For the past week or so, I’ve been chasing a certain feeling/idea that has maddeningly remained just a step or two ahead of me. It’s hard to explain, but it’s the notion that living abroad gives you a constant feeling of novelty, and change embraced. It’s more than just place that does this. If it were only that, you’d have this feeling when moving from Boise to Tampa, or from Berlin to Frankfurt. But, I think, living in a foreign country offers you the chance to learn again, as a child.
The constant barrage of cultural differences, from huge things like health care, to the delicate everyday minutia of local plumbing standards, buying transit tickets, and line queuing etiquette (or the lack thereof) mean that you are constantly learning to live like an adult all over again. These daily “aha” moments are the sort of things that, as children (in our home country), we embraced without thinking. But, as an adult moving to another country, the amazing part of this experience is that it is a situation where we really can relive childhood with the benefit of adult wisdom and experience. As adults we can screw up, make a mental note for the future, and really, truly do it better the next time without having to coddle childhood insecurities, haste, and incompetence.
When it comes to larger and more complex societal compacts, there are distinct benefits to being an outsider. You’re often given some leeway and an adjustment grace period when figuring out the complexities of work permits, banking, utilities, and other high level functionality. But, as an immigrant, it’s incumbent upon you not to abuse this flexibility. You really don’t want to ruin it for those that come after you. And you never know what opportunities might have been extended to you if you hadn’t gotten cheesed off at the woman taking your cable order, or setting up your tax account.
As a writer in a new environment, I’ve been intrigued by the differences in local critique sessions. Back in the U.S., as long as it’s constructive and not vindictive, we tend to be of the “take no prisoners”, “tear me a new one”, “blunt is better” school of criticism. Here in Ireland, where the local psyche avoids making people feel uncomfortable at all costs, you have to dig a bit to get people to tell you that something “doesn’t work”. It’s not that one method is better, or more “right”. They are just different, and are often rooted deeply in other, deeper parts of the culture. As you spend time out and about, in different contexts, telltale connections start to dawn on you, and the veil of culture begins to lift.
One of the other benefits of being the “outsider” for a while is that, as with children, you are allowed to bumble and blunder a bit. You are allowed to make mistakes. People will generally smile warmly and answer your questions when you ask really simple-minded, ill-informed questions born of inexperience and cultural ineptitude. That may sound harsh, but let’s be honest, that’s all part of moving somewhere new. In a world where suddenly, inexplicably, wrenches are spanners, your GPS device is a sat nav, and your insurance deductible is now an “excess”, you’re going to screw up in big, embarrassing, and often hilarious ways.
Get over it. Generally speaking the locals will. And months from now you’ll find yourself gently advising the “new” person in the neighborhood, and laughing over a beer with the locals and old hands.
Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:
Calling The Euro Home
Looking Back On the First Year