Thursday, January 5, 2012

Being a long-term expat

DSC00734I’ve lived in Europe for six years now, initially in England, then the Netherlands, now scattered a bit everywhere.  The first years were filled with the newness of the experience, learning how to execute everyday tasks in unfamiliar settings, fitting into a job and a neighborhood, learning the rudiments of the language (whether Dutch or British English: the latter is almost harder because I thought I understood it).

Prior to leaving the security of my corporate expat assignment, I thought that I probably understood about 80% of what I needed to know to live successfully in Dutch communities on my own.  I quickly learned that I understood about 10%.  My subsequent adolescence as an expat was spent mastering everyday processes for establishing a business (in all aspects of legal, accounting, and operations, not just leading a project), moving about without a subsidized car (acquiring passes, cards, and a taste for off-peak services),  re-registering with the Gemeente and IND (a 6 month process, yearly), paying taxes (un-equalized business and personal, in Dutch, UK, and US jurisdictions), and shifting between social communities (disconnect from Corporate; reconnect with neighbors).

A close friend who passed away last year used to define a long term expat as one who’d been away more than five years.  She held that people became noticeably weird after that, going native and adopting unrecognizable political positions and social customs.  I hope I’ve avoided that, but still find that perspectives change after suck a long time.  It has to: the businesses are doing well, I encounter fewer day-to-day surprises, and I’m thinking more about how to fit in rather than just get along.

There are four tasks in this regard on my New Year’s list:

Complete my language training.  I need to take my NT2 exam by year’s end under my learning agreement with the Gemeente, and it would just make everyday life so much easier.

Travel more, take a weekend each month to visit a village or museum, perhaps the countryside for a walk or a sail.  I did that a more during the first two years, but have unfortunately transitioned to running the businesses 24/7 in the past two years.

End the visa renewal cycle.  After 6 years, I’m finally eligible for permanent residency (or dual citizenship). The distinction hinges, in part, on how freely I want to be able to settle elsewhere in Europe and the perceived risk to my US passport: permanent residency is the goal.

Straighten out the housing situation.  As business opportunities multiplied, residences followed.  More than two places to hang my hat is expensive in many ways: I don’t spend enough time anywhere to stay connected with people, it spreads my belongings around, and it consumes many days in travel time every month. ‘pushing towards a USNL solution.

A post-adolescent expat, like a twenty-something, starts to worry about their place in the world, professionally, personally, residence, career, comfort, security.  These turn out to be lonely issues to try to solve. After six years, family and friends worry that “fitting in” means “settling in”.   Nobody’s staging an intervention (yet), but it’s become harder to practice language over the Internet, to suggest a Dutch universal care model in a health reform discussion, or to share weekend photos from Alsace without risking disapproval.  And that, in turn, leads to further compartmentalization at a time that I’m trying to integrate the important ambitions, people, work-life balances, and family connections in my life.

It’s a phase in an evolution along a journey, I know: I do enjoy living here and the opportunities it provides.  And I’m optimistic about assembling the pieces into a wonderful whole this year.  But there aren’t any really good examples or guidance for how to do this after the first few years.  The trick is always to find the path forward without just becoming isolated or discouraged.

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