You may or may not have seen a picture on my blog last week of a shopping cart sitting in my garage. I live about 200 meters away from a grocery store, and sometimes the bags are too heavy, or I need to return our glass bottles.
When this happens, I just calmly walk the grocery cart from the store to my home. People park outside my house and shop, afterward bringing the cart with them to their cars, so I don’t really see this as much different. My spacious, 2 bedroom “car.”
When I got together with my friend Amy who also moved here from the States, she told me she had a good laugh about the post and then said something that really captured how it feels to be me in Germany sometimes:
“You must have set the world on fire. I can just feel the mounting tension as you walked further away from the store and closer to your garage.”
And she was right. There are so many times I feel so out of place here doing something that in Santa Cruz would be considered completely normal. (I realize this is a completely unfair comparison, as Santa Cruz has one of the oddest populations on the planet.)
The looks I get when I run/dance with my iPod are only humorous for awhile. It starts to grate on me. I don’t always want to be different. But I want to be me.
Combine this feeling with the freezing weather, and I feel like I’ve moved back to Minnesota, only now I’ve lost the ability to communicate completely.
All of this has brought me to a place I don’t really want to admit to. I’m feeling depressed, lonely, irritated and confused about what exactly it is I’m doing here.
I’m also feeling selfish, ungrateful and completely idiotic because I’m pretty sure my former self would tell my current self to wake up and realize what an awesome opportunity I’ve stumbled into.
Because of these conflicting feelings I’ve decided that the only way out of all of this is to create a list of things that I think have been helping me to deal with this conundrum.
Expat depression (or whatever you wanna call this) seems to be pretty common, as evidenced by posts I’ve read with titles like “There’s a Good Chance That Today Will Probably Suck …”
We teach what we need to know, so I’m writing this not only for the folks out there in Internet land but also for myself (I often refer back to my blog when I’m feeling out of sorts).
1. Look at how people deal with managing run-of-the-mill depression. Exercise, healthy eating, laying off the booze, art, etc. For me, this is my go-to because I’ve struggled with depression for more than a decade. All of this stuff seems to help lift my mood.
2. Learn the language. I’ve been taking German for a little over two months now. I wouldn’t say I’m awesome, but I can order in a restaurant, introduce myself and chat a little at a stitch ‘n’ bitch.
I didn’t think all of that really mattered until we visited France for a day. The feeling of not being able to communicate at all was so horrible. I had forgotten how that used to be how I felt most days in Germany. Learning the country’s language (even just a little bit) will help immensely.
3. Find something you really love about the place. Is it the food? Or maybe just how people greet each other? The plant life? The weather? For me, it’s the amazing amount of good gluten-free foods along with how easy it is to not drink. (A very pleasant surprise considering when Americans think of Germany we often think of beer.)
4. Find something your really hate about the place, and learn to laugh at it. OK, admittedly, this one isn’t as fun as the last, but laughter cuts everything down to size. Trust me. Especially because most of what you hate is probably really petty.
Like for me, it was the garbage/recycling situation here. (See No. 5 on this blog.) Exactly. The thing I complain about most is how I must organize our trash. That’s pretty ridiculous. And once I saw how silly it was, it has become more of a joke than anything.
5. Seek out something that reminds you of your country. Maybe it’s a theatre that shows movies from where you live. Perhaps there is a restaurant that serves your favorite cuisine. Or a park or lake that just feels like home.
Go to these places often. For me the woods behind our house has a section that feels like Nisene Marks, a state park I love. I also head to the Real occasionally, which feels just like a Super Target and has things like Cholula hot sauce and baking soda.
6. Keep in touch with your friends, wherever they are. Yes, they may not see you more than once a year but good friends can pick up where they left off so don’t forget about them.
Plus, they may be able to offer you some comfort. Who knows? They could really help you put things into perspective. I have several friends who have been (or are still) expats. That reminds me: Must call Iain.
7. Know that things will take longer. Everything will take more time than you think. Of course I mean things like getting used to your neighborhood or getting official documents. But I also mean things like grocery shopping and other errands.
It’s not only a new town you’re living in, it’s a new culture. Moving to another place in your own country is a struggle, but at least you’ve got similar products, language and ways of doing things.
Now everything is different. So even if you are still making the same things you always have for dinner, don’t expect your trip to the grocery store to be a quick in-and-out.
8. Plan something to look forward to. Whether it’s a weekend getaway to another part of the country or just a picnic lunch in the park this coming Sunday, plan things that you can get excited about. It’ll keep your mood up.
A weird bonus about taking trips and coming back to your new home is that you suddenly feel like it’s more your home. This happened to me after a trip to the U.K., which totally surprised me because I thought after hearing English I would hate coming home to German, but I didn’t. And a few weekends later we went to France. Freiburg never looked so good after our trip.
9. Find other expats. At first I really only wanted to have German friends so that I could truly acclimate to the culture. I thought hanging out with expats was cliché, an easy way out. But it turns out that isn’t exactly true.
Expats really understand what you’re going through in a way that no one else can. Not your friends back in your homeland, not the folks who are native to your new home. They can relate to you, tell you funny stories and give great advice.
My best friend in Germany is someone I’ve called on the phone crying about German classes 1) because she’s been there and 2) because she wouldn’t think I was a totally ungrateful brat for feeling a certain way because HELLO! I was living in Germany and learning German! Shouldn’t I be thanking my lucky stars every day?
I hate to say it, but if someone called me with that struggle before I lived abroad, I think I’d have a hard time being sympathetic. But she had no trouble empathizing and helping me through, because she gets it. Most expats do.
10. This too shall pass. Loneliness is part of the process of moving, whether it’s across the state or across an ocean. Greif and sadness is normal: you’ve experienced a loss.
But these things don’t define you or your life moving forward. They are a temporary and valid part of the experience. In fact, it would be worrying if you didn’t have some of these feelings.
Whenever I have a depressive episode and talk to my hubby about it, he reminds me that this too shall pass. It is just a moment and it’s very likely that five years from now this won’t matter a bit.
It will be part of your story, but it won’t be the whole story. Hell, it might not even make a full chapter.
Here’s to all of us who are trying new things. It doesn’t matter if you love it, are ambivalent or would rather move along, there is something very special about being able to live abroad. Yes, it can be difficult and yes there are days I hanker for something easier, but when it comes down to it, life is pretty amazing.