On being an expat

the truman show stairs
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The Truman Show is a favourite film of mine. The first time I watched it I was hooked from the opening shots, and crying buckets by the end when Truman took his bow.

You know that scene in the film (I’m assuming you’ve seen it at this point but spoiler alert if you haven’t) where the camera zooms out and you get to see this created set that Truman is unknowingly living on. The sun comes up and everyone is put in position, waiting in place for the call for “Action” right before Truman walks or drives around the corner. And that moment that something goes wrong when Truman presses the elevator button and is given a panicked glimpse “behind the scenes” of his own fake life.

I realised recently that I often believe my life is like this. Everything happens where I am, in the conversations I have, the places I go. I imagine that just around the corner the busses have ground to a halt, the people are frozen to the spot, traffic lights are stuck on red.

And then the bubble is burst. A cousin who in my head is still sixteen gets married and my head spins. I go for a visit back to Brussels and bump into a heavily pregnant acquaintance, who wasn’t even expecting when I left. Someone asks how old my sister is and I count back two years from my own age and am a little shocked at the answer.

So many times the thought enters my head, When did that happen?? Life was going on behind my back and I am almost offended that it didn’t stop for me.

These feelings are amplified, I think, by the experience of being an expat, of living in a country that’s not your own.

I’ve been living outside the UK for six of the last seven years. There is so much I LOVE about living abroad. The friends I have made from so many countries: Lebanon, Jamaica, USA, Kenya, South Africa, Australia, Germany, Romania, Panama, Estonia… it blows my mind sometimes how lucky I am to have so many cultures represented amongst close friends.

But then there’s the other side of the coin, which is the life I miss out on back in my homeland. Great Britain just hosted (you can’t have failed to notice!) the Olympics, and as much as I loved watching them here, I sometimes had this pang of regret when I saw in the lead-up, photos of everyone out on the streets to watch the Olympic torch be carried past. I missed the ability to find a park or square with big screens showing the games and sit and watch with a glass of Pimms and a tacky Union Jack hat. I missed the dry wit and quiet pride of the BBC commentary (it’s just not quite the same watching it in German).

Life goes on without me. I know this of course. But there’s always a strange sense of mourning that comes when I visit home and realise it is really true. My friendships there are still good, but they miss something from the lack of regular contact and face-to-face time. Children of my friends double in size between each time I see them. And then there’s the quiet guilt of only getting to visit my aging Grandpa once a year, and praying each year that next spring’s trip up to Scotland will be possible.

The wonderful thing about expat life, at least in these international cities I have lived in, is that there are always other expats who truly understand. They get that it can be hard to pick up relationships after months of irregular stilted phone calls. They understand the occasional need to drive to the British/Scandinavian store for the Golden Syrup/Rye bread mix you have an inexplicably urgent need for.

I’m a big fan of making a big effort to integrate into the country you find yourself in. We’re working hard to learn the language, I have got used to buying all my groceries with German and French brands and adapting my recipes to local ingredients, I try to support local shops and local services, and above all I try to keep a positive attitude about all the experiences and challenges of moving to a new country. I don’t want to be one of those people who continuously compares their current experience negatively with their home experience.

And there are other more subtle gains: a deeper understanding of the importance of hospitality, of reaching out to and including the lonely. A new perspective of what home is, how I create it, where I can experience it. And a chance to step out of my comfort zone and realise again that what I assumed was normal was just one of many beautiful and unique ways of living this life we’re given.