Anyone who has been an expat knows it is a time of farewells.
As you prepare to leave, you say farewell to your current life. Some say farewell more permanently by selling their home and many possessions. Others, like myself, move on temporarily with the plan to move back after a predetermined period of time.
You say farewell to your friends and family with promises to catch up during home visits.
Unknowingly, for some, you also say farewell to the person you were before the move. If you're lucky, or perhaps determined(?), the little bits of yourself that are unproductive or negative get stripped away and you remain with the core of yourself that you love and cherish.
You say farewell to your familiar shopping habits and favorite brands of food and clothing and cosmetics (ok, if depends, we live in a global corporate world and many brands can be found everywhere it seems).
You say farewell to your workout routine and eating habits.
You say farewell to being able to easily communicate thoughts and emotions and needs to nearly everyone you might meet in the street or in a shop or near the coffee pot at the office.
You say farewell to being able to call up your folks, basically whenever you want to, because suddenly you're faced with a 9 hour time-zone change.
If you move away from your loved ones you might be saying farewell to simple things you cherish more than you realized, like coffee and a walk with the dog every morning.
Saying farewell is painful. We've all seen that person at the airport standing there with tears rolling down their face watching a loved one roll through the security cue. Some of us have been that loved one standing in the line also crying to the point that a poor security guy hands you (me – wait did I just admit that…) a pack of tissues to wipe your face and blow your nose.
After you say farewell it's normal to expect a bit of a grieving time (but you'll be surprised by the grief because you're an expat and it's all supposed to be exciting and fun!) and during this time it's difficult to be open to new experiences or see the positives appearing before you. But, eventually, after the grief lifts and you've made yourself available for all the promise of your new life an amazing thing begins to happen.
You find yourself saying hello (Hallo, in my case) to the butcher behind the meat counter in your local Turkish grocery that you nervously walked in to hoping your first shopping encounter won't be a total disaster. Especially considering your limited command of the German language. And you discover that not only does he speak perfect English, but he deeply loves America!
You discover a local McFit gym that is just a 10 minute walk from your new flat and is open 24 hours a day for the cheap price is $19.99 a month! Then, you find an amazing yoga studio and hundreds of miles of bike paths and coworkers who also commute to the office by bike and happily bring you along the learn the route. Then through a series of events, you might even discover an entire new sport and throw yourself into it with so much passion that you proceed through level tests and have created an entire new sports hobby and network of friends that you never could have imagined.
You begin to make new friends – fellow expats from around the world. When you lock yourself out of your apartment you meet your neighbors, who are kind and generous and offer you a cup of tea and cookie as you wait for the locksmith to come and open your door. Then later over a glass of wine you exchange lively conversations learning about your respective country customs and politics. You get to know your new co-workers and neighborhood shop-keepers and your sports training coach.
And after a year or so, you are on a first name basis with many restaurant owners and waiters in your neighborhood and suddenly people are smiling at you with recognition on the street and you feel that you belong, maybe even more than you did back home.
Then, suddenly, it's time to go. And if feels strange, very strange, to look back and realize that somewhere along the way you have come to belong in this new place. And you need to remind yourself (convince yourself truly, because that old fearful feeling can begin to raise its head) that the new you will also belong in the old place.
The old familiar feeling of grief begins again (hey, at least it has lost the element of surprise!), but this time you're grieving your new life, that in the beginning was fun, then so difficult that you wanted to run away home, but in some way by fighting through and staying, now has become a field of victory. One that you will leave victorious and with tears in your eyes for the people you, again, leave behind.
As I sit here in my apartment with about 60 days to go, the guest room is prepared for my expat friend / traveling partner (and occasional therapist – hey, one of the most valuable things I learned out of all of this is that it's ok to ask for help from friends) and her husband will stay in my apartment for her last week in Germany. It will be a bittersweet time for us. We've been through this chapter together and it has created a bond that will never be broken, but I know that things will change for a bit as we morph back in to our previous lives. New patterns will be established and then we'll find time for a ladies shopping trip, or a coffee or maybe a BBQ with our families. For now, we will enjoy the moments in our last week in Germany before we both move on.
A new chapter in an old place. This will be a novel experience for me. In the past, every time that I've moved on it has been to a new place and never backwards. But I don't feel like I'm moving backwards this time. (Backwards – for some reason it sounds unproductive.) This time, I'm moving forward with a renewed understanding of myself and gratitude for the people in my life who tolerated my long absences and welcome me home with open arms when I return. I have learned (with occasional setbacks) to live the adage "don't look back, you're not going that way". I've decided that the only reason to look back is to harvest the learnings and then use them to improve your life as you move forward.
So, if you're considering an expat, be prepared for the farewells which will become a constant in your life. Don't forget to look out for the Hallos, which will sometimes (often) be hiding in the most unlikely of places and will shape you into a beautiful new creature if you're willing to respond to them with a warm smile and an open heart.