Expat Life: The Importance of Counting Baby Steps

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Let’s see… It’s been over four months since I first wrote about expat alienation, and almost two months since I wrote my second post on culture shock, in which I described the very difficult social climate where I live. Honestly, four months and two months are not that much time, as far as expat life goes– but some key things have happened in that period, and it’s important for me to write about the triumphs as well as the challenges. Becoming an expat is such a huge transition on so many levels… There are things that improve within a matter of weeks– basic ways to integrate very effectively, such as locating the best place to buy coffee, or where to take your recycling. Other things can take much longer, and some aspects of being a foreigner may never change. In all of these things, it’s important to periodically take stock, and see what has shifted, and how. Sometimes we can get stuck thinking things are just a certain way, without re-evaluating whether progress has been made. I want to always assume that conditions will improve, to be hopeful and optimistic about my life here in England, or wherever I may end up. So today I have some good reports to share.
Here are a few good things that have happened, socially:

  • Amelia’s party was a nice way to reach out a little to some of her classmates and their families. Two of the guests were American friends, but the rest were classmates, and we had a good time, and were finally introduced to their parents. Unfortunately, I could not get any of the parents to come in… They were all just happy to have childcare for a couple of hours. Some of the moms say hello now.
  • We were invited over for dinner by a family in Amelia’s school! This was our first social contact with them outside of school, and it was SO nice. They are a lovely family, and our kids played together beautifully. This was the first time we had been invited over by any family at school, or even shared a meal with a family in our town. Next time, they’ll come over to our place, which will be another exciting first for us.
  • After the Olympic torch came through Bury, we went down to a local pub with everyone else to enjoy the celebratory atmosphere. No one spoke to us for the first hour, but then the friendly lady I had met from Amelia’s school showed up at the table nearby (I hadn’t even see her since that one conversation) but she recognized me, and introduced me to the friend she was with. I spent half an hour chatting with both of them. That may not seem like much, but it was a big deal to me, since people just don’t talk to me here! Furthermore, they gave me their numbers and invited me to meet them there again that Friday for a drink before we picked up our kids (also kind of funny, right?!)
  • I met them, and getting a drink with British gals was quite a milestone for me. I met two other moms there, and they were nice. Ironically, all four of the women have boys and they are in different classes than Amelia’s so it’s not the most natural pairing for play dates, but it was just great to meet more people in my neighborhood.
  • Lately, the few people who have found out about the type of bodywork I do have been really interested and have expressed that there is a real need and market for my skill set here. That is super encouraging. When we first moved here, no one I spoke to even knew what craniosacral therapy was, let alone the other types of work I do (visceral manipulation, for example.)  So I am feeling hopeful about getting integrated into the community through work, which is exciting. I have even had a couple of people ask if I could come to their homes and work with them at some point. Great!
  • It’s been mentioned before, but it’s still true– my butcher and his wife are my #1 contacts in town. They have continued to be really great, and are such a wonderful resource. Not only did they give me a bottle of country wine for my birthday, as well as other heart-warming gestures (like bringing in a gardening magazine for me that has an article on edible flowers, since they have figured out that I like that sort of thing) but they have helped me understand cultural norms better. For example, one expat had told us that inviting someone over to your house for dinner (or getting an invitation to dinner) here was a Really. Big. Deal. One that would require a babysitter, formal attire, flowers, wine, etc., etc. This, of course, seemed a bit daunting, and made me a little hesitant to invite new acquaintances over for dinner. I was really glad to learn that it’s just not like that, unless you are being invited over by someone who is “incredibly uppity.”  Good to know!
  • We are making plans for a trip out to see the family we met in Belgium next month, and looking forward to some fun with them.
  • And then, there was this morning. I found myself walking the same direction as that first mom I had met at school, and we began to chat. She was headed into town and invited me to come with her. I had rolled out of bed and put on workout clothes, and hadn’t eaten anything… What to do? I invited her in for a cup of coffee, and she accepted. It was so nice to have a local friend in my house to chat with. She is funny, quick and honest. One thing led to another, and soon she was laying on my couch getting a craniosacral therapy treatment. I was so glad I could help her, that I had something to offer. So that was two milestones at once!

Things are slowly but steadily improving in the social environment here. And now there is another wrinkle– tomorrow is Amelia’s last day of school, and in the fall, she will be going to a different school. Jeff’s work will pay for her to attend a private school, and we found one that we think will be a much better fit for her. On the one hand, it’s kind of a bummer, since we were just starting to get to know some of the families near us. And this new school is on the outside of town. On the other hand, I think that the private school will have more international families, which will be really nice, and, I expect, easier to get to know. I am hoping that the overall environment of that school community will be warmer and more welcoming of newcomers. I am really thankful that we at least made these contacts before the school year ended, and I am hoping to schedule some play dates and get-togethers with these new acquaintances during the six week summer holiday. It’s real progress!

Thanks for listening, and counting these little steps with me.

Have you made any breakthroughs in your community lately?


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22 Responses to Expat Life: The Importance of Counting Baby Steps

  1. Marilyn July 19, 2012 at 4:21 pm #

    Love this Ariana! It shows both the difficulty and joy of those steps of negotiating and succeeding. It’s so hard to explain to others…and really 4 months is a long time in Expat time. In Expat time where your expat friends come and go and go again – four months is all you sometimes have so I get it that it feels long. Great post.

    • Ariana July 21, 2012 at 10:59 am #

      Thank you, Marilyn. Expat time is kind of different, isn’t it? When your entire stay in a place might be less than two or three years, there is a whole different sense of urgency in terms of settling in and establishing what one would consider “ordinary” life, or a sense of community. We’re getting there, hopefully!

  2. Anonymous July 19, 2012 at 4:24 pm #

    those are steps and you have such an inspiring attitude, love you!


    • Ariana July 21, 2012 at 11:01 am #

      Thanks for your encouragement and support, Carol!

  3. Gretchen July 19, 2012 at 4:40 pm #

    The baby steps ARE what change things! So glad you are having some positive relational experiences. :0)

    • Ariana July 21, 2012 at 11:02 am #

      Yeah, I think baby steps can be underrated, but they add up to something pretty significant! I hope your transition to a new neighborhood is quick and easy, Gretchen!

  4. Rebecca July 21, 2012 at 2:20 am #

    I remember my first 1.5 years living in Seattle and feeling the same way. It seemed that everyone already had their friends and their life, and were friendly enough I guess when I came into contact but never actually made the effort to do anything socially. And I wasn’t even an expat. Just a transplant from upstate New York. But then eventually little social inroads turned into landslides and I suddenly felt like I really belonged. I’m glad you made some inroads. That’s fantastic. I look forward to haring how the baby steps progress from here. Amelia’s new school sounds potentially really wonderful too.

    • Ariana July 21, 2012 at 11:07 am #

      Hi Rebecca, these things are pretty universal, aren’t they? I also had a hard time fitting in when I moved to the PNW. Portlanders seemed really closed off to me– it was a completely different social culture than Los Angeles. I made progress much more quickly than here, but it did feel really tough. Getting into the natural health scene there made all of the difference in the world– turning inroads into landslides, as you described so well. I think I have met a friend, even though it’s still early– but just feeling like I have ONE person in my town that I could probably call up and invite to do something makes everything feel better.

    • Marisa July 21, 2012 at 5:29 pm #

      Rebecca that is known as the “Seattle Freeze” – a very real phenomenon! You should google it. I try to make a point of countering it and make an effort to truly befriend newcomers. When I moved to Charleston I was so amazed at how warm and inviting people were and I have made an effort to bring that back with me to Seattle.

  5. Marisa July 21, 2012 at 5:34 pm #

    SO thrilled for you Ariana! You may be making baby steps but they sound very significant to me. It seems you really are starting to make inroads and build those all important connections. You are building that foundation of community and I can only imagine it will grow stronger and greater with time 🙂

    I really wish that we were neighbors – I’d just love to get together for a cup of coffee or tea and a nice long chat – I feel like we could probably talk for hours 🙂

    • Ariana July 26, 2012 at 7:33 pm #

      Yes, Marisa– I wish we were neighbors too! I’d love to invite you to have some coffee in our garden out back…

      And I agree with you, I think these little things are adding up to feeling more connected and at home, overall. I am starting to have that odd feeling dawn on me, that it could be hard to uproot and leave here at some point, afterall– feeling portable is really nice in some ways, but feeling at home is better.

  6. Natasha July 22, 2012 at 1:09 am #

    Congratulations on the positive developments! And thanks for sharing, very honestly, what your experiences have been adapting to a new place.

    • Ariana July 26, 2012 at 7:34 pm #

      Thanks for celebrating them with me, Natasha! I hope your transitions are smooth. I know you are moving to a much warmer climate (socially and physically) than England, so I imagine things will happen more quickly for you. But it’s never easy!

  7. alison owen July 22, 2012 at 5:44 pm #

    There was an article in the NY times a little while ago that shares a similar sentiment- not about expat life but about how it gets harder to make friends when you’re over 30. I see it as not just as a cultural problem but also just as one of the facts of adult life. I love the people I work with, but how often do I actually meet them for coffee, or invite them for dinner? Almost never and never at all, respectively. And it is a rare treat when I meet the mother of one of Mac’s friends and I actually want to befriend her as well. I am jealous sometimes of the people I know who are still living near their college friends, or close friends from youth.
    All of that said, I’m glad you’re feeling more connected!

    • Ariana July 26, 2012 at 7:38 pm #

      This totally resonates with me, Alison. It IS just harder to make friends at this stage of life. That said, I made truly dear friends in my last year and a half in Portland, ones that I expect to keep in touch with for life. But before those relationships happened, I think I felt seriously lonely, even in my own country, but a new state. Having kids really doesn’t do much for one’s social life, except, I imagine, for the women who chat really easily and seem to connect quickly– I envy that personality type, since they always seem to have plenty of people around them. Maybe I am imagining it… But I do think that introverts suffer more in this way. Being friends at this stage requires a lot of commitment and effort– just getting out of the house and making time to get together. That’s why I think neighbors are the best kinds of friends to have– they just tend to BE there the most. Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  8. clearingcustoms July 23, 2012 at 6:34 pm #

    Congratulations. It’s important to keep track of all the steps, big and little

  9. Catherine Holt July 24, 2012 at 12:01 pm #

    Great post. It is always difficult moving somewhere new, and it sounds like you are making positive progress with things. Every day should get that little bit easier and hopefully you will soon feel a lore more settled 🙂

    • Ariana July 26, 2012 at 7:40 pm #

      Thank you, Catherine! I think you are right, that it’s harder at first, then things tend to glide a bit more, and momentum builds… Hopefully I’ll slide into feeling at home soon!

  10. my honest answer July 24, 2012 at 1:50 pm #

    You have such a lovely attitude about it all! Hopefully the Olympics will bring more events like the torch that you can use to meet more people (the pub is always the place!).

    I grew up in East Anglia, and I too attended a local school and a private school. I just wanted to caution you not to get your hopes up too much about the new school year. At my private school the parents (though very nice!) were not as friendly as at my local school – just because they didn’t have the time to be. At our local school, parents walked their kids in. Then they chatted in the playground. At private school, they always had to drop other kids off at another school, or get to work. Because people came from a long way away they all drove, which meant no-one got out of their car. Best of luck with it all though, you seem to be making great inroads!

    • Ariana July 26, 2012 at 7:43 pm #

      Yes, good point about the private school parents! I really don’t want to pin too many hopes on those relationships, actually. It would be a nice bonus, though. I am thinking many of them may be newer to the school, they aren’t in the same social circle they’ve always been in, etc., so there won’t be the strong cliques like at Amelia’s current school. But I know what you mean about availability! Maybe school functions will be good… There’s no way to know at this point. Really, the best I can hope is to find friends through my own interests (art classes, exercise groups, etc.) We’ll see!

  11. Grandma Seelye July 25, 2012 at 3:25 am #

    So nice to hear about the progress!! I love your writing! Love you all!!

    • Ariana July 26, 2012 at 7:43 pm #

      Thank you, Grandma! Love you, too!

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