The last time I lived as an expat, I was single, nineteen, with no dependents. I had dropped out of college and moved to Europe to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. When I accepted an international assignment last year, my return to the expat life included a husband, three kids and two pets. This probably doesn’t need to be said but moving a family of five (or seven if you count four-legged and winged members) is no simple feat. While I understood this conceptually, I came to learn some of the reasons why in excruciating detail as we went through the process.
Looking for a house we could call home for a number of years in one week’s time was pressure laden. By the second-to-last day with no house my husband and I could agree on, we were getting discouraged. Houses were either expensive or ugly, on a busy street, overlooking a valley, too old, too new…arghh!! Our agent said we had seen everything that met our requirements. I was skeptical so I looked myself and found two houses we ended up liking. Instead of taking the house we loved with a library and a castle feel, we took the one where the entry leads into the bedroom floor and seemed an odd mix of modern and traditional. But it was walking distance to my work. In addition, the kids could take the city bus to school and we could reach many shops and restaurants on foot, bus or bike. If we had been buying, we surely would have chosen the other one.
I had no clue what it took to move an eleven-pound Papillion dog across continents. It involved massive amounts of paperwork, exams from the vet and local government agencies, a special on-board case, and dog training for the lengthy trip. I was shocked to learn it paled in comparison to what it takes to relocate an 8 oz. Conure (small parrot. More exams, reams of additional paperwork, in house quarantine, special (expensive) cage and significant conditioning to get this avian friend—our teenage son’s non-negotiable—ready for the long journey. As we traveled with our pets on planes, cars and ferries, no one ever more than glanced at the meticulously prepared paperwork, ironically organized by my husband who is not really a pet person, but understands that most of us are.
Everyone seemed to take a turn being excited, afraid and not wanting to go. My husband’s initial excitement to be closer to his family and home country of Greece and to live as a European again dwindled as he turned in his resignation at his school where he was a beloved teacher and valued counselor to other teachers. My youngest loves new and different but finds transitions hard. Leaving her daycare where she had been going since she was nine months old was not easy. She celebrated her last birthday party with daycare pals in May, with a growing appreciation she would not see those friends for some time and would need to make new ones. My preteen anticipated the chance to learn languages and to be involved in theater. But he also realized he would have to start over on sports teams and relationships. My teen had the toughest transition. Starting a new school as a high school sophomore was daunting. He was interested in more sports and arts opportunities at the smaller and more broadly focused international school. He also liked the idea of a fresh start with people who didn’t remember every dumb thing he did sincethird grade. However, leaving close friends, knowing how long those relationships took to develop, gave him pause. Making new friends is not an easy or quick process.
For me, I was switching from a business role back to a legal one. I was joining a team with familiar faces but many more new ones. I would be closer to friends I made in my childhood and when I lived in Europe in my early twenties. But I was leaving friends and family in the U.S. that I didn’t expect to see as often including my aging parents.
All the change came with promise and mixed emotions. The new beginning opened up windows of opportunity for each of us. But as in the Robert Frost poem, it also left a path untraveled behind. The family unit became tighter through this shared experience. Our wonderful pets were resilient. And they helped everyone feel more at home immediately. We also found Europe is pretty cool with animals. In Venice, on our way to our new home, everyone was awesome with all members of the family, even though we drew a lot of interested stares, except for one maid. She yelled at the boys when the pup escaped the hotel room and sprinted down the hall. We tried to tell her it was an accident but she did not seem mollified.
Our new house is great for the two to three year period we will be there. Having survived the move and the early transition period, we are making the most of our chance to see and experience much more of this amazing part of the world. Again each member is embracing it in their own unique way. For my husband, he has fulfilled childhood dreams including taking the boys to the Monza track and an AC Milan game in Italy. Both our sons connected with the amazing glass artisans of the island of Murano in Italy; one because he had tried his hand at it and appreciated the difficulty; the other because he had studied an artist from our hometown that was taught and greatly influenced by artists there. Our youngest was enthralled with the masks of Venice and the Christmas village in the old town of Prague. For me, watching each member of my family savor the experiences that feed their soul while creating priceless, individualized memories we will all treasure forever brings me indescribable joy and wonder. I can’t wait to see what 2013 has in store for us.