Hard to believe a full year has passed since we arrived here wide eyed, naive, hopeful and clueless.
Thinking back, there is so much advice I would give to myself before starting on this journey. The wisdom of hindsight is a powerful thing. Despite having a year under our belt I still often feel like a fish out of water and that we’re living someone else’s life.
More and more I am believing that this is OUR life. It is a life that I loosely have the reigns for but more so just in a capacity to hold on. Sometimes I’m steering those reigns and gently directing our path. Sometimes I’m clinging to them for dear life as I’m being dragged behind the horse on a very bumpy ride getting dirt kicked up in my teeth. Generally in life there really is only so much that we will be in full control of. Our capacity to thrive and grow really comes down to how well we respond to those aspects we have little to no control over.
I know that the learning and growing still to come will be just as profound as what we’ve already been through. For that I am equally eager & optimistic and nervous as hell. Whatever life brings us here, we’re ready!
So, here’s some of the advice I wish I had had. Maybe a family considering taking a similar leap of faith will benefit from the wisdom of my hindsight.
The dos and don’ts of becoming an ex-pat…
Do (if it is within your scope to do so) choose a place where you have family or an already established support network. During the days, weeks, months leading us to this journey we played with the idea of many different possibilities of where we’d call home. Landing in Winterthur was through the recommendation of family here and we really couldn’t have landed in a better place. To have the support of family nearby, literally across the street (in the early days it was as close as the other side of a wall) has helped make Winterthur feel like home right from the start. And family a little further away who will include us in every celebration and share their homes, dinner tables and cars with us has made life here so much warmer and easier. There is a big loneliness factor for all ex-pats so anything that can help to fill that gap is a huge benefit.
Don’t get too comfortable with your knowledge of the place. There will come a time when the wonder and wide-eyed nature will start to wane. You’ll be familiar with the shops, the transit schedule, the garbage collection system (if you’re exceptionally clever that is.) Your kids will be settled in school and community activities. You’d have every right to start thinking “I think I’ve got this. I’m really fitting in here.”
Wrong! This is a trap – not unlike the trap of parenting when you have a baby at home and you start to believe that you’ve got the napping, feeding and wake time schedule figured out. Your baby will change that routine on you right out of the blue, just to make sure you never got too confident and comfortable with yourself. Never forget – you aren’t ever fully in charge.
Do look at each new curve ball as an important part of the memories you’re building of your time here. It’s the stories of when things went sideways that you’ll tell most often. No one wants to read a story where everything went absolutely as planned and it was super easy and there were no surprises – the end. How boring is that? No one wants that life story.
Don’t under estimate the importance of each and every certificate you’ve ever earned. (Advice that really would have been helpful a good 20 years ago in order to be fully prepared.) Here the certificates of EVERYTHING you’ve ever achieved are your ticket to employment. (That and being Swiss evidently.) That course you did with your coworkers to learn how to be a team-player…bring the certificate. Your degree? Had it not been stored in the box of memorabilia in the basement which was destroyed in the 2013 flood, it would have been super, super helpful. Anything that can prove you are capable, skilled and qualified here is critical. Claiming to have those skills on a resume means nothing unless you have the certificate to prove it. If that certification happened to also come from a Swiss training institute of some kind, you’d be golden. All of this lends to why I am still, sadly, unemployed.
Do look to connect with ex-pat groups – ideally prior to coming. Especially from your home country. Social media makes this so incredibly easy. Chances are there is someone out there who shares your unique perspective from home and can relate to your misery when your sorry little Canadian self can not acclimate to the relentless heat! This is helpful as they would have been able to warn you to stock up on obscure and hard-to find necessities like brown sugar and real deodorant.
But a word to the wise, gravitating to only other ex-pats can keep you from embracing the culture where you are which is ultimately the goal. That said, even if the connection is only virtual, shared experiences can go so far to normalize the challenges you are facing and make your own struggles pale in comparison. I have come to especially be thankful for the fact that our relocation has not required us to have an emergency kit ready and on hand for an attempted coup or military invasion. There are expats all over the world facing much scarier and more unpredictable situations whose children will be “the new kid” at school for their entire academic life.
On that note do plan/establish some sort of coping mechanism strategy with your kids before you go. This wasn’t something we did purposefully in anticipation of this trip but rather in response to the fact that Diego has always had a special talent for finding something to worry about. For us it has been a combination of self talk (I’m ok. I’ll be fine.) and worry rocks. A smooth little weight tucked in your pocket to rub all your worries into. Unfortunately for us, we once found the ultimate source of worry rocks. A beach in the little-known town of Shelter Cove, California, where we camped one holiday, had these amazing black, smooth rocks. So smooth that no other rocks feels quite as good. We collected a good stash that afternoon but slowly but surely rocks disappear. That’s the beauty of rocks really, it’s only a rock if you do in fact lose it. However, in that we like our worry rocks to be impeccably smooth, they’ve now become a little more challening to replace and our stash is starting to get low.
Luckily for Helena her talisman has become something/anything she connects to me. So that has been a bracelet of mine that she can wear to feel me with her. (Note: I LOVE bracelets and have received many incredibly special bracelets from friends. Those aren’t the ones Helena gets but rather the cheap-and-cheerful variety found as fashion jewelry along the way. Much, much easier to replace when lost or broken. Turns out Claire’s is very international and hawks the same cheap wares all over the globe.) And I guarantee, those bracelets will get lost or become broken!
The other essential element she has adopted for her be-brave took-kit is perfume. A perfume sample tucked in her back pack that she can squirt on will also make her feel that I am close and give her courage. Luckily, Switzerland is a perfume-loving place and I have come to wear more perfume here than in recent years. Mine is more of a necessity due to the aforementioned poorly performing deodorant.
Speaking of cheap wares, don’t go overboard with the paraphernalia from home. Your children may not be as excited to wave the “I am proud to be Canadian” flag as you expect. So, perhaps, don’t pack their suitcases full of Canadian paraphanalia. T-shirts, hoodies, pencils, pencil cases, hats, socks, etc.. Maybe this is obvious to other parents, to me it was not. I was excited for them to be sporting proud Canadian gear as much as possible. They were not. They want to blend in. They don’t want to stand out and advertise “I’m the new kid! I’m the one whose different.” Hmmm, seems kind of obvious in hindsight.
Lastly my advice to my pre-journey self, or anyone who has thought “we’ve always wanted to try something like that” is absolutely, without a doubt, DO IT!!!. Yes it will be hard. Yes it will be scary. Yes you will be frustrated and question “what were we thinking?” But you won’t regret it. IT WILL BE WORTH IT!!!
It is corny and so cliche but these are those death-bed moments all motivational speakers talk about. We will not be lying in our final moments thinking “I sure regret that time we took a HUGE leap of faith and moved across the world.” Remember, no one’s final thoughts were “I’m sure glad I avoided all risks, kept everything as stable as possible and tried nothing new. Really dodged a bullet on that one.”
A wise friend reminded me this morning that the grass is always greener on the other side – generally speaking but not in those words exactly as the Swiss have their own metaphorical expressions. Her point was that no matter where you are, you will miss and pine after what you left behind while the quirkiness of the place you are in may drive you nuts. It’s a matter of perspective really – if you focus on the frustrations and all that you’re missing, that will occupy your mind and ultimately your heart. But if you remember that frustrations will happen anywhere you are and that you’ll always miss aspects of what you left behind, you can simply focus on the best of where you are. A good reminder wherever you are.
And we find ourselves here, exactly one year later, thankful to have had each other to experience this wild and crazy ride with. Here’s to all that is still to come.