Karilogue: The less-glamorous side of expat life

Karilogue: The less-glamorous side of expat life

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Despite loving life as an expat, Kari Martindale explains that expat life is not always as glamorous as it appears. Here's some realities on expat life.

Today I’m going to get real about expat life. Not the daily observations, humour, and travel photos I post on my personal Facebook page that make expat life look like a blast, but the real trials and tribulations (along with the perhaps privileged first-world problems) that I experience.

Here are just a few of the things that make my seemingly-awesome-and-glamorous expat life less than perfect.

The less-glamourous side of expat life

I had no friends

I cried a lot during our first few months in Germany because I felt so alone. I didn’t speak German; I couldn’t have an adult conversation outside of talking to my husband for months. I mean, I love my husband and all, but as someone who likes to communicate, this was very difficult for me. My daughter – my five-year-old baby girl – also felt alone. Watching Sequoia try to make friends when no one understood her was, for me, the hardest part about moving here.

I’ve lived all over the US – between my few years in the Air Force and the decade I was a military spouse before Paul retired – but there’s something about not having an ocean between you that made it not-so-bad. There was comfort in knowing I could get in a car and be at my mother’s in a few hours. I still can’t just call up Suzi and say, “Let’s drink wine and watch reality TV,” or email Heather and say, “Let’s do lunch!” or suggest to Cindy that we get the kids together as an excuse to hang out. I can’t always fly out for a wedding. I can’t hop in the car and head to a birthday party. I can’t hop in the car to see any of these people I love. And not everyone can afford to visit us. So I just miss them. Every day.

I miss home

“But you’re living in Europe!”

I love Germany. I would not want to be anywhere else during this phase of my life. But you know what? I still miss home.

It’s not just the last place I lived, it’s where I come from. When people post pictures of PA on Facebook (or sing about it), I miss it like crazy. I click on almost every single video posted by Philly/Horsham/Pottstown friends just to hear their accents. That might be partly due to the fact that I love sociolinguistics but it’s mostly because it’s comforting.

No matter how similar some of Germany’s rolling hills are to parts of PA, it just isn’t the same knowing that the minute I get out of the car, everyone is going to be speaking German. That’s not home.

And I’m sorry, but Flammkuchen ain’t pizza.

It is costly to return home for immediate emergencies

In our first year or so here, we spent over USD 10,000.00 (yes, that says ten thousand) on plane tickets home, more than half of which was last-minute flights. Um, that’s a lot of money.

Just a few months after we arrived, my brother-in-law was killed in a car accident, then a few months later my grandmother was on her deathbed (she recovered during our visit), then a few months later my stepdaughter had a sudden, critical hospitalisation (Krystol also recovered – shwew!). I felt like Paul or Sequoia and I were always on a plane home in grief or angst.

I felt like we would never get to spend our money on anything but tragedy. Along this vein…

Every crisis, tragedy, and illness back home is magnified by distance

I will not forget the first time it happened. My friend’s mother was suddenly diagnosed with cancer. I could not put my phone down – I was looking at his Facebook page for updates all the time. She passed not too long after her diagnosis. When I read the news of her death, I was sitting at the computer wailing, “Noooooo.” It confused Sequoia. I was even more pained as I thought, what if something suddenly happened to my mother? I physically can’t get there the same day.

There have been more tragic deaths; an old friend from high school died of cancer; in complete shock, I learned a friend’s young brother suddenly passed away and reading all the posts were heart wrenching; and another friend from high school, Sue, recovered from breast cancer but was later diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and gone within weeks. Reading about Sue's death, I was lying in a hotel bed on a road trip, and there I was again just suddenly sobbing. And there was Sequoia again: “What’s wrong with Mummy?” Of course I do explain these things to her, but it doesn’t make it less disconcerting to see Mummy rather suddenly lose her mind.

Even when the friends are not my closest of friends, when I see their loved ones pass away I not only empathise but I also worry that the same will happen to my friends and family while I’m gone and missing these years with them. A recent pic of my friend’s grandmother made me cry the instant I saw it because I knew why her profile pic was changing before I even read her posts. Because that’s what we do these days when we lose someone: we post a picture of them on Facebook and that’s where I usually learn of these events.

These are just a few examples of the things going on at home. The people I haven’t mentioned are no less important – the people I could not visit, the crises I cannot help with, more cancer diagnoses, the friends’ feuds I cannot help patch, the divorces, the funerals I could not attend. The internet might make the distance seem not-so-far, but tragedy makes you realise that it is.

I am missing so much of my friends’ children grow up

I’m missing births but that’s not the part I feel the most. When my close friends post pictures on Facebook – the children my own daughter played with – it pains me to see how much they’re growing. The next time I see them they won’t be anything like the little kid I knew. Will Isaac even remember that Sequoia was his friend? Will Sophia want to play with Sequoia anymore?

We’re often in limbo

“Will we get the extension?” Last month we had no idea if we should start posturing to return home at the end of this school year, or if I should start planning next summer’s travel. We were approved for an extension through mid-2016 (yay), but being in limbo sucked.

I should be used to it by now from our lives with the military, but I’m not. I like to know what is going on with my life including, say, where we’ll be living. And don’t get me started about the furlough one year. Would we be able to afford rent and heat if the furlough went on too long? Would budget cuts bring us home? Yeah, we felt it here, too.

Sometimes foreigners just don’t like Americans!

Every political development causes tension – particularly when it involves your current home country. And thanks for getting caught spying on Chancellor Merkel, guys. That was helpful.

Renting out a home is a pain

This is definitely the most first-world and privileged of my problems. We are lucky to have a home to rent out, not to mention someone’s rent helps to pay the mortgage while we’re over here, and I do have a property manager to deal with the daily headaches. But I haven’t seen a full rent cheque in months. We’ve had to replace a dishwasher and a washing machine, we’ve paid for repairs on appliances, and I still have to deal with the property manager directly. It’s a costly headache to maintain a rental property. It’s also hard to be so far away and not be able to see what the problem is with my own eyes.

And what about the hydrangeas? Are they taking care of the hydrangeas?

Leisure travel ain’t cheap

While we live in Europe, we want to see and do as much as we can. We want to make it worth what we’re missing at home, and all the other trials and tribulations of living the expat life. Sure, we’re centrally located and able to be in many countries within hours or take a road trip that passes through five countries and cities we’ve never seen before, but that’s not free. It might be cheaper than flying over from the States but it still costs money, and we’re travelling so frequently that it adds up – fast. Staying out of debt is an on-going challenge when you’re also trying to book hotels and flights.

Okay, it’s totally worth it.

What language will they speak in that country?

Sometimes this is a fun game, but other times it gives me a little anxiety. I don’t speak Croatian or Slovenian or Italian. My French is bad, and my Spanish has tanked. Don’t think I don’t worry about what’s going to happen if I need to communicate with someone.

I have to drive one or two hours to go to the doctor

And for my monthly prescriptions.

Will my dog be able to handle the flight home?

Flash is a senior. I worried like crazy about him when we flew over here, but he’ll be even older when we fly back four years later. Will he be able to handle the stress and the lengthy flight? I can’t even think about this right now.

So life ain’t always rosy for expats. We might get to traipse around Europe, but we do it at an emotional and financial cost. We love this life, but it is by no means easy.


Reprinted with permission of Karilogue.com.

Kari Martindale is an American expat living in Germany with her husband, daughter, and dog. A former translator with an academic background in linguistics, she is currently working on some writing projects while blogging about her expat experiences at Karilogue.

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10 Comments To This Article

  • GRH posted:

    on 19th March 2015, 10:27:47 - Reply

    Thanks for posting your thoughts.
    There is a saying in the UK - and probably other places too - "When in Rome; do as the Romans". I think that when you move to some place you have to do just that. Move; lock stock and barrel. Many people keep looking backwards and lament over what they have left behind instead of looking at where they are. If where we are causes grief and sadness and a longing to be home - or the things of home - then we are in the wrong place and probably should go 'home'. We attach ourselves to so many things - family, friends, job, places, etc., that we never experience true freedom, there is always something pulling us back; guilt, nostalgia, habit, whatever. We need to 'forget' where we were and be where we have chosen to be. I live in France and came from the UK. I meet Brits that bellyache about how you can go to Tesco's at 4.30am and buy what you want in the UK but the shops are shut 12 to 2 in France and other whinging; well durrrrh GO BACK to the UK then.
    My take is there is no 'The less-glamorous side of expat life'. There is just living in France, Germany, the USA or any other country. If you can't hack it just go home but don't complain about it like it's some illness that only Dr Home can cure.
  • aysem posted:

    on 11th March 2015, 17:34:57 - Reply

    Oh I empatise all right, having lived for 8 years in the Netherlands and for a year now in Germany... And trust me I have my share of negative comments on where I am from (even tough, being Turkish is probably not as bad as being an American in this regard). At first I was taken aback, but soon enough I have found ways to cope with the problem and I am sharing it here so that you might adapt them to your own circumstances:

    1. Criticise your own country's (international) policies openly and honestly - you don't need to defend the policies of a government just because you were born there... This will shock many and will give you some space to articulate why things are the way they are in your home country. It also helps to remind them that you don't choose to live in your home country for this or that reason as well...

    2. Avoid saying 'we' when you refer to your home country, and get used to saying 'we' when you refer to your new home. This is the community in which you take part after all...

    3. Learn more about the culture of where you live than an average person that takes being from there for granted.

    4. Find queer details that you love about the place you live (football is of particular use here but also cinema and architecture), and ask about them in a non-provocative fashion. This will provide you with the space you need to ask about things you don't like or support or cannot understand.

    5. make sure that your partner is not the only source of information about the new culture you live in. this hurts more than it helps, since you end up sounding like somebody else without having his/her experiences, therefore it sounds either shallow or worse. Cross-checking with various friends helps a lot.

    4. associate yourself with a city rather than your country (especially if you live in Europe, where everyone is proud to know every little town on the other side of the world). I almost always say I am from Istanbul, rather than I am from Turkey. (and I NEVER say I am Turkish). the details might be different for your home culture/country in how you choose to identify yourself, but think about this. In the end you are providing the person you just met with a single word, and in my case everyone associates wonderful things with Istanbul, and not necessarily the same with Turkey. (so do I, honestly, so I am not being hypocritical by doing this). For instance, in a lot of circles my other expat friends don't say 'I am American', but 'my family was from sweden and they settled in the US, I was born in Florida', which allows for the other to choose from among all these signifiers.

    hope you share other coping mechanisms, too.

  • Croxty posted:

    on 11th March 2015, 17:34:16 - Reply

    Wow, Spot on Kari.
  • Steve posted:

    on 12th March 2015, 09:06:38 - Reply

    Yes it's a tough life, and I don't think the conversational aspect can ever be satisfied by talking in a foreign language, unless you get fluent like a local I guess, which I will never be.
    We have to make English speaking friends I guess.
  • Lee posted:

    on 12th March 2015, 17:07:28 - Reply

    ...I think we all know that every situation has its pros and cons and there are of course several sacrifices that have to be made when you live abroad. Even Somalians from Mogadishu miss their homeland despite the ongoing carnage but they don't write articles about it. Also, they didn't have much of a choice than to grab the opportunity to move to safer climes. You had a choice. I think you should look at the positives rather than compile a list of negatives just to fill up editorial space (That's one thing you American's love - lists of inconsequential/ludicrous/obvious things). I've lived in America for quite a bit including Pennsylvania and as much as I loved it, I for one would be very grateful to be living in Germany in the heart of Europe and centre of the world rather than mono-cultural and relatively isolated North America. So please speak for yourself when you say life for expats isn't easy and comes at a financial and emotional cost. I'm easy and I chose this life. [Edited by moderator]

  • Lee posted:

    on 12th March 2015, 17:18:25 - Reply

    "Sometimes foreigners just don't like Americans!"
    ...therein lies the answer as to why some people dislike Americans sometimes. Non-Americans are not FOREIGNERS in their own countries. [Edited by moderator]

  • LynnBullock posted:

    on 11th March 2015, 13:05:55 - Reply

    and given all that . . . you're doing a great job getting through it all -- home is waiting for you patiently

    and you haven't killed anyone yet
  • Bill posted:

    on 11th March 2015, 13:36:49 - Reply

    I can relate to much of what you say in your article. My move to Europe was initially fraught with stress about not being able to communicate, distance from friends, etc. It is VERY important to learn at least some of the local lingo, if you do not want to end up totally isolated. Did you learn some German? If not, shame on you! A sin committed by many English speakers is the one where we assume everyone will (can) speak English. This is a false assumption and it disrespects those in your host country. (This is one reason that Americans are often disliked.) They are not the foreigners, YOU are. Your mistakes in speaking German will most likely be graciously overlooked, as long as you make the effort.

    It would have been nice to see some of the positive reasons why you chose the expat life. It is a choice, after all, with its costs and benefits. New friends can be made, but it does take effort to keep the old friendships alive. Distance is never kind to personal relationships, but your travels could be an opportunity to invite your old Stateside friends around for a holiday they will never forget!

    Cheers!
    An American Expat in Belgium

  • MaryJo posted:

    on 11th March 2015, 14:24:38 - Reply

    All such sad, but true about living abroad. I've been away from Doylestown PA for almost 30 years and still miss 'home' and being in a place where everybody knows my name! I am just arrived in my 6th place (Vienna) with yet a new language (German)to listen to not understanding every single word (which I am compulsive about) even though I get some of it because I learned and speak Dutch. I am not military, but married a Dutchman. My 2 children both live stateside now so this is yet another not so nice aspect of being an expat. It does amaze me how resourceful I've become in adapting to so many different cultures and in overcoming so many obstacles (like how am I gonna generate that extra 5-sometimes 10 thou to travel back to the States to keep my sanity! All in all, I still have no regrets and have a full, rich life with lots to be thankful for. Plus, I'm going to PA in a couple weeks for a wedding and then some and my girls are visiting for Christmas. Thanks for this article -- it really hit a chord and made me feel I'm not alone! :)

  • Kate posted:

    on 11th March 2015, 14:51:59 - Reply

    I moved to Amsterdam many years ago and married a Dutchman. Both of my kids were born and raised here. I can identify with so much that Kari has written here the worst for me being the travelling back home when family or friends were ill and then to funerals. I will always miss my home country Ireland although I know now that I will never go back there to live. I love my visits home each year and keep in touch with all my family and friends. FB is a great way of keeping in touch. I enjoyed reading this article very much. Kate.