Update on Expat Life

“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.

19 thoughts on “Update on Expat Life

  1. @My Mélange – thanks!

    @nyc/caribbean ragazza – yes, and it can be super embarrassing – especially when you forget words in english! d’oh!

  2. I have heard “reverse culture shock” descirbed as reentry shock and agree it is a very real thing. In fact, I found it harder to deal with than the orginial culture shock.

  3. @kevinp – i think it’s definitely harder – you’re prepared for the shock of a new culture, while the one you grew up in sneaks up on you form behind.

  4. Awesome post! I feel myself becoming more Italicized as time goes on (especially noticeable when I visit America and say boh to everything and no one understands what the hell I am saying). But I still swing back and forth from feeling like I fit in to feeling like a huge bumbling American idiot who will never belong here and after two years can barely speak Italian (although I can read and comprehend Italian, so that’s something right?). It is a big adjustment process and I hate to admit it, but “piano, piano” is my new motto.

  5. @Jessica in Rome – I remember during my year in exile in New York, I was at a meeting at work and said, boh? And 12 heads all turned to look at me. SO EMABRRASSED.

  6. I have been through the reverse culture shock three times. It’s always an equal mix of “oh man what is up with that?! Don’t they know anything here? Why am I here? ” and “Wooow look at the gigantic supermarket – coooool. Oooooooh Starbucks. Cooool. Oooooh there’s room for everyone on the sidewalk. Coooool.” My friends claim to be rather amused with me whenever I head to Seattle.

    I wish more people would understand points 1 and 2. While I am living my dream both career-wise and travel-wise, with a life full of good coffee, fresh produce, dancing and lounging around, I have to work hard and run errands to be able to do all that. 😉

    I think the reason I am drawn to Italy and Argentina is sort of similar to yours for Rome. I just feel like myself. I’m totally in my skin. There is almost no culture shock at all. I think that is why I’m able to deal with the not-so-exciting realities.

  7. Great post! This hit the nail on the head in so many ways, I hope you don’t mind if I repost it on my blog (with a big link to your blog, of course)? There is almost no way I could write this better!

  8. Never been an expat, and although the idea holds certain appeal for me, I somehow doubt I’d ever make the move.

    But I found this to be a very interesting post. Just thought I’d let you know that.

  9. I’m sorry that this is totally tangential to your main point, but, I’ve *always* preferred “Shock the Monkey” to “In Your Eyes.” I have trouble believing that anyone who listened to Peter Gabriel as a rock music nerd (of any culture) could feel otherwise.

    Or, maybe it’s just that being a nerd and being European are cosmically linked?

  10. @Camille, please do!

    @Susan, shame on you!!!! IN YOUR EYES IS THE BEST SONG EVER. ok, no, not really, but, you know. I was 18, come on.

  11. Miss Ex, this is a really great read. It’s interesting and clever and brings up ideas that never crossed my mind. “Reverse culture shock” suddenly makes total sense.

    (And I’ve always loved Gabriel’s “Salsbury Hill” myself. I may be the only American who hated Say Anything…please don’t divorce me again)

  12. @supermatt41 – a reader who doesn’t like in your eyes, and another one who didn’t like say anything. UGH. what am i supposed to do with you people??

  13. Done!

    Man, I just had an expat morning. I just felt like half the words coming out of my mouth were totally gobbledygook and now I am working up the strength to go back out in public.

    It is so incredibly easy for things to go from great to demoralizing in expat life. Gah!

  14. The Reverse Culture Shock is just as shocking as the first hand culture shock – coming back from living in So America with and among the poorest of poor and yet the richest of rich archeological, historical, geograhpical cultures steeped in their attachment to the very dirt they live in and feed from, in Antigua Guatemala. Returning to the United States – there are no words to describe the feeling of being an alien. Its the realization that, oh my god, we live on assumptions here in USA, we assume cars will stop at the red lights, we assume the traffic lights work, we assume the food in the markets is safe, we assume the dishes and utencils in our cabinets is clean, we assume we use a vacuum cleaner, we assume we reach for an excedrin for that damn headache, we assume the gas at the pumps isn’t tainted, we assume the stores will be open all day every day, we assume we can run to the 7/11 for a gallon of milk and the latest issue of People magazine, we assume we can turn on TV and get all 150 channels, on and on and on….. Expat life – there are no assumptions, every task, every morsel, every amenity, every plug; every moment if fresh…

  15. great post, and captures how I felt returning to the states after half a year abroad. Of course, I feel like I experience reverse culture shock when I go “home” to the Southern town I grew up in from my life in San Francisco…

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