Expat Reflections on Year 1

The year you loose…

Melissa Dalton-Bradford wrote a memoir called global mom where she is able to precisely describe some of the challenges about living and expat life. She says that we (expats) pick our poison.  “We asked for this life!  So I don’t want to be guilty of spitting out the poison that I picked. I shouldn’t be spitting it out or complaining that it’s bitter. I am thoroughly grateful for the experiences, the gifts of diversity and growth, but they have a whole list of costs that people wouldn’t understand, I don’t think, unless they really lived this globally nomadic lifestyle right along side me. “ Melissa and her family are career expats and she has lived at 16 addresses in 8 countries speaks 5 languages fluently over about a 20 year history, she is a pro at this nomadic life.  I felt a little relieved after reading some excerpts from the book that maybe you just don’t ever conquer it, maybe no matter how many times you move there is still a long upward climb and a long period of adjustment.

MDR writes “People in the international community know that you kind of write off the first year in a new country as an unpredictable and exceptionally demanding adjustment period. You’re just trying to figure out where in the heck the baking soda is. Is it anywhere in this country? And what is it called? And how can I find a doctor for my child? And how many times am I going to re-transcribe into a new language all of my children’s medical records? That alone takes a great deal of time, focus and effort.” 

I guess I am lucky to be living in Switzerland, here I don’t have to translate. The swiss are used to language differences and usually speak good english and a handful of other languages as well. But I totally agree that the first year is a wash. I’ve been married 18 years, have moved 22 times -6 times in the last 2 1/2 years and I know that it challenged me to the core. It feels like I waist so much time trying to get up to speed only to move again. International moves are in a league of there own. It is impossible to explain the anxiety I get knowing I need to visit the immigration office for some form, or the Swiss DMV for a new license. Everything is stressful and confusing- not unlike the American counterpart. Only in American I can read the signs, the forms, and I know how to ask for the supervisor. If I ever become fluent It will make life a little easier.

There are cost to expat living…

Melissa writes about a few of the cost to expat living: “ The core costs are related to community. I don’t have a continuous, long-standing community with me, and I have not had that kind of permanent, reliable, known support ever while raising my family.  When your life is going peachy and there are no speed bumps whatsoever–then you might not feel you need a strong community. You can breaststroke all by yourself. But when you are paddling upstream against currents like new cultures, new languages, new ways of doing everything, when life deals you whirlpools, it’s very difficult to navigate those without a stable, trusted community.” This resonates with me deeply. When we lived in Greenville South Carolina, Axel was 2, we moved away when he was 7 it was the most wonderful 5 years of stability we ever enjoyed. Coco was born a few blocks from our home at a birth house and slept in my bedroom from her first day on this earth. Greenville feels more like home than anywhere in the world, and we only lived there for 5 years.  I felt deeply connected to my community, I felt supported and safe. I still miss those people and often wish we could return to the comfort and security of that place. One of the reasons blogging is so important to me, particularly since I left Greenville, was to find a way to maintain relationship that mean so much to me. The digital world- while a weak substitute for real life- provides me some comfort, contact, reassurances and a sense of community that I would not otherwise experience.

One of the biggest challenges of the experience, and perhaps is true for all ex-pats, is a dilemma that’s hard to describe. It’s akin to having 1 foot in America and 1 foot in Switzerland all the time you feel a bit stretched. There are of course the little things like keeping in touch with families on different time zones and continents. There is the inaccessibility of some of our favorite foods, and finding creative ways to substitute them here. But mostly it’s a state of mind: trying to get the most out of this experience- really enjoy it every day and invest in a future, but knowing that it is not going to last forever, the investment is temporary . It’s a strange thing to make decisions based on only enough foresight to plan for about a year or so at a time. You don’t buy furniture for the long run you buy things that you can tolerate for a few years. You travel and do a lot because it’s a perk that won’t be around in a few years. You make friends but with the understanding that at some point it will become a long distance relationship that (at best) means FB likes and Christmas greetings.  I often feel helpless when confronted with problems but reassured  that eventually I’ll be gone and won’t have to deal with it anymore. No matter how beautiful this country is, no matter how many exciting travel perks there are, no matter how often friends back home remind me how lucky I am, I still look forward to the day you can return home and really get back to the business of getting on with life. You may be rolling your eyes but I miss PTA, teacher appreciation week, part time jobs, & Home Depot. It’s just a strange thing to be in/at a place trying to enjoy it and still waiting for it to be over. Not everyone would agree, not everyone struggles with just being in the moment with out thinking about tomorrow and how to best be strategically prepared for it. Expats are, after all lumped into a big category but with lots of different experiences and degrees of support. I sometimes envy the international school moms in their sorority, or the big cooperate expats with helpful HR departments. But in the end I just hope I made all the right moves one day at a time.

“…It (xpat living) would bless my family and generations to come.”-  Melissa Dalton-Bradford

In my late 20’s my expat life was more of a long vacation. After an exhausting day of work my husband and I sat down in a crowded apartment to discuss the dreaded task of listing our house (in another state) for sale. He suggested I just quit working and move to Europe leaving the stress behind. I was not in the mood for fantasies at it took me a few minutes to be convinced of his sincerity. Six weeks later I was arriving in Basel Switzerland on my first, first class flight… my first international flight… my first time leaving an english speaking country. I spent the next few years taking painting classes, dabbling in german classes, teaching cooking lessons, hiking, and vacation planning. Of course I remember that time fondly. But when we were offered the position in Switzerland last year, I had to take pause knowing that this time around it would be a very different kind of experience, and indeed it is.

Experiencing expat life as a “DINK” in my late 20’s was like a long adventure vacation. Dragging a family into this is a very different thing. I felt deeply certain and spiritually affirmed about our decision to come to Switzerland. I knew that our path would likely be uphill for a while and felt sure we could succeed with our efforts at conquering the language and other integration challenges. Moving to a foreign country and choosing to immerse in local culture sounds almost like preaching on a soapbox~ it is exactly the right thing to say and exactly the right attitude to have. If however, I had a company to pay for private school, if I had a choice to live closer to the big city full of other english speaking expats, if I had the money for 2 cars a bigger house and all the other luxuries that make our life more American – more normal- I probably would have caved-in and thrown in the integration towel after only a few months. I hope in the end it will have all paid off.  I have to believe that it will bless my family in ways I don’t presently imagine. In the end I know that my authentic and hard won experience will be one that helps me relate better to, and learn more from, the Swiss culture. Understanding that life is full of trade off’s is something I learned from the Swiss years ago in my first Expat life.

I am filled with hope that the struggles and sacrifices we face now will pay off in spades, particularly for my children. But there are concerns. I mention them on the blog from time to time -seeing your kids struggle is hard. Knowing that I am making these decisions to give them an “enriched life” when all they want is a “normal” life- thats hard.

To borrow the words from Melissa “In a perpetually interrupted life- I’m overcome by… concern– for my children because I don’t know how I could gather a group and I don’t even know where I would gather one. I don’t have twenty-five years or even ten years or even five years in one uninterrupted place so that people know my name or my family’s history. Who do my children have to champion them from year to year? I don’t have school faculty that has known them for three or four years and that knows their strengths and weaknesses and feels invested in them. We’re always the newcomers. I don’t have piano teachers and clarinet teachers and flute teachers that have been progressing with my child. We seem to always be reestablishing ourselves. And as anyone knows who has moved even from one home to another in one city, of from one city to another in the same state, in the same country, it takes a lot to reestablish oneself. If you then add to that the overlay of moving to a different country, culture, neighborhood, house, and a different school system, and a different church community, and above all to a different language, you can begin to imagine that it takes a long time and great deal of energy to get yourself up to speed”. I hope I have not mortgaged my children’s childhood to pay for my own retirement and dreams of travel.

A surprising benefit to living in Switzerland…

I hope I have laid out the reality that it is not always rosy, living in a foreign country and adapting to a new culture. At first I was very nervous about having to send Gabriel to school, having him walk out of my sight, if only for a few minutes, made me imagine every disastrous scenario possible. But we are lucky to live in such a safe place and I realized that there are lots of eyes on our children we live only a few blocks from school, and the children are all walking in at the same time which provides me with more reassurance. Some of my friends from the states will think I’m crazy, and for weeks I walked back-and-forth as close as I could to school to assure his safety. Now I have given him a watch I’ve helped to memorize his schedule, and everyone expects him to be on time. It’s incredibly liberating for both of us. I now realize that it has given him so much more confidence knowing that he can do things by himself and that freedom seems to have been a positive change. Sophia will start school in the fall and I will of course walk her back-and-forth for a while. If she didn’t have an older brother I think this would be a cause of great anxiety, but walking to school with Gabriel only the few blocks will be no big deal and I think it will be a fun time for both of them. Most parents will just expect their children to walk home for lunch and in the afternoon without any supervision. I know you must be shaking your head right now it is such a shock, but it’s really one of the wonderful perks that we have grown quite delighted with.

Things I miss the most…

One of the hardest things about living here is apartment lifestyle. We are only a few floors, but carrying groceries from the parking garage and up to our flat is more of a inconvenience then back home. Our flat is very close to the other building around us and there is a feeling that I am being watched all the time (it’s not just paranoia!). One of the things I miss the most is having a yard, I will never take one for granted again. The ability to spill out of the house any time of year, I have realized, is a valuable commodity, especially when living in small spaces. And finally having to share a laundry room can also be difficult especially when your neighbors can be a bit temperamental.

The other really difficult challenge is Axels school, particularly attendance policy. Each canton is different and our canton seems to be on the more strict side of thinking. If you miss more than 2 days you must get a doctors note, and if you miss for any other reason you must write a letter to the school board to apply for a dispensation ahead of time. Dispensations are not liberally handed out (we got one for the last 2 days of school to travel to our homeland and celebrate our national holiday (July 4) with our kinsmen, but we were warned not to ask again- TWO FREAKEN DAYS~ SERIOUSLY?!). If you miss with out dispensation or doctors notes you are subject to penalties, usually in the form of hefty fines (I heard the going rate is 100 chf per day). We have only missed a day and a half since we have been living here (1 year) but travel offers frequently tempt me to test my boundaries; however fines would negate the savings and I acquiesce into compliance. By law children must attend school and I have a very hard time with the amount of control the school seems to have over our lives- it is a totally different way of thinking than where we are from in the states. Back home parents were encouraged to volunteer, visit, and participate in school activities and especially in volunteer capacities. I was involved and in-the-know regarding policy and school dynamics. Here it is off limits, very much controlled by the staff. I liked supporting and encouraging our teachers, I liked appreciation week and assisting them with needs that enriched my children’s lives. I missed being a partner where both sides are accountable to the other.

Things I don’t miss…

Im general there seems to be far less pressure to look like a supermodel, entertain like martha and decorate like architectural digest. Don’t get me wrong the Swiss on average have a far lower rate of obesity than does America. What I mean to say is their bodies are natural, they don’t stand-out in a way that makes me wonder what I am doing wrong or how certain perfect proportions are even possible. The swiss women (I see everyday) look like normal mothers struggling to get another day managed successfully. They aren’t having professional blowouts, or batting their new eyelash extensions or sporting elegant runway inspired outfits (thank you ladies). They are also not seemingly struggling with decorating a house that looks like the pages of a magazine. I think it’s fair to say that most Europeans (perhaps most of the world) live with far less personal space that we Americans. It may seem philanthropic but it’s simply not a choice. In our area only the most privileged are allowed spacious living quarters and here in Central Switzerland only the Uber-Riche enjoy single family homes… Oh how I miss a single family home. Fences make good neighbors. On the other hand I love planning family fun day (every saturday) with out ever a care to the long list of to-do’s that accompany home ownership. I will happily embrace it again but at least there is an upside for the trade off. Having new cities, languages, food and cultures all within a few hours drive makes for a great distraction from yard work and painting baseboards. I digress… I haven’t figured out why they aren’t the consumer obsessed, perfection obsessed, society that we seem to be?

A few things I love that make life better everyday…

Walking and biking are the normal way to get from here to there. And public transportation is always an option. We own a car and I can’t quite imagine getting along with out it here in rural Switzerland, but I know families who do not, and they are quite content. Walking and biking allows us to take a little more time to enjoy the stunning indescribable beauty that surrounds us every day.

Fresh food– The swiss are very picky about quality and this especially applies to food. Their patriotic about the bread and cheese (well deserved). The chocolate is of course top notch. And I truly believe that the produce always taste better here than back home. (As a side note it rots a lot faster too – does this suggest that our food is never ripe when picked and shipped so far from it source? Yes, I am an advocate of buying local and eating seasonally when possible).

Scenery – The views improve the quality of life. This may sound like a ridiculous statement but I assure you, that when you are able to see the views, especially on a sunny day you can’t help but love this place, love your life, and feel grateful for the opportunities.

Church bells – Switzerland’s relationship with time is as infamous as its watches. But hearing the bells ring is a pleasant little reminder to stay on track for example we have bells on the hour, half hour there are longer periods of ringing for different hours of the day. I haven’t figured out the pattern yet but I always no when preschool is starting, and ending, and strangely there seems to be a long bell ringing at 10:30 which says “Haus Frau’s make sure your lunch is starting to cook, the family will be arriving in one hour.”

Work atmosphere is 180 degrees different from states- less stress, less pressure to work long hours and devote you entire existence to your career and company. Spartacus rarely travels and is encouraged to get away from his desk at lunch, sometimes he comes home to eat with our family and frequently he uses the time to run or play squash.

Travel– The opportunity to live in Europe allows us to explore and savor each location in a much more enjoyable way than would be possible if we were just visiting for a few weeks. We justify the cost and take every opportunity to indulge. We have the rare opportunity to live closer to many cultures that heavily influenced our own, we have a greater opportunity to learn and understand the history of Western Civilization and to share it with our children. And because Europeans are huge travelers the cost of travel to more far away places like Asia are also easier, airlines tickets are cheaper, time changes are smaller, and time off is more abundant.

Feeling anonymous– I love (especially on the rare occasion I am actually alone) walking through crowded foreign cities or unfamiliar countrysides, soaking in all the waves of newness and smiling at the feeling of invisibility. Being surrounded and alone can be both liberating and lonely at the same time but I enjoy it either way.

Discovery– One advantage to living a life where you are constantly uprooting yourself is the opportunity for discovery and the delight that comes from being surprised by new treasures in your life- be it playgrounds in the Alps, long promenades along the lakes of Northern Italy, Sweet mouthfuls of juicy cherries from Provence or quirky phrases in other languages that completely accurately describe human experience but that don’t exist in English…. these are a few of my favorite things! 

GLOBAL MOM a memoir by Melissa Dalton-Bradford from Michelle Lehnardt on Vimeo.

Thanks Global Mom for giving me words for my feelings and experiences!

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