Expat Life: When Small Things Just Feel So Daunting

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So, tomorrow is my birthday. Jeff is taking the day off to make sure I feel special– what a nice guy! But I’ll also be celebrating a couple other noteworthy things, in addition to my 33rd anniversary of life in this world. In particular, I’ll be marking the occasion of my last haircut– one year ago! I will also be inducting myself into the Low-Maintenance Ladies Society, since in the last year I have not: had a haircut, bought makeup, had my nails done, enjoyed a massage, or gotten any other sort of self-care treatments I used to splurge for now and then in my American life. I also get extra points for trimming my own bangs and the serious dedication required in order to acquire a natural tan in England. So, hurray!

On the last day of 32. I’ve been putting my hair up every day for months, kicking myself for not getting it cut yet.
Actually, this feat of self-denial has very little to do with discipline or frugality.  Mostly, I’m kind of a big baby about the little things.  It’s strange to me, because I think I’m pretty brave about the big stuff– I’m not a fearful person, at all. I don’t know why, but for some reason getting my hair cut in a new country, scheduling a massage, etc., just feels really intimidating. And exhausting. I know it’s completely crazy, since there’s not even a language barrier involved. The language thing was my excuse for not doing any of these basic things in Germany– I was afraid of a serious miscommunication when I was talking to my hairstylist, that I would end up with something really different from what I wanted. But here?! It just doesn’t make sense. When we went back to the States for just five months, I got my hair cut twice. The first time, it was because it had been so long since my last cut, living in Germany. The second one was because a.) the first one wasn’t that great, and b.) I was leaving the country again. But there is no reason why I should trust a random stylist in a salon in Portland over a random stylist in a salon here in Bury (or in Cambridge!)
I’ve wondered about this. I have a long list of “normal” activities that somehow just seem so daunting, now that I’m not in my own country. I wonder about tipping. I wonder if there’s some kind of information I should have, that I’m missing. I felt seriously nervous before my first pottery class, and the same with taking a yoga class. It took me a few weeks to try driving here. I feel a little overwhelmed when I think about getting a job here, even though I really, really want one. School events seem more taxing than usual, just because I don’t feel sure of the norms surrounding the occasion. I wonder if I’m doing it right. I wonder if someone is noticing something a little off about my methods. I worry about the fact that, when I’m talking to the English people around me, I don’t mince words like they do. Am I being rude, somehow? Will I offend?  These are all things that I experienced to a degree in the US, since I often felt like a foreigner there, as well (see my first post on culture shock.)  But I definitely enjoyed the sense that I knew what was going on there at least for the last decade. Here it is, all over again. And I wish I could just spend the day tomorrow in the States, getting my hair cut, buying a little makeup and maybe getting a massage. (Oh! And I would eat!)
But I made an appointment for a hair cut here in Bury tomorrow– it’s time!  
Are there things that seem (or seemed) irrationally daunting for you in a new setting? How do/ did you approach them?

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33 Responses to Expat Life: When Small Things Just Feel So Daunting

  1. Amanda June 28, 2012 at 4:41 pm #

    Going to the post office in Spain was so scary to me! I was somewhat fluent in Spanish, but all the forms you have to fill out! All the special post office language! What about extra charges!

    It turned out okay, I mailed a package. But it was pretty complicated and I am sure I blushed a few times stumbling over something I didn’t understand. Oh well…


    • Ariana July 3, 2012 at 9:51 am #

      Amanda, I still haven’t been to the post office here! We have access to the USPO system at Jeff’s work, and they also have a Royal Mail on base, so I have him do all of the mailing.
      I went to the post office only once in Germany, as well, and I’m pretty sure I was perspiring when I walked up to the counter. I was imagining a long line behind me of exasperated people waiting for the American to get it right! It turned out totally fine, but I GET it!!

  2. Sysy June 28, 2012 at 4:56 pm #

    LOL I feel like we’d get along well in person 🙂 I’m intimidated about having others cut my hair so I’ve been doing it myself since I was 18. Just yesterday I lopped off 7 inches. Anyway, it’s so interesting to read about the thoughts you have about feeling unsure about how things are done where you’re living. It’s something I can’t imagine since I’ve been in the same town since I was 2. The few times I’ve traveled leave me tremendously excited and thisclose to a mini meltdown lol. Good on you for being so brave 🙂 Have fun getting your haircut!

    • Ariana July 3, 2012 at 9:54 am #

      Wow, Sysy, I’m impressed about your self- haircutting skills! I totally wish I could do my own– as it is, I had the stylist fix the effects of trimming my own bangs.
      And, there is nothing like just feeling comfortable where you are, knowing how things work… I really miss that feeling sometimes!

  3. Liene June 28, 2012 at 5:24 pm #

    Somehow ordering food at MacDo’s (as they call MacDonalds here in France) is harder for me than at any restaurant. Maybe because it is supposed to be American but in fact isn’t? (And now you know my dirty little secret – McDonalds fries!)

    • Liene June 28, 2012 at 5:25 pm #

      And a joyeux anniversaire to you!

    • Ariana July 3, 2012 at 10:19 am #

      Oh, that’s a surprising one, Liene! Maybe there’s the pressure to know it all as an American ordering at McDonalds… I remember when the first ones came to the Philippines, the foreigners were all flocking to them for the sake of familiarity, yet horrified (or just amused) at some of the menu items designed to suit Filipino tastes!

  4. Bethany June 28, 2012 at 7:18 pm #

    I am finally enjoying the fact that I don’t have to find a new doctor, dentist, grocery, post office, mechanic and all the routine services that become such a headache when you have to start from scratch to find them. When we moved back to Michigan I started going back to the same oil change place that I used 10 years earlier when we lived here. I just didn’t even want to consider my options. I just wanted one thing I could do without thinking about it. And you may find it amusing that I was 35 before I ever got a manicure in this country, despite getting them often when we lived overseas. It was very much “irrationally daunting.” I was only driven to it after my hands were in such bad shape after a 10 day farm stay. I haven’t gone back, although it would be easier the second time. It was a very foreign experience. Ha!

    • Ariana July 3, 2012 at 10:38 am #

      Actually, when I did get a manicure for the first time in California, it WAS a foreign experience, since everyone there was Vietnamese, and I could hardly understand what was being said, even in English. There was lots of being bossed around, and I didn’t at first get the “You pay me NOW!” part (it made sense that I would pay before getting polish applied, but it still seemed like a trick at that moment.)
      And, I also tend to cling to the same service providers. Maybe it has to do with valuing relationships, so meeting a new person and working out the business transactions feels like a bigger deal to some than others. I love going back to the same restaurants over and over again, until they recognize me– it’s just a way of making a home out there in the world….

  5. Mary De Bastos June 28, 2012 at 8:19 pm #

    I feel you on this one. I’ve been putting off joining a toddler group because I’m afraid the other Mom’s will feel I’m just too different to get to know. I worry that I’ll do something wrong or won’t wear the right thing or my son won’t be doing the same kinds of things that their kids will be doing. I’m all for being different and unique but there are some times that blending in would be best to start with. It is just a daunting task for me right now. But I need to do it. I just need to bite the bullet and do it. My son needs socialized!!

    • Mary De Bastos June 28, 2012 at 8:24 pm #

      Oh, and HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!

    • Ariana July 3, 2012 at 10:44 am #

      Mary, I would be intimidated about that, too. It was even hard for me when we moved to Portland! But I have heard that all of the local toddler groups are one of the best parts of living in the UK, so just let me encourage you to go ahead and do it! Maybe the first time will be a little harder, but I am sure it will get easier every time, and I imagine you can make some great connections there. Do it! 🙂

  6. Kristen - Anywhere There's An Airport June 28, 2012 at 11:43 pm #

    Happy Birthday to you!!! I can relate to this post SO much. I did absolutely nothing in Spain. I mean nothing. Haircut, Pedicure, deodorant buying… ALL in the states.

    • Ariana July 3, 2012 at 10:45 am #

      Funny! You DID go to yoga classes, though! And if we had a trip back to the States planned, you’d better believe I still wouldn’t have a hair cut today. It’s silly, but there you have it.

  7. Katie June 29, 2012 at 4:29 am #

    First of all, happy birthday! I really hope you like your haircut. A good haircut can make such a difference. Second, I know I don’t live abroad, but I often feel that way when I’m traveling, even here in the states. I feel really comfortable doing most things by myself. I’m 33 and single and most of my friends are married with kids, so I often have to do things on my own. I have sometimes traveled on my own, for work or fun, and I actually really enjoy it. But it’s when I’m traveling on my own that all of those little things that I’m anxious about become apparent. For example, I have the hardest time choosing a restaurant to eat at on my own. I get so nervous about not knowing what type of restaurant it is or if I will feel embarrassed being there alone or do you just seat yourself or wait to be seated, etc. I always know it’s silly, but I can’t help feeling anxious about it. But the good news is that I still do it. It’s not always a great experience, but it’s never as bad as I think it will be. And I think it’s really brave that you are doing it despite those little anxieties.

    • Ariana July 3, 2012 at 11:07 am #

      I totally hear you on the traveling/ eating out alone thing. When I was single, I really did genuinely enjoy those things (still do!) but there is the extra nervousness that goes along with being the *only one* possibly doing it wrong! It’s much easier to be unaware when you’re with a group– who knows who’s really responsible for getting it wrong?! And good for you for going ahead and doing it anyway. I have had so many great experiences/ connection from being alone and meeting people. I remember one time traveling with Amelia when she was a baby. I was trying to wield my suitcase, diaper bag, and stroller, looking for a table to eat at. A couple invited me to come sit with them, and we had the best conversation! I know that just wouldn’t have happened if I was traveling with another adult.
      And, yes– my haircut turned out well, and I am so glad I finally went for it!

  8. my honest answer June 29, 2012 at 9:58 am #

    Happy Birthday! Re: tipping, we just don’t do it as much in England. You wouldn’t need to tip someone for carrying your bags to a hotel room, or delivering a package or something. If they go out of their way, reward them for sure, but it’s not expected. In restaurants, I just do 10-15%, depending on the service. For a haircut, maybe £2. Hope that helps!

    • my honest answer June 29, 2012 at 10:12 am #

      Also, this has made me remember living in Switzerland a few years ago. I needed a haircut as I was going to a wedding, and just couldn’t look like that any more. But the only German I could come up with to describe what I wanted was ‘a bit shorter’. The poor girl kept cutting, and I kept saying ‘a bit shorter’ for ages until we finally got to an approximation of what I wanted. It is daunting! Even without the language barrier you just don’t know how things work. Where do I put my handbag? Do I put the gown on forwards or backwards? I feel your pain, but you’ll be fine!

    • Ariana July 3, 2012 at 11:09 am #

      Thank you for the information on tipping– it’s really helpful! I read this right after I had dropped a £5 tip, but I’d rather err on the side of generous than stingy. I am glad your Swiss cut turned out– I was so afraid of getting a really butch hair cut in Germany, since I saw so many around me!!

  9. monika June 30, 2012 at 2:50 am #

    Happy Birthday!!!

    I am EXACTLY the same! It took me at least a year to get a haircut in Switzerland. It’s hard — you don’t know where to go, it takes a while to get a good recommendation. And then, for me at least, the cost. Between $250-$300 for a cut and colour. It made me freak for a while. And the the tipping… at first, it was so hard getting used to not tipping without feeling bad. Now that I am back in North America, I resent tipping; I’m actually angry about it. It’s so demeaning and degrading; why can’t we treat people in service jobs respectfully and as professionals?

    You know though that once you get going, you’ll be fine. If it’s a good cut, you’ll be really settled in. 🙂

    • Ariana July 3, 2012 at 11:14 am #

      Thanks, Monika! And, oh my! That is SO expensive, it would definitely freak me out– what if it didn’t come out right, after such an investment both socially and financially?!
      I worked for years as a server… And I am trying to think what hourly rate I would be happy with, if not receiving tips. Most people were really generous to me, so I could easily make over $20 per hour. It’s hard to imagine what it would cost to buy food from a restaurant that took that kind of good care of their staff. I remember a very, er, dynamic conversation I had with a woman from Spain who said she absolutely refused to tip in US restaurants– “if they want to make money, they should get a degree and a better job!” Interesting!

    • monika July 4, 2012 at 2:09 am #

      They tend not to have as many servers as we do in North America — which is why French waiters may seem less than welcoming to North Americans, and may be less than thrilled at having to deal with special requests. They are worked off their feet!

      But in France, they are considered professionals, and make a good living wage. Considering that the pay at McDonald’s in Geneva used to be around 19 ChF an hour (well, whatever minimum wage was at the time), professional servers would be making much more (easily over 30, if not more). And I believe they are all the social benefits as well (i.e., sick pay), as well as full healthcare of course.

      Every year, they have the Councours des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, which is a highly respected professional contest to find the best and most professional workers in all of France each year — the best waiter, the best chambermaid, the best sommelier, the best Maitre D’Hote, etc. etc. It’s a really big thing.



      I wish we had such a competition too, as well as the same sort of respect for the trades.

    • Ariana July 9, 2012 at 9:21 am #

      That’s cool, Monika. I remember attending a Bastille Day celebration in Portland, and they had a waiter’s competition, running while balancing trays full of glasses– so fun! I agree completely, that there should be more respect for people who work in the service trade. Something that struck me in Germany was that it seemed there were no menial jobs– maybe I was missing something, but there seemed to be plenty of dignity in all types of work.

  10. designgratis June 30, 2012 at 1:45 pm #

    Happy birthday and many happy returns!

    Geez, I know exactly how you feel. I cut and relaxed my own hair for 5 YEARS, because I was too nervous to book somewhere here in London. Finally after discovering an abundance of split ends I booked Toni & Guy only to be turned away because I didn’t mention on the phone I was black and they couldn’t do my hair. Yes this happened in London in 2011. So that put me off even more.

    Eventually I sucked it up, called the Aveda salon on my highstreet, told them I was black and was given the choice of 3 hairstylists there. Ended up having an amazing cut by a lovely German girl, and now Im a regular. It’s not cheap, but like the ad says, “because we’re worth it” lol

    Wishing you an awesome haircut!

    • Ariana July 3, 2012 at 11:18 am #

      Thank you, designgratis! That is absolutely ridiculous about Toni & Guy! I just can’t believe it, especially for a company that is supposed to be all about being on the (ahem) cutting edge of hair styling. I once got a cut from them as a hair model for a seminar, and my stylist was super rude to me for not wanting something “edgier.” Ridiculous. So glad you had a good experience at Aveda– I am very partial to them, as well!

    • monika July 4, 2012 at 2:10 am #

      Aveda is where I always end up too — in Geneva, and back home as well!

  11. Nats July 1, 2012 at 11:40 am #

    Happy belated birthday, I hate going to the Rathaus here in Germany, it’s so official and everyone else just “knows” what to do while I stand around like a deer in headlights. I’m building up my German body armour slowly, but sometimes it just takes that one comment to make me want to cry and move right back to England!

    • Ariana July 3, 2012 at 11:21 am #

      Thanks, Nats! I remember well my ONE visit to the Rathaus in Amberg– I went into the wrong building, a couple of times, then got re-routed several times. I had to peptalk myself out of crying, and forced myself to smile and laugh about not knowing what I was doing– people were still nice to me, even though I was obviously clueless. I think that getting the simple paperwork I needed ended up taking like 2 hours. I guess it’s worse in other countries, but I was totally sweating and exhausted by the time I was done!!
      I’m sure it will get easier for you!

  12. Anonymous December 7, 2012 at 5:05 pm #

    Hi Ariana!What an enlightening blog you are writing!I’m too a foreign woman with kids living here almost 11 years.(I believe we are of the same age).I still feel quite an alient despite of the fact I have very supportive in-laws here and I try desperately to make friends everywhere I can here.But,alas, never more than a small talk and no relationship closer than an acqeintance.If I try really hard and open up a bit more in order to gain more trust, I loose the chance of friend at all.I do not hang on any of my own culture here and try to get to understand things here as much as possible though do miss the bunch of true friends of mine overseas.

  13. Daniel cohen June 18, 2013 at 9:14 am #

    Thanks very much for your large information .And knowledge full description . I think it is Sus a topic that many kinds of people face many problems. thanks for this.
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  14. Daniel cohen June 18, 2013 at 9:16 am #

    Thanks very much for your large information .And knowledge full description . I think it is Sus a topic that many kinds of people face many problems. thanks for this.
    meeting people,

  15. jason haris July 10, 2013 at 10:12 am #

    Hi Ariana,
    I loved reading this piece! Well written! 🙂

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