The (not so glamorous) life of an expat

You all see my many travel photos and probably wonder if my children still go to school.  They do.  And Brett still works.  A lot in fact.   It got me thinking that while I most often share the awesome parts of living abroad, there are still loads of things that have taken some adjustment.  Even 16 months later. 

Living abroad isn’t hard, but it’s also not easy.  None of these things are deal breakers, but on any given day, any one of them is capable of causing a mini breakdown.  Or, depending on how many happen in succession, it may make you want to hide out in your closet.  Which of course won’t be possible because houses/apartments in Europe don’t come with closets.

So, in no particular order:

  1. Long hours/work travel.   With the time difference, when you are in Europe working for a US company your phone starts lighting up at 4pm when your US colleagues get into the office.  That means your work days are long as you routinely have calls going until 8 or 9 pm.  Every trailing spouse I know has a spouse that works late (some very late) or they travel a lot (as Brett does.) Working on weekends is rarer here and the more liberal European standard vacation/holiday schedule is a huge bonus although some US based companies abide US vacation/holiday schedules.  We fortunately got on the right side of the dice on that one, but weekday family dinners before 8pm are atypical no matter which US company you work for.   Many, many expat wives I know here (which I would not include myself in) are defacto single parenting during the week.   
  2. No drops in for tea or a cup of sugar.  Unlike in the US, where people just “stop by” – people in Europe are private and everything is by appointment.  So on the very, very rare occasion that my doorbell rings unannounced, I am sure that it’s either a (polite) serial killer or my son who’s forgotten his key. 
  3. Errands take twice as long.  I have covered this in previous blogs, but when grocery shopping is an event and finding specific things (a certain sized light bulb, contact solution, blue bags for recycling, etc) requires a special stop – you need to budget double the time for what you could get done at Target.  Furthermore, Target won’t be closed for lunch or require offsite parking.   My friend who used to live in Moscow tells me it’s all relative … but relative to the US, daily productivity needs to be scaled WAY BACK.
  4. Ice.   It is true what you’ve heard.  There is no ice in Europe. Nor is there room in your freezer for an ice tray.  This means that any and all cold drinks take advanced planning.  Soon you will be leaving your eggs out like all Europeans to make room in your frig for Orange Juice.   Some of our biggest household spats center around who forgot to put the fizzy water back in the frig.  Guilty as charged.  I was making room for the white wine because nothing says, “You’re not in Kansas anymore than lukewarm Chardonnay.”
  5. Carpool Mama Beware.  First off, with the school bus situation and kids doing their own club activities outside of school, it is virtually impossible to find carpools with people who share your language.  So from 3:30pm-7pm, you will spend a lot of time in your car driving 40 kilometers per hour on distressingly congested single lane streets.  In Seattle, drivers are accused of being slow and overly gracious.  Here they are aggressive and more than willing to HIT you to make the point they have the right of way.  I know this because it happened to my friend.  It’s all about keeping the traffic flow moving.  Once in a grocery store parking lot when Brett didn’t use the crosswalk, a driver literally drove into his PERSON to make the point that he was walking where he shouldn’t.  Maybe we Americas are too soft on jaywalking, but please – must you run someone over?  Note:  in these situations, it is always appropriate to pound the hood of assaulting fancy car.
  6. No live Sports.  Also with the time change, the VPN geographic restrictions, and the TV service we still don’t understand – we MISS live sports.  I’d say this is only an issue for my sports-minded boys, but even I miss having the Mariners game or the NBA playoffs on in the background.   As good as video recaps are these days; it’s still not the same as watching Robinson Cano’s first game back in Yankee Stadium. 
  7. Trailing spouses give up their careers.  It is really hard to come to Europe with two work-sponsored visas, so most spouses (usually women) are forced to give up their careers when following their husband to Europe.  I gave up my career a couple of years before our move, so the adjustment hasn’t been as dramatic for me as many of my friends – a couple of scientists, a PH.d. psychologist, a web developer, and on and on the list goes.  Beyond substituting at the International School or teaching a fitness class, the opportunities for “work” are non-existent.  Good news is that unlike in the US where every conversation begins with “So what do you do?” it is neither here nor there for Europeans.  Honestly it’s not that is overly private (which I initially thought), it’s just of very little interest.  They’d much rather talk about where you are from, what bands you like, and where you are going for holiday.  Last weekend I was at a work dinner with Brett and the question literally never came up.  What did come up was whether or not I’d be able to stop by the office on Monday to pick up a Moroccan pastilla to try.  (I did.)  Giving something up is much easier when people aren’t always asking you about it.
  8. Paperwork.  OMG.  I really can’t discuss this without getting emotional.  Right now I am supposed to already have my Luxembourg Driving License, but there is so much paperwork and process to make this happen (the US Embassy and criminal records are involved) that I’m pretending dumb American.  Except that I know how people drive here and it's scaring me into compliance.
  9. All food is slow food.  I am totally on board with the whole slow food movement and eating more whole foods and fewer preservatives, but unless it’s a rotisserie chicken or a Big Mac you’re after, you’ll need to start soaking those beans ASAP.   I enjoy cooking and I love the access to quality ingredients here, but sometimes you need a short cut.  Decent fast food and a-la-Whole Foods type prepared foods just doesn’t exist here.  And no, Subway does not count.
  10. Cell service blows.  I used to work for a US cell phone company where I had always heard that the Europeans were a couple of years ahead of us in terms of network coverage and technology.  Those people were either lying or they never came to Luxembourg.  Which shouldn’t really come as a surprise because IT’S LUXEMBOURG and they probably couldn’t find it on the map.  Much of Luxembourg City – the valleys, the forest, and the busy bus depot near my house - is on a permanent Internet Sabbath.  Luxembourg ranks high in GDP per capita and dead cell zones per capita.   And, the whole international roaming when I drive 20 minutes to IKEA crossing the Belgium border – it’s a racket I tell you.
  11. People cut.   In lines, in traffic.  And service does not “pick up” depending on the length of the line.  The line that no one seems to see but you. 
  12. No book store browsing.  I never knew that I hearted Barnes & Noble until there were none.  English books/newspapers/cookbooks/travel guides are made for Kindles or Amazon UK.  Also, Amazon UK doesn't have Prime shipping to Luxembourg anymore and this makes me very sad mostly because it now means I have more of those long errands to do...
  13. No self-service car washes.  This is going to greatly offend some, but I must confess that we have washed our car (the exterior) exactly ONCE since we have lived here.  I realize this makes us sound like complete slobs.  Really we aren’t.  The fact is that there is absolutely nowhere for a) an apartment dweller and b) a person with a car rack to wash their car.  A) In our apartment complex, we have no access to a hose.  Even if we were to buy a hose, we have no place to hook it up to.  Even if we were to find a place to hook it up to, chances are good that our Landlord would not allow it.  B)  There are plenty of auto car washes around, but they will NOT take cars with a car rack.   Why?  Because it’s the rule.  I suppose we could take our car rack off.  Why don’t we do that?  Because that would take my otherwise talented but less-than-handy husband all day.  And by then, the auto car wash would be backed up to Belgium.
  14. No customer service.  You just have to believe me on this one.   Eight weeks and counting since our last email to our landlord….and it wasn't even about the hose.  It was about an electrician ...

Good news is that tomorrow is a holiday. May Day.  Brett and I are going to Heidelberg for an overnight to see a concert (the Augustines) leaving the boys at home.  That is if Brett makes it home from the London City Airport, where as of fifteen minutes ago there is a fire and everyone has been evacuated to the tarmac.  So if not in Heidelberg tomorrow, you can find me in my (very small) closet.  Perhaps with a 9 euro Big Mac in hand.