Brooke & Rory: Overcoming small expat fears
Suddenly small daily tasks become intimidating when trying to navigate a foreign country. How can expats overcome the small fears after they first move abroad?
'My chest tightens as the fuel gauge slides towards empty. Can I make it home without stopping at the petrol station? Which pump do I use? Do I pay first or pump first? Will they take my gas card?' – Rory Williamson
'The machine at the grocery store freaks me out. I've never returned a bottle in my life. What if the instructions are only in Dutch? What if it spits the bottles back at me? Oh forget it, where's the recycle bin'. – Brooke Miller Hall
We're American expats living in the Netherlands, and we've discovered that routine, mundane tasks in unlikely places can sneak up and scare us. And we're not alone.
We have expat friends who are afraid to drive, and some afraid to ride a bike – even though they did it all the time in their home countries. We've been known to panic over buying stamps, scanning train tickets and riding an unfamiliar bus route. Even getting a haircut or checking out at the grocery store can suddenly become intimidating.
At the same time, we realise this is a bit ridiculous. We're certainly not wimps. In the last year, we've each said goodbye to our extended families; sold a home and cars; given up careers; yanked kids out of school; and started over in a place where we didn't speak the language and didn't know a soul.
And maybe that's the key.
It seems that a lot of expats expect the move itself will be tough and can anticipate the obvious tests of living abroad. Like many others, we planned and prepared for the big stuff for weeks; we read articles, took classes and had a team of professionals helping us.
At the same time, we didn't expect it would be so confusing to pump gas. Yet eventually, we've started getting over the little things (phew!). Here's how.
1. Take a step back
Driving a car in Europe is a challenge in many ways. For example, in the Netherlands, there are cyclists everywhere and the rules of the road, which are second nature to Dutch drivers, can feel completely bizarre to foreigners. It's easy to get flustered when trying to remember that the vehicle on the right always has priority in the Netherlands. Or that you can't turn right on a red light.
But instead of focusing on how confusing the differences can be, it's more helpful to remember that getting pushed out of your comfort zone helps you learn and grow. For example, learning to drive in another country can easily help improve your driving skills in the long run. And like anything else, the more you do it the more comfortable you will become.
A previous Expatica article shares the helpful reminder that expats like us need to keep our chins up and look at every day as an adventure and a learning experience, even while tackling daily chores: "You will face numerous challenges, but this is all part of the experience. Always remember the reasons you moved abroad in the first place – it is an unforgettable, once in a lifetime opportunity!"
2. Stay curious
As someone who's lived on multiple continents, cultural and intercultural trainer Henriëtte Wentholt advises: Stay curious! Instead of focusing on what you find frustrating, try to understand what's behind it. She adds that staying curious and digging for deeper explanations can even help us adapt and transition better – or at least make the process more fun and interesting.
"Back home you had daily activities that were no brainers," adds Wentholt. "Now you face yourself questioning how to proceed in this new country with daily activities, like going to the bakery, the grocery and drug store. Becoming aware that these automatic procedures suddenly aren't automatic at all anymore, and moreover very tiring, does frustrate."
It was a shock to Rory that the garbage truck only comes twice a month in the Netherlands – it came twice a week at her home in the US. But then she learned about all the ways the Dutch recycle, and it all made sense.
For example, the Dutch have specific recycling methods for glass, plastic and cardboard, as well as food and garden waste for compost. In the US we also recycled cans, but we couldn't find the proper way to do it in the Netherlands. Finally Brooke asked a grocery store employee who explained that they do in fact recycle cans but they do it with a giant magnet at the landfill – so we just throw out our cans with our garbage. The more you experience life in another place, the more you realise there are so many different ways to do everything.
3. Take a friend
Brooke is still embarrassed at just how easy it was when she finally used the bottle return (no Dutch necessary). To help get over that moment of fear, her children joined in the experience – and they still ask to come along so they can set the bottles down the conveyor belt and press the button to print the receipt.
Many areas in Europe, such as the Dutch city we live in, are rich with expats from all over the world. The community of people we have found through expat groups or while waiting to pick up our children at the international school has been incredibly helpful in overcoming some of these fears. Finding people who are in a similar situation can also help relieve that feeling of isolation.
Am I the only one who didn't know where to buy baking soda? Friends who have been in a country longer can really help you find where everything is.
It's also nice to have someone to take along when discovering something new. Brooke gets around by bicycle and often gets lost on the winding, unfamiliar streets and bike paths. So she took a friend to explore unfamiliar bike paths and new areas of town, which made it less daunting and a whole lot more fun.
4. Just do it – set a date, if necessary
Our Dutch may never be perfect (or even understandable) but we live here now and sometimes have to do things like make doctor appointments and arrange to have the car serviced. We might sound terrible or look silly, but we muddle through the best we can. As much as we might want to avoid it, sometimes you just need to clench your teeth and get over it.
If you are tempted to continue avoiding your fear, try setting a date or making a personal challenge. For example, set aside every Sunday morning to practise driving in your new country. Or decide to take a different bus route once a month. We've challenged ourselves to always order in restaurants using the native language.
In the end, we find that with every challenge we overcome – even the very smallest – not only do we feel more comfortable in our new country, but it also feels more like home.
We'd love to hear from other expats. What are the silly, little things that scare you?
Brooke Miller Hall and Rory Williamson / Expatica
Brooke spends her days butchering the Dutch language, wrangling kids and hunting for mini-marshmallows. She's from Wisconsin where she worked as a journalist, corporate editor, blogger and aspiring screenwriter. Find her blog at Brooke Miller Hall.
Rory was born in Iowa and raised in New Jersey. She has travelled to 26 US states and lived in seven of them. She moved to the Netherlands with her husband, two children and Fred the cat in 2012.
Comment here on the article, or if you have a suggestion to improve this article, please click here.