Doing the Limbo as an Expat
I love to travel. I make no secret of that, and I’ve made it my mission to encourage others to travel. So I don’t think it surprised too many people when I announced my plans to move to Germany. Even before I met Andy, it had always been a dream of mine to try living in Europe. But like most things, the reality usually doesn’t match expectations, and being an expat often feels like being in a weird travel limbo.
One of the things I like most about travel is experiencing something different. Different food, different sights, different cultures, it doesn’t matter, it all feeds my addiction. Even something small like going to a grocery store in a foreign country or figuring out a few words in a different language can be exhilarating.
I do also enjoy the comforts of home. Sometimes routine can be reassuring, and other times I just need things to be easy. I need that normalcy to recharge my batteries. Plus it’s nice to not have to worry about finding things at the grocery store or trying to understand another language.
Living as an expat, I experience both of these things simultaneously. And it can be exhausting.
I still only speak the bare minimal amount of German, which means a simple shopping task can turn stressful quickly. Like a few weeks ago when I was in a store paying with my bank card and a number pad came up on the cashier’s screen. I didn’t understand what he was saying to me, but it was clear he wanted a number of some sort.
The only thing that came to mind was my PIN, so I freaked out because, why in the world is this guy asking me to tell him my PIN? Luckily the woman behind me realized I don’t speak much German, and she said in clear German only the number he was asking for instead of the whole sentence.
Zip code. He wanted my zip code! Happy the cashier wasn’t trying to clear out my bank account, I laughed and told him my zip code.
It’s all a mindset really. Because I’m home, I expect things to be easier than when I’m traveling. I expect some kind of routine, some ease from day to day.
But it doesn’t work like that. I know where things are in the grocery store now, but it doesn’t mean the thing I’m looking for will actually be there. Items will regularly run out and not get replaced for days, or sometimes even a week or two. Or even disappear altogether like our tortillas or the olives Andy likes.
I’m in German class for four hours a day, five days a week. Yes, it’s a routine, but it’s not at all comfortable, and it’s also a lightening fast pace.
A normal college class meets for two and a half hours per week for a 15 week semester. Hour for hour, it’s like squeezing a college course into two weeks. No wonder my brain can’t absorb it all, and I get frustrated enough to throw my dictionary across the living room. There are 16 versions of “the” – you’d throw things too.
So right now my life is a big combination of the elements of home and travel, a constant yo-yo. My routines are filled with surprises and changes. My travel-like experiences are filled with the knowledge that this is home, I’m not on vacation. As an expat, things are familiar but at the same time not familiar. I somehow feel stuck in limbo between travel and home. Maybe the two will someday merge together. But for now I will stumble through and continue to redefine myself and redefine what home really means.
Beverley | Pack Your Passport
November 19, 2012 @ 11:03 AM
I can’t tell you how much I can relate to this not only with living my expat life in Auckland but also in Australia too. It’s like, you have a semi-permanent home, you’re not living in a hostel, you cook and do normal every day stuff like you would if you were actually at home but somehow there are still things that are so unfamilar; sometimes it’s silly things like different banking procedures or where to buy certain things or that things you’re used to calling one thing are actually called something entirely different and I can only imagine how much harder that all is when you’re living somewhere where you don’t speak a lot of the language.
Germany looks like a beautiful place though hun, it’s somewhere I’d absolutely love to travel to, if not live there. I’m quarter German, so I’ve got even more of an excuse!
Expat life can be really frustrating and sometimes I can such itchy feet wanting to just go and travel “properly” but working abroad is kind of the only way I can afford to see the world right now 🙂
November 20, 2012 @ 4:33 PM
Thanks Beverley, it’s always nice to know other people understand what I’m going through. Familiar but not quite, things taking me off guard, language issues… Germany is a great country in a lot of ways, but the language is soooo hard! And I can totally relate to itchy feet, I want to go somewhere, anywhere, NOW! If you ever do make it to Germany, let me know!
November 19, 2012 @ 2:36 PM
I think it’s always so hard to figure out how to describe the mixed bag of emotions we feel in various life transitions. You definitely are in this unique place of being in between!
Hang in there with the language lessons! How much longer to go?
November 20, 2012 @ 4:35 PM
Thanks Heather, I really appreciate it! I’m finally nearing the end of language classes. Just 4 1/2 more weeks of the language part, then 2 weeks off for Christmas and New Year’s, then 2 1/2 weeks of the orientation course, which is the government structure, the different states, and who knows what else. The test is at the end of January.
November 19, 2012 @ 5:46 PM
I’ll be feeling like this soon, when I make the big leap and move to Cairo. I laughed when you mentioned you threw the dictionary across the living room… I would do the same. The thought of learning Arabic scares the shit out of me, but I know it’s something I’ve always wanted to do so it will be interesting. Anywho sorry for the mixed feeling living somewhere else feels. I lived in Cairo for 3 months already and I know how you feel. It’s not tough… I mean you do get in a routine of things, but even then nothing is ever the same because when something does happen you don’t know the language and you are once again feeling like a lost cause in a foreign city and think of things at home and just how much easier things would be. Does that make sense? Then to top it off the cultural differences. Enjoy being in LIMBO though, because with time it will go away and hopefully one day you feel normal and like home.
November 20, 2012 @ 4:37 PM
Living in Egypt must be so much harder than what I’m dealing with here. At least I can try to read signs and figure out what they say, you’ll be dealing with an entirely different alphabet. Mostly I’m just hoping I’ll get used to not being used to things. Seems easier than constantly trying to adjust only to have things shift on me again. Thanks Jaime, and feel free to vent to me about being an expat in Cairo (or about anything).
November 19, 2012 @ 6:22 PM
I’m kind of a shocker in the shops – I just assume no one speaks English and am still miming and trying my crappy Norwegian one word sentences, though I’m realizing most people speak English. I just feel bad speaking English, and also like I offend people when I ask if they speak it because they are usually like, “Yeah, of course,” with a bland face. Because we aren’t sure if we’re staying, I haven’t taken classes yet, only online lessons. So I feel your pain!
November 20, 2012 @ 4:40 PM
Most people here speak at least some English too, although usually they claim their English is bad and then go on to have a complicated conversation in English. I often try my few words of German, but the second they say something I’m not expecting, I panic. Or like yesterday I tried to order a Brotchen (pronounced like broach-en) and somehow she thought I said Pretzel. Oh well.
Jay // From There To Here
November 19, 2012 @ 6:35 PM
The difference between an expat and a traveller is vast and something I don’t think I was as prepared for when we first moved overseas but it’s certainly clear now! I’ve posted on it a few times but in general, despite the frustrations, I love being able to delve a little deeper into a culture that I know I wouldn’t have even gotten close to had I just visited the country!
November 20, 2012 @ 4:45 PM
Thanks Jay! I definitely wasn’t expecting things to be like they are, which is probably a big part of my stress. I also enjoy learning more about the culture, things you could never pick up from visiting even for a few weeks. There are definitely some great things about being an expat, and hopefully over time those will outweigh the stressful things more and more.
November 20, 2012 @ 10:37 AM
I must say: respect. I’m all for words and not being able to express myself seems quite frustrating. But if you’re taking that much classes, I’m sure you’ll get there.
Also, I think speaking a country’s language is the first and most important step to feel at home there. It’ll make it easier to connect with other people, build up some social circles etc…
Hang in there!
November 20, 2012 @ 4:54 PM
Thanks Sofie! It’s definitely frustrating to not be able to express myself or understand what others are saying. Language is definitely an important part of feeling comfortable and feeling more at home. I’m not sure I’ll ever be fluent, but as long as I can make myself understood, I think I’ll be ok.
November 20, 2012 @ 3:57 PM
I definitely know the feeling living in Thailand – it’s becoming home, but I still don’t feel totally comfortable. It always seems like just when I’m starting to settle into a routine, I’ll go to a shop and be unable to express what I need, or there will be some item I want to buy that just isn’t made here; and then suddenly it feels like I’m in a completely foreign place again. It’s exciting some days, and tiring on others.
November 20, 2012 @ 4:57 PM
Thanks Jessica! I know *exactly* what you mean! Just when you think you’re starting to adjust and feel ok, something hits you out of nowhere and it’s frustrating all over again when you can’t find what you want or get someone to understand you. We’ll get there!
Jade - OurOyster.com
November 21, 2012 @ 12:07 AM
15 versions of “the”? UGH That would upset me. That’s why I prefer to learn Spanish… pretty easy grammer wise 🙂
November 21, 2012 @ 11:50 AM
I agree, Spanish is much better!
November 21, 2012 @ 8:29 AM
One day you will come out the other end Ali and no longer feel that you are in between. mind you with 16 versions of “the”. I would be tempted to make up my own version of the language!
November 21, 2012 @ 11:52 AM
Thanks Natalie! I just sort of pick one “the” and go with it. They’re always going to know I’m not German anyway, so I can’t concern myself with the tiny details.
November 21, 2012 @ 5:46 PM
Four hours per day five days a week? That is impressive!! No wonder I suck at languages though. It does take time and I’ve heard German is pretty tough. Keep at it and I’m sure it will pay off 🙂
November 22, 2012 @ 3:27 PM
Thanks Laura! It’s an integration course the foreigners office is requiring me to take, so there wasn’t really an option to go any slower, though I wish there was! And yes, German is tough. Regularly makes my head hurt. Almost done…
November 21, 2012 @ 6:09 PM
I love this whole article… especially since it’s something I struggle with every day living in Thailand. This, especially, sums up my recent trip home to America.
“I do also enjoy the comforts of home. Sometimes routine can be reassuring, and other times I just need things to be easy. I need that normalcy to recharge my batteries. Plus it’s nice to not have to worry about finding things at the grocery store or trying to understand another language.”
Thanks so much for sharing and helping remind me that I’m not alone thinking this way 🙂
November 22, 2012 @ 3:29 PM
Thank you Greg! I’m so glad you can relate! I’m sure living in Thailand is great, but it’s even more different that I imagine there are more struggles with adjusting. It’s tough, but hopefully it’s getting better with time. I’m glad I’m not alone either!
November 21, 2012 @ 8:53 PM
German seems like a tough language to learn. You are awesome for doing all of this and 4 hours a day, 5 days a week? My brain would probably shut off at a certain point and say, no more information. Just think how awesome it’s going to be when you can understand and speak the language though!
November 22, 2012 @ 3:32 PM
Thanks Christy! It is a tough language, and I really wish I go could at a slower pace, but for the type of class I have to take, this is what I’m stuck with. And yes, my brain has sort of gotten to that point where it shuts down and I can’t fit anything else in. That’s normally when I start to cry or throw things across our living room!
November 22, 2012 @ 1:16 AM
I stumbled across your site and can totally relate. That was me two years ago. Living as an expat in Stuttgart, Germany. Wandering the food markts and bakaries and sitting in German language classes with my head spinning and all the while trying to keep up. It gets easier and the 20-something letter words finally begin to make sense. Zipping along the Autobahn turns from terrifying to fun. Parking underground and remembering to “pay first” makes sense – just have your coins ready or risk losing your spot from an eager German. I wouldn’t take anything from the experience! Auf Viedersein!
November 22, 2012 @ 3:34 PM
Thanks Lisa! I’m so glad other people can relate to what I’m going through. German really is tough! The car stuff sounds daunting, I’m kind of glad we don’t have a car and don’t have to deal with that! The public transportation here is great, but parking sucks, so I’m more than happy to take the trams everywhere.
December 3, 2012 @ 12:24 PM
I totally get exactly what you’re saying. Going on vacation to another country is romantic; living there can be a whole different story. There are things that are extremely hard about living as an expat abroad and some days can be truly frustrating. After 3 years, it still isn’t normal.
December 3, 2012 @ 5:24 PM
I guess it’s hard to rewire your brain in such a relatively short period of time. If you’ve only lived one way your whole life, even a year of living in a different country isn’t enough to reprogram and completely adjust to your new surroundings. Thanks Jennifer, I’m glad I’m not alone in this!