Ex-Pat Living: 5 Tips For Coping With Change… What I Learned This Winter
For expats, change may be second nature, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. What with helping kids with the transition, leaving friends and family members, uprooting the routines… it can be too much at times.
And it seems like this winter is one of those times.
This winter has been all about change… everyone seems to be moving in, moving out, moving on. Several of our good friends are relocating to be nearer to family, closer to children or taking care of others. Change happens often in expat cycles- two years and move on.
Even the weather is changing- this has been a new experience for many and it only compounds the stresses of change. Everything seems out of sorts. And frankly, some of us are having trouble coping.
This winter has been a new experience. Anyone looking at the weather in the United States this year may be wondering what in the world is going on. Meteorological terms we’ve never even heard of have become everyday words: derecho, polar vortex, precipitable moisture (near as we can figure, that’s the kind that could make rain or more snow), El Niño/La Niña… and on and on.
I read a post recently from Jacqui Kane (RepatJack.com), a Scots expat who had the great “good fortune” of getting posted to Boston, just in time to get dumped on by record snowfalls. Even those who are used to harsh weather can find it difficult to cope.
Being from Texas, I understand hot, and hotter; humid and OMG… but, no, we don’t really do cold in Houston.
Of course the operative word is “from” Texas, as in I don’t get to enjoy that warm, balmy winter weather now that I’m living on the chilly eastern seaboard. To me, snow was supposed to be something you visit, ski on (or through), and then go home- at least ideally. That’s the theory anyway!
This January (deep into snow season- our deck, above) I was fortunate to have a little reprieve as I helped my daughter move from Tennessee to Houston. Yea! So even though she is considerably further away (again, sigh) it does enable me to go home to Houston (and to my dad’s place near Austin, complete with deer; yes, that’s it, in January) for a visit once in a while. At least that makes it manageable.
These images tell it all; we’ve had the full range of conditions- snow and ice in VA and TN, to sunshine and balmy temperatures in Houston and SC. Driving has been as challenging as knowing how to pack and prepare.
This week, we are wrapping up a visit to South Carolina’s Low Country: Dataw Island, where we’ve played golf in sleeveless shirts under sunburned skies. Double yea! (More on this in tomorrow’s post!)
The news from Alexandria, VA? 1ºF, with snow flurries again today. 6-10″ inches of snow expected this week…again. Yikes! How will we get back home?
At one point, the golf course back home had 7″ of snow and our course superintendent had 17″ of snow covering his own backyard. (I just hope our neighbor has been able to get to the bird feeders in our backyard while we’ve been traveling!)
This is one way we cope- getting out of town while the fierce winds blow.
But what about when we just can’t avoid the stressful situations?
Here are a few tips I have re-learned for coping with all this change.
For the first time in my life, I am not working.
Technically, I have a job, but like so many others in this area, I’m part of the great American furlough (just waiting on Congress to get its act together and pass a budget that will enable government agencies to move forward on projects that have been approved).
To everyone else, it looks like I have lots of time. When you’re used to a schedule of 7:00 to 6:00, though, being out the door, fighting traffic, running on adrenaline all day and coming home and having tales to tell of work and news, it’s very hard to get up each morning, knowing that the only traffic you’ll be fighting is getting to the fridge at breakfast. Or that the only news you’ll have to share is… um, well,let’s see, uh, yes- the birds are out of food in the backyard feeders.
It can be demoralizing, disconcerting and downright depressing. And for family members who care, it’s hard as well. My husband responds by planning trips away, when what I really want to do is check my laptop for that email saying we’re good to go (back to work).
Never mind that my laptop can go anywhere we go, it’s the thought that I’m out sunning when I should be working- almost like a kid playing hooky from school!
This week as we have been in South Carolina, spending time with friends on Dataw Island, between Charleston SC and Savannah GA, we made a deal. I would take my laptop and check in regularly with the outside world, but I would also grant myself a reprieve and spend some time in the glorious sunshine, playing golf, going for walks on the beach, exploring historical places and the like.
I can’t say that I have totally forgotten the work world, but by being a little more flexible, it has allowed me to be part of the real world and come back refreshed and ready to go. (Here that Mr. President? I am…so ready!)
One of the odd things I noticed after I repatriated a few years ago is this un-ease I get now about going away for a weekend and group trips.
Maybe it was one too many dacha trips where I was at the mercy of others, or maybe I just have trouble relaxing. Whatever the reason, I find I get anxious.
By being open with my husband about this, he has become my partner in working around it, planning to take our car, having a day out for just us and so on.
It wasn’t easy to talk about this with anyone, but by being open he was able to give his insight and to help minimize the times that I would be put in situations that are uncomfortable. It really helps to have an ally.
Openness is the key.
When my daughter and I were packing and cleaning, loading and driving the truck full of furniture from Tennessee to Houston, nothing seemed to go according to plan.
Things took longer than we planned, then it snowed when it should have been clear, the truck she reserved wasn’t available, and so on.
It took creativity (as well as flexibility!) to get all the things done that needed to get done, and get on the road. We used rest stops and audio books to stay alert, cell phones kept the two vehicles in contact, and ultimately we arrived with minutes to spare before the movers arrived to unload the boxes and furniture for delivery upstairs to the new apartment.
The key is to remember not to feel you have to stick to one plan, especially not when safety is involved. Allow yourself to think outside the box and make smart choices.
Coping means doing what you have to do to get along and survive.We can only do that when we know what we are dealing with, knowing yourself, and others as well as the situation you find yourself in.
When Joe wanted to plan this trip to South Carolina, he came home one day after golf and told me our friends had invited us to come spend the week, and he had accepted.
The look on my face must have told my secret because he immediately apologized and offered to cancel.
Filling him in on the back story made sense- the more he knows the better he can cope (and make arrangements that help me cope too!)
For the record, this has been a perfect week, and I’m glad we came.Choosing travels companions that fit, planning an itinerary that works, and being mindful of our individual needs (for instance, I need more quiet time more than he does; he needs to have his brandy and cigar time with his best friend after golf).
Now, I know that these simple examples don’t rise to the level of importance of most expat choices, but the same concept works: know what each family member must have, likes to have, and can live without and work from there trying to provide as many of the must haves as you can work in.
In the last 45 days, I have traveled more than 4,000 miles in heat, rain, snow and fog. I have been in 8 different states (Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas).
I have been in an SUV, a moving truck, and a plane. Back and forth across 2 different time zones. I have slept on the floor, on an air mattress, in a king size bed and a twin size bed- and sometimes have not slept at all.
We lived on fast food, truck stop food, and makeshift meals. We also had wonderful seafood, Turkish cuisine, Tex-Mex (my favorite!), barbeque and Italian in Houston. (Blessed relief from too many drive-thrus.)
You name it we’ve had to figure out how and make it work… and still like each other when we got it done!
Getting enough sleep was tough, but we learned that sleep and flexibility are the keys to resilience. It’s hard to bounce back without enough sleep- patience wears thin and tempers flare. Eating right and having good meals are also important components of resilience.
The bottom line of all this is to know yourself well enough to understand how much stress you can deal with alone; when you need to open up to a partner, an ally, to help get through the tough times; and when to reach out to others to talk about what’s going on. Families can grow stronger if you open up and let them know what’s happening.
What are your best tips for coping? What situations have you been in the caused you to use your coping skills the most? I’d love to hear your strategies and how things turned out for you!