To my utter bemusement, I find myself semi-occupying the role of expat Grandma. Remember, it was only supposed to be for two years then back to NYC….and yet here I am, thirteen years later, hunched in my metaphorical rocking chair, sipping Prosecco from a straw, doling out advice.
Which is sort of what I was doing recently at a school function. The beginning of another international school year inevitably means a fresh crop of parents. Some are on their fifth or tenth move and merely need an introduction and a friendly tip to signal in the bike lane and they’re good to go. Others though; others are on that first trip out…so new they still have the heady perfume of home wafting from their skin.
Usually you can spot the new folk. There is something preternaturally bright about their smiles. I don’t say this to be mean or unkind. I know that smile. It was the same one I had when someone approached me as I sat–alone–on the edge of the sandbox. It was the same one I plastered on my face, neck muscles stretched taut, when I walked into a new place knowing no one.
Whenever I meet someone for whom this dog and pony show is new, it sends me spiraling right back to our first year in Cyprus: the ups, yes, but even more, the many, many downs. If that first year was a game of Chutes (Snakes) and Ladders, I didn’t even make it up to square 94 to get my ass kicked back down to start. I was the kid on on Square 16 who kept getting sent back to Square 6, over and over again.
For the most part I tried to smile and nod along and insisting that everything would be fine!
Fine, fine, fine.
There’s always that need to put a brave face on things, isn’t there? It’s why I try to be as open as I can be about how hard that first year was for me. Not because I’m particularly proud that my husband used to come home at lunchtime to make sure my head wasn’t in the oven, but because it’s important to know it’s normal and ok to think it’s hard sometimes. It’s ok to feel lost or unhappy or homesick or like you’re not strong enough to do this. (Spoiler: You are)
Those things are all normal and anyone who tells you that they took to the whole expat thing like a duck to water without losing a few feathers along the way is probably lying. Or maybe they’re just freaky like those double-jointed people who can put their ankles behind their heads.
Or maybe I’m the freak show. Honestly, it could go either way. The older I get the harder it is to tell.
But hey! Listen to grandma! If you’re new to this circus, give yourself some breathing grace.
I found myself saying this very thing to someone recently. Give yourself space, yes, but grace as well.
If you’re new to this, you have to give yourself time to adjust. You have to give yourself the grace to miss home or to find the instructions on the washing machine so frustrating that you end up in a puddle of tears on the ridiculous hardwood floors that apparently need some sort of special cleaner that no one bothered to tell you about. You have to give yourself the grace to make mistakes and change your mind and rotate through emotions as fast as the seasons seem to change in Denmark.
You need space to breathe–and not just those shallow “I can get through this” breaths. Big, gulps of air that are going to keep you going. You need the space to doubt, because only when you doubt yourself will you figure out that you are perfectly capable. Spend crazy $$ on importing your favorite cereal if you need to. Eventually you’ll figure out the washing machine even if it drives you crazy that it takes three hours to wash your whites. You’ll meet people you really like. And cereal too. You’ll have legitimate likes and legitimate dislikes, loves and complaints, favorite coffee spots and avoid at all costs people…but you need to give yourself the space to find out who and what they are and the grace to navigate it all without expecting to do it all lickety splickety.
I wish someone had given me that advice all those years ago. I probably could have saved a few heartache days and my husband absolutely could have saved some mileage on the car coming home to check that I wasn’t in a puddle on the floor trying to decipher the Greek instructions on the oven.
I got there in the end.
We all do.
For more insight into a decade as an expat, check out my book, There’s Some Place Like Home, available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.