Expat Experience - Part 1


The first of a four-part series on being an expat

Time for a Change | The Favourites | The Differences | The Downsides

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them

It happened about three to five years ago. Somewhere between justifying to myself the purchase of a pair of jeans that exceeded $300 and reading about a security guard who was killed in a shopping stampede in some non-descript North American city as part of its annual Black Friday insanity.

It was between those two events, punctuated by hundreds of similar ones and accompanied by my own mild-to-less-mild forms of restlessness and depression, that I decided that a change was in order. My society and I were focused on the wrong things.

In brief visits to Europe (I'll exclude the UK if it's OK, as it is as bad as the US) in 2003 and 2008, I was struck by the smaller size of houses, food dishes, and stores, but mostly by the seeming contentedness of everyone I came into close contact with, be they relatives or relative strangers. People seemed less restless, more content.

I began to long for the absence of big box stores and ripped moms patrolling the aisles of the Apple store; for a lack of discussions about the next addition to the deck or the latest Wii. I wanted to say non.

Of course, I am still not immune to desiring nice things; nor is Europe some bohemian, egalitarian utopia full of happy people and devoid of consumerism. It still helps to have money, no matter where you are. And there are plenty of people here who are trying to keep up with the Joneses, or les Jones or the van Jonesenburgs.

But it's still nowhere near as all-consuming as the all-consumption of North America. You can still wedge some fresh bread, some cheese and a $5 bottle of wine (and it's pretty good wine) under your arm and sit in a park and have a great afternoon with friends. Try doing that in Toronto or Calgary and see how many people join you.

You do feel it immediately here - that you can get by with less and somehow live more. In Amsterdam, a cramped apartment and a bike and bus pass are all seen with unjudging eyes, and it sure doesn't impact your romantic life much. I'm not sure how many girls would have been keen to jump on the back of my bike back home, but in Holland it's common to see - and pretty damn fun, for both parties.

Contrast that with discussions with friends from Vancouver, Dallas, New York... all have told me tales of woe where they're regularly asked (within minutes of meeting a woman) "What do you do?" or worse "What do you drive"?

Places like Vancouver and Calgary are loaded with eligible girls and guys, none of whom can seem to get satisfied with one another as relationships today match the consumption patterns of regular products - each one is waiting for the next iPerson upgrade, even if the current model works great. I was as guilty as anyone.

And so, the life of this expat for over two years now has been a revelation. Call them expat eyes - a way of seeing things from a different perspective. Here it's about focusing on more important things, while at the same time not needing to live like a monk either - there's plenty of nice stuff to acquire if you want, but it doesn't define you as much. There is a better balance, a sort of permissible contentedness with however much or little you have.

I would paraphrase Einstein's quote to add that we cannot solve problems while being in the same place where the problems began. I think this kind of changing of perspective is only made possible by changing one's physical location entirely, if even for a few months.

The expat experience has made a firm enough impact to ensure that this new perspective will stay with me wherever I go from now on, as expat or ex-expat.