Cutting the cord: when, where and how you became an EXPAT?

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Legally, your are born the very minute your umbilical cord is cut, and you have to breathe for the first time on your own. I was surprised enough when I had my first child in discovering that coming out of the womb is not enough for a person to exist. She has to function correctly  on her own in order to be awarded a valid birth certificate.

We go through a similar process as expats. Living abroad is not sufficient, something has to happen in your brain (and your heart, probably) before you can consider all cords cut and nationality doesn’t shape your identity anymore. It doesn’t happen to everybody, though and that is why you can tell an expat only in the long run. If the cord doesn’t get cut, we tend to go back to our comfort zone, sooner or later.

I have dozens of Italian friends who moved to Brussels a decade ago but never cut the cord. They have their Italian circle of friends, their Italian doctor, Italian lawyer, Italian caterer, Italian realtor, Italian notary, Italian architect and even their Italian contractor should they need to renovate their place. They will see you for dinner dopo il telegiornale (after the TV news) and confess they don’t have the local cable TV because they brought from Italy their SKY decoder so they won’t miss any of the home shows, news and – most of all – football. They virtually never left the country.

I was like that at the beginning (well, more or less. But I did go to an Italian doctor for a couple of months) of the expatriation process: I still remember flushing while confessing to my friends after a few months in Paris that I was overexcited about coming back to Italy and couldn’t choose what my first breakfast should consist of. Cappuccino or Hot Chocolate? (the italian way, as introduced by the Spanish a few centuries ago, is thick and black. Melted chocolate, basically. In France and Belgium it’s just a glass of milk with a drop of Nesquik in it). It’s not that I hadn’t liked Paris. I was sincerely homesick and hadn’t opened up enough to appreciate life there. I would walk the city admiring the buildings, stop in Place Saint Sulpice in awe of the romantic atmosphere all around but end up eating macarons with my italian girlfriends, to whom I would complain about the weather or the horrid landlady. I was a tourist.

It took years to be different. Once in Brussels, my world was still very Italian: working for an half Italian company, eating everyday at an Italian trattoria which used to make the best homemade tagliatelle on earth, going out late at night with Italians and Spanish. My first look out of the box was to the Spanish world, of course. Easier to mingle with, without much surprises and even less cultural crashes. I was comfortable. Safe.

My expat Moment came only when I found myself sent to Germany, out of the blue and without a clue (I didn’t mean the rhyme). I didn’t speak a single word of German (well, apart from Danke and Auf Wiedersehen), had never been there before and didn’t know a soul. It was Sink or Swim. I had to swim: learnt the language (well, more or less), got a dozen fines for obscure felonies (as talking on the cellphone while driving a bike on the sidewalk or crossing while the pedestrian light was still red, bad example to “our children”, as the officer explained), made some friends and discovered the outer world. It was at that point that I started going out with The Husband and I admit  the two things may not be disconnected. 

Today I am always a little bit surprised when we are defined as a mixed marriage (i.e. a local who married a foreigner). I haven’t thought The Husband as a Belgian in many years now and I’ve stopped considering nationality a defining trait of personality. Sauf of course those few times when our divergent attitudes towards food, driving, clothes and cleanliness remind me of our geographically distant upbringing. 

What was your expat defining Moment? When did you stop being a tourist and where? 

8 comments

  1. I’ve never lived in an ‘expat bubble’. Left my country aged 19 to start work in a medium sized town in the UK. The cord was effectively cut once I stepped off the plane. I met my first compatriot (and some other foreigners) a few years later, working for a big travel company.
    Now I’m in Spain, in a small-ish town, and I barely know any foreigners. My accountant, friends, people who provide services – all Spanish.
    It seems to be a southern European thing, this need to hang out in gaggles of people of the same nationality. I’ve never noticed Northern Europeans (apart from retired people, perhaps, who settle on the Spanish costas) doing this.

  2. I don’t know actually: here in Brussels everyone lives in their bubble. English hang around with each other, go the English supermarket, English doctors etc… Germans do the same and stick together with the Austrians in their parallel world. Those who venture alone in the dark are normally married/engaged to someone of a different nationality. So it has maybe to do with the city and the lack of a Belgian identity but there’re as many bubbles as countries in the world here.

  3. Here the english hang out with the…wait for it… the english. they don’t even try to learn the language.
    The americans ith the americans.
    It is most certainly not a southern thing.
    We are in a different situation as i am Italian (albeit raised in London from age 2) and my husband is Russian (albeit raised in New zealand and then the UK from age7)
    But our names are not English (forget the nom de plume – that is not my real name)
    and hence the Italians see us as foreigners as do the english expats
    So…we mix with EVERYONE. But we are The Loons! of the town 🙂

  4. For the first 15 years I lived in the States I didn’t know a single Italian. Ditto in the UK. I was so busy trying to fit in that I found I never missed home or hanging out with Italians. When I go back, I do realize I actually miss cappuccinos and croissants Italian style, affordable hosiery and deodorants. And having a bidet. I guess some quirks never disappear. But I have noticed cultural differences with my American husband: food, cleanliness and child rearing. I don’t consider myself an expat anymore: I finally belong to two countries which makes me feel more at ease.

  5. I think we’ve cut the cord!! I’m American living in Australian (lucky that they’re both English speaking)… I can see and hear an American coming a mile away and I think… ewwww… I hope I don’t sound like that!

  6. I think it’s been slow attrition for me. Every time I go back to America, I feel more out of place. And recent events in America (especially gun violence) have pushed me mentally further into the warm embrace of the great expat diaspora.

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