Musings from a reformed reluctant traveler

not like travel

I’ve done a decent bit of travel and have lived outside the U.S. for more than three years. Even so, I have a confession to make: I’ve never really loved traveling.

First, let me say that there’s a difference between vacation and travel. Vacation is the white sandy beach, a drink with an umbrella, and letting your skin take on the color and texture of a grape fruit roll-up. It’s a passive thing. Traveling, on the other hand, is going somewhere to see and do. It’s active. Along with this usually comes $7 hostel beds and lots of adventures that happen while getting lost and figuring things out.

People talk about traveling like it’s the only way to learn about the world and your innermost self. Listen, traveling isn’t when you do your deep soul searching. Although I suppose you have lots of time to think about what’s important when you’re curled in a sweaty ball, praying for an end to your food poisoning. And I agree that travel has big benefits—it does broaden your world view and teach you a lot about yourself. But C’mon, it’s not the only way to do that.

Still, I’m married to a traveler and have always been happy to go away. I’ve just never loved it like he does. Until now.

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Having confidence in your changing expat identity

expat identity

What do you do? has become the question I dread most when meeting people abroad. Because work and roles are, for the most part, how we first identify ourselves to others.

Unfortunately, we “trailing spouses” are all too familiar with the way that every aspect of our identities are put into a cup and shaken like Yahtzee dice with each move abroad. Everything settles down again but most likely things don’t go back together the same way. And whether by choice or by circumstance, work is often times a piece that no longer has a place.

I haven’t “worked” since I followed my husband to Colombia in 2014. While I may not have had the traditional 9 to 5, I did learn a second language, start blogging and freelance writing, and work with several NGOs on incredible projects. Finding a job isn’t the issue—I like things this way. But still, I can’t seem to let go of the money part.

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Six months later: Checking in from Madrid

Last year while on a trek through the Colombian jungle, Cody and I met another expat couple. As we sweltered, I told my new Romanian gal pal that we were soon leaving Bogotá for our second move abroad. The second time is the worst, she told me, because you know what’s coming.

I completely understand what she was telling me. Remembering my struggles in Bogotá left me with serious shivers of dread. And in the U.S. over the holidays, another part of me worried because I wasn’t chomping at the bit to return to Madrid (you can read about my feelings here and here).

But here I am, six months into my sophomore stint of expat life and feeling great. Was it supposed to be this easy? I’m kinda waiting for the other shoe to drop.

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Three reasons to reconsider a return visit

revisit or travel somewhere new

I want to do China next. I did London last year.

Living in a touristy city and traveling to other touristy cities, I hear things like this quite a bit.

It bothers me. A lot.

In fact, my biggest pet peeve is the way some travelers use the word “do” when referring to visiting a place. My concern with the word “do” is how talking about a place in this way turns a city or country or culture into a tick box. As if, by spending a long weekend zipping through a list of can’t-miss-it attractions, all that is to encounter and experience has been taken in.

Just because you visited the best museums, saw the most significant sights, and ate in the highest rated restaurant does not mean that a place is “done.” The world isn’t static. Been there, done that does not exist.

Don’t get me wrong—I’d love to visit every country in the world. And I know that there are all kinds of things to consider when planning a trip, time and money being the biggest factors. The new, however, already gets enough attention.

Today, I’m here to make a case for going back.

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Moving past the “settled-in” slump

trailing spouse syndrome

In my previous post, I wanted to acknowledge the emptiness and loss of focus that comes with rebuilding your life every few years. Experts call this lull trailing spouse syndrome and it usually comes to kick you in the shins around the time you’re patting yourself on the back for another successful move.

Yes, you must pause and let yourself feel those feelings. At the same time, it’s important not to linger here. Unfortunately, any trailing spouse will tell you that it’s also far too easy to lose your momentum and somehow end up simply existing in this place.

A couple of days ago I stumbled upon this New York Times article with a statistic that stopped me in my tracks.

Yvonne McNulty, a Singapore-based consultant who studies mobility issues, said the biggest issue for spouses was loss of identity. “What I found in my research is that almost all spouses face an identity crisis but only about 10 to 15 percent did something about it, by becoming authors, getting an M.B.A. or starting businesses,” she said. Most “felt they were victims, with no control.”

Uplifting stuff, huh? It’s disheartening to hear how many of us get stuck here and feel powerless as to how to find our way back. Only making it harder to find your way is that there’s no single path to steadying your shaken identity.

But these words above also hold the answer—the ones who got back on their feet were the ones who did something about it.

The lesson I’ve learned repeatedly the past three years is that this momentum starts in my mind. Like psyching yourself up before a big event, here’s what I do to keep myself moving towards getting my feet on the ground again.
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9 things Americans take for granted

things americans take for granted
I never thought twice about piping hot water…until I had two years of warm-ish showers

The other day I was listening to a travel podcast where at the end of the show, listeners call in with their questions. On this particular episode, a guy on the line made a joke about a “law” in Europe against serving ice cold beverages. He was joking, but also cheekily bemoaning his lack of a Coke-induced brain freeze on his Spanish vacation.

Anyone who’s lived outside their home country or traveled a fair amount would probably scoff at his comment. But, it got me thinking. No matter which culture is yours, you can’t help assuming that “things” are done in a certain way. Normal is subjective so of course, it’s surprising to see life done differently.

As my wheels kept turning I realized there were a ton of things that weren’t a “given” when I moved abroad. Keep reading for a few.

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Keeping an open heart

keeping an open heart

A couple of weeks ago I watched one of my friend’s daughters on a playground. She bent her knees to her chest and swung across the monkey bars like it was no big deal. It made me wonder when I stopped being able to move around like that.

When you’re little, your bones are still busy fusing together and your ligaments are elastic. But soon, when sedentary moments start to outweigh the active ones, things tighten and settle into place.

Can’t the same be said about our hearts? When we’re young everyone is a potential friend. It’s easy to marvel and fresh starts are effortless. But little by little, we stop flexing those muscles and settle into our established communities and routines and work. And just like that, our malleable hearts become calcified boxes.

Expat life is a crash course in keeping your heart muscles limber. Being outside of your comfort zone, pulling up your roots every couple of years, and popping in and out of multiple lives will make sure of that.

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The perks of downsizing: Why I loved our micro-kitchen

perks of downsizing

Those of us from the U.S. have a certain culture when it comes to size. Growing up with a hundred cereal options and 64 oz. sodas and dually pickup trucks will basically ingrain a bigger is better mantra into your psyche.

I have no problem laughing off my obnoxious love of big American dryers and multiple bathrooms. But—and especially after living abroad—I can also acknowledge the perks of downsizing.

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When your own culture catches you off guard

reverse culture shock

When you face a cultural quirk in your adopted home it’s easy to chock it up to the fact that it’s a funny (or irritating or charming!) part of life abroad. However, it’s bewildering when those shocks are coming from things that used to be second nature. Robin Pascoe, writer and expert in all things expat, likens repatriation to wearing your contacts in the wrong eyes: everything looks almost right.

I’m no stranger to reverse culture shock. This blog has been an important place where I can talk about my changing ideas of home, of adopting aspects of a new culture or having a hard time going back to the U.S. 

But, like regular culture shock, no matter how easily you move between worlds you still experience it to some degree. I’ve learned to stop expecting things to be the same when I return to San Diego. The thing that always gets me though are the unexpected ways I’ve changed.

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