow him? At the time, morale was low in my job (school budget cuts were making it difficult to teach well and feel positive about it), I’d been teaching for 10 years, and I’d gone through a round of dispiriting promotion interviews. Then my boyfriend asked me to marry him and go off and live a life of leisure in southern France. Ummmm…
Why was I there? Because of my fiancé’s job. But he’d made sure to know that I was motivated by more than that. So, again, why was I there?
For a new experience, a career break, to do the travelling I wished I’d done as a student, to develop my language skills and to have an adventure.
I wish I’d framed my own goals that way at the time. 9 years ago, my goal when we moved to France was, well, live in France. If I’d understood my own why better, I might have spent those first few weeks more meaningfully, instead of getting up too late to shop, and filling time with daytime TV, feeling like I was wasting an opportunity.
It can be a long journey to learn to have your own purpose as an expat partner. Especially when you have parenting to do along the way, with the working spouse’s career already prioritised, and no option but to be the main parent. I’ve already written about the moment when I decided to find work that would be mine, and not location-dependent. I’ve come a lot further on that journey, and I hope to tell the updated version of that story soon. If you want more inspiration about living meaningfully as an expat partner, I highly recommend listening to Sundae Bean‘s podcast, Expat Happy Hour.
But for the moment, here’s how my why helped me hit the ground running here in Denmark. The transitional time may have been full of distractions, but because I had set myself the target of starting up a new project in early October (watch this space) my brain was working on it in the background, coming up with creative ideas that I could jot down in my journal between packing boxes and revisit later. Because I knew I wanted to boost momentum on the blog, I had already set up a collaboration on instagram that I knew would keep me motivated once September came, and give me a focal point for exploring the area.
Embrace who you are – and who everyone else is
You may be an ‘expat spouse’ (‘expat wife’ even, eugh); some might call you a ‘trailing spouse’. You may be ‘mummy’ or ‘new mum’. It’s hard to come to terms with these labels as you move into expat life or parenthood, seemingly obliged to leave behind the talents, skills and interest that formed your identity before. But the important thing to remember is that they are simply that: labels. You still have the same talents, skills and interests, and even if they don’t feature as heavily in your daily life as you’d like them to right now, you can hold on to choosing what defines you, rather than letting the labels define you.
And I think this is even more important to remember when you’re meeting other people and seeking out your community. If you’re averse to labelling yourself, it stands to reason that you might not think you’ll identify with the ‘expat ladies’ coffee morning’ or the ‘playgroup mums’, or the ‘spouses meetup’. But if you can bear in mind that each of those people are, like you, trying to hold on to the talents, skills and interest that define them beyond the label, then it’s in those groups where you’ll meet your future awesome friends. If it helps, think of the awesome friends you’ve known for a long time, who have kids now, or who have given up careers to follow their partner. Are they any less cool for their labels?
Look for the benefits of each stage of the process
As I type, I am so very over temporary living. We’ve been in our (very smart) temporary accommodation for two months now. This nester is getting very frustrated! But, this morning I walked into the town centre to work in a chic café, which I am definitely going to miss being able to do when we’re in our suburban house. And I can devote this limbo time to writing and work projects without the distraction of furnishing a house and unpacking boxes, all of which is to come. Those are the benefits of now. The benefits of later? Lots of satisfied, hyyge-enhanced nesting.
Manage your expectations
This is the second time I’ve lived in temporary accommodation. The previous time, we returned to France, to the same town we’d left just two years before. It was going to be sooo easy. Many of my friends were still living there, and since we already knew the town well, we’d be able to pinpoint our ideal location and choose our house quickly. We were only expecting to be on that assignment for 9 months, so I was eager to make quick decisions and not hang around spending time in transition. Our older child would start in the school where I’d taught before, and with one easy-going toddler on my hip, I’d get everything done quickly. I insisted on a 4-week deadline with the relocation company, so that we’d be settled in time for travel plans we’d already made. Easy.
Except for all the unforeseen circumstances of course. Older child developed a dodgy tummy round about day 2, and missed his first week of school as he deposited little ‘gifts’ around our temporary apartment. Our shipment, it turned out, was still waiting in Uganda thanks to a paperwork oversight that no one saw fit to tell us about until we started chasing it up. The relocation company were doing their best but didn’t quite understand the urgency. It all came together in the end, but the move that should have been the easiest turned out to be the most stressful, simply because I expected everything to go the way I wanted.
I’ve let go of those expectations now. I still have moments of frustration about being in limbo. But knowing from the outset that it will all take longer than you think – and then some – helps to make the process more manageable.
Finally… give yourself a break!
Listen, no one says you have to hit the ground running! The most important thing to do is to start making connections in your new community, but, beyond that, if putting pressure on yourself to take it all in your stride is causing stress, then just take it at a stroll – go at your own pace.
Remember, if you are doing your best to make your family’s transition as smooth as possible, you are already working your ass off – it’s a demanding and labour-intensive process that most people wouldn’t even consider taking on. So it really doesn’t matter if there are daily dashes to the supermarket instead of careful meal-planning. It definitely doesn’t matter if your potluck contribution is cartons of juice or a pizza. It’s okay if the timeline for your goals and work plans drifts a bit because you’d rather take refuge in some daytime TV, thanks very much, because for the first time in three years you’re alone in the middle of the day and can take an hour on the sofa without feeling guilty about the employee doing housework around you. (Um…just me?)
Don’t worry about the days that drift and the plans that flake – those days will pass, and you’ll get there. There’s a popular meme going around, declaring that ‘Adventure starts at the edge of your comfort zone.’ You’re already at that edge – you can push it as much or as little as you like.
Perhaps some of my stories and suggestions have got you thinking, or you have your own ideas about how to have a positive mindset at the start of a move – let me know! And if this resonates, and you think others would enjoy the read, don’t forget to share!