Friday, March 28, 2014

The View from the Other Side

Often times I feel like my life looks pretty glamorous, at least from the outside looking in.  I have posted countless entries on all the wonderful places we have visited and fun things we have done in the last few years.  All things that we would not have been able to do had we stayed in the US.  And yes, they have been pretty amazing.  I've also posted some things about how tough it can be sometimes too - though it's usually something that is happening at a given moment, moments that pass.

But what I haven't done is really show you the inside view of what it has been like for us here for the last 4+ years and especially over the last 6 months which have most definitely been our most difficult to date.  This is not me whining - no, whining would be complaining about this life and having a wo-is-me kind of attitude.  No, this is about the challenges we face and the plain and simple facts are, this is our life, while a better quality of life than that we had in the US (in some ways), is not an easy life by any means.  This is about sacrifices we have made in order to have what we hoped was a better quality and more global life for our family and an opportunity for growth for Josh with his work.

So I thought I would share a few things so you can see that while life here can be grand, it is certainly does not come easy.  This is a fairly negative entry - I won't deny that - it's where my head is at the moment and I write as things come to me. And to be honest, the last 6 months have been pretty negative - so negative that Josh and I have talked about whether this was all worth it or not.  I'm hoping that we will look back when this is all over and say, yes, it may not have turned out as we planned, but it was worth the experience.  And it's not to say that there aren't a thousand wonderful things about living here because there are - I'm just not feeling them at this given moment.

So when you see we're going on a fabulous trip somewhere, don't judge - know that we damn well earned that trip thru the blood, sweat and tears we have shed over the years during this experience. And that to get thru our day to day lives, we often need something to look forward to.

Friends and family:
  • Josh and I both come from small, close knit families.  Our kids are the only grandkids on both sides.  Our families have been incredibly supportive for the most part about our decision to move abroad and to continue living abroad, but it hasn't come without sacrifice.  The kids are close with their grandparents but get all of a few days per year with them.  Is that really enough? And to top it off, both Josh and I now have strained relationships with our siblings as a result of this move which has, of course, affected the relationships the kids have with them as well.
  • Being away from family is not easy.  If we'd had a bad relationship with our parents, that might have been fine, but we didn't.  And to see them getting older and to see their health deteriorate or to know they are going thru something difficult that you can't physically be there to help with - it makes you feel helpless.  And knowing that you are losing time with them only makes it tougher.
  • Friends come and go in life.  No quicker do they go when you are an expat.  Friends are made quickly when you live this life because you don't have time to "build" a relationship - either you click or you don't.  And odds are, you or they will be moving on in a matter of time.  It's truly a revolving door.  It's happened countless times to us (in fact, I said goodbye yesterday to a very good friend that's leaving this weekend) and it never ever gets easier.  The kids have become hardened against it and just have learned that this is part of life - a tough lesson for a 6 and 9 year old.  The only bonus is that with social media it's easier to remain connected and you can visit them in their new country and vice versa.  
  • Friends from your home country.  I'd like to say those relationships don't change but that would be foolish.  Making a move like this impacts EVERYTHING in your life and that includes friends.  You say you'll stay in touch but it's out of sight, out of mind.  It's not just them but you as well - you've changed.  Some friendships can weather this test but many cannot - or if they do, you find that they weren't as strong as you once thought. 
  • Everyone says they will visit.  About 1 in 10 will actually do so. When Josh talked about moving to Australia a few years ago I told him we couldn't because we'd had hardly anyone visit us here - no one was going to visit us there and I couldn't bear that thought.
  • Every marriage has it's ups and downs but never will you be tested so much as when you move to a new country together.  
  • It's hard to maintain a marriage when you aren't even living in the same country as each other 5 days a week.  Communication is key.  Big fights are too - sometimes you just have to let all the frustration out and no one else is going to understand what you are going thru other than your significant other.  If our marriage can withstand these last 6 months, we can conquer anything together.  
  • They say kids are resilient.  And they will adjust quickly.  Aidan did not want to move to Barcelona.  He fought tooth and nail on it.  The first few months were ok.  The following year was beyond miserable and we feared that this move created a monster and it did for a while - angry, violent, even talking suicide at times.  In the end, it took him 3 years to decide he liked it here (not all 3 were miserable like that first one).  The great news is that he now loves it... the bad news, we're leaving again.  And we're going to have to start over which he recognizes and accepts.  But that doesn't mean it doesn't rip your heart to pieces when your kid has to say goodbye yet again to friends that he's spent years cultivating relationships with... especially when he's already said goodbye to countless others over the last 4+ years.  It gives them this hardened shell that no 9 year old should need.  
  • This is the only life that Liam remembers.  He was 2 1/2 when we moved here.  I expect that we will get similar reactions from him as we did Aidan when we moved here after we leave.  He will be leaving all his best friends and having to start over as well.
  • When your child has a learning disability and you live in a foreign country, your options are EXTREMELY limited in English.  You had 20 people you could go to for testing for your kid?? I had one. Yes, one.  And she didn't even give us a definitive diagnosis.  I literally just found out a few weeks ago there is a 2nd one (3 years later) that we are going to now to have Liam tested for an unknown disability and Aidan re-tested. 
  • Being a single parent isn't easy EVER... now do it when your spouse lives in a different country and you have essentially no support system.  What do you do if you have an emergency?  What if something happened to me and Josh wasn't here?  The scenarios are always going thru my head of how we would handle a given situation.  The kids have been forced to become more independent because I just can't do it all.  This is not necessarily a bad thing but we were perfectly happy with the way things were before.
  • Finding a new school in your new country that fits your kid, your budget and your location (in AMS, my top choice has a wait list of 18 kids for Aidan and 28 for Liam - she said it would be several years before they got in).  Right now the only schools with space are either one where Aidan would get one year and then have to apply to another school for middle/high or one that will cost 20,000 euros per year per kid.  Neither is the ideal choice.  We're almost better off with the kids and I staying in Spain and Josh continuing to commute.  No, that's not a good option either but again, beggars can't be choosers.  
  • Do you remember ven diagrams?  As a refresher, it's two circles that link in the middle.  The overlap is where we are - we don't fit in with our host country (in this case, Spain) and we no longer truly fit in with our passport country (the US).  We are in the middle ground.  
  • Not speaking the language fluently makes it difficult to truly integrate.  While I've taken classes and am fairly conversational, I'm by no means fluent.  And it's harder to put yourself out there or to find information when you can't communicate.  
  • The kids don't have friends here outside of school - it's hard to integrate when you are from a completely different world than these other kids.  The boys both speak better Spanish than I do, but both are hesitant to fully integrate.  Maybe that's our fault or maybe it's just the way they are wired.  Aidan has a kid in his tennis class that literally lives on the block behind us and yet he has no interest in sparking up a friendship with him.
  • Well, we could put them in the Spanish schools and truly integrate them couldn't we?  No, we can't.  Because the schools in Barcelona are taught in Catalan, a totally different language than Spanish.  And none of us speak Catalan.  And when you have children with learning disabilities, that's just adding another layer of difficulty that's just unnecessary.    
  • Moving sucks no matter where you are coming from or where you are going.  You thought moving to another town was tough?  Try moving across the ocean.  None of your electronics will work here and those that might work on a converter may also blow up and never work again. And so you'll need to buy all new electronics while the stuff you already own sits in storage collecting dust.  If you are lucky your company will give you some kind of moving stipend to cover this extra cost.
  • When you move back to your home country you can expect to have to now sell all said electronics because now they aren't going to work where you are going.
  • Most people move abroad with as little stuff as they can muster.  We came with 110 boxes and I don't think we did too bad, leaving all but one piece of furniture behind.  But that meant buying new furniture and furniture is expensive, UNLESS you go to IKEA which is everyone's wet dream and nightmare at the same time.  While IKEA certainly has some higher end items, when you are moving somewhere temporarily (like our initial 2 years) you don't want to spend a whole lot on furniture when you already have beautiful stuff in your storage unit at home.  So you go back to the college dorm style of living once again.  Yeah, when you were in your 30s you probably thought you were done living the IKEA dream... nope, not even close. 
  • You leave much of your possessions at home.  I don't like to think of myself as overly materialistic - perhaps once I was, but that's changed with life in Spain.  But regardless, I miss my stuff.  I miss my wedding photos that I haven't seen in 4+ years, my bed that was the first piece of furniture I bought when I got my first job out of college, the kids bedroom sets and all the memorabilia of our lives.  All I can do is hope they have survived storage ok when we get back.
  • Moving is a logistical nightmare.  Not only do you need to deal with the selling of much of your possessions before you leave (because I have no need for this IKEA couch when I go back to the US when I have my nice Jordan's Furniture one there), but you need to time everything so you aren't sitting on the tile floor for 6 weeks.  And with that timing comes the shipment - at least 6 weeks before you expect to land, you need to ship everything.  When we moved to Spain, we shipped everything before Thanksgiving.  That meant our kids literally had a milk crate of toys to play with for more than 6 weeks and we had 2 suitcases worth of clothes to last us until the moving day.  And with a move either home or to the Netherlands we are back in the same boat (though the Netherlands would need less lead time) but this move means dealing with Spanish movers and ensuring that they don't take things that are owned by the landlord or that need to be sold.  It means walking thru with them in every room and detailing every item.  Josh wonders why I've begun prepacking and it's because I don't want to deal with the movers packing up the wrong stuff later.  
  • Renting here is not like the US - not only are you responsible for everything unless it is structural (that means if the AC breaks, you fix it... if the dishwasher isn't working, sorry your responsibility too...) but they also require a hefty security deposit that can be upwards of 6 months of rent.  Our current landlord has the equivalent of 4 months of rent in a bank account right now, not collecting interest and it's unlikely we will get all of that back when we finish our time here.  And the apartment, there is no such thing as wear and tear - it better look EXACTLY like it did the day you moved in or kiss that money goodbye.  
Home Rental and Maintenance:
  • Managing not one but two homes from 4000 miles away is a pain in the ass.  Simply put, it is a headache and a half.  We've had to rely on family and friends to help us let people in to see the house, work with realtors, do yard maintenance and so much more... and we are forever thankful and grateful that they haven't told us to jump off a bridge yet. 
  • When you rent a house you take a chance with your renters.  You hope they are reliable and will pay the rent.  They don't always and you end up with legal fees from an eviction where you never actually recoup your money that was owed to you.  Then the house sits empty as you are paying the mortgage and you wonder, why are we keeping this?  Or the tenant that breaks the lease because he's decided to buy a house meaning that we have to pay a realtor yet again to find us a new tenant.  
  • Good luck breaking even or making a profit on your home rental.  Again, it's our home so I want to keep it, but it would be nice if we could at least break even on it... but alas it's not meant to be. But with something like 7 billion people on the planet and constantly growing, there will always be a need for real estate, right?  
  • Finding renters has been nothing but a challenge.  There have been times where we have lucked out and word of mouth has found us some great people.  But we've also had to pay realtors to find us people to live in our houses.  And nothing was harder than finding a renter for 6 months for our primary house.  Why 6 months?  Because our last renters moved and we didn't know if we were coming home this year or not.  But no one wants to rent for just 6 months.  And rather than continue to take a loss month after month, we had to accommodate a renter that should we move back this summer, would continue to live there even after the school year starts, meaning that we'd need temporary housing until well into the fall.  
  • Having a house 4000 miles away means you still have to maintain the house.  And things break. Regularly.  
  • On a similar note, maintaining a car from 4000 miles away is no easy task either.  Whether it's having your neighbors drive the car regularly or leaving it at your parents, you still have to pay to maintain it, pay excise tax and insure it.  Why keep it?  Because we were only supposed to be away for 2 years and we own it out right.  When we go back we don't want two car payments. But at the same time, it's still a lot of work to keep it.
  • Trying to run a business when you are 4000 miles away and can't be in front of people.  With technology these days, it's not as bad as it would have been 10 years ago.  But it also makes it difficult to create new business when you can't have initial face to face meetings.  
  • On Josh's end, feeling unsupported by the company that you came here for and not knowing your future is a very upsetting and frustrating feeling.  They seem to forget that you came here for the company and not yourself.  You getting the chance to have global experiences is a plus but it comes down to you being able to produce at work and when you've done nothing but produce time after time and still don't know a plan, that's a tough pill to swallow.  You are a cog in the wheel.  
  • Moving 4000 miles away to do what you feel is best for your company and knowing you can make a difference only to find that everything changes and there is no loyalty.
  • When an opportunity does arise, it means moving to another country and leaving your family behind for over 6 months (still in another country that is not their home country) in order to pursue a job that you love but that comes at a sacrifice of your family.
The "Simple" Things:
  • Buying a car and getting a license - I had to completely go thru drivers ed again like I was 16 again to the tune of 1000 euros.  
  • Making a doctor's appointments - when you take your kids to a hospital for their doctor's appointments it's near impossible to call to make the appointment if you don't speak fluent Spanish - there are just too many departments you can get transferred to.  In order to make their appointments, I literally have to go there and go up to the desk of their doctor to make the appointment.  
  • Canceling or changing an account (already stressed over canceling utilities, etc).  It took me a month to get a new cell phone when I changed carriers.  When we moved apartments, our cable company only transferred over TV but not the internet which they cancelled and then had to create a completely new account which then took even longer to install because it was no longer considered a transfer.  I have no doubt when we move that the power is going to all of a sudden shut off days before it's supposed to.
  • Going to the grocery store means 4 or 5 or even 6 different locations and you still can't get everything you need or want (but at least it's preservative free for the most part).  And you'll find yourself having to learn to make a lot of things from scratch that you never had to do before.  
  • Learn to let go - truly you can't sweat the small stuff.  Those lights that you just replaced that have already gone out because of poor wiring?  Tough, just go buy a lamp or read in the dark. That A/C that is in the hallway that does nothing in the dead of summer - just go spend 300 euros to buy a stand alone unit and home that it gives you some reprieve of the heat.  No dryer?  Hang those clothes outside - winter, spring, summer and fall... yes all year long.  Smaller living space - do you really need all that crap?  No car?  It's better to walk for you anyways.  And with no car, you'll buy less stuff for your tiny little apartment that has little living space.  
  • Siesta and Sundays - You wanted to go to the hardware store on Sunday?  Sorry, it and every single other store is closed on Sunday.  Try again on Monday but only between the hours of 10-2 and 5-8.  
  • Target?  We don't have one.  Gap?  Nope, don't have one of those either.  And I hope you aren't shipping anything to me because odds are it's going to get stuck in customs or not come at all.  In fact, I just paid a 50% customs charge on a box of Easter candy from my parents that was delivered to me today.  I'm still waiting on those girl scout cookies from last year that never arrived.  And with 21% tax, anything you buy here is significantly more expensive than it is in the States.  There is a reason I come back here with 5 suitcases every year.  
The Future:
  • This is the basis for all this negativity today.  Not knowing the future.  Sure no one can predict the future but my guess is you have a pretty good idea of where you are going to be living in the next 3 months - we don't.  As in, we have NO CLUE.  And there is nothing more helpless than being in a foreign country and feeling like you are being dicked around.  
  • Knowing that when your ex-pat experience does "end" you will never be the same again and that this has changed who you are, who your kids are, forever.  
  • Regrets?  The only thing I wish is that we hadn't done our second extension.  We should have stopped at 3 1/2 years because the last year has been so filled with uncertainty and the last 6 months have been downright miserable.  We should have quit while we were ahead, but then, we couldn't have predicted what the future would or would not hold, could we?
I could probably go on forever and forever on this post.  But I'm starting to get depressed by it.  And like I said earlier, we are happy here.  We have, for the most part, had a great experience.  But it's amazing how uncertainty in your life can change that experience and make it something completely different.  Our lives here have been good.  And wherever we end up, they will one day be good again. Don't worry, I have positive things to say about Barcelona too... I just need to get back into the right frame of mind :)  Til then...


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