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dreaded question nr 2

Well, not a question this time…but a simple statement.


Sooner or later this will happen to you, if it hasn’t already. You will hear the dreaded question nr 2.

You are an accompanying spouse. Your husband works for one of those organizations that enjoys playing Risk with their staff: they shift people about like plastic tokens on the world map with disarming carelessness. They do this throughout your career, with complete disregard for your family circumstances. And everyone knows that moving 12-year-olds, or even worse, teenagers, is harder than moving mountains.

Picture the scene. It’s been an ordinary day, wherever you happen to live in the world. Just the usual routine. No, let’s say that today you are particularly proud and at one with the world, because at last, after a year in your host country, you feel you have a solid network of contacts, and friends with whom you are comfortable. Your children have settled into their not-so-new schools, and have made friends. You are no longer fazed by shopping, paying bills, phone calls in a new language, or the policeman who stops you on the street to check your papers. On the contrary, you face all this with pride, because at last, you are at ease.

You have just poured yourself a glass of wine to celebrate, when your husband walks in from work. You look at him and remember how difficult it was for him at the beginning, too: the new language, unfamiliar reactions from colleagues, and all those challenges he had to face in his office. And here he is, a year on, satisfied and happy and settled in this new country, just like you and the kids…

Hold on…what’s wrong? His face is ghostly white! You begin to panic, listing all your relatives’ names in your head, starting with the closest, and getting ready for the worst.

But he tries to reassure you: ‘Don’t worry, it’s nothing serious: just a communication from HQ. They have decided to send someone else here to replace me. They’re not renewing my contract.

There it is. The Dreaded Statement, the utterance you never want to have to hear, but that you will hear at least once along the bumpy road of expatriation.

You drop your glass, and along with it, your spirits, your humour, and your energy. You want to throw a bomb into HQ. To strangle your husband’s boss. To scream against the system. To divorce. But in come the children with their angelic faces, ready for dinner, and you can’t discuss the problem, which makes you feel even worse. You’re dying to share it with your friends, to find support, to ask for suggestions, but your husband asks you not to mention it to anyone for now. So, you have to keep the earthquake that’s rumbling in your guts to yourself.

Yes, it happens. It is one of the most exhausting aspects of expatriation, but you have to learn to cope. You are lucky if your husband’s contracts are long, or if they are automatically renewed. But in my experience, that’s rarely the case.

So, what can you do? How can you protect yourself from panicking, or from going crazy? How, in the face of momentous change, can you keep going? How can you stay motivated, and face new adventures with confidence, when the only thing that seems certain is uncertainty?

Here are ten tips, tried and tested, which might help:

  1. Ignore your husband’s gagging order. Call your friends immediately: you will find that the world is full of women who have experienced what you are going through, and you’ll feel less lonely.
  2. As an expat, you are adventurous: expatriation, especially to difficult countries, is not for everyone. If you have got yourself into this way of life, it means you are up to it. So you can face a change of country, even if it’s unexpected, bravely and cheerfully. Remembering that helps.
  3. You need to practice your gift of mental elasticity. A move will help you reinforce your already well-honed skill of adaptability.
  4. Moving to a new country is beautiful: it is challenging, but remember that new discoveries are always a source of joy and enrichment. Even if moving is tough, never forget that after the initial chaotic settling in phase, you can focus on learning about a new culture, a new way of life, new customs, maybe new languages. All this will broaden your horizons.
  5. Start thinking about the negative points of the country you are living in: find at least one reason that will make it easier to leave. Here’s a list to help you:
    1) The climate is awful
    2) You don’t understand the language
    3) Your children’s school is a disaster
    4) The food is disgusting
    5) You’re bored with the small expat community
    6) Women are discriminated against
    7) There are lots of water and power cuts
    8) You can’t find Marks and Spencer’s chocolate biscuits
    9) Malaria is prevalent
    10) Local people are cold
  6. Look on the bright side! Focus on the positive points of the new country: don’t block. Even if you don’t feel like packing up, the new country must have at least one aspect that attracts you. Again, here is a list:
    1) The climate is great
    2) You speak the language
    3) There’s a wonderful school for your kids
    4) The food is delicious
    5) There is a huge expat community
    6) Women can freely dance samba on the streets
    7) They cut water and power only during earthquakes, i.e. never because it is not on a fault line
    8)You can find Marks and Spencer’s chocolate biscuits and even shortbread
    9) There is no malaria
    10) Everyone says that local people are lovely
  7. If you don’t know where your next destination is, you need to take advantage of this forced break to get closer to the your home country. Living in your home country for a while will allow you to enjoy your family, and sort out your administrative backlog
  8. Remember that you can get used to anything, even to sudden upheavals. Take it as one of life’s many hurdles: it’s not the first and it won’t be the last
  9. Retail therapy! Sometimes knowing that you are about to leave makes it easier for you to shop. Go for it, spend! Treat yourself to carpets, fabrics, ceramics, carvings, souvenirs, clothes, shoes, mirrors, paintings, lamps, ornaments: whatever will fit in your cases or shipment: the idea of taking with you some of the things you love will make the good-byes easier…
  10. You’ll have a new country to add to your C.V.: a real bonus to help you find a job in your next destination

Happy new destinations to everyone!

Claudia Landini (Claudiaexpat)
Lima, Peru
May 2005
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