What The Hell Were We Thinking?? (And Other Questions You Ask Yourself as an Expat)

Oh. Shit.
Oh. Shit.

We are barely two weeks into the school year and I’ve already met a new crop of expat families. Some have done this crazy tango before, others are new to the dance floor. Regardless, I’ve been absolutely floored by the speed at which some have managed to settle themselves. Three weeks in a new country and they’ve got the kids in swimming lessons, the internet running and a 1:00 slot at the tennis club blocked off. It’s impressive. After three weeks in Cyprus my husband was still coming home from work to find me banging my head against the countertops. In fact, I’m pretty sure he used to come home at lunch just to make sure I hadn’t stuck my head in the oven. He’s never said so, but I think he was relieved our oven was electric, not gas.

Now, as we near completion of our seventh year overseas, it’s hard to remember all the details of those hellish early days. But I remember all the questions I asked myself that first year in Cyprus. Many of them carried over into our first year in Denmark. Hell, some of them I still ask myself from time to time. Because no matter if this is your first gig overseas or your eighth, moving abroad raises questions. Many of them ricochet loudly around in your head.

You’re not alone. I promise.

What the hell have we done?

The big Kahuna question may haunt you for a while. The inquiry which fuels your nightmares… and your anxieties. While visions of burgers and Target dance in your head, you fret you’ve made the biggest mistake of your life. What were you thinking? What made you think you could pack up a house and the kids and a dog and move across the ocean? Were you smoking crack when your spouse brought it up? Under the influence of a cult leader? Drunk on the Kool-aid? What on Earth were you thinking??

Have we well and truly screwed the kids?

The running joke in our house is this: either our kids are going to thank us for the amazing experience we’ve been able to give them….or they are going to bill us for the therapy hours they endure to make up for their rootlessness. Exposure to multiculturalism vs. lifelong friends. Language acquisition vs. high school sports teams. Travel opportunities vs. worrying your girlfriend’s posting is up in six months. It’s a coin toss I don’t know the answer to. None of us do.

No. There are NO BLACK BEANS. And it's your fault!
No. There are NO BLACK BEANS. And it’s your fault!

This is all your fault. Do you think we’d even be here if it weren’t for your stupid job?

Find me a trailing spouse who hasn’t had this thought at least once in their life abroad and I’ll gladly turn over my stash of Goya black beans. When the going gets rough, the rest of us blame our spouse. It’s their job, their career, their opportunities, we are mere pawns in their international chess game. If it weren’t for them and their stupid job you’d be pushing your giant, red trolley down the aisles of Target, shopping at M&S Food, enjoying 70 degree winter days. Most of the time the blame game is unfounded. That doesn’t stop you from thinking it now and then.

Are the people in your office effing crazy?

The office (in my head it’s always like Wolfram and Hart from the television show Angel) wants the working partner to move or travel at the most inopportune times, like say…the middle of the school year, right before your son’s senior year in high school, during exams, the day after you and the kids touch down in a new posting…

Why is so hard to find a decent burger in this place?

You can be as optimistic and cheerful as Pollyanna. You can be as unsinkable as Molly Brown. You can always look on the bright side of the life, yet I can pretty much guarantee there will still  be something that you miss, something that you long for, something that seems so simple and yet is so difficult to obtain. How hard is it to…

Why are the locals so loco?

Why are the Danes so hung up on rules? Why are the Americans so loud? Why are the Cypriots so confrontational? Why are the Brits so obsessed with Brussels Sprouts? Wherever you’ve landed, there are going to be things that befuddle and confuse you. Things you just can’t understand. And like a toddler asking Why? Why? WHY??? you will ask yourself over and over in an attempt to understand. Let me know if you figure it out.

Oh, my God! Would it kill them to say thank you?

Sometimes it’s hard to understand why someone wouldn’t think to hold the door for you. Or smile at you. Or thank you or move out of the way when you’re walking down the sidewalk or my personal  bugbear, let someone with one or two items go ahead of you in the checkout line. We are all guilty from time to time of wanting our host culture to act with the social norms we are used to, even if they’re not the norms where we’ve landed.

See? It's not hard!
See? It’s not hard!

Why is the pizza so much better at home?

Sometimes we put such a positive spin on things we make ourselves dizzy. But it’s ok to admit you miss home. It’s ok to miss certain things or people or simply the comfort of knowing where you stand. It’s ok to miss the food or the weather or the way the supermarkets are set up. It’s ok to miss the choice or the price tags or family and friends. As much as I joke about Goya products, my beloved black beans are merely a metaphor for the things I miss, big and small. It’s ok to miss home, but if you let the missing define you, you’re in for a tough ride.

So if you’re new to the dance floor and find yourself with a headful of questions, don’t fret. I’ve done a few turns around the floor under the expat strobe lights and I still ask them from time to time. Especially when I’m in the mood for black beans.




22 thoughts on “What The Hell Were We Thinking?? (And Other Questions You Ask Yourself as an Expat)

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    1. It’s funny–98% of it is the same boring old stuff that you’d do anywhere else (with a few extra challenges thrown in here and there), but there is that other 2% which makes it better or harder or just simply different–I guess sometimes it’s easier to write about the 2% than it is about the 98% 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have a gift for writing lengthy newsy emails that work best with a large cup of coffee. People generally reply with ‘my life is not as interesting as yours’ to explain why they struggle to pop out a paragraph. I think it has more to do with the fact that I can write (especially about my obsessions – myself 😏) as my life was very similar to other people’s only I do it in different locations. The 98/2 is spot on.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I remember trying to explain to people back home that the toilets still had to get cleaned and homework done and dinner made…no matter where we were living. They didn’t really believe me. 🙂


    1. Very true, especially life with kids. I maintain however, that my homemade pizza isn’t nearly as good as the brick oven place that was directly across from our Brooklyn apartment ;-).


  1. I have studied abroad a few times. I had the benefit of having an end-date to my overseas life, but I will never forget the day I hit homesick rock-bottom and cried while sitting on the River Avon in Shakespeare’s hometown because I just wanted a freaking cheeseburger!


    1. I don’t think that non-Americans will ever truly understand the feral longing you get for a really good cheeseburger (the same way I’ll never understand a Brit’s longing for fish n chips or other fill in the blanks). The burgers in Cyprus were blasphemous. They put cinnamon in the beef as a flavoring. It was enough to make you cry in your fries. Metaphor? Sometimes ;-).


  2. Well timed post, as I just thought today ‘what were we thinking,’ sort of – or more so, imagined my life back in our perfect American suburban neighborhood and thought man, that was pretty good…and they put ‘u’s’ in their neighborhoods here too, which is different. But you get used to it. All of it, even the cultural things like not looking at you in the eye to say hi, or how rough on pedestrians they can be in cars. It just makes you appreciate your own country more, goes both ways — but much of what you said here resonates with me. Keep it coming, please. – Bill


    1. It’s funny, Bill, because I wrote this one and then read your piece about trouble settling in–serendipity? Who knows. In any event, it’s a roller coaster. And it’s the small things that get under your skin and fester, not so much the big, expected ones. And most of the time it’s simply because you don’t know what the rule of thumb is. Sometimes I look around at this life we’ve managed to create for ourselves and think, “Damn. We ROCK.” and then other times I look around and think, “Honest to God, WTF are we pretending at.” The vast majority of the time we’re solidly in the middle. Just like we’d be anywhere else.


  3. Hilarious! And yes, I too went through all of this when I moved to Baku a couple of years ago, our first expat posting. Then, of course, the local idiosyncracies had me puzzled and bemused. Weirdly, now back in the UK, I know where to find a decent pizza and which aisle in Waitrose the special pomegranate molasses is but why are the locals so loco?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi I am smiling reading your blog as it is “spot on” for expats 🙂
    I am seriously thinking many times RE about my son leaving behind his best mates etc. as you mentioned if the kids will ever thank us for the opportunity of this adventures! Anyway… life must go on and finding positive in every expats life will make it easier 🙂


    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it! The questions about the kids–I don’t think any of us can ever answer them fully. I’ve met people who grew up this way that adored it..and others who hated it. There are a lot of positives in there–sometimes it can be hard to find them when you’re having a particularly homesick day or longing for a good, old cheeseburger, but they’re surely there!

      Liked by 2 people

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