Category: expat

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Separate lives

 

I was introduced to the concept of separate lives more than fifteen years ago, when my then-boyfriend-now-husband, fresh out of graduate school, took a job as a consultant – in Paris. During the half year that I had left to finish my own degree, I stayed on in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was an interesting, thankfully short time with a lot of transatlantic back-and-forth, lonely weekends, long letters and emails, even a marriage proposal (I guess absence does make the heart grow fonder). When I graduated and moved to France to join him, I was convinced that things would
improve dramatically. I didn’t suspect that this back-and-forth would become a
permanent feature of our common life.
His job meant that between Monday morning (usually at some ungodly hour) and Thursday evening (at an equally ungodly hour) he was out of town. I hated Monday mornings. I was lonely and I missed him. He was often overworked and tired from all  the travel. At the end of his consulting stint of six years, I was, again, convinced that things would improve with the next job. But the next job ended up being in London, while our family was based in Vienna. That became a pattern: while my jobs were stable location-wise, his were not. Somehow it was never possible to have both work and family life in one location. Fifteen plus years and three kids later, our family qualifies for the title of cross-border commuting veterans. Managing our disjointed existence has become a habit; not one any of us is particularly fond of, but one which we have gotten good at.
It is not just our habit. My daily news feed on Facebook is strewn with postings from friends who are not where they are supposed to be – where their families live. Cross-border commuting is a fact of life. Sometimes it’s a good deal, sometimes a necessity. An opportunity may be so good that you are willing to tolerate the commute; or local jobs may be scarce. Often, working abroad is cheaper and simpler than moving your whole family: you don’t have to uproot them, disrupt your children’s education or take them away from extended family. It is less stressful to be able to devote yourself completely to your work during the week, when no one is waiting for you at home, and devote yourself completely to your loved ones on the weekend.
But it is also a demanding life – both for the commuter and for the ones that stay behind. If you are the commuter, your belongings are scattered across two places and a suitcase.
You are neither fully here nor there. You miss your family. You are often exhausted. If you are the “stationary” partner, most of the family responsibilities fall on your shoulders. Add to that a full-time job and career of your own, not to mention what happens when children are in the picture. You have to manage alone during the week and on the weekend you get what a good friend of mine called “a leftover spouse.”
Despite all the nice sayings about absence and its effects, this kind of lifestyle, especially when it is prolonged, can strain a relationship. Resentment and frustration can build up. People can grow apart. Your partner may resent the fact that you are not around when they need you; they may go up the wall when you come back and want to have a say on every decision (don’t they manage perfectly well when you are not around?); you may find being a “weekend parent” terribly frustrating. Sound familiar?
Have you lived the commuter life – on either end of it? Was it a good thing, a necessary evil or something you would rather never have to go through again?

Let it snow

While I lived in Vienna, I was always self conscious about my German. Even though it was relatively fluent and accent-free, I would never be mistaken for a local; as soon as I opened my mouth, everyone knew. I believed that, in order to get things done or to be taken seriously, either I had to ask for help from a “local” or switch to English. So that’s what I did for eleven years. I never felt that I could be myself in that language and that was a major component of my foreignness.
Then we moved to Zurich. Since I do not speak Swiss German (yet), the next best choice for communicating was “High” German – that same language I was self-conscious about. My Swiss interlocutors clearly speak it better than I do; strangely though, I don’t feel as self-conscious as I used to. High German is not the language everyone grows up speaking here, and for me, that evens the playing field. I have yet to feel the need to resort to English. Who would have thought?
There is also the weather. Having been raised in a Mediterranean country and moved to Austria from California, of all places, I have had a hard time adjusting to Central European winters – and that’s an understatement. Vienna had too much snow, too many days (and weeks) with sub-zero temperatures for my taste. When we moved to Zurich, I was expecting more of the same. No one told me that, during my first winter here, snow would be so much part of the daily landscape for weeks in a row, that waking up to a winter wonderland day after day would eventually have no impact on me whatsoever (part of me still hopes this winter is unusual, but probably it isn’t). Compared to Zurich, Vienna looks almost Mediterranean. Do I like that? Not one bit. What did I do about it? I decided to buy a bigger snow shovel for my driveway and a more sophisticated ice scraper for my windshield. Who would have thought?
And then there is the bigger picture. After growing up and spending a big part of my adult life in big cities, I was in for a shock when I moved to Vienna: it felt so small! It took me years to get used to that. And now, I moved to Zurich, which is even smaller than Vienna, without even blinking. Who would have thought?
Is all this proof that one can get used to almost anything? That everything is relative? Or could it be that, with every move, I am becoming more adaptable and more open, more skilled at doing “the foreigner thing;” that I consciously choose to see the big picture and let go of all the little and not-so-little things that have made me miserable in the past; that I’m becoming good at the “if you can’t change it, embrace it” sort of thing?
I have not overcome my snow aversion for sure, but I have learned to live with it. And I do enjoy speaking German without feeling self-conscious – even when I’m back in Vienna.

 

New Kids on the Block

 

When it comes to how children adjust after a major transition (such as a move), school is a major playing field. It is at the centre of their lives, not least because they spend the biggest part of their days there. School also is their main social habitat. It’s where most of their friends come from, at least in the beginning. What happens at school often “spills over” to the rest of their lives. If they feel comfortable and integrated in their new school, that usually helps them do the same in other areas; if they struggle there, it taints their whole experience (not to mention their parents’).
The first day of school for my two older children, or rather their first week, was one of the most stressful times of our move to Switzerland – for me. I was nervous for them. Would they like it? Would the other kids be nice to them? Would they fit in and be accepted? I was most worried about them feeling awkward and lonely.
I still have vivid memories of what going to a new school felt like – from my own moves. Even though I was very young at the time, I distinctly remember the feeling of being the new kid in class, the odd-one-out, all these – thankfully brief – moments in the beginning that I would happily have skipped. I would rather my children did not have to hang out by themselves during break; sit alone at lunch; not have a partner for those first group projects. I would rather they’d skipped those moments, even if they are a necessary part of adjustment; even if they are a rite of passage that will make them stronger and more resilient. Of course, there was absolutely nothing I could have done to spare them that. They had to manage on their own and they did a decent job, as far as I can tell.
But they have changed in the past few months. My older son has become much more independent and responsible, but also more irritable, short-tempered, stressed and, in his own words, lonelier than he was back in Vienna. My daughter, always bubbly and larger than life, has become more subdued. She spends much more time by herself than she used to. If I didn’t know better, I’d say she’s lost her
spunk.
Most of these changes are subtle. Sometimes they are able to express how they feel, sometimes I have to dig deep to get them to formulate what bothers them. I’m sure some of those changes have to do with them growing up, but isn’t it a strange coincidence that they should all happen now? And, more important, are they just transition pains or are they here to stay?
Were you ever the new kid at school? Did you like it or hate it? How did your kids cope with it?
expat, family

A Move for Two

 

Moving with your partner sounds like a good deal: you have someone to share the load, handle all the arrangements and manage the logistics with you; and you also have someone who can feel your excitement on the good days and appreciate your frustrations and disappointments on the bad ones.

All that is true, but in fact moving à deux also makes life so much more complicated.

First, not only do you have to deal with your own adjustment issues; you have to worry about your partner as well. How well (or how badly) they are doing affects how you are doing. If they are not happy in the new place, it is unlikely that you will be happy there, hard as you try. Worse, if they are struggling while you are having a much smoother ride, they will be difficult and jealous, if not resentful of you.
Then, especially if things are tough and at least one of you has a hard time adjusting, there may be an issue with who initiated the move. If you were not as eager to move as they were, but decided to follow anyway, you will blame them for everything that goes wrong. You may refuse to adapt and settle. According to surveys, the top reason why international assignments fail – basically people pack up and head back to where they came from – is what they call “partner resistance.” Having been both initiator and follower in different moves, I can tell you that the only way to make it work and avoid resentment building up is if even the follower has a serious incentive to move, like being closer to a family member or a potential future career option. As soon as there is compromise or sacrifice involved, but not some kind of reward, we have a hard time letting go. We are human (at least most of us are!).
 
In addition to all that, when you move to a new place, at least in the beginning, you will be spending a lot of time together. There will be no distractions, no family or friends to act as a buffer, no outlets for when you have enough of each other; it will be just the two of you (ok, maybe you have kids, but I’m talking relationship-wise). Not everyone can handle that under normal circumstances. Add the stress of moving and settling, uncertainty about how your life will be in the new place, job pressures and culture shock – and that’s a lot of pressure. How you go into the move as a couple determines how you come out of it. If you have solid foundations, you will come out stronger; if your relationship was dysfunctional already, you can be sure that any underlying tensions will come to the surface.
So when you least expect it, your relationship is being put to the test. Why am I writing this? Because I think that most of us do not anticipate having to go through such complications when we move. The practical aspects are so overwhelming that we overlook the potential strains on our relationship. We are not prepared to deal with them when they come up. There has to be a better way.
Has moving affected your relationship?

 

Where’s the “good” in goodbye?

 

For my first post of 2013, I will steer clear of New-Year’s-resolution-talk (not least because I’m having a hard time with mine) or speculation about what the New Year will bring. One thing that it will predictably bring – like every year – is more goodbyes. Saying goodbye is a process I go through several times a year. I have become quite good at it, but still dread it every single time.
So once again, starting the New Year meant for me, among others, saying goodbye to my hometown, my country, (the sun? J), my family and my friends, old and new. Once more, I wished I didn’t have to go through the torturous procedure, almost invariably the same every time: the tightness in my chest as I leave home converting rapidly into a mild depression during the trip, then two to four days of inconsolable sadness, followed by a gradual healing process that may take one to two weeks, as the routines are re-established and I get so absorbed by the rhythm of my daily life, that it is as if I never left. Even though every time I know that I will be ok in the end – when all that’s left of the sadness is a bittersweet aftertaste of being permanently away from something and someone –I still go through it every time. I wish I didn’t have to, but I also know that is the deal I have made – I and all those others with similar life choices – to live within the cycle of perpetual goodbyes. I’m not complaining.
As I was reading some of last week’s New-Year’s-resolutions-press, something caught my attention. It was the suggestion that, rather than coming up with a list of random resolutions, it makes more sense to think about what matters to me most – who do I want to be, what makes me happy – and make sure I have or do more of that.
One resolution that is always somewhere on my list, ever since I can remember writing them down, is to make a bigger effort to stay in contact with family and friends. Some years I do better and others I do worse; but I keep at it year after year. It is part of who I am and it makes me truly happy.
I want more of that this year as well. More goodbyes, but also more hellos.