Keepin’ it Real: Expat Life ain’t Always Glamorous

| October 9, 2014

Today I’m going to get real about expat life. Not the daily observations, humor, and travel photos I post on my personal Facebook page, but the real trials and tribulations (along with the perhaps privileged first world problems) that I experience.

Here are just a few of the things that make my seemingly-awesome-and-glamorous expat life less than perfect:

I had no friends

I cried a lot during our first few months in Germany because I felt so alone. I didn’t speak German; I couldn’t have an adult conversation outside of talking to my husband for MONTHS. I mean, I love my husband and all, but as someone who likes to communicate, this was very difficult for me. My daughter—my 5-year-old baby girl—also felt alone. Watching Sequoia try to make friends when no one understood her was for me the hardest part about moving here.



I’ve lived all over the US, between my few years in the Air Force and the decade I was a military spouse before Paul retired, but there’s something about not having an ocean between you that makes it not-so-bad. There was comfort in knowing I could get in a car and be at my mother’s in a few hours.  I still can’t just call up Suzi and say, “Let’s drink wine and watch reality TV” or email Heather and say, “Let’s do lunch!” or suggest to Cindy that we get the kids together as an excuse to hang out. I can’t always fly out for a wedding. I can’t hop in the car and head to a birthday party. I can’t hop in the car to see ANY of these people I love. And not everyone can afford to visit us. So I just miss them.  Every day.

The ocean is big

The ocean is big

I miss home

"But you're living in Europe!"

“But you’re living in Europe!”

I love Germany. I would not want to be anywhere else during this phase of my life. But you know what? I miss home.

It’s not just the last place I lived, it’s where I come from.  When people post pictures of PA on Facebook (or sing about it), I miss it like crazy. I click on almost every single video posted by Philly/Horsham/Pottstown friends just to hear their accents. That might be partly due to the fact that I love sociolinguistics, but it’s mostly because it’s comforting.

I miss the stone farmhouses of PA, miss the landscape.  No matter how similar some of Germany’s rolling hills are to parts of PA, it just isn’t the same knowing that the minute I get out of the car, everyone is going to be speaking German. That’s not home.

And I'm sorry, but Flammkuchen ain't pizza

And I’m sorry, but Flammkuchen ain’t pizza

It is costly to return home for immediate emergencies

In our first year or so here, we spent over $10,000.00 (yes, that says ten thousand) on plane tickets home, more than half of which was last-minute flights. Um, that’s a lot of money.

R.I.P. Vaughan

May you rest in peace, Vaughan

Just a few months after we arrived, brother-in-law was killed in a car accident, then a few months later my grandmother was on her deathbed (she recovered during our visit), then a few months later my stepdaughter had a sudden, critical hospitalization (Krystol also recovered—shwew!). I felt like Paul or Sequoia and I were always on a plane home in grief or angst.

This is not a flattering photograph, but Grams doesn't read Facebook, which totally makes it okay

This is not a flattering photograph, but Grams doesn’t read Facebook, which totally makes it okay

I felt like we would never get to spend our money on anything but tragedy. Along this vein…

Every crisis, tragedy, and illness back home is magnified by distance

I will not forget when this started. My friend’s mother was suddenly diagnosed with cancer. I could not put my phone down—I was looking at his facebook page for updates all.the.time. She passed not too long after her diagnosis (as you read this entire section, please think “Fuck Cancer” over and over again). When I read the news of her death, I was sitting at the computer wailing “Noooooo.” It confused the hell out of Sequoia. I was even more pained as I thought, What if something suddenly happened to my mother? I physically can’t get there the same day.

Then an old friend from high school died of cancer. I came upstairs and bawled. Sequoia wondered why. Of course I do explain these things to her, but it doesn’t make it less disconcerting to her, to see Mommy rather suddenly lose her damn mind.

Fuck Cancer

Fuck Cancer

Then another friend from high school, Sue, was diagnosed with breast cancer. I recall sitting at the kitchen table, reading the news, and just starting to sob. Sequoia was doubly confused this time because it was so sudden. We’d been talking and laughing, then I looked at my phone and instantly broke down. A year or so later, Sue—not too long after being told the cancer was gone—had a stroke, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and was gone within weeks. I was lying in a hotel bed on a road trip when I read the news, and there I was again, just suddenly sobbing. And there was Sequoia again: “What’s wrong with Mommy?”

And when a friend’s brother suddenly passed away, it was a complete shock.  He was so young.  Her posts, her mother’s posts…they were heart wrenching.

Even when the friends are not my closest of friends, when I see their loved ones pass away, I not only empathize, but I also worry that the same will happen to my friends and family while I’m gone and missing these years with them. A recent pic of my friend’s grandmother made me cry the instant I saw it because I knew—I knew why her profile pic was changing before I read her posts. Because that’s what we do these days when we lose someone: we post a picture of them on facebook to show the world how much that person meant to us; and that’s where I usually learn of these events.  I hurt for others, and I worry for my own family.

These are just a few examples of the things going on at home.  The people I haven’t mentioned are no less important–the people I could not visit, the crises I cannot help with, more fucking cancer diagnoses, the friends’ feuds I cannot help patch, the divorces, the funerals I could not attend.  The internet might make the distance seem not-so-far, but tragedy makes you realize that it is.

I am missing so much of my friends’ children grow up

I’m missing births, but that’s not the part I feel the most. When my close friends post pictures on facebook—the children my own daughter played with—it pains me to see how much they’re growing. The next time I see them, they won’t be anything like the little kid I knew. Will Isaac even remember that Sequoia was his friend? Will Sophia want to play with Sequoia anymore? IS SEQUOIA GROWING UP THIS FAST?

My baby girl.  Shit.

My own baby girl. Well, shit.

We’re often in limbo

“Will we get the extension?” Last month we had no idea if we should start posturing to return home at the end of this school year, or if I should start planning next summer’s travel. We were approved for an extension through mid-2016 (YAY!), but being in limbo sucked. I should be used to it by now from our lives with the military, but I’m not. I like to know what is going on with my life including, say, where we’ll be living.  And don’t get me started about the furlough last year.  Would we be able to afford rent and heat if the furlough went on too long?  Would budget cuts bring us home?  Yeah, we felt it here, too.

Sometimes foreigners just don’t like Americans!

Every political development (feel free to think “Fuck Snowden” here) causes tension—particularly when it involves your current home country. And thanks for getting caught spying on Chancellor Merkel, guys. That was helpful.

Renting out a home is a pain in the ass

This is definitely the most first-world and privileged of my problems. We are lucky to have a home to rent out, not to mention someone’s rent help to pay the mortgage while we’re over here; and I do have a property manager to deal with the daily headaches. But I haven’t seen a full rent check in months. We’ve had to replace a dishwasher and a washing machine, we’ve paid for repairs on appliances, and I do still have to deal with the property manager directly…it’s a costly headache to maintain a rental property. It’s also hard to be so far away and not be able to see what the problem is with my own eyes.

And what about the hydrangeas?  Are they taking care of the hydrangeas?

And what about the hydrangeas? Are they taking care of the hydrangeas?

Leisure travel ain’t cheap

While we live in Europe, we want to see and do as much as we can. We want to make it worth what we’re missing at home, and all the other trials and tribulations of living the expat life. Sure, we’re centrally located and able to be in many countries within hours or take a road trip that passes through five countries and cities we’ve never seen before, but that’s not free. It might be cheaper than flying over from the States, but it still costs money, and we’re traveling so frequently that it adds up–fast.  Staying out of debt is an ongoing challenge when you’re also trying to book hotels and flights.

Totally worth it, though

Okay, it’s totally worth it


What language will they speak in that country?

Sometimes this is a fun game, but other times it gives me a little anxiety. I don’t speak Croatian or Slovenian or Italian…or whatever the hell they speak in Hungary (we’re about to find out). My French is shit, and my Spanish has tanked.  Don’t think I don’t worry about what’s going to happen if I need to communicate with someone.

My favorite universal sign?  WC.

My favorite universal sign? WC.

I have to drive 1-2 hours to go to the doctor

And my monthly prescriptions.

Will my dog be able to handle the flight home?

Flash is a senior. I worried like crazy about him when we flew over here, but he’ll be even older when we fly back four years later. Will he be able to handle the stress and the lengthy flight? I can’t even think about this right now.


Flash, seeing us for the first time when we picked him up from customs

Seeing us for the first time when we picked him up from customs

Two years later

Two years later


So life ain’t always rosy for expats. We might get to traipse around Europe, but we do it at an emotional and financial cost.  We love this life, but it is by no means easy.

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Category: Ex-pat Parenting, FAMILY, In Germany A Broad blog, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Kari Martindale is a writer and ESL instructor. She’s visited all 50 states and 37 countries, including many of the big cities of Europe and a ton of Christmas Markets. She spends her days straddling the fence between a sense of adventure and a sense of dread. She is married to what is clearly a patient man and has a daughter who, frustratingly, is just like her. Her academic and professional backgrounds are in linguistics and foreign languages. When she's not teaching ESL, she's writing. When she's not writing, she's thinking about her next trip.

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  1. Adrielle says: