A while ago we organised a coffee meeting with some women of the Expatclic community. The idea was to talk about the differences between the mobile expatriation experience and that of a long-term relocation. Among other things, we discussed saying goodbye when living abroad, and exchanged our experiences and musings. I wanted to take these reflections a step further by sharing them with you.
Among my top priorities for discussion during the get-together was the question of saying goodbye when living abroad. In fact, if there is one thing which we mobile expatriates, as I like to define myself, have to face from the very beginning of our international lives, it’s saying multiple goodbyes — far more than the average number of goodbyes experienced by less peripatetic people. And it’s not just the quantity of goodbyes that I’m talking about, but the quality: goodbyes can be of different types and intensities.
Goodbye to friendships
This is the most important goodbye, and concerns the people we meet during our postings: our friends and acquaintances, colleagues, shopkeepers, that human mosaic that is the background to our days in a foreign country. Those moving indefinitely to a country do not think that one day they’ll have to leave the people with whom they patiently build a relationship. Those who are in the country for a predetermined period of time live with that idea constantly in the back of their mind. They often calibrate feelings and involvement precisely taking into account the fact that the relationship, at least the physical one, which includes constant and shared presence, will sooner or later cease, and forever.
Yes, because even if the internet has made everything easier and saying goodbye when living abroad has now a different flavour, we know that keeping in touch with people does not equal the richness and depth you feel when they were an active and constant part of our lives. Of course, we will meet again, we will write e-mails and call each other, if we are lucky we will be able to snatch even a few days together somewhere, but the complicity of living in the same place ends when we close our suitcases at the end of the posting and we take off towards other shores.
Goodbye to the environment
Life experiences abroad are many and varied, and the feelings that colour them come from a combination of personal factors and local conditions.
There are countries that we find particularly congenial, while others might offer conditions that are perhaps perfect for our particular situation at the time. Maybe we are young mothers, and we happen to live in a fantastic country for childcare services; or in our new host country we find the perfect conditions to develop professionally.
In any case, even in less idyllic places, we build a routine that is based on what the environment offers us. Closing with that country means saying goodbye to that routine, too. No more delicious food, playing Burraco with the community of aficionados, country hikes, low-cost massages, spectacular museum exhibitions, or going to school by bike. All the things that we have put together — with effort and adrenaline — to embroider our daily routine, in the space of one take-off, belong to the past, forever. Perhaps it is difficult to equate the goodbye to a person with that to the environment, but in my experience even taking leave of habits and landscapes that one loves, and in which one feels comfortable, can be devastating.
Goodbye to identity
Leaving a country also means leaving that part of our identity that has been shaped on it and that exists in relation to it. Every expat invests lot of herself when she arrives in a new country, emotionally, psychologically, but also physically. Especially if we move to countries with climates and living conditions that are drastically different from those we are used to, our body must also adapt and find its balance.
At the beginning of our stay we work in a constant “mode” of discovery: our antennas upright, our brain absorbing every little new detail, and the desire to mix all the ingredients to quickly be able to function effectively in our new context, and thus start building those affective, social and professional networks necessary for our satisfaction.
Our identity is constantly stimulated, pricked, drawn to integrate new elements that remain very much alive and active as long as we exist with that particular country in the background, but which do not find reflection or the possibility of oxygenating when the context around us changes radically.
Just to give you the first example that comes to mind: dancing, as long as I lived in Latin America, was a large part of my identity. I always danced, as soon as I could, went out dancing with my friends, went to salsa classes regularly, and only listened to Latin music.
When I arrived in Jerusalem, all this no longer existed. There was really no context for this part of my identity to emerge. I had to say goodbye to it. And when I left Jerusalem and was able to make it re-emerge, it was no longer the same, because some facets of our identities are nourished only in relation to the context that created them.
I always say that the life of mobile expatriates is like a cabinet with drawers. Each drawer corresponds to a country, and when we close it, we certainly keep its content, but it still remains a closed drawer. And so, as years go by, we learn to connect great life events to the various drawers that made it up. I believe this is one of the main differences between mobile and permanent expatriation, and it deserves to be explored.
I look forward to sharing further reflections with you 😊