I’m getting better at this moving thing. This comes as something of a relief, because this is the 8th house in 16 years. And despite the fact that we have bought yet another fixer-upper (there will be comprehensive mutterings on the dubious wisdom of buying this type of property as an expat, mainly because one consigns oneself to a life of finally getting somewhere habitable, only to leave within the next 3 months… it’s like clockwork…), on the whole I have remained emotionally intact, with only the odd descent into babbling incoherence – and then only when the drains back up for the fourth time in a month. Predictably, in the bathrooms that we just finished remodeling.
The more observant amongst you will have noticed that this calm and serenity comes at a price – namely the complete lack of any activity outside the house-hunting/mortgage application/signing on the dotted line/painting/tiling/grouting variety. Hence the echoing silence on the blog, causing those who know me well to be concerned by what for me is a very unusual silence.
Those of you who noticed and enquired about my life/health/sanity, thank you. I am now back, and your email inbox will once again be cluttered with occasional wisdom and eagerly awaited tales of the Other Half’s latest foray into home maintenance…
In the meantime, here are my essential steps to remaining sane, whether you are moving across town, across the country or across the world.
1. Know yourself.
It’s the defining moment of your first expat move – what to put in your household goods shipment. Especially if (like us) you have two small children and a container the size of the average office desk. What’s so important to you and your family, that you can’t leave it behind?
Eight years of expat life later, I know the answer, at least for myself. Our sense of family is strongest at mealtimes, so our dinner service – the plates, the silverware, the serving dishes – all get shipped. So do family pictures, treasured mementos, Christmas decorations and the numerous animals, but that’s about it. Furniture, clothes, books are all replaceable, so instead we use our allowance to take things that will make our future life easier. Things like industrial quantities of chocolate, laundry detergent and Bisto.
For you, it will be different. It may be bicycles, board games, films. The good news is that there is no right answer, there is only the answer that is right for you – and the only people who will ever know about your inability to part with your treasured collection of china cats will be you and the customs official…
2. Understand what lies ahead.
We all do it. Someone says they are being transferred to Hawaii, and we groan with envy; mention Angola and we wince – reactions purely based on second hand media reports and the odd travel brochure. Not exactly the most reliable source of expat advice, now we come to think of it. But there are plenty of excellent blogs, websites, forums, Facebook groups and networking sites, full of information and real, live people who have been there, done that. So do your own research from a wide range of sources, understand that the information you get will be from someone else’s perspective and use that to guide you.
3. Set up an expat and local support network before you go.
This is the era of the internet, of social media and of cheap VOIP calling, so you have no excuse for not staying in contact. Create your own expat preparedness kit; get an independent email address, set up social media profiles, sign up to cheap calling, get a comprehensive contact list, and start introducing yourself to your new network before you set foot on a plane. If it all sounds too daunting to tackle by yourself, check out our guide and cheat sheets here and here.
4. Come prepared to make friends.
If you have done your research and made some social media contacts, you should know what other resident expats miss, what will be valued and what you can bring as ‘hostess gifts’. It’s an instant “in”, not because of the gift itself, but because you have shown you have what it takes to be a successful expat – the willingness to share, an interest in the welfare of others, and the understanding that not a single ounce/gram of luggage allowance should be wasted. Ever.
For those who are currently screaming the words, “I’m not moving to XXX just to mix with expats” at their screens, please don’t misunderstand me. I expect you all to get out there and meet whoever your heart desires, but take it from me, settling in and getting established is a whole heap easier with someone to point you in the right direction, who not only understands your language, but also where you are coming from. As a Brit in the US, I can assure you that there is plenty of scope for cultural misunderstandings, and I can only thank my lucky stars that the locals here are a forgiving bunch…
5. Know that you will have times when you want to go home.
That’s why you have set up your international communication strategy – so that when the rubber hits the road (or the other stuff hits the fan, and take it from me, it will, repeatedly), you have a voice at the other end of the line to help you get through it. In time, you will develop a local network, but for the first few months, use the “who wants to be a millionaire’ approach, and phone a friend. Preferably one who has the right answers.
6. Say yes.
You may have absolutely no interest in a tour of the local sewerage management facility / scrapbooking /fellwalking club, but if someone has invited you, say yes. It a) gets you out of the house, b) introduces you to a whole new set of people, c) shows that you are interested in trying new things (an essential trait in the successful expat) and d) if nothing else, gives you an excellent (and preferably hilarious) horror story to tell later (another accomplished expat characteristic).
7. Remember, it’s a numbers game.
The more people you meet, the greater your odds of meeting your expat soul mate, so the quicker you get out there, the better. No, you don’t have to commit to a lifetime study of yoga or the collected works of Agatha Christie – you just have to show up with a positive attitude, a desire to meet people, a willingness to go with the flow, and preferably, one of the aforementioned hostess gifts.
8. Give yourself space.
It’s the lesson that has taken me the longest to learn, because we all have such great expectations (some good, some bad) about our new life, but underestimate the amount of time, effort and sheer emotional energy that building it takes. For me, it meant taking an unplanned 3 month sabbatical from writing simply to move 5 miles across town. But I know from experience that my personal and family wellbeing are closely linked to a sense of home and a network of friends – and that takes work and commitment, so treat it like you would any other job and give yourself realistic goals, appropriate resources, and most importantly, time off. You need downtime, a moment or three where you are not on best behavior and where you get to please yourself and refill your cup.
As for me, things are gradually starting to get a little calmer; most of the walls are now painted, we have withstood the obligatory new home dramas and I am finally able to devote time to something other than project/crisis management. We are indeed, finally, settling down.