This post has been a long time coming, several years in the making in fact. I suppose it's no surprise to anyone that life as an expat can be...challenging, in a word. The things below are some of the most difficult things I've really battled with here in Europe—not small things like there being no peanut butter, but differences in belief systems. This post is a bit of a change from my usual style, a bit more “heavy” as Michael J. Fox might say. But it also feels real, and I think it's a good change to focus sometimes on the more complicated parts of the life I've chosen. And I want to make it clear that I'm not complaining, I'm very aware that this life was my choice, that if I feel it's all too much I should just go home. I'm merely reflecting here on some issues that have come up for me.
And before I get into it, I also want to write a disclaimer: I'm making a lot of generalizations in this post, some of which I know may be offensive to some people. I apologize in advance for saying that “Europeans are like _____” when of course it's not true of everybody. I'm speaking generally from what I've seen in my few years of experience living in Spain and France, and traveling to and having friends from various other countries. But if you're offended, if you think I'm totally off-base, feel free to tell me about it! I don't mind having my ideas challenged, if that helps me grow as a person.
So without further ado, some things I've struggled with while living here in Europe.
By this I mean the discrepancy between how I act, think and feel as a 25-year-old compared with how your average 25-year-old European acts, thinks and feels. Because I've been living (far) away from my parents since I was 18 (that's 7 years, if you were counting), I'm quite independent by now, and used to taking care of myself, to not seeing my family that often, etc. Because university is (ridiculously) expensive in America, I finished as quickly as possible, when I was 22, and never looked back. I have no plans of doing a masters unless it's free or close to it, because I simply don't have $40,000+ in my back pocket. This means I've been working for a living for 2.5 years now, and I've had some time to reflect on my career and life direction. Because nearly all my friends back in the States are starting to have stable jobs, houses, cars, husbands and kids, I feel pressure to have these things too. I think my extended family and friends often wonder why I'm wasting so much time in finding a job, a man, and settling down. However, here, many many 25-year-olds are still in or just finishing university. They probably still live with or near to their parents. They may not really know how to cook, manage their paycheck, or run a household. If they don't know what to do with themselves for work (and many of them don't, having just finished studying), they can always go back and get a masters—it won't cost very much! Because, if at all, they've only just barely started in the working world, their lives are still exciting and unstable. They still want to go travel, see the world, have fun and not worry. I've been there, done that, and I'm ready for something a little more permanent. But when I look for a full-time job, or a proper boyfriend, or a place to live for more than a year at a time, people here wonder what my rush is. I'm “only 25,” after all. “So young,” they tell me. Yes, of course it's young...but I wish people understood that 25 in my culture doesn't mean the same thing it does here. That I have nagging worries about being left behind, about playing Peter Pan while everyone else back home grows up. I feel more mentally in-step with people 3-5 years older than me, but I get irritated with them when they call me a baby and tell me that I'm too young to have really experienced anything in the world. So there's a bit of a disconnect from my peers here.
So many people in Europe spend their entire lives living within a few hours' radius of where they were born. That's the dream, to never have to be too far away from family. Because of this, their ties with their family and friends tend to be very strong. It's not uncommon, if they do live away from home, to go back often on the weekends. In this way, many young Europeans always have a safety blanket, no matter if they're living on their own or not. They can always go home for the weekend if they feel lonely. They always have friends just a few hours away to visit, people they've probably known their whole lives. Me, I barely talk with my friends at home because of the time difference, and I haven't lived in the same state as most of them for 7 years. I no longer feel close enough with most of them to call them up out of the blue when I feel lonely. And that happens a lot here (feeling lonely), where these friend groups that have been strengthening since infancy are more than a little difficult to break into.
The work ethic.
Because the work ethic is so strong in the States, people often hear about what I do for work here, see the trips I take, and think I'm on some kind of extended vacation. I have recurring guilt about not having a “real” job, about working as much as I “should” be, about not earning enough money to put some away for a rainy day. I feel bad for adopting the ethic of working to live instead of vice versa, even though I truly believe it's a better way to live life. The cultural assumptions I grew up with tell me differently, and it often takes a conscious effort to relax instead of worrying about working harder, about being more efficient. But then, if relaxing takes effort, is it really relaxation? I don't know the answer to this question, and I feel a sense of conflict about it.
“What sorts of things do we eat in America?” I asked in all my first classes here. Without fault, their answers were “Hamburgers!” and “McDo!” “What do Americans like?” “Guns!” “What do we watch on TV?” “THE SIMPSONS!!!!!” Yes, it's nice that the kids here can relate to my culture. I'm glad that they have a reason to be interested in learning English. But at the same time, unlike an assistant teacher from a less-well-known country, there's less novelty in our culture and traditions. They already know all about Santa Claus and the Super Bowl just from the movies. Instead of teaching new, exciting things about my culture, I spend most of my time just trying to break stereotypes. And even when I do succeed in teaching something new about America, I feel guilt that I'm perpetuating its cultural dominance.
The language, not the people. Because of said American cultural takeover, almost everyone in Europe speaks at least a little English, and many of them are eager to practice. This is wonderful when I'm looking for ways to earn money, or am in desperate need of friends. But when I want to really dig in and learn the language of the country I live in? Sometimes it's more difficult because I'm an English speaker. People will switch to English on me when they hear my awkward French, thinking that they're helping. But when that happens all the time, I never get a chance to get any better!
The assumptions about the crisis.
So many people here here think that America is still some kind of “promised land,” where the job market is great and it's no problem to get hired straight out of university. I don't mean to underestimate the impact of the crisis in Europe, but it's had a definite affect in America too. No, unemployment for under-30s is no whopping 50% like in Spain. But in Spain, many under-30s are still in university and living with their parents, and they still have guaranteed health insurance. They can still draw unemployment from the government for more than a few months. In America, it's very rare to continue studying and living with your parents after the age of about 22—that's just not seen as “acceptable” in American culture. And good jobs are not just coming out of the woodwork, either. Many young people, if they are employed, work long hours without health insurance, with two weeks or less a year of vacation time, at a job that pays so little they can't afford to buy healthy food or live a good lifestyle. But then when this overwork makes them sick for too many days a year, their employer most likely can fire them without recourse. What I'm saying is, America is suffering too, and even if I do go back, I can't just expect to have a good job handed to me. America is no promised land of jobs, SUVs and flat-screen TVs. At least, not for many.
This one sounds super obvious, but most Europeans don't realize just how hard it is to get a work visa here, as a non-EU citizen. Every time I worry out loud about trying to find a permanent job in order to stay, people tell me to just go out and look, that lots of places want native English teachers. Yes, they do, but they don't want them unless they already have work papers. And those are almost impossible to get, because a company wishing to sponsor a person for them needs to prove that said potential employee is so valuable to the company that no person of better quality can be found in the ENTIRE EU. Since that includes Great Britain, I'm more or less S-O-L as an English teacher, unless I wish to continue being an assistant forever. People from here don't understand this, and it gets frustrating having to constantly explain it.
Duh, again. But I don't think many Europeans think much about just how big the distance is between my home and where I live currently. They think they understand homesickness and culture shock because they did an Erasmus year away in another country. I'm not saying that anything they felt wasn't legitimate, but it's just not the same as being from almost 8,000 kilometers away. I can't fly home for the weekend when I really miss it; there's no Ryanair to Chicago. I can't call my family whenever I feel homesick, because half of the time I'm awake they're asleep and vice versa. I can't have people just send me care packages when I really miss or need certain items from home, because it costs more than $60 to send a tiny box. I can't even afford to send lots of postcards home, because overseas postage is so expensive!
As with all of these things, I'm not really complaining, I'm just saying...I wish people realized a little more what life is like right now for me!!
The need to share all this is (probably) brought on by recent personal difficulties and a feeling of homesickness; I miss my family, and life is difficult here sometimes. No matter how comfortable I feel in Europe, these are some of the things that will always remind me that I'm “from away” (as they say in Maine). I'm not European, and I never will be. Vestiges of my Americanness will always clash slightly with the way of life here, and I will always have to accept that. But some pills are more difficult to swallow than others.
Am I alone in feeling like a stranger in a strange land? Or do we all feel a little lost sometimes?