Previously I wrote about expat wives (spouses) and how crucial their state of happiness is the success of an expat posting. However, expat life is not for everybody and today I’m going to introduce you to three stereotyped expat spouses who are almost certainly doomed to be unhappy.
Meet Homesick Hilda, Part-Time Pauline and Nervous Nellie:
If you’ve been an expat for a while you’ll no doubt have come across a Homesick Hilda. She will grumble constantly about everything. She will bemoan that she can’t live without her favourite brand of low-fat organic magic soup. Rather than observing and trying to appreciate cultural differences, she will disdain them. I won’t go on, if you’ve met a Homesick Hilda, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
A few days, weeks or months into her posting, she pops home for a very important event. Something like a neighbour’s budgie’s funeral. Or to stock up on her favourite brand of shampoo that she has run out of and needs to replinish immediately. Or because she needs a haircut and only Juan Carlo at her local salon back home makes the cut.
She never comes back.
Nobody is surprised.
Homesick Hilda’s other half either quietly follows suit shortly afterwards, or finding that he really rather enjoys his fabulous new life without Hilda, meets a local lady three days later and stays…forever.
Then there’s the partner that’s rarely in-country. This is Part-Time Pauline. Some Paulines have a valid reason to be mostly in their home country. Perhaps the expat assignment is unsuitable for spouses/families. It may be dangerous. There might not be any satisfactory schooling or medical facilities.
Other Part Time Paulines don’t really have a reason and without having investigated what’s actually on offer to her in a far flung location, without having been for a looksee, she has perhaps refused point blank to relocate.
However, don’t be surprised if Pauline relishes part-time expat perks – sunshine, swimming pool, domestic help. Basically, she enjoys a holiday without the full time expat hassles such as paying bills and getting the car serviced, trying to communicate with a doctor or hairdresser in another language, trying to make friends and fill her day.
When Pauline pops over for a week of sunshine and relaxation with her guy, she might not be aware that as her airport ride pulls in, her local counterpart has just left, hidden in the boot of the car, with her toothbrush and her scatter cushions and her tightfitting dresses.
Pauline doesn’t know about the other woman (or women), but everybody else on the compound and probably in the entire expat community does….and yes this does happen.
Sorry, that’s a really extreme scenario. With other Part-Time Paulines, the problem is that they are mostly living in their home country and when they do flit over for a visit, people don’t tend to want to invest time in friendship with somebody who is only around for a couple of weeks every year. In the meantime her husband probably isn’t on holiday and she crashes into his routine and upsets the apple cart. This means that part timers are unlikely to convert to being full timers.
Meanwhile the full time expat and their part time partner end up leading separate lives, which in a high proportion of cases leads to the relationship breaking down as the partner on assignment ends up resenting the partner who stays at home with no upheaval or compromise, providing no in-country moral support to the worker, but happily spending the monthly pay check.
Generally Nervous Nellie arrives with a suitcase full of preconceptions that she is not willing to challenge. She comes with the mindset that her new location is perilously dangerous or disgustingly dirty, backward, barbaric or alien.
She more or less barricades herself inside her home. Unlike the Homesick Hilda who will turn up to everything and will let everybody know just how little she thinks of her current situation, Nervous Nellie is far less likely to venture out into the expat or local community. This exacerbates her isolation and nervousness at her new surroundings, as she never confronts any of her (often unfounded) fears. Moreover, other expats may not even be aware of her existence and therefore can’t help to tempt her out of her shell.
A prime example of this was a lady I met in Istanbul. We arrived at the same time and met at a school induction day for new families. Her husband seemed jovial and relaxed, he was keen for his wife to enjoy the posting, to find a hobby or job to keep her busy. He was excited about their new life. She was terrified. Not visibly, I mean her husband didn’t seem to have noticed, but I could feel it invisibly pulsating from her.
As we left Mr I said “They seem nice.” I said “she’s not going to last”. He said “That’s a bit harsh”. Three months later the family in question went home for the Christmas holidays, she refused to come back. The posting failed.
I knew she wouldn’t stay from the way her eyes nearly fell out of her head when I told her I had ventured into Istanbul to find the school uniform shop on a sweltering hot day. That I had been with two small wriggly children, but WITHOUT my husband….in a (shock horror) taxi.
She was clearly flabbergasted that I had lived to tell the tale. Amazed that I managed to buy the requisite uniform despite the language barrier. That I had then WALKED to rendezvous with my husband for lunch. That I then concluded my excursion by figuring out how to get myself and two now-tired-and-sweaty-rather-than wriggly-children back to the hotel by METRO. The horror. The terror.
She never got over it.
I don’t think she tried.
I saw her only once or twice more, when her husband could take time away from the office to ferry her to school for an event. Even childrens’ birthday parties were not enough to push her to confront her fears. She would just say “I can’t come because my husband will be at work”.
I’m surprised that she lasted until Christmas.
Of course there are homesick, part time and nervous expats that do overcome the challenges that prevent them settling quickly and honestly, good for them. Sadly though, many of them don’t. This is a cautionary tale; Hildas, Paulines and Nellies are often lovely people but in all probability expat life never was and never is going to be their bag. Mountaineering is not for everybody, deep sea diving is not for everybody, fame is not for everybody, working with animals or small children is not for everybody. Expat life is not for everybody.
Are their any other ‘doomed expat’ scenarios or stereotypes that you’ve come across?