50 Shades of an Expat

Daniel Brooks

An expat often finds it difficult to listen to another, seasoned expats go on and on about a country they both have lived in for a long time. As one grizzled expat tells a tale of how the crash of 1998 in Russia was overcome single-handedly, the other one is thinking about how to tell an almost identical story, only better. Expats know they shouldn’t talk too much about their countless exploits but they exempt themselves from such a rule. I know I do. It can’t be helped.

An expat has joined a club in which membership is derived from moving to a country and staying there. It’s a of badge of honor, available to anyone with a passport and a visa. Reaching the point of becoming the most seasoned expat of all involves hurdles, extensive suffering and longing for home. Like salmon migrating upstream, the fittest make it. Those who don’t are eaten by airplanes taking people home. Afterwards, those who stay behind can have a wheels-up party, celebrating someone’s departure at long last.

After adjusting to a new country, things improve. As is well known, expats live a life of adventure with more romance, wealth and excitement than possible back in the motherland. Expats know about expats who live exciting lives, otherwise, why go to all the trouble? I for one would like to meet a few more of them.

Someone should do a study. They do studies about all sorts of things. Usually the outcome is what you’d expect. Recently I read about a costly and lengthy study in the NY Times that analyzed how to lose weight. The study showed what works best, daily exercise such as walking your dog for an hour or so, eating healthy food, not smoking and limiting the daily intake of alcohol to a glass or two of wine. I could have predicted the outcome of the study beforehand. Nevertheless, it is gratifying to find out it’s true. All I need to do now is find a bigger wine glass and a dog.

Since expats’ lives are jam packed with good times, someone needs to compile a report about all the glamorous romance expats have, add in the piles of money they’ve earned and measure overall excitement. Exciting moments would be difficult to judge. Perhaps the experience of going through either an economic collapse or a boom could be factored in. The more booms and busts, the higher the excitement ratio. I’d like to see the results of the study so that my belief in the excitement of being an expat can be confirmed by reliable experts. Otherwise, all I have to go by is other expats’ experiences.

The longer an expat stays in a country, the more all knowing he or she becomes. Eventually, some expats have been in the country so long that it becomes home. Such expats no longer need to talk about the old days, being overseas to stay. But they almost always do.

First Shade

At first the expat lands in the new country and more often than not, the experience of living in a new culture is wonderful. The food is unique and exciting. New kinds of products can be purchased at low prices. Haggling is learned. The expat becomes street smart. The locals, although odd, are warm and welcoming in private. Complaining about the locals is always a reliable fall back activity. Another option is to prefer the new country in favour of the old one. It has the friendliest people, at heart even if the culture is, it seems at the time, flawed. New routes around the city and country are learned and places to buy tomatoes are discovered. The expat is invited to dinner parties where tomatoes can be discussed at length, with other expats.

After about two months, unhappiness usually sets in. The expat finds himself in a strange land, longing for things that were taken for granted back home. Many are homesick. I missed watching American football games. It wasn’t the game itself that mattered but the sound of the TV showing a football game, in the background, on Thanksgiving Day. Nostalgia sets in.

Second Shade

From about two months and until about the first or second year or two in a new country, the expat adapts, learns or relearns the local language and tries to make the homesickness go away. It’s tough but then again, being an expat is not for the weak livered.

When I first moved to Russia in the early 1980’s, I was excited about Russia. The excitement wore off after a few weeks and for about a year afterwards, it was rough going. Then I bought a car. Life improved. The expat community was tiny and I made new friends fast. Some of the foreigners in Moscow were young women who had moved to Moscow from Europe, the UK, US and similar ‘western’ countries, to work at the embassies. We foreigners would often find out who was coming to Moscow and we had the chance to see pictures of new arrivals before they showed up. I’d take a quick gander at the good-looking women before they set foot in Moscow. At the time, the expats from NATO countries would get together at bars in town mostly at the US, UK, Australian and Canadian embassies. Newcomers would stick out like a sore thumb. I’d introduce myself to newly arrived European women and we’d talk about how much fun it was in the Soviet Union. After about a month, the giddiness was gone and soon after, homesickness would set in, hard. The women would become miserable. That’s when the car came in handy. I’ll leave the rest up to the reader’s imagination.

Third Shade

After a year or two the hardworking expat adjusts. The country becomes home. One learns favourite hangouts, grasps the language and gets involved in some kind of a community, either business related or otherwise. The 3-year expats are my favourite kind. They are proud of being in the country for so long. The homesickness wears off. Instead of missing the sound of football games in the living room at home, expats watch the football at their favourite bar in town, with other foreigners and even a few locals. These kinds of expats haven’t been overseas long enough to be weighed down by what happened several decades ago. They are excited about the future. Some marry and settle down. Others move on to another country or even go back home.

Four to Fifty Shades

At some indeterminate point in time, an expat starts becoming a local. The quirks of the country become ingrained in the expat’s thinking and actions. Superstitions are taken on as personal habits. In Russia, some expats grow fond of snow and freezing cold weather. Others stop filling up their whisky glasses and other cold drinks with ice. Such an expat doesn’t like to say how long he or she has lived in a given country.  Sometimes, he can’t remember.

If an expat has hair where hair shouldn’t be, long teeth and claws, don’t be alarmed. The expat has gone feral. There’s no need for concern. Just make sure it is well fed.

A sign of having become localized is when an expat has cronies. A crony is, by definition, not particularly young. A crony usually has been a friend or acquaintance for a long time. It is possible to have a new one provided the crony is not young. I met a new crony just a few weeks ago. He is, however, long in the tooth. Cronyism is adaptable, within limits.

At some point, an expat becomes an expert who needs to warn newcomers about the dangers of committing mistakes. A couple of years ago, my wife and I decided to buy an apartment in Spain. We quickly found an apartment we liked, within our budget in an area we knew about and loved. We did our legal and property due diligence, hunted down a reliable lawyer, did the deal and made the down payment. After that, we went to an expat event in Malaga, the idea being to make new friends and gather information about real estate in the area. I met a German, the owner of several villas in Costa del Sol. He had been living near Malaga for decades and was an old timer, a fit and handsome one…but a geezer. We told him about our purchase. He tried to talk us out of it. He really meant it. The renters would be drunken Brits who would trash the property, immediately. Other renters would bring small children who would cause havoc. The repair costs alone would decimate any profits we might hope to earn. He made us promise to look far and wide for an apartment and then call him for more advice. Otherwise, we would be ruined. We were greenhorns and needed the advice of a duly experienced expat. We did the deal anyway and never saw him again.

The word expat has no relation to the word expert. However, the longer an expat is in a given country the more of an expert he or she becomes, compared to other expats. This is the beauty of living overseas. Stick around long enough and presto, you are the cat’s whiskers. It doesn’t apply with regards to the locals though. They have a built-in advantage, having lived in the country from birth. They always understand the country better than an expat. Thank God.

© Daniel Brooks 27 August 2018