Expat Living: Home Is Where You Find It– 7 Tips For Finding It Fast(er)
Most long time readers here know that I am essentially a nomad, a homeless person in the most real sense.
Not that I don’t have a house, I do.
Not that I live on the streets, no not that either.
But as a military family we went where the war went, or where the Navy needed my dad. Never in any one place longer than about 2 years. No home to get accustomed to.
As a new bride, my husband was also in the Navy (they say you stick to what you know, right?). We moved 18 times in 25 years of marriage… never really needed to learn how to clean house- just move out and get a new one! (Just kidding, of course!)
At age 40 I went abroad alone (that wasn’t the plan but that’s how it turned out). I spent 10 years as an expat in Baku, in the by-then Former Soviet Union.
People were warm and welcoming in a way that military bases of people coming and going never had been. So of course, over 10 years, in a tight expat community, sharing joys and sorrows, that felt more like “home” than anything else I had ever experienced.
When I decided that I needed to come home, by then divorced 7 years, I had a very tough decision to make: Where should I go? I had lost both parents, all my grandparents, and to top it off, I actually could not find my brothers and my sister! They had all moved away after my mother passed; the postal service mail forwarding requests had long since expired. Wow… Loss upon Loss.
The next 5 years of “repatriation” found me in a place where I didn’t feel at home, I had no connection, and worked in a system that was more foreign than the one in Baku. I had to reinvent myself to fit in, just to get along. I managed but it wasn’t a real repatriation- it was more like holding my breath for those 5 years, or like treading water, not getting anywhere safe, but not drowning either.
The next few years were up and down, both for me and the economy here. When I found friends from Baku online, made new friends at Families in Global Transition (FIGT.org) I began to build a different kind of home, complete with online persona, that allowed me to feel “normal” again. But as any rational person can tell you, that’s a dangerous place to build a life. It was a starting place, not an end point.
But something good was happening. I was regaining my confidence, becoming an authority on my own subjects, finding new creative outlets, and really beginning to breathe.
Joe and I had gotten married and the first couple years of his vs hers had blended into some of ours, some of his, and some of my own. I was smarter this time around. I could keep who I had become, and continue on my way to who I am becoming with no friction. It’s working.
We made some changes to his house, some improvements that I designed that even Joe says have made things much more comfortable for him. I have some “skin in the game” now. This place is no longer a late wife’s domain. We built the deck and created our American dacha, where friends visit all year-long and we can entertain together. We’re building good memories.
But more than that, or maybe because of that, I am also becoming more comfortable in America- maybe even in this town. One thing that I do like is where I am now working. The Department of the Interior is a very human place to be, very family and nature respectful, with a Cabinet Secretary (Minister) who is approachable and honest, kind and generous. I like Sally Jewell, as a person and as a role-model.
Most of all though, Sally Jewell loves America. Not simply the institution as a Republic, which she does of course, but as a place. As I watched her most recent weekly video, I was reminded again of what a great place this really is… (aside from some really stupid politicians- and no, I haven’t changed my opinion on that! Only 11 more months till this weirdness is over…!)
But take a look at this video and see if you don’t agree that this is the least politician-y person in Washington D.C.—
I’ve had the chance to travel since I have been back and am thankful to be re-discovering how great and majestic parts of America are. I’m discovering that Home really is where you find it, or, maybe more accurately, where you make it.
So, the Life Lesson I want to leave you with today is this... 7 Tips for Finding Home– what I know now that I wish I had known when I considered coming back.
- It’s never a perfect fit right away.
Think about finding an old pair of shoes in the back of your closet. Try them on. Do they feel comfortable? Most likely not- your feet have changed, and their leather has gotten stiff in places that used to be soft. You’ve changed and places at home that used to be soft and warm may now be dried out and stiff. You can re-work them or buy new shoes. You can move back or move on to new friends.
- It takes longer than you think it should.
Roads that used to go through are now cut off by a new freeway. Places you used to go are now abandoned- they’ve all moved to the new shopping mall (that didn’t exist when you left!) You’ll feel like you have amnesia for the first year or two… or more. Once you see the cycle of time, and catch on to the rhythm of the new life for a round or two… or more… things will start to become familiar. You’ll remember when it snows here, or how rainy it was last May. You’ll know that the parade is always on the first Saturday of December and the water park opens on the last weekend of May. You’ll know these things. But it won’t happen until you make a point to pay attention and learn them. It takes time… more than you think it will.
- Pick a spot or a niche to call your own.
You won’t exist at first because like playing musical chairs, all the chair are occupied. There will never be a place left vacant for you- it will always be a spot someone else vacated. That’s a key distinction. To become real, you need to pick a niche and show who you are- sort of like pulling your own chair into the game. Come to play and come to show your stuff. If you’re bewildered like I was, find a group online where you can establish yourself and just be… find your people. Branch out to local offline groups when you can. Better to be a medium fish in a small pond than to jump into teeming local waters as a minnow. The objective is to regain or rebuild confidence, learn the local rhythm, and see how things are done. Then move on from a place of stronger self-esteem.
- Take what you like and leave the rest.
You don’t have to remain exactly as you were- in fact, some facets of who you were should go away, as you may no longer have need for them. Once home, you may know the local language so your interpreter facet can be laid to rest. Once home, you may “look right to locals” and not be considered an outsider threat. The ever vigilant protector can relax or be retrained as needed.
- Feel free to change but don’t feel forced to.
It took time to create you just as you are. If someone says you have to change to fit in, think about moving on. This goes for kids especially! Keep exploring places until you find one that embraces the you that you want to be. It may take some time, but if you expect that it will, you somehow don’t feel disappointed if it does. The flip side of change is this: The sooner you can find fun- do anything that locals do for fun- the sooner you’ll have things in common to share. Laughter helps build bonds.
- Remember, nothing to this point has been forever, and this doesn’t have to be either.
It can be, but if you give yourself an out saying, it doesn’t have to be like this if it doesn’t feel right. No change is permanent, and no reversal is fatal. Just keep saying this over and over. Oh… and this ties into the 7th thing I learned, which is…
- As an Expat, Don’t marry someone who has ONLY lived in one place … Unless you’re willing to make it work wherever you are! 😉