The Cheese Stands Alone

I’m away this week on a family vacation in CA/AZ, so I asked a few friends to send me guest posts. Some are new and some are golden oldies, but all are as fantastic as the women who wrote them.

Today, Gwen from Not Really joins us with her musings about being an expat wife. I’m really excited to have Gwen writing even a laundry list on my blog since she’s kind of brilliant. Her writing simultaneously makes me think, “oh my god – I really suck at this…” and “please write a novel, already!” She’s also got a fascinating life story to tell – which she does in jewel toned bits and pieces on Not Really. If you aren’t familiar with her site, you should definitely check it out. Like today. But maybe read this first. Since she went to the trouble to send it, you know…

Welcome Gwen!

“I bet the hookers here in Central Switzerland make a killing in the summer, when all the expat wives and kids are gone,” I laugh to my friend on the phone.

We’re ostensibly talking about my life in Zurich. I moved here in January, from Chicago. I grew up in Indonesia, however, so being a stranger in a strange land is less foreign for me than it is for others. But our conversation is really more about the compromises one makes in a marriage. Don’t frown. You know we all make them, everyone flawed, everyone in need of extra helpings of grace. Compromise is not the same as settling, not even close.

“See, I imagine that expat women have to keep themselves hot. Isn’t that the deal you make with your rich husband? He makes lots of money and you stay attractive?” my friend muses.

“Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t have a rich husband,” I answer. “But anyway, I don’t think so, although the expats I encounter do seem to be empirically better looking on average than what I’m used to in America,” It’s true. Or it seems true, which is more or less the same thing. Make of that what you will–the connection between physical attractiveness and financial success. I have already drawn my own conclusions.

“No,” I continue. “What the expat husband wants more than anything is for his wife to be able to deal. He brings you to cool countries, and you manage emotionally. That’s the compromise you make: you get to live overseas and you get to suck it up.”

It’s a shadowy side of living abroad as the spouse of someone with the kind of job that allows you to live abroad and send your children to an international school. Your husband works his ass off. He is stressed. He has enormous amounts of responsibility. He probably travels all the time. All the time. Traveling all the time is draining in ways you can’t anticipate. He doesn’t intend to be absent from the daily drudgery, from all the negotiating required to create a life in a foreign country, in another language, but he is. And he needs you, his partner, to manage.

It’s the same everywhere, I suppose, when one spouse has a job that requires enormous amounts of attention and time away from home and the other one doesn’t. Except that it isn’t.

This expat thing is tricky on so many levels that are difficult to explain to anyone who hasn’t been through it. The problem of language is enormous. You’re always working twice as hard to figure out what’s going on, and it gets exhausting. You receive official correspondence from who knows where and these missives look scary and important, but you can’t immediately work out what they say. Am I doing something wrong? Are they going to fine me? arrest me? throw me out? The language barrier creates a sense that you’re no longer competent. Sometimes it’s the little things–where do I have my kids’ birthday parties? buy bleach? find black beans? How do I get a functional dryer?

And sometimes it’s big–there’s a persistent nagging worry that you can manage as long as nothing goes really, truly wrong, but if someone gets sick? or has an accident? then what? You know people, sure, but you don’t know people. You are not part of a village and your community is scattered among mountains and the mom you chat up in the school playground isn’t necessarily the one you’re going to call in an emergency. You can’t let too much out, anyway. Not because you don’t trust the new friends you’ve made. You do. You have to. But you know that if you let a little slip, the weight of it all, absent that lever, will avalanche and crush you. So you joke with the Australian mum who arrived at the same time you did about crying yourself to sleep at night which is a half truth that conveys just enough. It forms a tenuous link. Later, when the two of you are sharing a bottle of wine and some bruschetta, you widen that bridge, strengthen it. Then you can express clearly how hard it is sometimes. How alone you feel. How off-balance.

Balance. That’s the key. Because you can’t live by pretending the difficult stuff doesn’t matter, isn’t there. But you also can’t get so buried in sorrow, you forget the good all around you. And you have to be able to function and parent and survive all on your own, like a big girl. But you can’t get so competent that you stop needing your spouse all together. And that, perhaps, is the toughest part. To be strong without getting hard.

“My friends in the United States. They just don’t get it,” I lament to one of my closest friends here. “They can’t get it. I wonder if they even try sometimes, since they never ask me about my life, what it’s like, what I’m struggling with. It’s all just: ‘You’re so lucky! Your life is so awesome!’ And then I feel like such an asshole for wanting to vent.”

She’s been at this 4 years longer than I have, knows so much more about being a grown up abroad. “I know,” she soothes. “But we are lucky. Our lives are awesome.”

The fingers of my memory sort through my folder of photos as she says this. I see the places we’ve visited already in our 5 months here–Florence, the south of Spain, Paris, Lake Lugano. I remember the experiences we’ve already had–lake cruises and cow fighting and zip lining on mountains.

“I know!” I laugh. I sigh, conceding the difficult point. “I know.”

We both laugh again, this time together.

Gwen – I imagine that I’d have a similar experience if put in the same situation…but your life really is awesome. Lucky bitch. Seriously though – I loved this. Thank you.

5 thoughts on “The Cheese Stands Alone

  1. Robin

    I loved this post, and I can empathize too. Even after 20 years in Israel, as a dual citizen, not an expat, I still get tripped up. I've lived here half of my life, my entire life as an adult, and yet stupid little things like knowing what a flippin' soapdish for words is still trip me up. (Answer: just a soapdish. A plain ordinary soapdish. That my son's teacher wanted all the children to have to store the flashcards they'd be using. No, they didn't sell it in the school supply store, and yes, they looked at me like I had three heads when I tried to buy one there, and no, he never actually used it. Twenty years, can you believe it? Sigh…)

    My photography is available for purchase – visit Around the Island Photography and bring home something beautiful today!

  2. Rebecca

    Great post. So honest and real and well written. I was the child that lived in foreign lands so I know it from that perspective. It's never easy but it is an adventure. Enjoy it as much as you can and good luck with the adventures! :)

  3. Christy

    What a fabulously written post – I want to read her book now too! I hope she's really writing one. And being an expat is on my dream list…hopefully one day I'll get to experience the ups, and downs, myself! Sounds like quite an adventure – great guest post!


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