The Truth Behind the Expat Fairy Tale...

Having a vino with some fellow expats last night had us all in giggles, and "oh my god, you too!!" kinda moments - the highs, the idiosyncrasies and the very rarely talked about low-lows. It was such an honest and open conversation and brought about a wave of relief, - in the words of Sam Smith: I (now) know I'm not the only one... So I decided that a few of the not-so-glamorous truths need to be revealed.

Most expats at one stage or another (or every other day) have most likely heard this sentence:“Oh, you live in Croatia (or insert said exotic country here), that is amazing, you are so lucky”. Lucky? Are you shitting me? Let me tell you, it is not all beaches, vino, coffee and sunshine (ok, there are a lot of these things), but I worked damned hard to be where I am today, I made a LOT of mistakes, took a lot of risks, but most of all, it took every ounce of courage I could muster to throw caution to the wind, follow my heart and move to a foreign country (well this is the answer I wish I responded anyway). So please understand that when you use the word lucky, it feels like you are completely undermining everything I, nay, WE have been through. So here are some of the truths behind the fairy tale...(what Facebook doesn't show you)

1. There are tears. There are a lot of tears. Oh god the runny-nosed, blubbering, hyperventilating, messy tears (I have no idea how I still have a husband). Being an expat has sometimes made me feel like a hormonal teenager, bursting into tears at the slightest infraction from life. Now don’t get me wrong, I am and always have been an emotional and empathetic soul, prone to the odd tear or two... but if there was an Olympics for crying, I just came home victorious with the gold medal!

2. Self-doubt. Self-doubt follows most of us throughout various stages of our life, but this was self-doubt on a whole new level, meet self-doubt on steroids. More often than not most of us (expats) don’t work when we first arrive, we need time to get settled, become a resident, tax number etc. all of that awesome life admin that everyone loves… But with little else to occupy our minds, self-doubt pumps itself up on 'Roids' and moves in with us full-time. And let me tell you, this pumped up new housemate is a real talker; nattering away day and night, pounding us with a million unanswerable questions, making us question the very fabric of our existence...

3. Language. Let me say this, there is NOTHING sexy or exotic about learning a language – speaking a foreign language? Maybe. But how did everyone skip the part that first, you have to learn the language?! You sound absolutely ridiculous, and mortally embarrassed when a 10 year old speaks better Croatian AND English than you. Have you ever lost your voice and had to go to a dinner party, how frustrating was that? Not being able to speak, join in the conversation, contribute, I mean you may as well have not been there right? Now imagine this feeling, daily. You are starting to get the picture.

4. Meet Nigel No Mates. Yes, this was me. "Go out and make friends with the locals" you say. Are you serious, did you not just read any of the above?? I was basically a mess, a shell of my former former self, unable to express even the most basic phrases, let alone my personality. (Oh and you better believe that by this point self-doubt had me doubting my ENTIRE personality - it's not called self-doubt for no reason!) My vocabulary and conversational skills were limited to: "ja sam dobro, kako si?" (I am good, how are you). Then when the conversation moved too quickly, I would inevitably have to blurt out "ja govorim samo malo Hrvatski!" (I speak just a little Croatian!) - ironically so, this is the exact same sentence that keeps us trapped in this cycle of limited conversation because we cling to it far longer than we need to, like a child to it's 'blankie'. So as you can see, it is hardly thrilling conversation, or an opening for friendship it it? I mean fuck, had I met myself last year, I am 100% certain I wouldn't even want to be friends with me.

5. Really lonely and alone (apart from your loving husband of course). Ever been separated from your friends and family for an extended period of time? What’s that you say? "I have done plenty of travelling by myself, I loved it, I am a natural, all I think about is wanderlust...". Well guess what? So did I, and I can tell you that NONE of my travels prepared me for this; because one thing I learnt while travelling the big wide world by myself, was that I was never truly alone. Travelling is like a special club that allows you to instantly connect with everyone. This is most definitely not the case when you are LIVING in a small town, in a foreign country, where few locals speak English... The beauty and magic of the foreign experience escaped me as I felt true isolation for the first time in my life.

6. Lethargy. "You have so much free time, it must be amazing, surely you are being so productive and doing everything you always dreamed…" Basic answer, no. No I am not. You would THINK that my season of not working last year would have lead me to do all sorts of amazing, uber-productive things, but in reality, it had the complete opposite effect. Again, refer to all of the above, and see whether you feel inspired? Oh the times in my life I have said, if only I had more time, I would be a super-shredded fitness goddess, a walking Buddha, a published author, a perfect wife… I had all the time in the world, and guess what? I was none of the above! If I had to use one word to describe me, actually two, it would be a depressed sloth. You see, passion breeds passion. If I think back to the times in my life when I was the most productive, I was also the busiest – I had a job I loved, was exercising, socializing, writing, visiting the latest trendy restaurants and cafes... I felt relevant, I had purpose. When you take away purpose, you take away the spark of life. So while I was pulling myself apart to put myself back together, (eventually becoming a shinier, newer version) I hardly had the energy to be titled Miss Productive 2014.

BUT after all this, here I am, here we are, doing it. Why? Quite simply because we wouldn’t have it any other way - well maybe ideally we would have it another way… I didn’t choose to fall in love with a man from Croatia, but it happened, so here I am. And as my father would most likely tell me, I have just had to learn to “suck it up princess”.

I can share and laugh at these moments now because I have broken out on the other side of my ‘sloth-like-depression’. It most definitely was not pretty (as you can see in picture no.1), but I made it, I am making it. Every day is filled with challenges and this EXPAT road is definitely not for the light-hearted – the tears, frustrations, self-doubt, isolation, sacrifices (family, friends, gatherings, special occasions…), none of this was, or is easy. BUT I choose to believe that following your heart is ALWAYS worth it. Life is not a dress-rehearsal.

So in the end actually, perhaps this is a fairy-tale of a different kind (what they don’t show you after the credits have stopped rolling...) And we all know, every ending is just the beginning of a different story, but that will have to wait for another day.

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1 comment :

  1. I was with you until the last sentence, "know that I am jealous of the pictures you post of family gatherings, BBQs, reunions, baby showers, weddings – you name it, know that I wish I was there". For some of us the wanderlust actually ignites from a desire to escape those very, often-forced, family "intimacies". We actually prefer long-distance family celebrations, punctuated by periodic face-to-face encounters, carefully timed in such a way as to maintain contact while avoiding mundanity.

    Your laments over acquiring new language skills reminded me of amusing conversations I've had with other expats in which the only language we had in common was the host country language we were both struggling to learn. Our mutual linguistic clumsiness became a kind of unifying bond, drawing us both into a common-denominator level of communication and honesty often subverted by more elevated language skills.


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