The last time I was new in a new country was three years ago. I wrote about it, after the first year, and described this initial couple of weeks as having been a honeymoon period. It almost feels like you are on holiday…until the reality sinks in that you aren’t going home.
So I think that in the year that lapsed between the experience and the writing of it, the memory was somehow warped. You know, a bit like when you experience childbirth you vow to never do it again…and then, further down the track, you find yourself back on that labour ward.
This post, however, is written in the midst of being newly arrived. We haven’t even been here for four weeks yet. These are my truths about the first few weeks being new in a new country…
Truth #1: Things will go wrong
The very first bit when you move overseas is a brief period of total ab-normalcy.
Moving from Germany to France…I thought it would be a walk in the park. We had been on holiday for two weeks with all my family, landed back in Frankfurt, then had to drive to the house, pick up the dog, do the checkout with the landlord…and then drive to France. Maybe a slight case of over-optimism on my part.
I opted to take the kids and the dog – can you imagine checking out of your rental with a pernickety German landlord? My husband was there for THREE HOURS while every drawer and cupboard, door and window was opened and closed and checked…
However, I was driving the new French car. It seems it has a mind of its own. Could we take the most direct route to France? ‘Ah non, Madame, zat will not be possible. Instead, we weel take a nice long journey around all ze smallest roads until your fuel light comes on, and you ‘ave a little panic attack. And zen, when you ‘ave filled up your car, we will go back on ze tiny roads until your child – ‘ow you say? – voms up all over ze back of ze new car’.
Et voilà. My best laid plans did not involved cleaning up a vomit covered child – who for the record, has never been car sick – with nothing more than half a pack of face wipes and the last few sips of a water bottle. It was EVERYWHERE. She’d been wearing shorts and it literally covered her from waist to ankle. Needless to say, my husband was glad he had to deal with the pernickety landlord. Give me a car-sick kid over that every time (or actually, not next time, please. Once was enough).
Other than just wanting to get this story off my chest, I just think it’s true that the first few days always feel awkward and stuff goes wrong. Like you arrive in Germany on a Sunday and all the shops are shut and you can’t buy any food. Or you get to your new house and accidentally set off the alarm and have to explain to the security company that you do live here, you just don’t know any of the alarm codes yet. Or you find yourself driving down the street on the wrong side of the road. Or you get pulled over by the police for bad parking…seriously, I managed three years in Germany before the police pulled me over. I lasted 3 days here in France!
Truth #2: You will feel expat anxiety
Or just plain old anxiety. This may not be your truth, but it is definitely mine. I am not typically an anxious person, but every time we have moved I have felt some level of anxiety in the first few months.
I think I have always associated ‘stress’ with ‘work’ so perhaps I diminish the stress associated with moving – with the glib response to others (and to myself) ‘I’m not stressed – I haven’t even got a job!’ This is a ridiculous thing to say, even if I say so myself. It’s as if I am anticipating people thinking I should breeze through these things because of my lack of paid employment.
So here’s the first rung of my anxiety level – worrying about what other people think. Or, the real nub of it, not living up to my own expectations of myself.
On the surface, moving to a new country – especially if you are on an expat assignment with a company – seems like a breeze. When we lived in Bangkok we had a standard of living far higher than anything I’d experienced before – help at home, a driver, babysitting whenever we needed it. And while this appears to be living the dream, appearances can be deceptive. For the first few weeks of living there I ran on adrenalin. I had mini panic attacks when I was walking down the street, my heart pounding, feeling like I just couldn’t get enough air into my lungs. I worried about everything and, even when I wasn’t actively worrying, my subconscious was whirring round like a humid hamster on a wheel.
I’m sharing this now because I think lots of us feel this, to a lesser or greater extent. And if you are feeling this now – it passes. It really does. And it’s no wonder our minds go on overdrive – there are so many things to do, to remember, to sort out, to avoid. It’s hard. And on top of that, there’s the pressure that we feel like we should be enjoying it.
However, if this feeling doesn’t pass, then it’s important to talk about it and seek help. Anxiety can be completely debilitating – but it is an illness, and there are treatments. Just as we would take care of a painful tooth (more of that later!) so too it’s important to practise good mental hygiene. You are important.
Truth #4: There will be sleepless nights
Ok, so again, this may just be me. I only remembered the insomnia when we moved here and it happened again. I guess anxiety and insomnia make really annoyingly comfortable bedfellows. And kick you out of your own bed so you are wandering round your strange, new apartment in the early hours of the morning, foraging for camomile tea…
Jet lag, of course, makes this worse. In Bangkok the jetlag, plus our air-conditioning – which sounded like an Aeroflot plane juddering to takeoff – combined to keep me sleep-free for weeks. When we moved to Germany, it was the QUIET that kept me awake (seriously, there is no pleasing me).
And now in France…well, I have a wisdom tooth that needs to be extracted. This is a thing with me; in Germany I had to have three taken out as soon as we arrived. Not sure what this says…the more I move, the less wise I become? Anyway, I digress. My tooth gives me headaches, the headaches keep me awake. And on top of my other worries, I am worrying about finding a dentist and getting it extracted…
The other thing that keeps me awake is the Grandfather clock that my husband decided to wind up for the first time in years – it’s a French clock, so it seemed fitting. It chimes every hour, on the hour…and then again two minutes later. So midnight is basically non-stop ding-dong. That sounds like a euphemism. It is not. I don’t sleep while my husband snores. I am literally stuck between a ticking clock and a snoring place. Add to that the youngest child who also struggles to sleep and seems to wake up just as I drop off and you have the perfect recipe for…lots of coffee.
Truth #5: You have packed things you did not need
No matter how well you de-cluttered, you will have still brought things that you look at and wonder how it escaped the bin. In our first week I took two bags of old clothes to the recycling…I’m sure they mated in storage, I don’t remember buying my girls that many pairs of leggings.
You may also have brought some totally unnecessary items. I give you: two stale muffins in a cake tin (rather worryingly not mouldy despite a month in storage), an empty box of chocolates (guilty) and several baking trays that I am certain I have never seen before in my life. Luckily, we didn’t have our rubbish packed up and delivered with us…
Truth #6: No matter how much stuff you have, you will still go to IKEA
And you will go there more than once. Despite saying we did not need anything else, we have racked up a pretty hefty Ikea bill.
But isn’t there something comforting about all the beautiful show rooms? And when your house is full of unopened boxes don’t you wish you could just move into one of those perfect rooms, curl up in the bed and have a little nap? No-one would notice, right?
We’ve been to Ikea in Bankgok, Germany and now France. According to my kids, Germany was the best. They all look the same to me. Which, I guess, is part of the comfort when you first move. At least here is somewhere where you can find your way around and know what to expect.
Truth #7: You will lose things
Or maybe just forget them. I don’t know about baby brain, but I definitely have got a touch of ‘just moved somewhere new’ brain.
So far I have lost my newly arrived bank card, and promptly forgot the pin to my credit card. So in a matter of 24 hours, days after receiving then, I was card-less. Getting new ones takes a looooong time in France.
We have a new car that has a button to switch it on. I can’t get the hang of it. I left it on our drive not just unlocked BUT WITH THE ENGINE RUNNING the other day.
I have forgotten my internet password to every single shopping site I use. Actually, this combined with the bank cards – possibly someone is trying to tell me something…
I feel like my mind can’t quite hold on to everything. But I have been here before. It passes. It IS hard to get stuff done when the kids are at home and you have no friends to entertain them – or you. And you are somewhere new and it’s all different. And you aren’t getting any sleep. You aren’t losing your mind, just your bank card/ wallet/ pin number. And yes it’s annoying, but they can all be replaced.
Truth #8: You will lose your language skills
Possibly in all languages. Now I am only fluent in English, and that’s sometimes debatable. But when we moved to Germany, I found myself speaking Thai…my automatic reply when anyone greeted me in german was to reply in Thai. As if the most recent language I had been used to was the only one that would rise to the surface as a response to anyone speaking non-English.
At the airport returning from our holiday this summer, with the long day of travelling ahead of us, I bought a coffee. And when the waitress gave it to me, I said ‘Thank-a-schön’. THAT IS NOT EVEN A LANGUAGE. Thank-a-schön. Really. A muddle of English and German. And we were in Turkey, so neither English nor German was the appropriate language.
It is so hard to be in a country when you do not understand the language. You feel small. You feel silly. Everything is so much harder…and it adds to the anxiety and stress you are already feeling. More on that in another blog post..
Truth #9: Your may lose self-esteem
This first bit is such an upside down phase. It’s messy – both literally and emotionally. Your house is a mess. You may feel like a physical wreck – lack of sleep and not having found a hairdresser will do that to a girl. It’s all new and different and you may just crave the ease of your old life and friends.
Moving from working to not working is also something that a lot of us go through. That has a huge impact on our self-esteem…work is such a big part of our sense of identity.
Language barriers, feeling isolated, not having met people…all of this affects us. Which is why it’s so important to take care of ourselves and remember that this too shall pass.
Because suddenly, things start to click. You meet people. You find a café that you like. You discover something fun happening at the weekend. And slowly, this higgledy-piggledy phase straightens itself out into a routine, into a new groove.
If you’ve done this before, you’ll know it’s true. But for anyone feeling any of this right now – remember, it’ll all be alright in the end. If it’s not alright, it’s not the end.
Truth #10: You will gain more than you lose
This is the honest truth. For all I have felt I have lost in these moves, I have gained a lot more.
It takes a lot of courage to step outside your comfort zone and make your home in a new country. But the reward is the friendships you will make, the opportunities you will have. The chance to see the world from a different perspective, to learn more about other people, other places and about yourself.
The first step is always the hardest. But even if it’s just tip-toes at first, keep moving forwards. And at some point, you may well look back at this time as a honeymoon period…or not!