“What’s it like?” is a question I often get from people about being an expat freelance writer living in the South of France. “Wanna trade lives?” is another one. I’m living many people’s dream; hell, I’m living my own (albeit one country west of where my dream waits patiently for my return). I wish everyone who truly longs for expat life could experience it; but, to be honest, it’s not for everyone.
Although I’ve lived an expat life for years, this is the first time I’ve been involved in any kind of expat community – not only here in Montpellier among the usual suspects, but in the greater online expat community as well. In learning about everyone’s reasons for following a path similar to mine, and in watching the comings and goings of their daily lives, I’ve often wondered what it is that we have in common.
I have yet to come up with an answer, but I do think there are some realities all expats face that put one’s dream into stark perspective – and that send some of us packing. I’d like to talk about some of them, and I’d like to hear from my expat peeps in the comments about some of theirs.
1. You have to earn a living. Whether it’s an American corporate environment overseas, working virtually from your home in a variety of professions or bartending at a beachside watering hole, a portion of your daily life will involve some kind of work. Every single job on the planet has its drawbacks, its bad days and its ability to make you dread getting out of bed in the morning, no matter where you live.
2. You have to run errands. Sure, your errands may include a trip to a stunningly beautiful farmer’s market where luscious produce is sold for a song. You might adore lengthy consultations with your local butcher about tonight’s dinner choices. But for the most part, errands are errands. All over the world dry cleaners lose clothes, people in front of you pay for a week’s groceries with spare change, other drivers suck, public transportation attracts screaming babies and store employees would rather talk on the phone than help you.
3. You’re a long way from home, part one. While this may be a win/win for some, most people have decent relationships with family and friends they would take a bullet for. Sometimes, it can be hard to reconcile this closeness with whatever it is that makes an expat head off to unknown lands. It can be a rude awakening when, even in this connected world, you find yourself longing for a little quality face time with those you love.
4. You’re a long way from home, part two. Going back for a visit can be another rude awakening. Many people say they’re heading “home,” when home is where you live now. The people you love, and who love you, have no frame of reference for the new life you live; what you thought was going to be a heartfelt reunion of kindred souls can become a polite chat with strangers who don’t understand your new fascination with ice cubes, car sizes and noise levels. It’s called reverse culture shock, and it’s a very real part of expat life.
5. You’re living in a different culture. Honestly, I don’t think there are words to describe how fundamentally this affects the expat experience, but I’ll try.
I’ve never felt more like myself – like the person I was meant to be – than when I lived in Rome. Everything made sense to me, even the stupid, bad stuff, even on my worst days. I might have had the least amount of culture shock in the history of expatriation.
But there is always a point at which I hit a wall that divides me from the Italian culture I want with every fiber of my being to understand. My best friends – my Gay Mafia, whom I am convinced were sent to me directly from God – and I don’t share the same childhood memories, the same pop culture icons and references, the same moments in a nation’s history that define a generation.
Music is a good example. For Americans my age, John Cusack blasting In Your Eyes from a boom box into Ione Skye’s window made us all believe in true love. For Italians, Peter Gabriel is famous for Shock the Monkey.
I mean, really. What are you supposed to do with that kind of cultural divide?
We had Watergate; they had the Red Brigades. We have the Superbowl (even though Italians are better at Roman numerals!); they have San Remo (even though I have come to hate Pippo Baudo with the fury of a thousand suns). It’s being the only one in a Paris movie theater laughing at Fargo; it’s my Italian friends taking note of Marcello Mastroianni’s accent in a scene featuring other distractions.
In trying to explain the cultural divide, I am reminded of something Marco said to me once during a misunderstanding long since forgotten: “Christine, we lost the war.”
While the cultural divide surely attracts expats to foreign shores, it can wear a person down to have to explain themselves constantly; or, worse, to adjust one’s framework of references to such an extent that an undeniable part of who they are becomes secreted away.