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The (Perhaps Healthy) Loneliness of Expat Life

I’ve written a bit about the loveliness of expat life— about the beautiful shades of smiling mothers and children; the faces representing countless nations who waited for my family just over a year ago as we first walked down the brightly lit hallways of our new international school, ICS.

I’ve written about acceptance and inclusion for children here in my life in Zürich, and I’ve touched on the wonder of the inquiry-based learning style my children now take part in.

My three children, my husband and I came to Switzerland (actually we escaped here) and found high quality (private) education, richness of culture, and an international community awake and attuned to the needs of others. We found clubs to join, mountains to climb, trails to run, bike, and ski. We found coffees, concerts, wine tastings, historic tours, play dates, barbecues, and sled outings to attend. We found opportunities to travel by car, by train, by bike. We found it all, in a way.

Finally, we found friendship. But with the friendships made in this past year, I’ll admit to an undercurrent of loneliness.

What? You wonder. Loneliness while living in bliss?

We expats families who move so often— we make great Instagram feeds, great Facebook features. We look so ridiculously fun, don’t we? But we're transient people. Untethered. We must be. We must unwind, sever ourselves from practicality, in order to live the way we do. We've adopted non-commitment, accepted that friends, teachers, families, jobs, countries— they all come-and-go. We've learned how to cope not understanding various languages around us, but how to read the cues of eyes, hands, horns, and angry or joyful intonations. We touch reality daily, practically tasting how life, so rich and beautiful— it keeps moving on.

We expats take what we can— photos, memorabilia, our own memories, and accept the inevitable: moving happens. It happens whether we move countries, towns, schools, jobs. Expats move out, move in, move jobs, move, move, move. Countries evolve or devolve right before our eyes, even if we aren’t living in them.

Let me be clear: I’m immeasurably in love with expat life. But still there's the loneliness, perhaps present for all moms, regardless of where they live or how often they move. Maybe I’m more attuned to the palpable quality of loss and change because I spent eleven years holed up in (various parts of) America, struggling alongside my child and family before moving to Switzerland. Eleven years barely able to glance up from the confusion of one child’s illness. Eleven years with my husband making phone calls, studying special education, researching every kind of therapy, herbal treatment, medical treatment, love treatment. Eleven years with little time for friendship as I struggled to get out the door, down the street even, with my child who tried to survive childhood. Eleven years studying law, learning to communicate, advocate, to reach other moms, to write, to attempt to understand the politics that keep entire societies from being kind to one another. What prevents a free nation from educating, loving, supporting, those less able? Greed, I found. Selfishness, I found. Power, I found. This type of discovery, as you can imagine— was lonely.

I wasn’t moving countries back then, but I was moving. I was learning that God, my husband, and I together create the foundation upon which my family survives. Our suitcase is filled with the moments we spend together, with laughter and tears. It’s made of the struggles we endure; it’s reinforced in upward growth. When our child had his open-heart surgery, our little sky opened. When he began to tear things from his walls, our perspectives were ripped wide; when he was unable to attend school, we were forced to look beyond the tininess of ourselves, to sense a suffering world, alive and teaming with opportunity, yet simultaneously divided and lonely. We were invited to survive, to move along, for better or worse. Perhaps this practice in "moving along" made us ready for expat life.

These days I find myself looking out over the masses of beautiful, struggling, perfect-looking, broken-looking people where I live. I long for closer connections, for less transience. I wish I had more time with people. I wish less people would leave. I wish I could see my old friends, my sisters, my mom, my dad suffering with Alzheimer’s. I wish I could cry in front of people. I wish I could take care of every kid and mom who feels even a little lonely like I have.

But perhaps expat life teaches me that everything, every life moves on. Regardless of wealth, culture, or health— we all suffer. Our experiences and our reactions to them, become the patches that made up who we are. They are soul-stored time.

Maybe touching the edges of loneliness, of expat life, is healthy. It helps me to find gratitude for moments when I'm truly connected with others. It helps me to identify my roots, to relish every last minute with a friend, to wonder at my own feet free and comfortably alone— running through a new trail in a Swiss forest.

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