I've gone through my share of challenges in my 5 years abroad, but no move was as tough as my relocation to Bavaria, when I came as a trailing spouse. As I struggled to make a home for myself over the past year and a half, I found that most expats I met were going through the same things I was. Just last week I met some girlfriends for lunch to catch up and one of them commented, "I'm so glad I met all of you. This place got SO much better once I had some friends." We all agreed wholeheartedly, and it got me thinking I should reach out to all of you who might be in that place right now.
I'm calling this series "Sometimes Being an Expat Sucks". It might sound harsh, but when you're in the middle of these issues, it really can suck. So first up, I'm going to talk about a common problem with recently relocated expats-dealing with being lonely.
I love being an expat. I realize how blessed I am to have the experiences and opportunities that I have had in the last few years. But sometimes, it can be really hard. You're far away from family and friends, you have to contend with a foreign culture (and sometimes a foreign language!) and if you're a trailing spouse, you can spend a lot of time alone while your significant other is at work, wondering what on earth you're doing with your life besides sitting in your apartment with no one but your house plant for company. It's rough.
Look, living abroad is not an easy choice. From the outside it looks exotic and glamorous, traveling all the time and living in a foreign locale, but the reality is, it can get lonely. It can be frustrating. It takes a while to build up a new life in a new place-to find new friends and a sense of purpose.
Though I've learned to love my expat life in Bavaria, that wasn't always the case. This time last year I was seriously unhappy and really wondering if moving to Bavaria had been the right choice for me. It's hard to admit that, because at the time I didn't want anyone from home to know the truth. I didn't want them to worry, I didn't want people saying "I told you so", and I didn't want to admit that I felt like I'd failed.
Part of the problem was that I had unrealistic expectations. I figured it would take 3 months to get settled in and make a home here (HAH!). But when I arrived in Bavaria, it was the dead of winter, I had no car, and lived in the middle of nowhere. Meeting another woman my age without kids was like finding a unicorn. Fionn worked long hours and searching for a job was frustrating and fruitless in our rural community.
Some days were VERY frustrating
Fast forward 5 months and I was pretty miserable. We went back to America for our second wedding and I spent an amazing 6 weeks with my friends and family. I felt like I could breathe again. Then all too soon, we were back on a plane to Bavaria.
A week after we returned we had to go to one of Fionn's work functions. One of his coworkers joked to Fionn that he should talk to me more because I was sitting by myself looking absolutely miserable. When Fionn relayed the joke to me later that night, I felt like crying. I WAS miserable. I was desperately homesick and felt so lonely and forgotten here in our new home. No job, no friends, no creative outlet for my music or my writing...what was I doing here??
It took getting to that breaking point 8 months into my expat life to realize I had to change something instead of waiting for my situation to change. Fionn was frustrated, I was frustrated, and I was just tired of being unhappy. So I gave myself a challenge: every day for a month I would try to do something new.
For a month I said yes to anything. Polymer clay class? Sure. Protestant women's group? Ok. Meet up with non military expats 45 minutes away? I'll be there. Introduce myself to the other 20-something girl sitting alone at the cafe on post? Hi, my name is Shannon.
Then something amazing happened. I started hearing the same story over and over again. All the women I met also felt lost and lonely in a foreign land. They craved the same connection I did, and they were just as happy as me to finally have a friend to meet for coffee or a chat. And suddenly, I had friends. I got invited to play music in a local band. When the guys were in the field for weeks at a time, I invited the other childless girls to my house for dinner and Friends marathon.
Basically, it got better. Though I still get homesick or frustrated with Germany some times, I am so much happier here. I feel like I have a life here, and it made such an amazing difference in my expat experience.
Of course, everyone's expat situation is different. Maybe you're geographically isolated or don't speak the language, but don't let that keep you down. In the age of the internet, don't miss out on connecting with other expat women online who can identify with what you're going through. The expat blogging community is full of amazingly friendly and helpful women that I wish I had known this time last year. Heck, send me an email! I have been there and I know that sometimes a sympathetic ear can make the worst culture shock meltdown day better. I've been in your shoes and I'm happy to help!
With that said, here are the things I wish I could go back in time and tell myself plus anyone else who is struggling in their new expat life!
1. Be kind to yourself. Stop beating yourself up because you don't feel completely at home and comfortable in a foreign place. Give yourself lots of time, allow yourself to have days where you cry in the shower cause you're just so TIRED of everything being different, and cut yourself some slack if things don't change right away. You can't replace a lifetime of friends, memories, and cultural understanding in a few months.
2. Reach out to others in your situation. This can be online or in the real life. These women are going through the same thing you are and are probably feeling the same way. They want friends, familiarity, and a sense of belonging. On the flip side, if you're an established expat, pay it forward and reach out to the newbie in your group. You might be the helping hand who pulls her up. I still remember the person who did this for me and am SO grateful!
3. Be brave. You've already moved to a foreign country! You ARE brave! The adventure has only just begun. Muster up a little more courage and look for ways to plug in to your new community. Invite a new acquaintance to coffee. Join a club. Take a class in your host nation's language. Just try! Just don't stay in the house!
4. It's OK to be homesick. Home is still home. You're not a failure if you miss your mom, your circle of friends, or being able to walk into Target and get exactly what you want. It's ok to still love and miss where you come from, as long as you don't spend all your time dwelling on it.
5. Nothing will change without ACTION. This is the big mistake I made. Sitting in my house being unhappy didn't change anything about my situation. You have to try to make a change. If you start actively trying to change your situation, things will start happening!
I know I have a lot of expat ladies who read the blog. Do y'all have any tips? Did you go through the lonely/frustrated phase? I'd love to hear your comments!
Next up in the series-Part 2: When You Have No Creative Outlet