May 23, 2013. One year ago today I woke up for the last time (at least for a few years) as a resident in my home state of Tennessee. The thrill that ran through me the moment I opened my eyes and realized what day it was, I won’t quickly forget. I’d spent months preparing for this moment; months of waiting to discover if, when, and where we’d be moving, weeks of holding in the biggest secret I’ve ever kept as all the details were ironed out, and then months of logistics – selling the house, selling stuff we don’t need, moving stuff we don’t need but can’t part with into storage, packing stuff we do need, researching a new country, re-homing pets, collecting one million documents and trying not to lose any, researching some more, and just generally closing down a life so we could start a new one. If you’ve been an expat before, you know this experience, scratch that, this adventure begins long before you arrive in your new country, but for the sake of my sanity and rehashing some of the most stressful days of my life, we’ll begin with that moment, the one where I wake up and realize that I’ve got a plane ticket with today’s date on it and I’m leaving, ready or not here I come.
I wasn’t sad. Not really. There would be time for homesickness later, oh believe me there would be, but not today. Not on the day I’d spent so many other days waiting for. Even a day full of goodbyes couldn’t extinguish that spark of excitement that would course through me every time I thought about how our day would be ending. Instead it was a good day full of family, last minute checklist to-dos, and handing over of responsibilities, all leading up to our mid-afternoon airport arrival. Sitting down in my seat, buckling in, and accepting a cool drink from the flight attendant, I knew I was leaving a few things behind unfinished, but they no longer seemed so important. When the plane took off, it was time to look forward. There would be many more plane rides after this one, but never any quite as thrilling as the first.
When we arrived hours later, it was a different day, we were on a different continent, and indeed it didn’t stop there. From the minute we climbed into the taxi and flew down the motorway on what felt like the wrong side of the road, and into the following days, weeks, and months the “differents” kept a-coming, some more challenging than others. Those first three months were the most unusual. Cory was learning a new job, but in addition to that, also learning how to work within a new culture which comes with a whole lot of awkward experiences that only he could tell you about. With no job, no school, no friends, and truthfully, almost no responsibility, Lex and I spent our days doing what, at the time, I could only call drifting. Looking back, I believe we were doing a lot more adapting during those months than I realized, but each piece was so small that it went largely unnoticed. Every time that I hesitantly left the house to buy groceries, or we decided to walk just a little further into unknown territory, we were adapting, but it was happening so slowly that it felt as if our normally full and busy lives had come to an abrupt halt. A necessary one, though. Those summer months were our self-administered quarantine so that when August rolled around, we would be more than ready to jump into real life again.
Where our lives so far in London at that point had felt quite small, come August they began growing at a rapid pace. We took our first trip to another country, completely planned and executed by ourselves, and it was a success. Lexie started at her international school and, as it always happens, her schedule began filling up with clubs and friends and homework. I started writing this blog on a regular basis and branching out into different areas to find friends with similar interests. But what really changed was that we started taking full advantage of this amazing city we were living in. I no longer sought the safety of my flat as I had in those first few months – instead, every free weekend or opportunity during the week, we were doing things, and it was awesome. That had been the point of moving overseas, after all. And that is how life has continued from then on – plenty of new places seen, experiences had, and lots of life.
While I’d say that 99% of the differences we’ve encountered living in a new country have been challenges we’ve met and accepted with good humor and an open mind, there have still been a few that we can’t laugh off, that drive us crazy, and, in my case, sometimes have me wanting to hightail it back somewhere more familiar. But for every one of those days that plants a seed of doubt in my soul, there are dozens more that keep it from growing. It’s an adventure, this expat life, but it doesn’t mean that every day leaves us wild-eyed and breathless with excitement.
On the whole, our lives a year out from the move are feeling not that different at all anymore. We are doing much of the same things we were doing before (work, school, social life); now we’re just doing them in another country with other people. All the newness that was exciting and sometimes frightening in the beginning has all but worn off and our daily life feels a lot like it used to, save for the traveling every couple of months bit. It feels awful to say, but already I feel myself itching for another change – the desire to uproot my life and shake it vigorously until every last tendril is entirely free of the dirt it once inhabited never goes away for very long. I’ve always struggled with contentment, forever searching for the next new place, or another way of life. Considering we have another two years here – I’m hoping just a small change of surroundings, possibly a new flat, will satiate the beast until a new opportunity comes around!
So what’s changed for me in a year? Apart from the obvious that I travel about a hundred times more than I used to, there have been a few simple, somewhat humorous changes that have taken effect in the past year…
For one, I never wear heels anymore. Not even a little one. I have accepted my modest 5’3″ height for the time being because it hurts way too much to wear anything other than flats when you walk 2+ miles a day on uneven sidewalks.
I’ve learned to watch people very closely when I greet them so I can determine which greeting they will find culturally acceptable – is it a hug, a handshake, a kiss, two kisses, three kisses? I let them take the lead.
When I hear someone say St Petersburg, I no longer think they’re talking about the city in Florida.
I’ve watched my favorite American TV shows in Dutch, French, and German and I’ve decided that Sheldon is even funnier in German than English.
When it’s been raining for days and the sun suddenly appears, I drop whatever I’m doing, raise my arms overhead, and turn my face to the sun. Okay, not really, but I have learned to appreciate the sun big time.
I’ve accepted that 50% of the time I’ll have no idea what people are saying to me, even if they’re speaking English. This used to give me anxiety, but now it’s such a regular occurrence that I’ve perfected the ambiguous smile and nod. (Or at least I think I have.)
I can walk faster. Like a lot faster. Sometimes I feel like one of those speed-walkers in the Olympics.
I smile even more at strangers than I did back home. It’s a rebellious thing to do, of course, done in part because I don’t want to lose that friendly bit of myself, and also because it’s funny to watch how uncomfortable it makes everyone I smile at.
I could go on, but most of the changes we’ve made this past year have been like these. Simple ones – ones you make without even realizing you’re making them. The only change that I believe has made a truly significant impact on myself, and certainly Cory, too, is that no matter where we’re living or what situation we might be in in the future, I’m positive we will still find a way to travel and see the world. Once you’ve been bitten by the bug, the only antidote is to continue to travel! I can only hope the next two years will be as full of adventure as the last!
Past thoughts on moving overseas and living in London: