Thursday, October 07, 2010

To live abroad (not "to live as a broad")

When a person decides to live the kind of nomad life that I have, it comes with conventions that are not necessarily conventional.  Among them:

·         ***Long plane rides suck, but can be endured.  Learn your process for getting through security easily without setting off the metal detectors. Learn to pick the security line without children or the elderly in it. Pack your checked bags within an ounce of your allowance but try to keep your carry-on light with only the necessities. Take sleeping pills, ear plugs, an eye shade and always have a sweatshirt and scarf (I don’t care how hot it is where you are or where you’re going). Suck it up and pay the outrageous sum they’re charging for a beverage in the airport because you’ll want it before they serve it on the plane and it’ll only cost more on the plane.  Dehydration will hurt you as the jet lag sets in. Learn to look for electrical outlets and chairs without armrests at airports.

·         ***Know that the majority of people (at least Americans) will never understand how you live.  I just missed my ten year high school reunion.  I’m not sure how much I would have had to talk about with anyone.  They are, for the most part, married house owners. As a friend in Madrid explained, by living abroad you have crossed a line that can’t be uncrossed.  You will see things, understand things, make comparisons about things that people who’ve never lived “away” won’t. It doesn’t make one group better or worse, more or less intelligent.  It’s just such a life changing eye-opening experience that it will change you and your outlook forever.  It’s important to understand this if/when you move back to the States.  When I was home from September to December of 2009, I had to fight the urge to start every other sentence with “In Spain. . . .” or “it’s not like this. . . .”  I didn’t want people to think I was rubbing it in, I just couldn’t help it; everything old was new again in my eyes of comparison. I don’t compare to be snobby, I compare because my world was somewhere else.

·         ***People leave, often. We are a transient group, speaking specifically of English teachers, but also those committed to living abroad. There is always a contingent of folks who have signed on for one year away and then, come hell or high water, they’re going home, period. Teachers in Indonesia seem to be prone to fall into this group. I don’t know if they all have something interesting and exciting they’re going back to.  Maybe it’s a fear of being away too long.  Perhaps it a significant other. Just a year feels like they are trying to pad their “life resume”, the one we can recall when we’re old, that shows all the great things we did.  I’ve given this ‘life resume’ a lot of thought. More on that in another blog.
                Anyhow, it seems that about the time you’ve sorted out a solid group of people who can tolerate each other and share a meal, between twelve and sixty-three percent of the group leaves. My current group was decimated over about two months but we’re rebuilding. EF teachers leave on a rolling basis, so there is always someone going. This means life here is as full of going away parties as birthday parties. My advice is to walk the line.  Don’t get to distraught but equally, don’t withdraw from meeting people simply because they might leave.  We all leave one way or another; no one can escape the big exit, so make the most of it while you can.  And in case you didn’t know, there’s this amazing thing called the internet.  It keeps me connected individually, as well as collectively here, to people half the world away.

·         ***On that note, if you are going to be moving regularly, you need to be outgoing as a matter of survival.  The first three to five months in any new city are a challenge.  You don’t know anyone, anywhere, any thing and home seems a zillion miles away.  Super, utter loneliness can creep in without a whisper or a shadow. Force yourself to say hello, find or make events, and build a group.  Often one only needs a ‘door opener’, that person who pulls you into their already built group, this happened for me here in Jakarta.  Other times, like in Madrid, I built a group for all kinds of people I met.  The common thread being they knew me and I invited them out.  Man I miss book swap.* Look on expat blogs, local activity calendars, meet up groups, go to pub quiz nights, anything to go get involved.  The only must is you must get out of your room before you make yourself crazy.
·         You should realize that more things fall into place last minute than you might think.  I was always a planner, maybe bordering on obsessively so. Since moving abroad I noticed that I no longer demand a plan of attack.  I can say “well . . .something will come up” if I need work. I can fly out on vacation and just scrape the plan for sightseeing and lodging together as I go.  The more you travel the more you can trust your own ability to think on your feet and scramble for a working scenario. 

      *** Thinking before you buy saves money and heartache.  I believe any of my friends reading this from abroad will know that any time you move, you end up leaving lots behind.  Lots of stuff.  We each have an allotment for air travel.  The problem lies in living in a place where there are shops.  Everyone buys something.  Thinking ahead to what you will wear out, what you’ll get tired of and what you might actually want to take with you when you go are important steps in the buying process.  If I can only take 100 pounds with me after two years here, what will I take? Will this new shirt make the cut?  Do I plan to wear it out before I go?  It is worth the cost to use it while I can and leave it behind?  Can I sell it second hand? Will I have a trip home before I leave this place to take things home? Lastly, how much will it cost to ship it if I must have it?  All of these weigh on me as I assess the possibility of a microwave or hot plate in my future.

*Book swap was my creation though someone must have thought it up before me.  English language books in Madrid can get expensive.  Many of my friends and I were avid readers so this posed a problem.  Solution? Read a book, if you don’t have your heart set on keeping it, bring it to the once monthly book swap.  Everyone puts their books on the table and takes other.  You can ask the bringer or any previous readers about it. After you read it you can bring it back to swap again.  If a book isn’t chosen for two swap meetings it goes to the used book store for trade or credit. Some months we were four, our biggest meeting was twenty-one. Lots of topical variety, good conversation and an excuse to drink coffee while really saving money we’d be spending on books; how could you complain?!? Between book swap and loads of time on the subway, I chugged through more books in two years in Madrid than the previous five years in the US.  The Indonesian equivalent so far  has been dvd swap as pirated copies of tv shows and movies are dirt cheap here and tend to pile up.


  1. i realized how alone i am this last weekend when no one called me to hang out besides my boyfriend!! my second to third year, most of my friends stayed, but then all left this year! time to rebuild and find new ones!
    besos, cat

  2. Loved the post and couldn't agree more with everything you said.

    As for Book Swap, we've had a few before the summer break, and I recently told Angie we need to plan one soon, because, guess who takes all the left over books now? :P