Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Three Year Rule

Amongst other ex-pats I've often heard that to truly experience life in a new country, you really need at least 3 years.  The first year is spent trying to adjust, finding your bearings, learning the culture and so much more.  It's overwhelming and overstimulating to say the least.  The second year is when you start to get the hang of things - you know where to buy your groceries, you've built some relationships (of which at least half of those people will leave in that same year to new destinations) and you are pretty happy overall.  But it's year three that you start to truly enjoy the experience.  Where things become comfortable, almost like home (but not quite).  You're relationships have strengthened and you find yourself occasionally leaving your comfort zone that you've created.

I totally agree with this assessment.  As we finished up year three at the end of last year, I felt like despite all the challenges and the exodus of friends, I was finally starting to get my groove.  I mentioned in a previous entry that life was almost feeling mundane, a feeling that to me, means that I'm comfortable.  It means that it would take a lot to shake things up for me, a status that here has taken me quite a while to achieve, probably longer than most.  And despite my emotional downward spirals the last few months, I'm feeling pretty good.   

Often times, it's the little things that either remind me of home (in a good way) or the small adjustments that I've made to my life that now just have become every day trivial things.  But after 3 years, these things have just become incorporated into my daily life, emphasizing that I have, in fact, adjusted to life abroad.  A few examples:

Initially the idea of going to 5+ different stores was not only intimidating, but a major pain in my ass.  Seriously, isn't there a Super Stop n Shop around??  And while I still find it inconvenient at times, every month that goes by, I find it less and less inconvenient an more a part of the charm of living in Europe where this is the norm.    I know exactly where I need to go for the majority of my daily items (there are still a few items that elude me here and there) and I have it down to a science.  That took time, a long time, to get used to and not only that, but to figure out who was the best at each of their trades - I have my regular grocery store, my American store (there are two different ones but I tend to go to primarily one), my Italian store for tomato sauce, the mercado where I have specific kiosks that I go to for cheese and jamon, fruits and vegetables...even one just for bananas (this guy always has the best yellow bananas!).  When we moved over the spring, the big criteria I gave to Josh was that we had to stay in this neighborhood because I couldn't imagine having to start over from scratch in finding vendors all over again!!!

Another example is my late lunch.  When we moved here, I'll admit it, we took the kids to McDonalds more than a few times.  I think I've had more McDonalds in our first 3 months here than I did in 10 years at home.  But most restaurants don't open til 1PM and at the time our kids were used to eating at 11:30, maybe 12 and we would eat around 12 ourselves.  Finding restaurants that were open early often meant eating just tapas (which I was bored of within the first month but have since become much more accustomed to) or something like McDonalds or Hard Rock.  Even at home, I would still eat at noon if not earlier.  Now, 3 years later I find that I rarely eat lunch before 1 and often times can even hold off til 2, in which case I won't bother with more than a sandwich for dinner, if that.  A healthier way of living for sure - eating my bigger meal earlier in the day and less at dinner (yet lately my weight is totally not reflecting this... could perhaps be the in between meal snacking).

As I jump hurdles left and right to make life "normal" here for us, I find that life is not all that difficult here if you put forth the effort.  Yes, the language provides a bit of a challenge, but like anything else, it's a process.  And though sometimes the process of doing things here can be frustrating, it's no different (except the language) than at home.  Yes, it's a pain to get a package out of customs, but follow the procedure they give you and "hopefully" you'll get the package (and I know that this does not always work, that would be too easy).  There are most definitely tons of Ahhhh Spain moments that go with this but when it comes right down to it, once you are used to the culture and the ways of doing things here and when you have set your level of expectations down to the appropriate peg (which would be a very low peg by the way), it's not so bad.

One of those hurdles was getting a car, well, and a license.  Probably the license first right?  Though I actually had the car before the license.  And while I have no regrets that we lived without a car for our first 2 1/2 years and managed just find, I will say, I don't think we truly lived in the same way now that we have one.  I'm saying yet to more get togethers that lead us outside the city.  There is no planning for a rental car.  There is no hiding birthday invitations from the kids because the parties are being held outside the city.  As a matter of fact Aidan was just invited to a birthday party outside the city and the place looks seriously awesome - and I did not hesitate to show Aidan the invite or suggest that he go.  If anything, it put me on a total high with the fact that YES, we can go and NO, we don't need to bum a ride from anyone or hunt down public transit that MIGHT get us there.  No, we can just pick up and go and what an independent feeling that is.  On a side note, I am finally listening to Spanish radio now that I have a car (I usually just stream US radio at home)... I'm going to go with 99% of the music is in English and half the time I'm driving I actually forget that I'm in Spain and not at home.  

Finally, my biggest hurdle that you've all heard me whine about is finally becoming less of a burden to me.  The language.  No, I haven't become fluent in the last few months.  But suddenly, I have less fear with it.  I have always had general conversations with people at the mercado and my vendors.  But they are usually just a few minutes.  My friend, Jose, that I used to chat with everyday, retired back in November.  However, around that time I also hired a private tutor for my Spanish.  Classes were no longer motivating me and I wasn't getting enough out of them.  Again, wishing I'd done this sooner as my confidence has exploded in the last few months when it comes to my abilities to speak.

And the more I speak, the better I feel.  I'm no where near 100% there but every day I inch a little closer and have one more conversation than I did the day before.  And I owe a lot of this sudden confidence and improvement to my friends from the gym.  Yup, the gym... which is actually where the majority of my social activity takes place these days.  I'm having conversations with people in Spanish that used to be in English, weekly intercambios with friends that I always refused to talk to in Spanish and now do so happily and talking to others in Spanish that I never had the confidence to talk to before.  And you know what, it feels good!

I'd say those are the big ones these days - the big ticket items that made year 3 the year that had me jumping out of my comfort zone and into a culture that I'm finally embracing.  Oh and one other thing that has certainly helped me to embrace life here lately, it's Aidan finally doing the same.  Being two peas in a pod, it's no surprise that Aidan struggled with the changes here but I can't say enough about how proud I am of him that after 3 years, he is finally enjoying his life here.  And so with that, I'm curious as to what year four will have to offer... no one has ever told me from an ex-pat standpoint what to expect in year 4.  I guess I'll just have to wait and see :)


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