Expat advice: When you’re not home for the holidays

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I’m not gonna lie. In some respects, living abroad during the holidays is great. Here in Madrid, lights and trees and decorations are already up all over the city. Thanks to Amazon Prime, my U.S. gift shopping stress doesn’t even register. I may not get to spend all the special days with my besties or family, but if needed, I can distract myself with a 35€ flight to Toulouse or quick train to Sevilla.

But then, I start thinking about this Thursday. It’s Thanksgiving in the U.S. but just a regular day here in Spain. Regular to the point that I’ll be getting a cavity filled at 10:50 am. Regular to the point that I’ll be smooshed in the metro with the other regular-day commuters, thinking of all the roasting turkeys and toasts happening in the U.S.

When you live abroad, there’s a good chance you’ll celebrate solo a time or two. It’s not always possible or practical to get home. But celebrating holidays away from family can wear on even the steadiest heart. There’s a unique loneliness that slinks in no matter how accustomed you are to being away from home. So, what’s an expat to do?

Since we’re looking the holiday season in the face, I say it’s time to get proactive. I’m a girl that loves a plan. I swear, seven out of ten things that plague my inner being can be solved with a decent list. If you know you won’t be with family this year and already feel the tickle of bleak desolation on the fringes of your heart, it’s time to get going! Don’t wait until you’re in the depths of despair with a bottle of tequila on Christmas Eve.

Keep reading for five ways I avoid the lonely that can creep in around the holiday season.
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An insider’s guide for long distance BFFs

long distance BFFs

When I was growing up my step-dad always told me that when I was all old and grey and looking back on my life, I’d be able to count my true friends on one hand. When I was younger I took this a quantity thing. Now that I’m older—and see he’s right—I realize that he was talking about quality. Many friendships have a natural ebb and flow. However, when the stars align and give you that person who practically shares your DNA, you hold on for dear life.

During my last visit to San Diego, I was talking with one of my two besties about how similar lifelong friendships are to a marriage. Like marriage, friendships require forgiveness and compassion. Like marriage, over time you learn both the beautiful and not-so-beautiful parts of someone’s heart. And like with any close relationship, distance makes things hard.

But just because you’re living on the other side of the globe as your BFF doesn’t mean you’ll lose that closeness. It takes more work, sure, but there’s also a special pride that comes from persevering against the difficulties of distance. Keep reading for a few ways to work around the struggles unique to expats and their long distance BFFs.

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Keep your glass half full: Why expats should be cultivating positivity

expat positivity

Positivity gets a bad rap, but isn’t it kind of justified? Because I don’t think I’m alone when I say that unrealistic optimism isn’t exactly useful. When you’re stressed out of your mind or down in the dumps, the words “cheer up” are about as helpful as telling someone without a coat to keep warm. Unfortunately, a positive attitude is easily the irritating Pollyanna goody-two-shoes of the emotional crew.

While do I favor the black heart emoji and think pessimism sets us up for pleasant surprises, I found an article that made me rethink all the eye-rolling I do at positive attitudes. Especially when it comes to expat life, it looks like positivity is the arrow you want in your quiver.

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Four questions to ask before moving your pets abroad

moving abroad pets
Yep. I’m pretty sure this is how we all feel after fifteen hours of traveling.

For lots of people, pets are considered part of the family. It’s just assumed that they’re coming with you on your international adventure.

Not so fast.

No one wants to leave a four-legged family member behind, but moving to a new country is a bit different than loading boxes into the back of a U-Haul. From your pet’s breed to how he handles stress, there are lots of factors to consider.

Keep reading for a list of questions to mull over when you’re deciding whether or not to move abroad with your pets.

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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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Three tips to get the most out of long term visits

how to deal with long term visitors

Given enough time, a feast or famine pattern will develop in an expat’s life.

For instance, while outside of the U.S. I dream about my favorite sushi restaurant. And without fail, as soon as I set foot on San Diego soil I promptly gorge myself on enough spicy tuna rolls and ahi poke to get at least a mild level of mercury poisoning. Maybe you can’t keep out of Target or miss your favorite TV show or love to drive on big, open highways where people use signals and respect lanes. Whatever it is, as soon as it’s available you try to soak up as much as possible.

With the holidays upon us, chances are you’ll be soaking up a lot of family moments too. But how is it that you long for your parents and siblings and Grannie Fran all year long, only to feel like you’re going crazy after two days? No matter how much you love someone, I think it’s pretty likely that if you spend a couple of weeks with them you’re bound to have at least a tickle of the grumps.

While out there combing through the copious articles, blogs, and advice about extended family visits, I found some very good suggestions about how to make sure you maximize your family ‘feasting’ this holiday season.

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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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The emotional lag of leaving

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As far as the whole expat lifestyle goes, I can deal with the regular change in scenery. Packing up and settling down in a new place is easy because all the logistics and planning propel you forward. One thing I’m not so sure of is how expats deal with the emotional turnover that comes with consistently changing places.

I’m proud of myself for never looking at Bogotá as just the place I’d be living the next two years. I made it my home because I didn’t see how being happy was possible if I continued to look over my shoulder at the U.S. But when we left Bogotá this past June and it was time to open my heart to the next place, it wasn’t so easy to stop looking back.

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Expat advice: The key to a happy expat life

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Just because your body is here, doesn’t mean your mind is…

The two years I’ve spent living abroad have been a crash course in the emotional ups and downs that come with uprooting your life and starting again somewhere new, all with the lurking expectation of doing it again in a couple of years. This week I was compiling all my little tips about how to have a happy life as an expat no matter what your circumstance when I realized my advice was rooted in the same practice: mindfulness.

Though originally a tenet of Buddhism, the practice of mindfulness—much like yoga—has become much more mainstream. In its essence mindfulness is focusing your attention on the present, which allows you to observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad. If new age-y terms freak you out, just think of it as being in the moment or living in the here and now. If you’ve read articles about disconnecting from technology, staying in the moment with your kids, or listening to your body to avoid over-eating, then you’re familiar with mindfulness.

Because life abroad doesn’t come with a built-in support system, expats can benefit from using this tool to refocus their thoughts. Keep reading to see four particular areas where mindfulness has helped me manage expat life.

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