Read, Write, Run, Roam

How to be a happy expat housewife…or fake it, anyway

I don’t know if it’s due to Thanksgiving prep, but I’m in a list-y mood lately. I’m also in a wistful mood, as it’s around the anniversary of our return to the United States. It’s been long enough that I can laugh at my mistakes, but not long enough that I’ve forgotten about them. I loved my expat life–mostly–and I thought I’d share some of my experience and suggestions for jobless spouses moving abroad.

1. Learn the language/alphabet.

I can’t stress this enough. Life in Belgrade is pretty easy for Americans, since most people speak English. But learning the language is essential for connecting with people and showing them respect. I didn’t have a chance to learn Serbian before moving there, but I taught myself cyrillic by writing things phonetically in English with cyrillic letters. When I arrived, I had no idea where things were, but at least I could read the street signs to find my tutor.

If you can’t afford a tutor, find a language exchange parter. My language exchange buddy taught me some of my most valuable Serbian colloquialisms. She also showed me secret bars and how to curse, which made me seem MUCH cooler than I am. (Thanks, Anja!)

2. Get ready for the roller coaster. 

Expats’ emotions for the first four months usually go something like this: shock; surprise; happy; homesick. Once the novelty of a place has worn off, it’s clear that you are very, very far from home. My homesickness was compounded by missed weddings, new babies, and all sorts of fun things back in the U.S. But it lifted after a few weeks when I realized that I was a part of a new circle of friends, which happened when I began to…

3. Say yes. 

I am not a natural joiner. So imagine Muz’ surprise when I began to join any kind of club that would have me, attend lectures on things I knew nothing about, and ask anyone to coffee. Was it uncomfortable? Sometimes. Did I become lifelong buddies with everyone I met? No. But I was fortunate to befriend a great group of Serbians and expats who liked to read, run, write and roam as much as I do as a result.

Of course, this can become its own kind of problem. Serbians are really friendly; toward the end of our stay, I had to walk our dog a completely different route if I wanted to avoid a 45 minute excursion talking to shopkeepers and neighbors. Serbians aren’t late because they don’t care about time; they’re late because it’s impossible to just wave hello.

4. Find your superpower.

I was nervous about being unemployed abroad. I thought it would be too easy to slide into a life of staying at home all day, meeting no one, and doing nothing. So before I left, I made a list of things that I always wanted to do, but never seemed to find the time for. The list was: (1) become a better cook; (2) play the ukulele; (3) learn Serbian; (4) write.

Ok, so none of these things are my superpower. I didn’t master any of them, but they helped me structure my first weeks and gave me great cocktail party conversation skills: “What are you doing in Belgrade?” “Learning the ukulele.”

5. Accept the differences, appreciate the positives 

Okay, so you’ve learned the language, joined the umbrella repair club, and listened to your neighbor talk about her dog’s bowel movements for ten minutes.  But you also hate the showers, or the bus system, or tiny habits that are unique to your new culture. Time for some tough love, expat: suck it up. You’re in a foreign place–probably by choice–and it’s going to be foreign.  Accept that. Find the good things about it. Because you’re going to miss them like crazy when you leave.


8 responses

  1. Hey,
    Thoroughly enjoyed reading your post.
    I too am an unemployed spouse living in Madrid. There have been moments of trial and tribulation, but so worth it for the life experience. Learning the language has been a big hurdle for me, and my confidence isn’t 100% with it yet, but I am trying. I haven’t joined any clubs, though I did intend to; but I have made a few good friends here.
    I thought I’d miss my family and friends at home, but you know what, recently I haven’t been, which sounds awful of me! I suppose I feel home is Madrid now, although I do miss being around people that really know me, the scenery, shops and even food back home (but only sometimes).
    Bex 🙂

    November 18, 2012 at 7:16 pm

  2. Yolanda Joy

    I really enjoyed reading your post. Since I’m planning to follow my Italian boyfriend back to his homeland over the next year or so, I’m grasping onto any information I can get about living overseas, especially when employment is uncertain for me. Thanks for sharing!

    November 18, 2012 at 7:42 pm

  3. I’m glad you liked the post, and I really like your blog. Living overseas can be rough–I didn’t write about my near-breakdown trying to find cinnamon in a grocery store one day–but I loved my time abroad and will never regret it. I hope you have the same experience (minus the breakdown, of course…)

    November 18, 2012 at 10:52 pm

  4. Hey Bex, I know exactly what you mean–one can feel a little guilty getting over homesickness, but it’s a great sign that you’re settling in well. And joining clubs is just a way to meet people, so if you’ve already met some great ones you’re ahead of the game. Language is tough but worth it. I knew I sounded terrible speaking Serbian but it was worth it to see people smile and to have (basic) conversations with people I would never have had the chance to talk to otherwise. (Plus, I think got better deals at the markets!)

    November 18, 2012 at 10:58 pm

  5. Hey,

    Thanks for your response! I agree with learning the language. It takes time and is eventually worth the effort!

    November 19, 2012 at 6:21 am

  6. Joanna

    I am totally coming over and we are learning ukulele together.

    November 19, 2012 at 2:56 pm

  7. Loved your post! I’m at the saying yes stage, although Calgary wasn’t as much of an adjustment as Qatar was 😉

    November 19, 2012 at 6:19 pm

  8. Anytime!

    November 19, 2012 at 9:26 pm

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