Expat Life: Happy Anywhere?

by missfootloose on October 27, 2012 · 19 comments

in And So It Goes, Expat life

Fall colorsIf you’re living the serial expat life you’d better learn to be happy anywhere, which is easier said than done in some cases. Being in transition from one world to another is almost never easy. Your heart may still linger in one place, while your body is on the other side of the world.

This past Thursday my expat friends gathered as usual for a drink or two, some food and lots of talk and laughter. They met in a restaurant bar in Chisinau, Moldova, a small country in Eastern Europe, the place I called home for a year and a half.

I was not there with them. I wanted to be. But I am a continent and an ocean away because, well, the expat thing happened: I moved. I am now living in the US, where the supermarkets are fabulous, the roads are great, and the TV commercials make you want to put your head in the oven.

Federal and local election commercials will warn you that you’ll be doomed if you choose this politician over the other. Pharmaceutical commercials tell you this miracle medicine will cure you unless the side effects render you blind, paralyzed or give you a stroke. I tell you, it’s nerve racking just to watch a little television in this country. Here’s a parody of one of these commercials in case you are curious.

My welcome present on arrival in the US was a cold virus from hell, but I’m mostly over that now. So how happy am I?

Okay, I love my little house in the woods. Every window has a view of trees and birds and squirrels. Very restorative for the troubled soul. But it takes a 20-minute drive to get to any kind of commercial life. I can’t walk to restaurants or shops. No sidewalk cafes in my neighborhood. Now that I think of it though, there is a Gentleman’s Club about a 45 minutes’ walk down the road. I don’t think I can go there, at least not as a customer, and my stripping days are over.

I now live more than an hour’s drive away from family and old friends. But I do love the birds and the deer and the squirrels in the woods behind the house. You can’t have it all, can you?

In spite of the horror stories about the disastrous American diet, the supermarkets in my general area – some the size of small banana republics  —  are a foodie’s dream, stocking organic produce and dairy, seafood fresh from the fishing boats, wine and cheese from all over the world. Of course 95 percent of the stores’ contents I could do without: mile-long aisles with soft drinks, junk food, and fake factory food in boxes and cans. Reading the ingredient labels is a jaw-dropping exercise.

Supermarket sweets

Just a little candy.

What do I miss in my new life? Most importantly, my friends in Moldova — our Thursday evening drinks, our book club, our impromptu gatherings for coffee or wine on a sunny afternoon, our wanderings through town, Chisinau.

I miss not understanding commercials, not understanding all the chit chat around me in public places. Living in a foreign land where you don’t speak the language, most of what you hear around you is white noise. Which is not the case for me in my native Holland or here in the USA. I hear and understand every miserable little word. Just yesterday I was in a store and overheard two beer-bellied guys discussing their trials with losing weight. It was not pretty. In the dressing rooms in clothing stores I am now privy to women lamenting how gross their butts look and discussing everything from toe nail fungus to their problems with Slow Intestinal Transit. You need an antibiotic just to listen to some of the things you hear.

I miss the fabulous Moldovan kefir that I learned to love. It comes in cartons there, just like milk. It’s available here in my corner of the US only at astronomical cost and only in flavored “gourmet” varieties, not plain the way I like it. (Americans don’t like plain anything; everything needs to be flavored or enhanced one way or another. Or deep-fried.)

So I ordered kefir grains online to make my own. What was I thinking?

Kefir grains

Problem is these rubbery clumps of bacteria and yeast need to be fed every 24 hours  with fresh milk and they multiply like, well, rabbits. Within days you’re producing enough kefir to go into business and supply China. Feeding kefir grains is like having a pet in the house: You can’t stick it in a closet and forget about it for a few days. So I’m not sure how this kefir addiction of mine is going to work out for me here.

What else? I miss my Moldovan cleaning lady. Yes, I can be shallow with the best of them. I’m so not the queen of spit and polish, and it was a real joy to find my house sparkling after she’d spent a long morning scrubbing and wiping while I toiled away at my keyboard. All that and she ironed my mate’s business shirts, too.

But we can’t have it all, can we? Then again, hope springs eternal and I’m still foolishly in search of the Perfect Life. Where will I be next year? The future will tell, and wherever it is, I’ll learn to be happy. Because I have my prince, and I’ll make friends again and there will probably be wine.

I know this is quite a shallow ramble, but then I’m rather scatterbrained and discombobulated these days since all my deep thoughts and profound wisdom have been stolen by the nasty virus. So I’ll have mercy on you: I’ll stop here, and go feed the kefir.

* * *

Are you able to be happy anywhere? What does it take for you to feel at home in a place?

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

~T~ October 27, 2012 at 9:04 am

Hi there! Oh, this post was not shallow at all. It really spoke to me, at least. Yesterday, I saw Maggie and we talked about you and she said she missed you!
It’s tough to move. For me and my family, just having kids with us makes us a bit more home-comfy right away. The kids really get comfortable anywhere as long as you give them their favorite toys and plenty of hugs. Slowly, my activities are all about providing them a comfortable living, and all of a sudden, we feel like home. But, feeling comfortable doesn’t mean you are happy there! Making good friends make you happy, I think.
It’s funny how you talked about missing not understanding the chatter around you. I somewhat feel a huge relief knowing the local language. But, I think this is mainly because we need to make sure we provide for our children. We need to know where to get food and how to get help, so understanding people is almost necessary. But, it is tiresome.
Thank you for this beautiful post!
~T~
~T~ recently posted..MAESTRO – Commercial CenterMy Profile

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Joburg Expat October 27, 2012 at 9:55 am

Noooo – not shallow at all! I love this post, it really speaks to my heart. Maybe because I’m having almost the exact same thoughts these days, though I am still on THIS side of our expat assignment (but hubby already on the other side). I actually just wrote a blog post on repatriation where I listed all the “things” I will love having again in the US, but mostly they are material things, and then I thought about all the “things” I will miss about South Africa, and most of those were intangibles, like people’s smiles and the slow pace of life.

The area we are moving to looks gorgeous (just came back from a short trip to the US and, like you, we all caught horrible viruses in transit) especially with the fall colors, but it is here where all my friends are, and therefore my heart. I agree with T, making friends is what makes you happy, everything else is not all that meaningful, even if you have the best house and the best roads and yes, the best kefir. The thing is, you WILL make friends and you know you will, but before you make them you just can’t imagine that they will ever be as good as what you’ve got right now.

Ok, now I’m the one to ramble on. So, in closing, I most loved your last line on there probably being wine. That is the conclusion I came to in my thoughts on repatriation – the one tangible thing I CAN take with me from South Africa is lots and lots of Chardonnay. Excuse me while I go order some now…
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Mara October 27, 2012 at 11:14 am

So glad you are feeling better. And that you are well enough to write a very clear post. I don’t know exactly how it feels to leave friends behind (the only times I did I was in my early twenties and then you take it in your stride and you ‘will keep in touch’), but I will soon do exactly that: leave friends and family behind. And I will know I may not be the only one feeling a certain way.

I hope you will find a new set of friends very fast with the wine and the books and the chat very soon!!
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Judy October 27, 2012 at 3:23 pm

Not shallow, just grieving the life you left behind. Grief takes time and is painful, but if you don’t experience loss then you don’t recognize the joy when you finally feel settled in your new location. It’s the yin and yang of expat life. You’re biggest challenge will be overcoming the location of your new home; idyllic though it looks, it is quite remote. You need to create a routine that gets you out on a regular basis and mixing with others. New friends will help you overcome the loss of the old ones. Good luck and keep writing 🙂

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Sonia Marsh/Gutsy Living October 27, 2012 at 5:47 pm

This reminds me of how I felt after returning to the US from Belize. What surprises me is the fact that conversations are the same where you live as where I live in Orange County, CA. I believed other parts of the U.S. were different.
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Ronald October 27, 2012 at 7:28 pm

Excellent article and so true. I have known the author – Karen – since my African days in Ghana. And all that she describes is right on the dot. I have led the expatriate life since I was 26 ( I am 74 now) when I left my native Holland – just as Karen did – and I have not regretted it one moment. I have lived and worked in some 30 countries and visited some 30 more as a wanderer. Do I miss Holland? No way. Right now I am living. in Colombia, South America. Will this be my final stop? I hope not. The world is big and there is much more to be enjoyed under the sun.
Carpe Diem.

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Finland Blog October 27, 2012 at 9:48 pm

Your residensend surroundings sound great
It all ways takes time to settle in again.Though after living abroad 24 years I would never consider returning to the UK
As some say never go backwards in life,just forwards
The trick is to keep yourself busy,e.g running a blog
Finland Blog recently posted..7 Ways to Avoid Being Homesick With New FriendsMy Profile

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MuMuGB October 27, 2012 at 10:24 pm

What an interesting post! I am French born but have been living in London for the best part of 10 years. I don’t think that I could go back to France. So, where is home for you?
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edj October 27, 2012 at 7:57 pm

Oh, I can so relate to this post. Moving and transitions ARE painful. But, as you know, grief is an important part of change, but joy will come. You will adjust. Just keep your TV off till after the election. Or maybe forever. We pretty much only watch Netflix or Hulu, both advantages to living in the US.
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linda@adventuresinexpatland.com October 28, 2012 at 8:22 am

Not a shallow post, an honest portrayal of how you’re feeling right now. Living (anywhere) in the country can be peaceful and lovely, but you’ll definitely have to make the effort to find people and activities that you enjoy. It isn’t impossible, people do it every day. It’s just a little more difficult when you are, as Judy notes, grieving your Moldovan life. Be kind to yourself, take your time and keep us posted.
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Pat October 28, 2012 at 9:10 am

I loved reading your perspective of a European living in my homeland while I am an American living as an expat in Europe. The American staples – commercials, politics, suburbia- are also the things that I don’t miss. I think that the perpetual dilemma of an expat is of living in one world while always longing for the other…and yet we can only be one place at one time.

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missfootloose November 7, 2012 at 9:43 pm

Pat, I think eventually we will just have to accept that we have to learn to be happy wherever we are, and that what really matters most is not culture or country, but the friends we make and the home we make for ourselves. My deep wisdom for the day 😉

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Kathy October 28, 2012 at 10:08 am

Welcome to the US. It does take some getting used to!
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Bex October 28, 2012 at 1:52 pm

Can totally relate to the miss not understanding what people say!
I am an expat in Athens, Greece yet despite not knowing the language, feel more at home here than my native UK. I always get reverse culture shock whenever I visit home and have to endure listening to people on a packed train, etc.

Great post – thanks for sharing.
Bex
http://www.leavingcairo.blogspot.com

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missfootloose November 7, 2012 at 9:30 pm

Bex, yes, reverse culture shock is sometimes more difficult to deal with because it makes you feel like a stranger in your own country.

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Ana O October 28, 2012 at 11:04 pm

I can relate to many of the points you make here.
I realised I’m not entirely happy anywhere now. If I’m in the US, I miss home. When I’m in my country, I feel like an outsider. Sometimes I despair and think I’ll never be happy. Then it passes and find something that makes me feel good again.
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missfootloose November 7, 2012 at 9:27 pm

Ana, I know very well how you feel. After all the living overseas in a number of countries I feel rootless, and like you, I feel like a stranger in my native Holland, and although I am comfortable in the US and I’m very familiar with life here, it is not really “home” because I didn’t grow up there and don’t have those early-life connections and history here. I once read a story of a much-traveled man who couldn’t figure out where to be to feel at home, and after one more failed attempted living in Greece, got on a plane out of there, sat back in his seat and realized that’s where he belonged 😉 — in a plane.

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Turkey's For Life October 29, 2012 at 5:47 am

No I wouldn’t think that was a shallow ramble. We love to read your ramblings anyway. 🙂 Think I’ve missed a few posts as didn’t realise you were back in the US. It won’t take long before you’re used to hearing about toe fungus and big butts. And I can’t believe the size of that candy shelf. Just wow – in a bad way.

Looking forward to reading your settling in tales and finding out where you will be next.

Julia
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missfootloose November 7, 2012 at 9:21 pm

We just moved from Moldova to the US last month and looking ahead for new adventures next year if fate is with us.

Just read your culinary tale on your blog; love your Turkish food stories! I actually ordered imported Turkish pepper paste and pomegranate molasses so I can make “Turkish salsa” which I fell in love with in Fethiye. Keep eating, be happy!

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