This week’s post is the February edition of my Expat Wisdom Project! If you’re new here, each month I share the story and advice of one amazing expat in the hope to build a strong and supportive online community of global expats. This week I got the chance to share Vix’s story – she has moved a lot which means she definitely has a tonne of great advice to share!
So I had always thought it would be fun to spend perhaps 3 months in a city, say New York, to get to know it to a point where you would have your favourite coffee placerestaurantstreet etc.. I never envisaged or pursued a life abroad, I just happened to marry one.
I was working at the BBC in London when I met him. He had just moved to Brazil with his work in retail and was back for a visit. We embarked upon a long-distance relationship and soon decided to pair up for good. We chose his career to follow as it paid better and so I left everything I knew and moved to São Paolo.
The first stumbling block was that no one speaks English. I had to learn Portuguese fast. I happened to find a friend for life in my teacher and she eventually became my firstborn’s Godmother! Through her teaching me about the language and culture I began fall in love with Brazil. I learned to cook the food and identify some of the fruits and vegetables so unfamiliar to me. I traveled everywhere I could with my husband. Before babies, I was completely mobile and I saw so much more of Brazil than he did!
Before I knew it we were off to Shanghai, China. Now I had never before known heartbreak of the sort I experienced when leaving Brazil. It had become the backdrop to where we fell in love and I think I felt I had conquered it. At first, it had been terrifying – this huge dirty city with its traffic jams and wide divides between rich and poor. Somehow it took on a romantic hew during our time there and became the place I love best of all our host nations.
So on to Shanghai – the culture shock of which took me a full year to get my head around. Actually, that is not strictly true, for the first six months, I loved it! The pace was amazing and the Expat life so invigorating and hedonistic. After six months my heart started to yearn for Brazil and I began to really struggle. My husband and I both found the new life and the onslaught to every sense so challenging, we lost a sense of ourselves. Date night saved us and we started to communicate better about how we were finding the culture shock of our new Shanghai lives. I started my own interior design business helping expats settle into their new homes. I worked with single people and families alike, scouring Shanghai for the pieces they needed. We moved several times during our Shanghai life so I became very familiar with how to quickly style a new space. I then fell pregnant with twin boys – which was a HUGE shock. I couldn’t have my babies in Shanghai due to having a rare blood type different from all the Chinese – so I went to the UK and bought them straight back to Shanghai when we were allowed to travel. Twin parenting is pretty lonely when you are surrounded by single babies. So I created a Twin Club after I was rescued by another expat twin mum and inspired by her. She swept us up and took us out and showed us how being parents of multiples can be fun!
So between my business, family, twin club, friends – Shanghai was a wonderful experience and felt like a complete and successful oeuvre. I was devastated to leave when we were asked to go to… Guadalajara, Mexico!
Heavily pregnant and with tiny twin boys, I arrived in Mexico. Constant sunshine, great food, and friendly people greeted us. Still, I had left my entire Mum’s Network back in Shanghai and it was so painful to skype them that I barely did. It is so hard to look back when you have a new country in front of you to cope with. So my baby girl was born and my husband traveled a lot and there were dark times but I gradually met some good girls. We ended up being in Guadalajara for only 18 months during which time we bought and renovated a house, learned Spanish, built a life with Mexican friends that still stands today and had a baby.
Then… on to Germany but with a rather miserable year of my husband commuting from Düsseldorf to London on a weekly basis first. I went from living in a hacienda-style dream home with staff and endless sunshine to being a single mum in a small terraced house in London. We had wondered if living like this would be a potential for us. Making a home in London and have husband commute to work in Europe, wherever that might be. Within about 4 weeks I knew this was not going to work for us. I could NOT wait to get to Germany and for us to be together again and for me to get on with my career as an EXPAT!
So four lovely years in Germany followed. Biking, good bread, wholesome people and amazing Dutch neighbors. InternationalGerman school for the twin boys, kindergarten for my daughter. Oh and another baby! For the first time, I had a child within a community I knew. My mum was able to come without a visa when he was born and stay for the happiest time. I created a Parents Association for the International school and took German lessons. It was the hardest language I ever tried to learn because the very competent Germans speak English so well it is almost impossible to practise.
In August 2018 we moved to the UK. Now I have to tell you, repatriation is the hardest move I have ever made, and I’ve made some good ones! We have been ‘back’ for 18 months now and I write ‘back’ like that because neither my husband or I have ever really lived together and raised children in England. He was away for 23 years and I was away for 15. I am still coming to grips with how it is to be ‘home’ when it still does not feel comfortable. My children are becoming more settled and it is good to be nearer family, on the whole! But I miss my purpose, my career, my place as an Expat competently building universes for my family in any place we found ourselves. And I miss my Expat community. Those people who see you so clearly and can match your crazy stories of abroad rather than find them threatening. My Dad said that “Depth of experience is not born of longevity but of intensity” which I think perfectly sums up Expat friendships.
So now what? As I navigate this new London life I am trying to make sense of all that I have achieved in my Expat life. Using my Instagram feed (@_vixstarella_) I want to support other Expats with tiny tips that I would have found useful to hear when I embarked upon my life abroad. It feels good to connect with others who share the same experiences and also connect with those friends across the world who have meant so much to us. I fear if I don’t write it down it might have all been a very intense dream! By using my experiences to support others I hope to make sense of it myself.
Brazil taught me…
- Learn the language. It is a sign of respect to your host nation. Plus it gives you focus and a way to interact with your new country
- Learn to cook the food. The crazy vegetables in the market start to make sense
- Introduce yourself to your local neighbourhood faces. Having people wave at you makes you feel you belong
China taught me…
- Date night. One night a week just the two of you for focus on each other
- Give back. Contributing to the local community doesn’t need to be that of the actual locals. Supporting Expats and finding a niche that helps you too is good
Mexico taught me…
- Making friends within the local community is a great triumph
- Sunshine makes you feel better even when everything feels rotten
- Chipotle is everything
London (1st time) taught me…
- Make for Germany!
Germany taught me…
- To be punctual
- To recognise where you can add value to a transient community
London (2nd time) is teaching me…
- The minute you leave your passport nation and live abroad, your tribe becomes international
- To be patient and find your tribe – they are there and they will see you!
I hope you enjoyed reading Vix’s story! As always, if you would like to be next month’s feature you can read about the project here and reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
See you next week,