“Making do or doing without” and hanging out with no one but my immediate family reminds me of our family’s earliest and loneliest days as expats in Australia.
When our young family relocated to Brisbane, Australia, for a job in 2011, it was swift and jarring. Overnight, everything and everyone we knew, were upside down or unavailable. The experience started out very lonely with heaps of self-doubt, parenting guilt, education gaps, and extreme cost-cutting measures. Still, those days of living much more simply outside of our comfort zone are some of the happiest memories in our little family’s life.
BUDGET LIVING: Last month, my husband and I both lost our incomes due to COVID-19. This isn’t our first rodeo. In Australia, we didn’t live on a cushy expat package. We negotiated as well as we could, but we were in one of the most expensive cities in the world at the time. Despite a shoestring budget, we were hell-bent on soaking-up every bit of Oz. Fun wouldn’t be canceled. While we scrapped our grand plans for country-wide travel, we did go to the beach with sandwiches every weekend and adopted the Aussie tradition of barbequing in local parks. All alone. We knew how to find the best take-out deals and split beers to make them last. Challenge accepted.
COVID CULTURE IS A FOREIGN CULTURE: In Australia, I spent several months patting new acquaintances on the arm — only to learn it wasn’t normal to touch so casually. Similarly, the new norms of virus culture have all of us trying to remember social distancing. I no longer linger at the grocery store. I’m reminded to take a no-nonsense approach to errands and “get on with it, mate.”
EXHAUSTED BY ABSOLUTELY NOTHING & EVERYTHING: Any travel creates exhaustion. How do we get to the next town? What will I wear in this heat? New COVID cultural norms, new physical norms and the new scarcity norms mean we are all basically “travel exhausted” at the end of each COVID day. I give myself permission to own it.
FOOD IS EVERYTHING, ALWAYS: Never have we eaten so well than when living on a budget in a new country. The public schools had no lunch program. I was making three (cost-conscious) meals a day. I saved every extra bit of veggies in the freezer for some stir-fry. As expats, we snacked less and ate better. It took such an effort to shop, that I shopped as little as possible and with great efficiency. Converting weights, finding substitutions, and taking advantage of what was in abundance (mangoes, beef, and pineapple) took it out of me. Procuring groceries during COVID is also exhausting, but we’re once-again cooking with whatever we can get our hands-on and eating much better. We’ve got this.
FAMILY FROM A DISTANCE: I was only an expat for 2 years, but my sister and her family have lived in South Africa for fifteen years. We have raised our collective kids as virtual cousins since birth. Expat families know how to do virtual family. Virtual visits are sad and hard, and the kids are terrible on video chat, but it’s all we’ve got right now.
SCHOOL IN LIMBO CAN BE LIBERATING: Our son missed most of first grade, then skipped about three months of any schooling. The = days between school systems – and watching too much iPad – were some of the most fabulous and frustrating days as parents. My husband and I were the whole world to our 3 and 7-year-old. When we returned to the U.S., another big school gap happened. Our now 15-year-old high school honors student is none the worse for this life experience.
KEEP YOUR NETWORK SIMPLE: When we landed overseas, it was just too much to keep up with the large network of U.S. friends and text groups. I pared down. It was clear who meant the most. The same is happening now. I don’t have the heart to keep up with everyone, and it feels fine.
SENSES TRIGGER MEMORIES: New travel senses imprint your memory. Similarly, the tastes, smells, textures, lighting, and emotions we keep from this COVID era of our life will trigger fond and scary memories, forever. I’m holding onto the smell of my kids baking bread, the sound of the family all working on their computers, and the taste of our cheap coffee on these family-quarantine mornings in 2020.