Living abroad: it’s a hard-knock expat life

June 21, 2011 in Career,Life,Philosophy,Travel

Some see the glass as half full, others see it as half empty…you see it and think, “let’s pour out the water and fill it with beer!” That was what the birthday card my grandma sent me said–and as I waver between my general optimism and a biting dose of realism, I’m tempted to just have a drink and forget my problems.

Surfer on a stormy day at Bronte Beach, Sydney, Australia

I recently wrote about my little expat joys. It’s true: I love living in another country, soaking up all it has to offer . I constantly tell myself that these are the adventures that I will love telling my kids about someday, that I won’t remember the downs nearly as much as I remember the ups.

But as I sit curled up on my couch, sipping a glass of red wine after a long day at work,  searching my mind for something to write about: I realize that expat life isn’t nearly as glamorous as I often try to make it seem.

Jilted wanderlust: I haven’t had the time, energy or funds to get out of Melbourne in months. I’m back to weighing using vacation days versus their eventual payout: how very American of me! I’d love to take advantage of the cheap hotels in Portugal Algarve, the opportunity to get away–but heck, I can’t afford it in time or money.

Family's new mutt puppy, Annie

There’s no place like home: I don’t get homesick all that much (thank you, Skype!). I’m lucky enough to have a family that is incredibly supportive of what I’m doing, and doesn’t subject me to the guilt that many other travelers and expats experience. But yes, there are moments when I want to be home. I miss my grandma’s always-stocked cookie jar and knowing that the Golf Channel will ALWAYS be on when my dad is home–and there’s nothing quite like my mom’s apple pie. They’ve put my family dog to sleep since I’ve been away, and since gotten a new puppy: it’s weird only knowing the newest addition to the family via Skype.

The glitter wears off: When you’re only in a city for a weekend, everything is shiny and new and wonderful. For example: I always love figuring out new public transportation in a city. I was completely enamoured with the Paris Metro and the Melbourne tram–before I started relying on them to get to work every day. Then I realized how awful it is to spend 90 minutes a day jam-packed with people who don’t always believe that deodorant is necessity–and that while Melbourne trams may be quaint, their concept of on-time arrival is a bit antiquated as well.

Humdrumness of everyday life: I work Monday through Friday from 9 to 5. I commute via a 15-minute walk and a 15-minute tram ride, for which I wear practical flats and bring a library book. I pay my rent and bills and contribute to my 401K. I do price comparisons between brand name and generic at the grocery store. I love my job, I love my apartment, I love Melbourne: but honestly, it is not nearly as exciting as people imagine when I say I live in Australia (hot surfer boys! gorgeous beaches! kangaroos! year-round sunshine! koalas!).

Home is where the art is, graffiti in Richmond, Melbourne, Australia

Can’t get what you want: Despite my obsession with delicious food and amazing coffee, I am not much to rave about in the kitchen. Sure, I can follow a recipe, and occasionally I pull off a three-course French meal for other people–but mostly, I rely on a rotating menu of very boring, protein-rich staples. What’s annoying is when I can’t find the basics that I use in my favorite recipes: giant Snyder’s hard pretzels, shredded Mexican cheese, fresh pico de gallo salsa. The fact that I have to rely on my poor mother (can you invest in the U.S. Post Office? Because if so, she needs to buy a healthy share) to send me supplies of my staples–Orbit Sweet Mint Gum and Emergen-C–is just getting a bit ridiculous.

Is it worth it?: I struggle to maintain friendships via Gchat, Facebook, Skype, occasional phone calls and postcards. It is not easy. I waver between feeling like I have nothing to say–yup, everything’s fine–and everything to say–I miss you, everything is different, am I making the right decision? I am missing babies being born and wedding showers–but mostly, it’s the little things that make all the difference: being able to text my best friend about an inside joke, girls night out in the city, hungover Sunday brunches.

How do you deal with the little negatives of expat life?

  • Anonymous

    Exactly–it’s a great chance to have a more authentic experience in Australia than just a quick vacay! I’m very happy with my decision to be here–just wanted to point out that it’s not always smooth sailing :)

  • http://twitter.com/DangerousBiz Amanda Williams

    People often forget that living abroad actually means LIVING abroad — with bills and jobs and down days, just like at home. Sure, you’re in a different country. But, once the shiny new-ness wears off, sometimes it’s easy to slip into a routine that makes you realize all those little things you’re missing at home.

    Though, judging from your other posts and tweets, you’re still enjoying most of your time in Melbourne. Which means it’s probably still worth it.  :)

    Kudos on the honesty!

  • Anonymous

    There are definitely more highs and lows–totally still happy with the life I’ve chosen in Melbourne! I suppose it’s really just relaying to people that expat life isn’t an extended vacation :) Thanks for the comment–I’m sure you have been able to relate!

  • http://twitter.com/JacknJillTravel Jack and Jill

    I’d been living in the states away from my family for 10 years – so I definitely agree with many of your points. I feel like I’m missing out so much on what’s going on over there. At the same time it makes me appreciate my family more when I do come home to visit. And luckily, where we used to live before we took off to travel, there was an authentic Indonesian restaurant nearby. That is going to be requirement wherever we end up after our travel.

  • Anonymous

    Glad I’m not the only one…I think I’d be much happier if I could find a truly authentic (and cheap!) Mexican restaurant in Melbourne. There is one that I’ve heard is delicious–but unfortunately, I don’t think it’s on the cheap side :)

  • Jill

    Oh my gosh Christine you are such a great writer!  I stumbled on this blog just as I crawled in bed after a long day at work and wasting a little time on facebook looking at the weddings and babies I am missing. Such great timing for me to read this.  Sometimes it is hard, but then I have to remind myself of the people I have met on my travels (some of course having greater impact than others) and the friendships and experiences that I would not have had had I not left home.  Not to long ago I was talking to a friend back at home after a bad day and he stated “why don’t you just quit and come home.” I had to remind him that I have a real job and life here and this was a choice I made for this point of my life.  I am a true believer though you have to experience the bad times in order to truly appreciate the highs.  Don’t take the time you have hear for granted I have almost been in Aus now for a year and it has FLOWN by. 

  • http://marisawilliams.com risamay

    I can’t speak to the negatives of expat life because I’m not an expat, but most of what you describe is what I know that I too would experience if I ever am able to make my expat dreams a reality. So in the meantime, I try (and do a lot of failing) to appreciate the things that I love most about living in the United States. And there are many things, when I’m forced to really think about what they are. In a weird way then, wanting to live elsewhere has given me a greater appreciation for my own country. That said, I still think I’d leap at the chance to leave. Even just for a few months, or a few years.

    Also, on the glitter … I feel that way a lot of times after a few weeks in one place on my photo trips. I think that’s why I was so bummed to be stuck in Paris last spring (per the volcano in Iceland) when I was *supposed* to be in Nice. Don’t get me wrong, I love (love, love) Paris, but I’ve been enough times that the newness and novelty of it is completely gone. I have a harder and harder time photographing it with fresh eyes, because it’s all so familiar. You know? I ended up focusing on doors and making a point to explore and be on the lookout at all times for divine portals, and that was fun, in the end. My point is, the more in touch with a place I feel, the harder I have to work to see and enjoy it anew. I’m up to the task, but it’s work, nevertheless. So I totally get where you’re coming from right now, I think.

  • http://twitter.com/100Mileshighway Katherina

    Struggling with the negatives of being an expat…yes, I know exactly what you mean. While my friends are organizing weekend trips to the mountains or to the beach in Spain, I’m missing it all out. I’m afraid that, whenever I’m back, I won’t understand the insider jokes, I won’t know where to go and what to do. That is probably the most difficult thing to deal with… maintaining your friendship in distance. 

    Loved this post, as I always do!

  • http://twitter.com/OdysseusDrifts Melanie Ehler

    When my expat life starts to feel too humdrum, I just switch it up locally — I find someplace I’ve never seen in the city to visit or go out of my way to try a new food. Even though I’ve lived in Seoul nearly 2 years and done a lot of stuff, there’s still a fair amount of “new” things to try. Even just wandering through a random area of town can feel refreshing to me.

  • meredith snyder

    so true. every choice has its pros & cons, its ups & downs, its benefits & sacrifices.

    here’s to venting about the negatives, then resuming a focus on the positives!

  • Anonymous

    just read a bunch of your blog entries…i didnt do much reading in central america- but it always is nice to read them and get doses of inspiration!!! keep it up xtreme. you are so…..Xtreme?!

  • Anonymous

    Awww thank you Jill! Can definitely relate to a lot of what you said before now that I’m full-on living and working in Melbourne–it’s definitely a big life choice!
    Was up in Sydney last weekend and stayed in Paddington–totally thought of our fun wander through there! Next time I’m in Syd, we’ll definitely have to grab a drink :)

  • Anonymous

    Can definitely agree with you re: having to work to make it new. I think that as long as you’re making the attempt to see things with new eyes, you’ll always find something a little bit special :)

  • Anonymous

    Glad you were able to relate! I definitely miss my friends from home, but I realize that some of my friendships will be the exact same no matter how long we’re apart–and that’s what really matters :)

  • Anonymous

    Very true! There are still heaps of Melbourne and Victoria that I need to explore :)

  • Anonymous

    Very true! Just didn’t want my blog to be promoting ONLY the positives–need to keep a balance :)

  • Anonymous

    Once Xtreme, always Xtreme :) Thanks lady, glad you enjoyed them!!! (Especially now that you know all about the challenges of blogging!)

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  • http://twitter.com/countryskipper Country Skipper

    I totally hear you! This is exactly how I feel at times… I’ve been doing the expat thing for over seven years now and sometimes I wonder if I’ve made the right decisions. I’m in Texas and going home to Germany is in the cards only once or twice a year – and when I’m there it’s usually whirlwind of trying to see everybody, eat everything, and enjoy every moment. Not exactly the real life either. Most days I’m superhappy with my life abroad, but sometimes I wonder what could have been… and you are so right: the glitter wears off. So many of my friends see my pictures and tell me how exciting it all must be. Well, it kind of is, but it also is kind of “normal” at this points. I try to do trips here and there between my big Europe breaks to keep it fresh – I guess sometimes I just need to feel like a tourist again :)

  • http://twitter.com/countryskipper Country Skipper

    I totally hear you! This is exactly how I feel at times… I’ve been doing the expat thing for over seven years now and sometimes I wonder if I’ve made the right decisions. I’m in Texas and going home to Germany is in the cards only once or twice a year – and when I’m there it’s usually whirlwind of trying to see everybody, eat everything, and enjoy every moment. Not exactly the real life either. Most days I’m superhappy with my life abroad, but sometimes I wonder what could have been… and you are so right: the glitter wears off. So many of my friends see my pictures and tell me how exciting it all must be. Well, it kind of is, but it also is kind of “normal” at this points. I try to do trips here and there between my big Europe breaks to keep it fresh – I guess sometimes I just need to feel like a tourist again :)

  • Anonymous

    I think that’s the hardest thing–my weekends are when I WANT to act like a tourist, but too often I’m just tired and want to go to the gym, do my grocery shopping, lie on the couch, etc. It takes a lot of energy to be a proper expat!

  • http://twitter.com/SkyBrideDW Ashley Wali

    I feel like you just wrote my life story! When I was living in Mexico, I struggled with this all the time.  No one understood that I bought groceries, watched TV, and did actually work a regular job. They thought I spent all day at beach resorts :) I found myself dreaming of traveling..even though I was an expat! My friends and family thought I was so obnoxious for that.

    Every time it happened I would remind myself that I had chosen this experience, and it was something I had always wanted to do.  I knew it would make me a better, stronger, more resilient person, and though it seems simple, I just accepted the feelings as part of the bargain and didn’t try to change them.  …And I walked outside to take a good, long look at the volcano, thinking, “This sure isn’t D.C.”

  • Dolly1424

    Hi Christine, knowing that we are expats makes us feel like the place we are in,  we will soon leave, and therefore does not entice us to make friends and create relationships.  We should open our heart to people around us regardless of where we are at the moment,  instead of just memorable places great restaurants and amazing food… You have been to so many places travelling the world, and you stayed in some places longer that the others.  I decided to create a life wherever I am.  I don’t consider it  temporary, but a life of the present.  I love making friends, new friends takes me into their families and that makes me feel more at home.  Life is a never ending travel, that is why we are all immigrants.  We grow, we finish school from another state, we find a job elsewhere, we meet someone we love who takes us somewhere else.  I am from Asia, my husband was from the Middle East and we decided to make a life in California.   When I sometimes tell him, I miss my home (meaning my homeland), he would jokingly tell me,  “Your home is where I am and my home is where you are”.  Truly, home is where your heart is.

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  • Anonymous

    I’m glad I’m the only one! I hate sounding like I’m complaining when I talk to my friends who are still living and working in my hometown, but seriously, it’s not always that exciting! My biggest motivation is my mom: she did heaps of traveling and worked lots of cool jobs before she had me, and I want to be able to tell my kids (someday very far in the future!) about all the stuff I did :)

  • Anonymous

    That’s a really great way of looking at it! I definitely admit that I’m not the best about living in the present–I’m always thinking about next steps! However, I’ve made some amazing friends all around the world–sometimes over only a few days or weeks. Totally value every experience–and it’s so great to hear from others who are able to create a fabulous life, no matter where they are in the world :)

  • Amy

    Hi Christine! Thanks for
    starting this conversation of validation!
    To add a slightly different angle, I believe creative people (wonderful lot
    they are!) unfortunately wilt or ‘don’t
    stay’, under strict 9-5 conditions over time, no matter where in the world they
    are. (Especially where your growth is tightly defined by someone else or if the
    3 holy-grails-of-happy-work are no where to be found!!) Not sure if ‘burn out’
    is the right description, but I swear I saw the words “The 4-Hour Work Week” on
    one of these pages…? :)
    Considering your affinity with France
    and your awareness of lifestyle design, I would like to share with you the French
    Jobs Emploi List @ http://www.frenchiness.com.

    Keep up all the inspiring
    Christine!

    From Amy @ Melbourne
    frenchiness.

  • Anonymous

    Merci, Amy :)

  • Napoli

    Thank you SO MUCH! I have been living in Naples, Italy for 6 months now. I’ve lived abroad before, but spoke the language (German) and moved over with a German boyfriend. The first 3 months here were GREAT–best “vacation” I’d had in years! Now…I’m hating my job, missing my old life in DC, and feeling I made the wrong decision in coming here. However, I’m feeling incredibly guilty for not enjoying it more. I have limited funds, can’t do too much travel. Having always thought of myself as an “international” person, I can’t believe I’m having this reaction to this place! I’m incredibly lonely, have no desire to explore anything now, am depressed, don’t have access to healthcare treatment, and have no support system… the posters below are right in that although my life looks idyllic on facebook, I  work, commute, buy groceries, struggle to learn the language, and watch DVDs at home. I’m re-thinking the move and planning to go back. Is there something I’m missing–that maybe someone could post about?? I’m “living the dream” and depressed every day …. :*( is it “okay” to go back home?

  • Anonymous

    I think it’s all about doing what makes you happy. If living abroad isn’t it anymore, then maybe it’s time to go home…I know that I am BEYOND excited about a trip home this spring! Can’t force something that’s not there…

  • Saviomeireles

    I was living in Austrália for 1 year when I had a motorbike accident and had to come back home (Brazil) for the surgery and recovery. It’s been my forced vacations, but It’s been good so far. I could visit all my friends, meet my family….but I could also feel what’s like to live in Brazil again, with the chaotic traffic, crime, poluition and all that stuff that I don’t have in Manly beach, where I live, in NSW – Austrália. Well, to be honest I don’t meet to much negatives living in Austrália… I can just mention the fact that we don’t have many rights, living as a imigrant, but I can tell you, it’s been an interesting experience from the personal and professional point of view and to respond your question, I deal with the whole thing with a good sense of humor..making new friends and trying to get to know this new culture.

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