day 17: daily life


I was speaking to a friend today about expat life. She’s at the beginning of her second time overseas, but the first time was as a young married couple, this time is with children in tow.

I hope we’ll get to talk about expat children in more detail later on this month, but she brought up something interesting, which was the tension between wanting to make the most of her time her, for herself and her family, and having so much of that time taken up with daily life.

You know the feeling right? You planned to visit the apple picking festival this autumn, but then you slept in after a long week, and then there was the cleaning that really couldn’t be put off any longer, you needed to pop to the shops for a few necessities, the husband/kids/cat was ill and then finally the new Downtown Abbey was on, and well, that really needed to take priority, no?

And in the meantime you start feeling more and more guilty because of all the wonderful things that you just know you are missing out on. The castles, the festivals, the museums, the trendy cafes… Your friends back home skype you with envy in their voices, It must be so wonderful. And you look over your shoulder at the piles of laundry and you remember all the late work nights this week and try to recall the last time you did anything that could be described as cultural.

Relax. Take a deep breath.

Because this? This is all very normal. Expat life may well bring into starker conflict the difference between the life you are living and the life you think you should be living, but everyone experiences it at one time or another.

The funny thing is, this daily living, is as important a part of your expat experience as any of the big cultural things you have in mind. Your regular trips to buy food that’s very different in a shop/market that’s very differen. Your journey to work by bus/rickshaw/bike probably looks quite different than where you come from.

I spent four months when I was 20 living in Pietermaritzburg, in South Africa. Years later, I met up with a Dutch woman I’d met there, and we were looking through her pictures of all the places we’d travelled together – awe-inspiring photos of the Drakensburg mountains, elephants in the Hluhluwe national park, hippos at St Lucia, sunset on Tabletop mountain. I looked at these photos and I remembered good times.

And then she turned a page, and there was a photo of the street we’d lived on. The wide avenue that headed down into the city centre from the corner at the top, around which the minibus taxes would screech, beeping their horns for passengers. That photo made me exclaim out loud in a mix of joy and nostalgia. It was memories of standing there daily with my finger pointed up, waiting for a taxi headed in the right direction, ready to haggle with the taxi driver who thought he could fool this young white girl. This was where I’d walk back to each afternoon with a group of kids from the shelter next door to our house.

This day-to-day expat life you live is just as valuable, just as meaningful as all the big trips and cultural experiences you’re planning. For sure try to fit some of those in, because they’re great for making friends back home jealous (why do you think I mentioned the elephants and hippos?!). But this daily routine-making, habit-forming, life? This is the good stuff too.


This post is part of my 31 days to embrace expat life. I’m writing every day through October on this topic. Click on the button to see all the posts so far…

Yesterday’s post – Shit Expats Say.