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Expatriate Life

Living Abroad is a Lifetime of Learning

Living overseas was not exactly planned. It just sort of happened: staying on after landing a new job, meeting a new boyfriend, enrolling in a language course. I was 21 when I took off from Chicago for Europe. I am now 51 and it has been a lifetime of learning, first in Germany, and now in Greece.

Starting Out

It was hard for me to get by in my broken German those first months. I was easily embarrassed, afraid of making mistakes; it was that very fear that kept me from practicing. The only way you can learn a language is to use it, and this can be fun. In my German for foreigner’s classes, with students from dozens of countries, we felt at ease with one another, all being in the same boat, all feeling a bit timid at first. We traded secrets about our work permits, finding apartments, getting jobs. I ended up taking six evening semesters of German and it gave me a solid footing in the language. To this day, I dream in German.

I had many jobs while in Germany. I took pizza orders, conducted Rhine River cruises, wrote obituaries for a daily newspaper, taught English, and led summer bus tours to Spain. I volunteered as a battered women’s counselor. I translated a textbook and worked as a freelance writer from home.

I also did all the embarrassing things that expatriates do. I bought clothing in the wrong sizes. I presented the inappropriate color of flowers for a birthday. More than once I fell for the old prank of using nasty words that someone had taught me, not knowing exactly what I was saying.

I even got divorced overseas, though I admit I couldn’t read most of the decree until five or six years afterwards.

At the outset you can’t imagine it, but most of daily living overseas becomes routine: You work and shop and do laundry and clean out your basement much like your neighbors; you watch television and go to movies or plays; you celebrate local holidays and take part in festivals; you support local sports teams and you make new friends. But, it’s a routine that gives you a comforting feeling.

I spent a lot of weekends hiking Bavarian back roads and I have many memories of friendly people along the way, everybody waving. I learned "foreign" games and tried odd foods. The fast-paced autobahn scared me at first; after a while, it was just the way to get to work.

I’ve always had a keen interest in travel, especially by rail, and this led me to visit 17 European countries over the years. In 1994 my German husband and I took a vacation on a Greek island. We decided this was the spot for us and we began plans to move. It took us a number of years—five, in fact.

With this move I was slightly smarter. I began my Greek lessons early on. Not all my language fears have disappeared, of course, but it makes no difference to me if I get it perfectly right or not. The main thing is to try.

Living the rural life in Greece has taught me a lot about collecting rainwater, harvesting almonds, cooking wild artichokes, planting fruit trees, running a cat sanctuary, feeding goats—all this while working fulltime as a freelance writer.

Mixing Cultures

The best part of living abroad is the cultural mixture you become. Sometimes I start a sentence in German and end it in Greek. Even my computer is international: Greek keyboard, German hardware, American software. The books on our shelves are in a number of languages. Some nights we watch television in Greek, other nights in Spanish or German.

Along the way we pick up a bit of each culture and none of it feels foreign after a while. Last but not least, we’ve become more than adept at filling out tax forms in a number of countries! At this point I have qualified for future social security benefits in the U.S. and in Germany. If I manage to work another 13 years in Greece, I will also qualify here. I’d say that’s quite an accomplishment for a once-shy girl from a tiny community in Illinois.