5 Goals for Settled Expats: You Live Here. Now What?

by Rebecca A. Watson on September 15, 2015

in expat, Germany, goals, holidays, life, Thanksgiving

The beginning of September marks the two year anniversary of Sante and me living in our permanent home in Germany.

I’m not sure why, but I look at that first month or so, while we were living in our temporary apartment and getting everything — bank accounts, cell phones, visas, German classes, god the list could go on — all sorted out as something of a limbo.

We weren’t really living in Germany yet. We were simply existing on the continent, but without a permanent address, without garbage pickup or our bikes. Just our suitcases and our desperate need for some semblance of solid ground.

Well, I guess we did have a little fun ;)

Well, I guess we did have a little fun 😉

We finally found it with our home, which we still often talk about. We are lucky. Blessed. This place is awesome.

Marking this anniversary seems like some sort of ending as well. When we initially thought about going to Germany, we weren’t sure. We had these typical notions about the country that many Americans have:

  • Everyone wears lederhosen and drinks beer all day.
  • There is absolutely no room for fun in all that bureaucracy and efficiency.
  • The language is unbearable and the food barely tolerable.

But since the job looked great and the city we’d be moving to was in the “Mediterranean of Germany,” we figured we’d give it two years. Even if we hated it at first, two years would let us know that we really hated it, and we could travel a bunch no matter what. We could always move home, we said.

Fast forward those two years, and home is Freiburg. There is no moving back in our future. When we applied for extended visas, we had to put an end date. There was a collective, “Ummmmm … ten years? Maybe? Do we have to say?”

Can we stay here forever?

Can we stay here forever?

I guess our trial period is over, which is both awesome and also kind of scary. We’re officially immigrants, I guess. Not just expats overseas for a few years on a lark.

So what does that mean for our future since we don’t have an end date in mind anymore? Well, I can think of a few goals for the next year at least, and I think these are great for anyone living in a foreign country for an extended period of time.

1. Spend Holidays at Home

And by home, I mean the country I’m living in. I was talking to a colleague of Sante’s who lives in Taiwan, and he told me a story of how he knew he was mentally in it for the long haul:

He’d gone back to the States for the holidays and was invited to an event that he couldn’t attend because he’d already be back in Taiwan. He told the person, “Oh, I’m sorry I can’t come. I’ll be headed home then.”

Home to him was Taiwan. And home to me is now Germany.

At the beginning of this year I was worn out and sick after traveling. I got a bit of a bee in my bonnet to skip that 13-hour flight next holiday season. It’s a brutal flight to begin with, but add to it the madness that is Christmas and there’s a whole new level of stress.

(I know how blessed I am to be able to take those flights. I understand what a privilege it is to even complain about this, but that’s where this all came from.)

So we started talking to our family about them coming to us next year. Fast forward a few months, and I’m starting to seriously think about how fun this holiday season will be.

Because FOOD! OK, and maybe a few other things...

Because FOOD! OK, and maybe a few other things…

For starters, Amy and Andy are moving back!! And just in time for Thanksgiving. And Yule will be a blast because Sante’s brother and sister will be here, along with some other friends, so we’ll have a full house. I’m even thinking about a Christmas tree.

The point of all this is that we’re settling here — making memories here. The holidays are a special time, and traveling every year leaves leaves me feeling disjointed, like part of me still lives in California.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the ocean, the Mexican food and the people we go back to see, but I don’t live there anymore. It’s more obvious every time we go back. So I’m creating new traditions in the place we do live.

2. Really, Truly Learn the Language

For the past two years I’ve been on-again, off-again with German. I really do try at times, and then I get burnt out or feel frustrated or take a trip where everyone speaks English, and then I feel like I’m back at square one.

The truth about learning a language is that it’s never easier than when you live in a foreign country, so I want to take advantage of my situation. I hate being a monolingual American.

And I’ve gotten to a point where I can navigate the essentials — doctors’ visits, bank appointments, visa renewals — without a ton of trouble, but I certainly can’t go to a party and hang.

OK, yes I can, but not solely in German!

OK, yes I can, but not solely in German!

No matter where you’re living, if most of the people around you don’t speak your first language, there is a separation that’s almost physical. And being able to order a meal or make a haircut appointment isn’t going to close that gap.

So for the next year, I’m going to make an effort to learn German in a more conversational manner. That means:

  • Watching German TV, like Shopping Queen and the famed Tatort
  • Finding a tandem partner or having coffee with my German neighbor
  • Using Duolingo everyday
  • Going to German movies occasionally
  • Listening to more German radio
  • Signing up for another German class

Of course, that’s a lot to do, and I’ve been told by many people that if you learn and practice German for ten years, you might have a hope of being fluent, so I’m trying not to set my goals and expectations too high. Just high enough that a few baby steps a week will actually lead to improvement.

3. Invest in Community

Just before we left for Finland, our city sent us voter registration cards. Another immigrant living in Freiburg has been fighting hard and has finally won us the right to vote in local elections. This is huge. Unfortunately, because we were in Finland when the vote happened, we didn’t get a chance to exercise our new right.

It was a pretty rad trip, tho, so I'm not feeling too bad.

It was a pretty rad trip, tho, so I’m not feeling too bad.

This is something I have always been passionate about. There are a lot of people who want to help the folks in India or in Africa, and that’s awesome. But I get a lot of satisfaction from helping the community I live in be more functional and fair. And voting is one way I can do that. But I have other ideas as well:

  • Finding a local charity to donate to. We used to donate to the food bank in California. I would like to do something similar here.
  • Get connected with some local officials about starting a Pack Your Trash I love how everyone picnics. I hate how the parks look the morning after a nice day. Litter is a real problem here.
  • Donate clothing and other resources we don’t use locally. There are all sorts of drop-off points in town for used clothing, but most of them are shipped to Africa. I found a drop-off area for the refugee camps coming to town. These are our community’s newest citizens, and they need our help.
  • Continuing volunteering for the CSH by leading a writers’ group that’s inclusive and supportive. Art is an important part of community.

I’m not trying to be an activist. I don’t want to get nuts about any of this. I also don’t want to be too involved in politics or news, as I’ve enjoyed removing myself from the 24-hour news cycle I became fairly addicted to in the U.S. (I was a journalist, after all.)

But that doesn’t mean I can’t be part of the community and help it be a place I’m proud (well, I guess more proud…I’m already pretty proud of how awesome this place is) to live.

4. Invest in Ourselves

A few of our friends that live in Freiburg aren’t sure if they’ll be staying more than a few years. Because of that, they aren’t really investing in much of anything stuff-wise. We have some friends that move every few years, and they always wanted to garden but didn’t see the point.

This all makes sense to me. Why bother creating a really special space if you’re just leaving anyway? There are other ways you can feel at home, like finding good friends, finding special places in nature or in town that feel amazing, or just finding spiritual space that speaks to you anywhere you go.

That being said, there is something nice about going out to your garden and grabbing a fresh tomato for salad. And I’m quite the homebody who also works from home, so having a nice place where I spend most of my days is really important to me.

planting-780738_640

We had a lot of our stuff shipped over, so we really didn’t have to buy much when we moved here. But until we decided whether or not we wanted to stay, we weren’t going to invest a ton of cash into things that ultimately would enrich our lives. Now we can.

We’ve already started, really. We’ve got a piano I love to play. I walk our sweet Neka every day, so I always have an excuse to explore the Black Forest or stroll by the river.

But we’d also like to buy a car so we can explore some of the tiny villages and have more freedom to travel on random occasions. It’s a big purchase, but it will open our lives up dramatically.

Not having a car for a few years has felt like a special kind of freedom, but since we’re living here for the long-haul, it’s nice to be able to take a weekend trip or head somewhere on a whim without trying to rent a vehicle.

5. Finish Unfinished Business

A few years ago, Sante had the opportunity to interview for a company in Europe. I had just started talking to my therapist at that point about the sexual abuse I experienced as a child.

When she found out we might move, she said we should avoid opening up that huge can of worms if we weren’t going to have a chance to sift through it all.

Since we ended up staying, we did open up that topic, but we didn’t finish dealing with it when the time came to leave for Germany. Sexual abuse is at the very base of a lot of other problems I have — depression, anxiety, PSTD.

It can’t be dealt with in a matter of months. The good thing was that we got to a good stopping point — a place where I felt safe and comfortable. Then we moved, and I had a ton of other things to work through.

Luckily I found an awesome therapist, and she helped me deal with culture shock, depression, my issues of worth and all sorts of other baggage. Then we got to my abuse. She gave me a choice.

choice

She told me that if I wanted to, I could not dive into the topic any more than we had. She said it appeared I could manage my life and live rather happily just snorkeling around the surface. That even though I knew that there was something murky underneath, it wouldn’t really ruin my general happiness, because I could manage the symptoms.

Or, she said, we could go deep sea diving and deal with that murky monster. It wouldn’t be pleasant or easy, and it would probably unearth more issues, but it would solve the bigger problem.

I sat on this choice for a week. Honestly, I didn’t want to go deep sea diving. That murky, cold water made me shiver. It was like a demon wrapped its tendrils around my heart every time I even thought about it. But I couldn’t see myself ever being completely at peace if I didn’t do it.

It was like treating cancer symptoms when I could have surgery to remove the whole tumor and be done with it. It didn’t make sense. Plus, I was working with my old therapist to deal with this problem before, wasn’t I? It was unfinished business, and I plan to finish it now.

This is my biggest goal of the year. Obviously, I don’t think you can wipe your hands clean of the problems from child sexual abuse in a year, but it isn’t just a year. It’s been about five now that I’ve been working through this stuff, directly or indirectly.

And thankfully I live in a country where my mental health is viewed as part of my overall health. This will be the second year I don’t have to fork out $30 copays every visit.

Regardless, I still think it’s the biggest investment in myself. And I’ve been writing more about it too, which means sometime it will find its way onto this blog or in a book, which both frightens and excites me.

Parting Words

Living in another country is not easy. Being an immigrant is difficult. But there is something that shifts in you once you decide to stay, to settle.

I hope these goals inspire you to make your own, wherever you are. I am happy to have them and am excited for another year of adventure, magic and growth.

Photo Credits: Jill111, Jill111 again!, Eliens

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Jande September 15, 2015 at 12:45 am

Has it been that long? O.o
Your blogs are always so thought-provoking. And, as they say, “feels”-provoking too. I’m glad that you are happier, more settled and have wonder-filled plans. <3

Reply

Rebecca A. Watson September 15, 2015 at 8:35 pm

I know, right?! It feels like I just got here sometimes. Thanks for all your kind words Jande 🙂 It’s going to be a great year, me thinks!

Reply

Amy September 15, 2015 at 5:48 am

So proud of you. You’re amazing!!

Reply

Rebecca A. Watson September 15, 2015 at 8:34 pm

Thanks girlie 🙂 You’re gonna be back in this camp sooooooon!!!

Reply

19Cathleen September 18, 2015 at 3:14 am

Hi Rebecca – thought I’d check in and say hello. So glad I chose to do that today as your post is filled with happiness. Happy for you! (Closing in on one year anniversary. Thanks for being my pen pal in the early days.)

Reply

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