How To Be an American in a Foreign Country

Almost in the UK, 2011.
Almost in the UK, 2011.

There’s no place like home, except when home can’t be tied down to one place.

Two years ago this month, I moved to London. I had been living in Germany for the best part of the year before that, and now I was flying back to Europe after a short two-week break at home in the US.

I didn’t know how long I was going to be in London.

In Kansas, I had drained and closed my savings account and had it converted to pounds. I thought it was impressive that the bank had to ask me if I could wait a few extra days for the money because no bank in my hometown had enough pound notes on hand to convert it all. I thought it wasn’t so impressive when they then handed it over in a small paper envelope instead of some gadgety, explosive briefcase.

For the third time in as many years, I entered Europe on a one-way ticket (much to the ire of all airports involved). Once again, I was a foreigner, a lone blue passport in a sea of red.

Although the traveller and the expat feel that same buzz of being foreign — the thrill of being understood at a restaurant through a new form of sign language you just invented or a complete massacre of the language, the anguish that turns into laughter when you’re hopelessly lost and roaming the streets of a sketchy neighborhood, the achievement that comes with successfully navigating a public transit system, the paralyzing fear and absolute freedom of anonymity  — the expat decides to live her life constantly on the brink, always teetering between the adrenaline rush of the unknown and overwhelming emotional exhaustion.

It’s an amazing feeling for weeks or months, but years?

Oslo, June 2012.
Oslo, June 2012.

But the one feeling that holds true for an expat, and for all of the fellow expats we meet, is fear. Thought Catalog writes about this with amazing clarity:  “…it never completely evaporates as time goes on. It simply changes. The anxiousness that was once concentrated on how you’re going to make new friends, adjust, and master the nuances of the language has become the repeated question ‘What am I missing?’”

Some of us integrate better than others, but don’t be surprised that the majority of an expat’s friends are expats themselves. Befriending a fellow expat is like finding out you grew up in the same town.

It’s a feeling you don’t have often when you’re foreign: This person understands. They get me.

Expat small talk often consists of conversation about visa types and requirements, asked of acquaintances as often and as casually as you’d ask where they work or what their plans are for the weekend.

But just like our visa statuses, the expat friendship is always in flux. You know that every new person you meet might not still be living in the same place as you next year, or even next week.

You decide to live abroad because you want a challenge, but you don’t 100% know what you’re signing up for.

Once more, from Thought Catalog:
“When you live abroad, you realize that no matter where you are, you will always be an expat. You cannot be in two places at once, and from now on, you will always lay awake on certain nights and think of all the things you’re missing out on back home.”

And if I was “home”, how much would I be missing out on here?

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