I was standing in the middle of the grocery store, holding my shopping cart, having what could only be described as a nervous breakdown.
All because I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember what bread crumbs were called in German. And I couldn’t find them in any aisle. And I didn’t know how to approach the older German lady behind the till to ask in German. I just didn’t have the words.
Tears were welling up in my eyes and overwhelming feelings of hopelessness were riding within. I couldn’t even go grocery shopping without feeling like a total failure.
What were those words that Cold play sang?
“Nobody said it was easy,
No one ever said it would be this hard”
I’m not sure if he was referring to expat life in his song, but he might as well have been, for it is exactly how I felt in that moment.
I remember coming home to my husband and declaring that I just wasn’t cut out for this. I just couldn’t continue living in Berlin. This was too hard. Why was this so hard? When was it going to get easier? And why couldn’t I adjust? After all, I had done all this before – moved to a new country, been an expat, started from scratch, built up a new life, made new friends etc.
The one thing I hadn’t done up to this point though….was to move to a country where I didn’t speak the language and to become a trailing spouse. This was proving to be my undoing.
I was 25 years old. And I felt trapped. A quick look at my Facebook feed would show me that all my friends in the US and the UK were going on to do exciting things – start a new PhD program at NYU or start a new job at HSBC in London. Me? I was living in Berlin as a trailing spouse, trying to figure out what bread crumbs were called in German and feeling pretty sorry for myself. I knew no other friends who were in the same position. Who found themselves in a country where they couldn’t read the local newspaper, or get lost while looking for their bank or not understand the announcements made on a bus or U-bahn station regarding scheduling delays.
Back then, I didn’t have access to the resources and groups and literature on expat life that I have today. 10 years ago I knew of no expat blogs. Back then I didn’t even have a smart phone. No quick translating apps to look up what I needed. Being an expat and a trailing spouse seemed so much harder back then. I didn’t even have the vocabulary to define who I was. I had no expat groups to share my experience with online, and knew no physical meet up groups in Berlin I could join.
So I didn’t realize that the feelings and challenges I was going through, were pretty typical of so many expats who find themselves in foreign countries where they don’t understand a word on the street. I didn’t realize that my experience was not some anomaly, but really quite the norm for any expat or trailing spouse who had just moved to Germany.
Since I had no one to reach out to, who could give me advice, I decided to give myself a pep-talk. It went something like this:
“Right, of course this is hard. Take tiny steps each day. Start learning German. Start making friends with others in your class, who are also learning German. Don’t be afraid to go out. Don’t be afraid to answer the phone. Don’t be afraid to talk to people. You may make a mistake or two, but who cares? If someone invites you for a coffee, say “yes!” Embrace this amazing new city you are calling home. Explore every corner, visit every park, see every castle and reward yourself with an “eis café” (German iced coffees) if needed at the end of the day. You will have good days and bad. You’ll experience many highs and lows. You will feel incredible homesickness and incredible euphoria all in the same day. Take it all in your stride. Enjoy this time and appreciate it for what it is. First get your bearings, and then start thinking about the 3 things you want to accomplish in your time here. Set yourself some goals. Don’t beat yourself up if you struggle while achieving those goals. So many people would trade places with you in a heartbeat. So many people would love the chance to live in a foreign country and learn a new foreign language. Consider yourself lucky. Keep an open mind. Embrace new experiences and try to understand the new culture you are living in. Keep a blog. Write about how you feel. Even if you share it with no one, just writing it all down might feel cathartic and help you process your expat life. You can do this. Just look at it, as an adventure. It will help you have the right attitude. Attitude is key. Look forward to everyday. Look forward to learning something new. The magic always happens outside your comfort zone.”
I gave myself a pep talk in Berlin, because I had to. Afterwards in Copenhagen, Singapore and Dubai, I have continued to give myself numerous pep talks. We expats are quick learners. Even though today, I am lucky enough to have the option of reaching out to other expats, through my blog, through online groups or through expat friends in my city.
Today, when someone asks me “Oh did you like living in Berlin?” I immediately respond with a quick “yes” and launch into an explanation of how I loved the history, culture and vibrancy of the German capital. I make sure to mention the tough parts too, like how I struggled with learning the language and forming a new identity for myself.
It’s important to keep it real. Acknowledge the good and the bad. And give yourself a pat on the back for being able to look back at your experience with a smile. And if you’re having a bad day, give yourself an expat pep-talk.
Sometimes the best person to inspire you, is…you.