The Accidental Expatriate

I had a Romper Room moment while reading a travel column on Yahoo the other day. (For non-Romper Room kids, Miss Mary Ann used to hold up the magic mirror and say “I see Jimmy and Kelly and Margaret and and and…I see you!”) I saw my expat friends.

See, the column is entitled “Exploring the joys of expatriate life.” Quit yer snickering, you know who you are.

I was once a sucker for the fantasy of expat living. It was all those damn movies. An American in Paris. That wacky 60s movie with Shirley MacLaine in it. The Year of Living Dangerously (though Mel is not invited for Passover) and Seven Years in Tibet and A Passage to India and and and. Some displaced Brit or Yank has awesome experiences and evolves, or some crap like that. Are there any movies that show what being an expat is REALLY like?

Lest you think I am totally off on expat living, well, that’s not entirely true. It’s just that expat living is nothing like I’d expected it would be.

I think the expat fantasy needs a pie chart. One slice for the hot 20 somethings off to teach English and/or study abroad[1]. Maybe one for the kibbutz volunteer[2]. One slice for the trailing spouses[3]. One slice for the financially well off bugging out for a year or two[4]. One slice for oh my god I fell in love with a foreigner and now I live in the stupidest place ever[5]. I think the advice for each sector of my pie chart would vary wildly. Because it’s easy to tell the 20 something to chill and enjoy herself, but the trailing spouse?

The confession that I’d always wanted to live abroad as a younger, more ridiculous person met with some confusion at my house. If I’d always wanted to and now I had the chance, why wasn’t I living abroad full time? “Not like THIS,” I explained.

In my expat fantasy, I always lived in some crappy yet romantic apartment with a view of the city. Also, I could wear heels as though I was born to it, had the perfect part time job, and was on first name basis with the handsome barrista who made my coffee. I think I also had some breathtaking talent and was, of course, drop dead gorgeous. My expat fantasy was not the cow-filled somewhat solitary country existence I ended up with. My expat fantasy was also not the stunning beauty of snowcovered meadows or the spectacular calorie count of Austrian desserts.

I don’t exactly feel ripped off, but I don’t feel like I got what I ordered, either. I suppose that is an excellent piece of advice for potential intentional expats. No matter how much you prepare, it will be nothing like you imagined it would be.

The Cynic’s Advice for Expats by Slice:

  1. You are so getting laid. Be safe and carpe diem, baby.
  2. See above. Also, all that attention seems flattering at first, but it really gets to be a nuisance.
  3. No one will talk to you. I hope you have a hobby.
  4. You are the luckiest people alive.
  5. Ho ho ho. Boy are you in for it. We should talk.

Cross posted to Lost in Transit.

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11 thoughts on “The Accidental Expatriate

  1. Amen, sister. It ain’t nothing like we imagined it to be.

    I mean…it was for the first year or so. But then…well, you know the rest.

    I’ve gotten dozens of emails over the years (especially since I started writing for Expatica) always asking the same question: “I’m an American and I want to live in Spain. How can I do it?”

    My stock answer, at this point, goes as follows:

    1. You can stay here for three months as a tourist. So, come stay for three months. I’m 99% sure that those three months will satisfy 85% of your expat fantasies. But, if not…

    2. Go home, mow the lawn, do your laundry, and come back for another three month tourist stint. I’m 99% sure that those combined six months will satisfy 99% of your expat fantasies. But, if not…

    3. You take the next step at your own risk. And don’t say that I didn’t warn you.

    Sorry to be a buzzkill, but that’s the way it is.


  2. You cannot imagine how TIMELY this post is. J was sitting at the computer yesterday morning and out of the blue said, “Let’s move to Europe.” After I picked up my jaw…and guffawed (because of our prior experience off the mainland)…I said, “Um. Okay. Sure. Where should we go?” It probably doesn’t help that we have an old, very dear friend (someone who visited us twice in the tropics, the first time for 5 weeks) who made the move from Berkeley to Switzerland many years ago and keeps telling us how he can’t understand why we don’t want to do the same. I, too, am still lured by the ridiculous movie fantasies. And even though I’ve traveled solo in Europe and lived at least a somewhat expat life for years (easier because it was U.S. controlled), I know how far removed the fantasy and reality can be. Even so, the second sentence I uttered was, “Okay, I’ll ask Pam what’s required to work over there.” 😉 (Mind you, we’re not talking about moving ANYWHERE in the short term.)

  3. I guffawed some …. agreed, nodded wisely and wanted to say ‘but but’.

    So I was the late-30’s New Zealander who moved to Istanbul to teach English and I loved it. It was tough but crazy, chaotic and stunning and friendly, OH SO FRIENDLY. Then I met the Belgian and now I live in Belgium … ohdeargod, I live in Belgium, so now I’m creating a lifestyle that will involve much wandering WHEN I am earning again.

    Be wary (which soon turns into weary) of Europe. They seem to think everyone wants in and I’ve never met sigh … going to say it, less friendly people. I still dream of Istanbul and Rome and Spain and anywhere that is Medditeranean in temperament. I will get there one day … or go back to lovely little old New Zealand.

  4. See, Di, you’re just adding another slice. Expats who move to socially lively cultures vs. expats who move to Northern Europe, right? Slice by destination, right?

    Marilyn, read above under what Sal says. And get a work permit before you go via the consulate, depending on WHERE you go, of course. It varies, wildly, even though, yeah, the EU is unified. Ha. FYI, I would so be coming to visit you in Switzerland.

  5. There’s a thing called the expat cycle we talked about in People Management. Smart, top performers go, they are STOKED the first six months, and then descend into a depression that lasts 6 – 36 months as they realise a) that their new home is not familiar, b) most of their friends are all miles away, c) they talk too loud/softly/much/little for the locals, d) they have an incompatable sense of personal space, e) there are some seriously racist/sexist cultures out there, f) they miss central heating, etc. They eventually come out of it, but then the whole thing starts again when they move home.

    Boy Howdy. Ain’t that the truth.

  6. “Europe – it’s a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

    Once again you hit the nail right on the head. I’ve got #5 written on my forehead in magic marker, thank you very much. You bet we should talk.

    At the Germany expat meet-up, fellow-Canadian Jennifer (10 years in Germany, married to a German) mentioned to me that a post I had written for our (mine and Mr. M’s) 15th wedding anniversary in 2005 had struck a chord with her. I’d said that if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t, at least not under these circumstances. She totally got it.

    But what are you gonna do? Here we all are, acting like grown-ups and making the best of it.

    Hey, got any ice cream to go with that slice of pie?

  7. To stretch this thread a bit further…

    I think a key component to expat happiness is having an exit strategy. When you wake up one morning and suddenly realize that the expiration date on your expat milk carton has passed, do you have the possibility of packing-up and going home?

    This seems to be the main reason why most of the [1]’s and [4]’s that I’ve known were happy; and why most of the [3]’s and [5]’s were very much not.

    I don’t know much about [2]. But if those folks are unhappy, then I suspect that it has a lot to do with the food.


  8. Naw, the food in Israel is a decent California/Med/Middle East diet. Good stuff, really, plenty of fresh produce.

    But Kibbutz volunteers do typically have an exit strategy, unless they end up fived and married to a local. When I was a kibbutz volunteer, I was pretty happy a lot of the time, but I found being there culturally wearing.

    Plus, American girls get hit on EVERYWHERE THEY GO and that really gets tiring.

  9. Hey! What about another slice for expats academics who move abroad for a year, find a job and a city that is what they had always sort of imagined a nice job and city would be like and take up residence long term? How to characterize in brief may be tricky, but what about “Academics who chose over North Dakota”?

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