I always say that it’s worth taking a shot on an OCONUS PCS. Living overseas in a new place can be exciting with plenty of things to see and do.
But it can also feel isolated, scary, and too new for comfort.
I spent three years overseas in Germany, living in a very small German village, so I feel I have a little bit of perspective on this. I didn’t live on post. I was in a set of six row homes, all of whom were Americans, but we were surrounded by Germans.
It. Was. Hard.
The first few months were overwhelming, with a sort of sensory overload.
The sights were totally new: steeples popping above all the other buildings in the villages, the castles atop the hills, the rolling farmland, the shepherd herding his sheep and goats.
The sounds were new: the German language filtering in from outside, the rowdy patrons’ voices echoing from the gasthaus across the street, the church bells pealing throughout the day.
The tastes were new: The sweet pastries and yeasty breads from the backerei down the street, the metzgerei’s assortment of salty meats and creamy cheeses, the crispy schnitzel at restaurants.
The textures were new: The uneven cobblestones on the streets, the brick in-lay courtyard outside my front door.
The one familiar sense was the smell: It was just like the farm town I grew up in.
Despite that one familiar farmland detail, I’m not kidding when I say it took me months to feel somewhat comfortable, where I could go to a restaurant, the drink market, or the grocery store and not have to take deep breaths to convince myself I could do it. Where I wasn’t sitting in the car convincing myself it wasn’t a big deal. Where I wasn’t begging my husband to be the one to place the order or answer the door because I was discouraged that I couldn’t communicate clearly.
I tried to learn German, but I struggled. Learning a second language is hard enough, but I found German was much harder than learning French, which I’ve been passable in for years.
I went from feeling so independent while stateside, taking my kids anywhere without a worry, to moving overseas and not wanting to go anywhere alone. What if something happened and I couldn’t tell someone what I needed?
But aside from the newness of it all, it was difficult being so far away from the people we loved.
When I found out that I was pregnant with my third child shortly after my family moved, I couldn’t share the news in person. When I ached to spend Christmas with my parents and brother, celebrating with the traditions we’ve carried over from year-to-year, it made the Christmas season more difficult. FaceTime only takes you so far. When my brother announced that he and his wife were expecting their first child, I longed to hug him tight and squeal, “Congratulations!”
But eventually, we got used to the six hour time difference and communicating through phones. Facebook allowed us to inform friends and family about what was going on with us or share pictures from our adventures throughout Europe.
It was scary when we took our first road trip to Berlin. It was our first time branching out and we were stuffing three kids under five into a European station wagon before driving four hours north.
But we made it. We would eventually travel to 34 more cities in 17 countries, almost all with the kids in tow. I even got a few trips with girlfriends to Poland, Denmark, Sweden, and The Netherlands.
My biggest advice: Take it in baby steps.
It’s overwhelming for you and everyone else who moves there. Almost all of us will struggle for some amount of time. If you’re afraid to go out alone, then don’t. Invite friends to join you if your spouse can’t.
It’s scary. It’s overwhelming. It makes even the biggest extroverts a little timid and the introverts wanting to hide inside their homes forever (in case you couldn’t tell already, I was in the latter category of personality type).
But you can do this.
Here are a few things I learned:
- Never underestimate the power of a good gesture or pantomime.
- You don’t speak the language? You aren’t the only one in your community, and the locals will know it. They probably already know you’re an American anyway.
- No matter how hard you try, you’ll almost alwayslook like an American. Embrace it.
- What happens if something bad happens like going to a hospital? Someone will speak English or your installation will dispatch someone to help if they don’t. Same goes for off-post referrals—one of the requirements for an off-post facility to receive referrals is that they have to have employees who speak English. It may not be great, but you’ll get it figured out. When I had a baby in a German hospital, I had an English-speaking nurse that acted as a translator for the other health care workers.
- Beat back the frustration when you aren’t doing something right. Sure, you might not be able to keep up with the checkout person at Aldi’s when you’re trying to toss your groceries back in the cart at lightning speed. The locals may be huffing in annoyance. But you know what? You’re getting out and trying.
- If you’re in Europe, accept that you will spend a lot of time forgetting your reusable bags and you’ll end up paying for more bags than you could ever use in your life. Invest in the small rolled bags you can keep in your purse. Take it in stride when you forget.
- Go to the local celebrations, whether they’re parades, festivals, or markets. If a local tries to make conversation, just know enough of their language to say that you don’t speak it. Bonus points if you pronounce it badly. They’ll get the point.
- Give yourself a little grace. You’ll trip up, feel lost, and get nervous. Consider it your baptism into international travel.
- Find what makes you happy. No matter where you are in the world, this is important. If you crave PWOC or CWOC, book club, cooking demonstrations, art galleries, museums, whatever, then find it. Whether it’s on or off post doesn’t matter. Find what makes you happy and take part in it.
- Please, please, pleasetravel. See the world on a shoestring budget. Not many people can say they had that chance.
Most of you will love living overseas and all that comes with it. Some of you may never be happy with it.
And that’s OK, too.
You’ll always miss things from America—whether it’s a garbage disposal, air conditioning, trash cans that actually can hold all of your trash, or your favorite foods—but eventually you can come back to all of that. And you will.
But once you come back, you’ll miss what you had—those rolling hills of farmland, the castles atop the hill, the sweet pastries and yeasty bread, the German language floating in through your open windows.
Soak it up while you can, because even if you hate it there, it will eventually come to an end.
In the meantime, you’ve got this.