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Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

Putting Down Roots and Buying Real Estate as an Expat

Image courtesy: flickr - Tim Green aka atoach

For an expat family (or for this expat family, anyway) putting down roots somewhere can be difficult. The possibility of moving on is always present. The culture and language are not our own, we don’t have much family nearby and the current world economic situation means that jobs are more likely to change than not.

So how do you settle down? Put down roots? Feel connected?

In our case, the beginning of an answer to that question lies in buying real estate. We’ve finally become homeowners (ok, apartment owners).

It was a step we had intended to take for a long time. As soon as we knew we were coming back to France, the plan was to purchase. We landed in our little town without knowing anything about it and fell in love. Quiet, green, full of parks and trees, yet near enough to Paris to make it feasible to go on a regular basis. We were hooked. The downside was the price: we quickly realized that our dream of owning a little house with a small garden was pretty unrealistic if we wanted to stay in our new home. So we started looking elsewhere. Farther and farther from Paris and from the new friends we had made.

How silly this was really hit me when we were visiting yet another little house in yet another little town. The real estate agent, with that capacity, unique to real estate agents, to make the saddest, dumpiest dump sound like a palace, had led us to the last house of a row of houses. The roof dipped suspiciously in the middle. There was a garden, cut into oddly- shaped chunks around the oddly-shaped house. A large, busy street right out the front door ushered traffic past the house at heart-stopping speeds. Matthew, out in the garden, told me, “I like it, mom. But how will we get to the sandbox?” Ah, the sandbox.

In front of our rental apartment was a large, lovely garden. A lawn, rosebushes, benches, and a spacious sandbox, where all the neighborhood children gathered to play every day after school. It was a ritual that lasted all spring; meeting after school with bikes, scooters, balls, sand toys, snacks, from the time school ended until dusk. Matthew could not imagine life without his friends at the sandbox. When he said that to me, my heart clenched. I thought to myself, “We have so few connections here, why on earth would we cut off the few we’ve forged?”

As it turned out, a month or two later we visited the apartment that would become our new home. It’s about 500 meters from our rental. Matthew goes to the same school, and Ramzi goes to the creche he got a part-time spot in. The apartment doesn’t have the two things I had told myself and my husband I most wanted, a fireplace and a garden. But it does have plenty of space, lots and lots of light and enough bedrooms to be comfortable. And it’s in our adoptive hometown. We don’t have to start over yet again, make all new friends, find new doctors, pharmacists, shops and stores. What I sacrificed, a hypothetical garden and fireplace, are small beans in comparison to staying in a familiar, comfortable and friendly place.

I didn’t anticipate how this common transaction would change the way I looked at our town and how it would deepen my attachment to our neighborhood, friends and neighbors, but I can already sense new little roots digging in. All of a sudden, we are no longer tenants. We have a stake in something, a vested interest in our building and our community. I can allow myself to relax, to allow acquaintances to develop into friendships. I didn’t even realize how much I have been holding back until suddenly I ‘m not anymore. This is no longer a weigh station to somewhere else but has become our real life—a place our family will collectively remember and love.

While my logical brain still reminds me that moving is always a possibility, it now seems much further away. We’ve crossed a threshold after all these years of living here. It’s a similar sensation to the one I had after getting married to the man I’d already been living with for three years—utterly familiar and thrillingly different at the same time.

Has your expat family put down roots? How did you begin to feel attached to the place you live?

© 2012, Mary Hackett. All rights reserved.

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Mary Hackett was born and raised on the Texas/Mexico border. She moved to France in 2000 after graduating from the University of Chicago, and aside from a year back in the US has lived there ever since with her Franco-Lebanese husband and their two sons. They are raising their kids trilingually in English, French and Arabic.

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