We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, And know the place for the first time. ~T.S. Eliot Four Quartets

02 March 2007

Living life as the 'other'

I craved to go beyond the garden gate, follow the road that passes it by, and set out for the unknown.
-Alexandra David-Neel

One of the things I like most about reading blogs by expats is the insight into real life in a foreign place. It doesn't always have to be expats, true, in fact anyone blogging about the place where they live, to me, is much better than reading a travel book. I have been indulging my growing fascination with Scandinavia by reading My Life In Stockholm, by another American expat. On it there is a 'what no one told me' section, which has been a real eye opener and recommended reading for anyone desiring to move to a foreign country. Its dampened my unrealistic ideals about the place slightly, but also made me realise that my situation here in England, is not that different to being a foreigner anywhere else.

People are people no matter where you go, and EVERYONE, despite nationality, religion, language, sex, etc., has insecurities, ignorance, and all the other ailments we all suffer from at times. It can be hard to make friends, get a job, find a decent place to live, etc. No society is perfect. Period (or should I say Full Stop).

It can be very frustrating though, being the foreigner.. like one woman in Sweden who said she had to put up with constant American slagging at work..which was discriminatory and unfounded, because she knew if she said anything, she'd be frozen out, perhaps even fired. It also seems to be a common complaint that you will not earn the same amount of money that you did in your home country.. that you should be prepared to take a job that you are over-qualified for. This has been true for me, when I did work over here.. its very hard to break in at the level you were at- unless you come with the company.
This leads me back to the idea of one's own mind creating one's reality. Its true you can't change how other people think or perceive you, but you can choose how you react. I have days where I feel as English as the next person, and days when I don't feel any nationality whatsoever. There are other days when I am frustrated and fed up and just long for the ease of being on home ground.
I'm not particularly nationalistic, in fact probably not at all. I just prefer open-mindedness and honesty as much as possible. I understand we all have trouble with this at times. Alot of people seem to be afraid of the unknown, and that includes unknown people from unknown countries (although they may think they 'know'). I'm not that afraid of the unknown, or if I am, I try and embrace it. I like difference, I find it interesting and feel we all have something to teach and learn from each other.

There was a tv programme on the other night, about how an increasing number of British people are commuting to work (mainly in London) from homes in France. It seems that the cost of living is lower in France, with gorgeous homes both cheaper and bigger! And with low-cost air travel and the tunnel, it is an even better option (although perhaps not environmentally better). And as I now know, you don't get alot for your money here. This show coincided with a dream I had last week about Lille, France, a place I have never been and know very little about. I have just learned it has been referred to as the Manchester of France..rather ironic since we live fairly close to Manchester. Here's the funny bit though, much of these British expats keep to themselves in British dominated sections of France, and the French are feeling left out! So its a bit reversed... foreigners in your land who don't want to know you!

So what is the point of this ramble? Sometimes I wonder about leaving my home country and whether I will be a 'foreigner' there too, if and/or when I return. Probably depends on how long I'm away. I've only lived abroad for 5 years (not consecutive) which isn't much in the grand scheme of things. But its been over 2 years now since I've seen my friends from home (that's not a guilt trip, honestly) and it reminds me how quickly time passes. On the netmums forum (a uk website for mums) no friends, is a common lament from American ex-pats. Its not that we don't have acquaintances or friendly chat -as in the schoolyard with other mums, or perhaps at a playgroup, but it seems that it is harder to make friends as you get older..and perhaps being foreign makes it harder. Its not that there's a language barrier or anything, but there are cultural differences.
One woman on the forum made a pretty good point when she said many people don't need any more friends.. they have all the friends they need and with families as well, they aren't interested. True enough and I would probably subscribe to this if I were back home, although I do enjoy meeting new people. But if you have to leave most of your life-long friends behind, it can be very hard indeed.
And its not just Americans posting about this malaise, its new mothers who seem to have lost their single friends, French and Polish and German mums looking for others to speak to in their native tongue, or mums who have left the work world and now find themselves alone much of the time. Veronika, editor of the Mother magazine is a transplant from Australia and even though she's lived in the UK for eight years she still says she hasn't formed many friendships where she lives. Alot has to do with your lifestyle choices too, i.e. vegan, vegetarian, homeschooling, alternative schooling etc. That can be hard anywhere for sure!
Of course this is all coming from a female perspective, from a mother's perspective...its the only one I've got. But I don't want to sound too down about it all. Jul in Switzerland is another American ex-pat and I delight in reading her blog (This Non-American Life) because she is so upbeat, happy, and appears to be fully enjoying her life there.
So hard as it may be sometimes, the only option is to continue to extend myself, keep an open mind, embrace the world around me.


My Life in Stockholm said...


Thank you so much for mentioning my blog -- it helped me find YOU! I enjoy your writing style. Will definitely come back, and am adding you to my blogroll.

Warm regards,
Maggie aka My Life in Stockholm

Jul said...

Aaaaw, thanks. :)

I think most expat experiences are a rollercoaster of ups and downs. Now that I'm on my 4th time around as an expat, I've gotten a little better at focusing on the positives and taking advantage of the best parts of the situation.

I still have a hard time befriending locals, but at least my expectations on that front have become more realistic over the years. Besides, other expats can make great friends, too :)