When we first made the decision to move abroad for my husband’s job, I was regaled with stories of The Help; maids and house cleaners and au pairs and chefs and personal umbrella holders. No dish pan hands, no fighting with the vacuum, free time up the wazoo. Laundry sorted and folded and put away with afternoons free to tra-la-la through local museums and fiddle-dee dee through quaint cafes.
Oh, without a doubt, the don’t-lift-a-finger scenario is true in places. Parts of Asia are well-known among the ex-pat circuit for having stupidly inexpensive household help. The further East you go, the further your dollar goes. And honestly, how many of us would turn down a little extra help with those stubborn stains and tub rings if it cost pennies instead of pounds? Sometimes geographical or political instability, language barriers or safety issues make hiring help a necessity rather than a luxury. A good friend and her family accepted a posting in a Stan, an entity that didn’t feature on quizzes when I was cramming for world geography in Mr. Kowalzcyk’s 8th grade class. Because of political turmoil and the nature of her husband’s job, they are shadowed by bodyguards and are required to have a driver. Not so for us. When we took off from the US, we landed squarely in the Euro Zone. We left behind not only family and friends but cheap consumer goods, affordable take-out and utility bills that didn’t go beyond three figures. On one hand we were grateful to accept a posting in a relatively secure country–at least one in which the leadership had not been accused of boiling its political enemies alive–but on the flip side, we also landed in a place that made New York seem cheap. Hell, it even made London look cheap.
As an American, I am spoiled. You cannot get a true idea of how cheap consumer goods, electricity and yes, even gasoline are until you spend time outside of the US. Cyprus was expensive. Copenhagen is extortionate. Not just touristy/airport/5 dollars for a slice of pizza pricey, but well and truly expensive. There are reasons the Danes are consistently voted the happiest people on Earth; one of those reasons is that the minimum wage comes in at about $20 USD an hour. If someone paid me $20 an hour I wouldn’t mind the scrubbing and the food shopping so much. Nevertheless, I clean my own house. I mind my own kids. I shop for the best prices with my pocket translator in hand and a conversion rate in my head. I have dish pan hands and mounds of laundry and am constantly lacking some necessary dinner ingredient. In short, I do what most housewives do, only I do it in a different country.
So what do the real housewives of Copenhagen, or Tashkent, or Bangkok or Hong Kong or Panama City do?
We run the gamut. Some work while they are abroad, trying to find balance, juggling family and career. (Sometimes you get lucky and land in a place like Denmark which places importance on work/life balance). Some lunch and play tennis. Some volunteer at school or head the PTA or join a local networking group. We seek out comfort in what can sometimes be uncomfortable situations, looking for the familiar in the unfamiliar. We do our best to make a home in a place that’s not home. We kiss skinned knees and get frustrated when the person in front of us in the express line has more than 10 items. We fight with our spouses about finances, we count down the days to vacation. Our lives sometimes seem exotic, but more often than not, that is no more than a by-product of where we end up. My kids have seen the pyramids because it was an hour flight from Cyprus. They have never been to Disney World, it’s always been too far away.
Those ex-pat wives who spend their days lounging and lunching and being massaged and coming home to cooked meals and folded laundry and children who are already in bed? Chances are they would be doing that no matter where they were. That is a certain lifestyle, the kind that usually comes with enough money that whether you are stretching your dollars in Shanghai or shortening them in Stockholm, it’s not going to matter too much.
As an ex-pat housewife, I live in a bubble. It’s a lovely bubble, don’t get me wrong. It’s cushiony and large and full of things my bubble back home wouldn’t have room for. But it’s a false reality. It’s like being on vacation but doing your job while you’re there. I’m not out getting massages, I’m trying to figure out which cut of meat translates to one I can cook in 20 minutes. I have free time during the day, but I lack the village to back me up. It’s a hop, skip and a jump to a European vacation, but it’s 12 hour journey home. There are perks, but no Granny’s shepherd’s pie or Nonna’s babysitting service. There are great friendships, which are too often cut short by moves. We worry about our kids, fret about our finances, navigate the super market, burn the toast, sort the lights from the darks, fight with our husbands.
And if you are me, spend a great deal of time scrubbing stubborn stains and trying to get the ring off the tub, all whilst dreaming of the sales in New York and cheap take-out options.
For more articles on my life as an ex-pat, try one of these: