What To Expect When You Are Xpatting

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I started my career as a researcher and deep down in my heart I’ll always be one. I’ll always like to observe and (over) analyze. So of course I scrutinized myself since I came here, trying to objectively capture all my feelings, states of mind and thoughts. Ok, sometimes “objectively” meant lots of screaming and crying, but let’s keep this between ourselves, shall we?

Don’t worry, I’m not going to come up with a list of things I miss from home like family, friends, food etc. But rather tell you how I felt the process of xpatting (It’s nice when you get to make up words, right?) And I truly hope this will be a useful piece of information for any of you that started contemplating a life abroad.

This is my story of 2 years and 2 months of living abroad in 1428 words. In summary, I went through 2 mild depressions, 6 months apart from each other. In between I had the traveler’s fever. And now, I’d rather make love than war.

1. “I think I’m lost” stage, my first low
Started: Immediately after arrival
Duration: 2-3 months
Me in my “I think I’m lost” Tshirt, on my arrival day in the Netherlands, November 2011

Me in my “I think I’m lost” Tshirt, on my arrival day in the Netherlands, November 2011

First I found myself lost in a world that was totally new to me. It isn’t like the Dutch were much different from the people I knew. Except for the height of course, which made me feel like I just landed in the country of giants. But that’s another topic. Going back to being lost, what I firstly missed is the knowledge of the small details around me. Those tiny facts you know by heart that and make possible the daily mechanical actions, like walking to the bus station or doing groceries.

Not knowing my way around made me feel like a child that needs to learn how to walk again. I had to learn where to buy bread from, where to take the train from, how to use the public transportation. And most importantly, how not to walk on the bicycle lane. This is how you probably spot a tourist in the Netherlands: if he or she is walking carefree and with a dummy smile right in the middle of the bicycle lane.

Surely I expected all that. What I did not expect was waking up in the morning and not knowing where I am. I clearly remember the strange sense of confusion, which sometimes turned into fear, when I woke up and could not recognize the room or the sounds outside the window. Most of the times I heard the rain, which here is soft and long lasting, while in Romania is violent and short.

Rehearsing in my mind a phrase before speaking out loud was also a first. Because it happened several times that I was in front of a counter and did not find the exact words. “Hello. Sorry, I don’t speak Dutch. Can I have a paper bag with that too? Thank you.” Yes, even that I rehearsed at first. And let me tell you, speaking in another language every day can be extremely tiring. I would have never expected in my life to fall asleep in the train at 6 o’clock in the evening, but there I was, all beat just because I attended 4 meetings where I had to think and speak in another language.

And the quantity of people you meet in the first months is overwhelming. It’s like being on a roller-coaster: you see all faces in a fast forward motion, you forget names and in the end, you feel dizzy.

2. “Tourist fever” stage
Started: 3 months after arrival
Duration: 6 months

Once you get used a bit more to the daily routine and learn after 5 times of waiting like a moron that “rijdt niet” means the train is canceled, you start to get more curious. Once your daily survival is assured, then your tourist radar starts to activate. For me, it was like a fever. I went patrolling the Netherlands and nothing was safe from my touristic craze anymore: big cities, small cities, museums, bars, restaurants. Yes, I’ve been going to bars strictly out of touristic curiosity 🙂

That was a period where a lot of friends came to visit. So in the end I visited some places twice, even 3 times. No doubt I would have a successful career as a touristic guide for the Netherlands, specialized in Amsterdam, Den Haag, Gouda, Haarlem, Delft and Rotterdam. And if I go one more time in the Red Light District for a tour, I will probably be on the first name basis with the working girls…

This is the time when I focused mostly on the good parts of my expat experience. Like how liberating is to have a 36h per week contract – which is standard here – and to be able to leave on Friday at 14:00. Or how small the country is (5 times smaller than Romania!), which makes it easy and flexible to travel. How nice it is to go to the sea in your own city. And fresh mint tea! Yes, definitely one of my top experiences as an expat!

Plus you start feeling special amongst friends back home. You are the one that always comes up with a new story. Friends are taking days off just to spend some time with you when you are home.  You are the absolute traveler, in an endless holiday. But…

3.“Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore” stage, my 2nd low
Started: 9 months after my arrival
Duration: 3 – 4 months

…then comes the wake-up call. It’s when I realized I was not on holiday, I was actually living here. And around this time, the future-related questions popped-up: “so, have you decided what to do next? How long are you going to stay? Are you going to stay for good?”.

When confronted with these questions, somehow my mind told me that I should make a choice. That I should have a distinction, a clear cut. And that ended up with me being torn apart by 2 worlds. I wasn’t yet able to let go of the Romanian experience, not to mention friends. And I couldn’t quite fit in here yet. Still thinking that I have to pick a side, of course Romania won. It is then when I started to see all the negative things in the Netherlands. I hated the weather, the transportation system, not being able to understand the language, the language itself. I hated when people here seem to have such easy lives, while mine was heavy and complicated.

This is when my insomnia kicked in. Sleepless nights wondering about my future in general. What am I going to do next? Is this country suitable for me? What is the meaning of this experience? Am I happy with my job? And what makes me truly happy?

4. “Make love, not war” stage
Started: approximately 1 year after my arrival
Duration: 1 year. And counting
Me in my “I think I’m lost” Tshirt at present, January 2014

Me in my “I think I’m lost” Tshirt at present, January 2014

Something good came out of the last stage, although the dark circles around my eyes got bigger. I started to get in touch with my real self. Would I have done that if I didn’t leave home? Clearly, not so soon. Surely, not with the same intensity and drive. So I started going back to what I truly am and I wanted to do. And yes, sometimes going back means in fact moving forward. Because my true love was always psychology and working with people. Next I started talking to a coach and then went to a course to become one. I started painting and piano lessons. Oh well, I’m not going to be the next Picasso, no worries there, but I enjoy every minute of it.

And slowly gaining this inner peace of mind, I started making peace with the outside world. I started to accept and embrace my new way of living. I understood it is ok to have friends here and in Romania as well. That it is not abnormal to have 2 homes. And it is ok to live with the uncertainty of the future, because frankly, can you ever really tell for sure what the future might bring you?

Don’t get me wrong, I still feel lost. But instead of being lost in the big wide world, now I’m lost in my own mind. Luckily, after so many years, I’ve learnt how to find my way out of there.

To be continued…

Iulia Cirtina

Julie is the editor of XpatGirls.com. She's a Romanian girl, stranded in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

For how long, she doesn't know yet. But what she does know is communication and psychology. already a bachelor in psychology, she is now also preparing to be a life coach. This is due to her genuine interest in people and the every day joy to be there for those who have questions about themselves. Working in communication for the last 4 years has helped her pursue the life-long dream of writing. But her secret love was and will always be painting, along with piano and shoes, because yes, every girl has her thing.

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