Lemons and Lemonade

My friend Ann Katrin (AK) got handed a big bunch of lemons a couple of months ago – well more a crate of lemons. Her husband was offered a job in Germany and he wanted to take it, as it was a great opportunity for him. AK isn’t anti-German, she just puts Germany, and then Europe, at the very bottom of the list of places she wants to live. As a result, coming to accept that this IS happening has been quite a struggle for her these last few months. It’s not an uncommon experience for expats to go through – where one day you’re happy and settled, then bam, you’re off again – many times with no control over the next destination. We’ve been through it too.

As background, AK was born in Germany to a German Dad and Swedish Mum, and remembers at age 12 saying to her brother I want to get out of this country – it’s not me. At 16 she packed her bags for a year and went to Torquay in England, then back to Germany. The final move out of Germany came many years later, but she never looked back. After spending close to two years in Antwerp, AK and her husband (then boyfriend) Richard (a Dutchman) landed in Singapore, with two kids joining the family along the way. AK was happy in Singapore, but when an opportunity came to move to Cairo, Egypt in 2009, she jumped at it, as adventure is in her DNA. A combination of the revolution (her son Jesper still fears tanks) and Richard’s work coming to an end left them facing a decision on where to go next. Singapore came up and with a little trepidation, AK accepted coming back here. That’s when we met.

Ann Katrin was OK about returning to Singapore – because she’d already lived here and loved it – but she wasn’t excited. Initially they were hoping on another posting within Asia– Vietnam, Thailand, etc… but it didn’t eventuate, and she’s worked hard at making her life work in Singapore again. Over the 18 months we’ve gotten to know each other, AK has been moving forward in the fitness industry, holding yoga classes in her home, studying fitness and nutrition online, and she recently became a certified personal trainer. She has also tentatively entered the world of blogging to use this platform to promote her ideas and eventually grow her business. But all of this work must now be put aside and she has to start again in Germany. I think that one side of life many never see – if they haven’t been an expat – is how much the “trailing spouse” has to give up, put on the back burner, etc… to support the working spouse. It can be tough, especially as AK is ready to get her teeth into something of her own.

I asked AK what it is about Singapore and living in other countries that really appeals? “I love the internationality of Singapore and living overseas. I also love the diversity around me every day and I’ve made amazing friendships from all over the world. It’s easy making friends as an expat, because everyone is open to new friendships, and it doesn’t matter from which country you come from, so I am going to miss that most.”

I can definitely relate to this – I feel very fortunate every day I am living here.

Facing the decision of the move, AK got a lot of well-intentioned advice from friends and family around the world. One of the first things people say these days is “it is obviously meant to be” and “something great will come out of it.” While we all appreciate that this advice is very true at a deep level, it doesn’t always alleviate the feelings about the decisions you’re faced with. For example, when I found out I had to move to Singapore with my job in 2003, I thought it was a death knell on any hopes I might have to meet a man and have kids. Singapore isn’t considered great pickings for a single Caucasian gal in her 30s. However, it WAS obviously meant to be ‘cos I met Steve four months later and now bloody look at me! But you can’t always see that in advance, so these platitudes often don’t help when you’re facing something you don’t want to do.

But AK is doing it and I asked her what she’s planning to do to make it work? I’ve divided her feedback into thoughts and actions and here’s what she said:

  1. Day by day – this is my mantra right now, and I think it has to be when we get to Germany as well. Between now and when we move it’s going to be manic packing up the house, keeping the kids entertained, saying goodbye to friends, etc… so I’ve have to take things day by day to keep my sanity and not to drown in the “pain/sorrow” of moving, however it is also how I should live my life anyway. I’ve found this mantra easy to apply now, but can I continue when we get to Germany? I’m going to try as I’ve set it as my “mantra” for 2013
  2. Shake the negativity – I don’t need to love what we’re about to embark on, but I do need to find my happiness in the mix. It would also be great for my husband if I could find my joy, because this is a great move for him, but if I’m not happy, it’s going to be really hard on him
  3. Less focus and worry on things – I’m a person who focuses on or worries about things I can’t change. For example, my daughter Luka is a shocking sleeper. I lost sleep over this, but once I came to a point where I realized I can’t change it and therefore, just need to accept it, a burden and a lot of stress came away from me. One has to pick their battles and see if it’s worth fighting them. I need to “just” accept and stop focusing on things I won’t be able to change because what’s the point?
  4. Not take advice personally – I am getting a lot of well-intentioned advice from people, as well as negative comments about some of the decisions we are making. Sometimes I actually find the advice and opinions quite offensive, because it’s going against a decision Richard and I have taken – and we don’t take any decision lightly. I need to let those feelings of hurt go and not take it on board. We’ve made decisions for our family and that is that, so smile when people offer their opinions, but don’t get annoyed. It’s coming from the right place

  1. List 20 adventures – Richard and I agreed we would develop a list of 20 things we want to do from our new home in Essen, Germany. We’re always out and about with the kids in Singapore, and we want to continue this in Europe as well – which isn’t how we lived our life before we left. You just don’t explore the same way in your own country. So day trips and weekend get-aways around Germany and Europe is a plan we’re both working on and believe it will make a big difference in ensuring we enjoy our new life
  2. Build a serious business – I’ve focused on developing new skills over the last six years that are transferable where ever I go in the field of health and fitness.  The areas I’ve focused on are yoga, yoga for kids, as well as general fitness helping people who want to make small changes that result in big changes over time. It’s time to get serious about that, so “At Ease”- my planned business – will (hopefully) be a big focus for me. I’m ready to build something great, but also do it in a way that I can take it with me if we move again – which we plan to do. I don’t want a traditional “job” because I want to support my husband’s career, and still be there for my kids as they are young. I just want to build something I’m passionate about that is transferable as well

Moving “home” is one of the hardest things a person can face – trust me I’ve tried to do it twice. When you have the great privilege to live in other countries, you take on board all of the wonderful new values and cultural traditions you uncover, while rejecting the bad. You also do this with your own country – you just see it in a different way and that can definitely be enlightening. As a result, when you go back to what you’ve always known, it can be intensely difficult to integrate back in and you literally pine for what you left behind. Some people reintegrate easily, but if you struggle to find your way, it can be excruciatingly difficult to find your joy.

I’ve watched AK come to accept the decision and now talked through how she is going to make it work in a way that will ensure they are all happy. It’s not an easy thing to face, but one bonus for AK is her best friend and a 10 year expat friend will be living in the local area where they will be setting up home. Having people who can relate to the transition she is making will make a massive difference, because I certainly valued those conversations with friends who had left and returned to Australia as priceless when I went home. It didn’t make me stay however – one day.

I know so many people who are going through this transition right now, and others who will be facing it soon, so I thought AK’s perspective could really help. When I “launched” my FIE crusade, AK was one of the first to say hell yeah, I need to do this to help me transition and get the right frame of mind for Germany, so she’s my first “recruit” – watch out Germany, FIE is coming, although I’m sure AK will come up with her own elegant title.

AK I wish you and your family well and hope that this really is meant to be. I also hope the cold doesn’t kick your arse – ugh! I’ll catch up with you again towards the end of the year to see how your thoughts and actions are progressing to ensure you’re really turning those lemons into lemonade and look forward to visiting you in Germany… but probably in the summertime…

Yours, without the bollocks

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