When you imagine moving abroad, you might imagine a day down the road when you “get it”—when everything about living in your adopted country finally clicks, and you can function smoothly, just like the locals.
My experience was different. I did gain that comfort and confidence, but I didn’t wake up one day and say to myself, “Aha! I finally have this expat thing figured out.”
It was much more like a series of little victories…small successes that didn’t mean much at the time, but eventually added up to a big feeling of achievement.
The first and most important one for me?
Getting a pizza delivered. Seriously.
It was late 2001 in Quito, Ecuador. My wife, Suzan, and I had been on the ground there for just a few weeks. We were deep into the “what have we done?” phase of our move. Every time we encountered an unfamiliar situation or a way of doing things we couldn’t understand—which was at least a half dozen times a day, we’d look at each other with startled expressions that said, “Oh my god. We really did sell everything back home and move to a foreign country. This isn’t a dream.”
We were slowly learning our way around our immediate neighborhood, and we knew where we could get basic supplies. But almost everything else was still a mystery to us…transferring money, paying bills, making appointments, using the buses and taxis.
And the big one that most expats run up against eventually…using the telephone.
Even for those expats who arrive in their chosen country knowing a bit of the local language, the telephone is a whole different thing. On the telephone, locals talk the way they talk to each other…fast and full of local slang rather than slowly and carefully, the way they talk to children or confused foreigners. On the telephone, there are no helpful gestures or pantomimes or facial expressions that can convey the thing you want or the action you require. On the telephone, you don’t even have all the nuances of the spoken words—only the little buzzing sound in the earpiece from which your brain must try to reconstruct an actual voice.
On the telephone, it’s just your naked, unadorned language skills verses the person on the other end. And if the person on the other end is an overworked teenager in a noisy pizza shop trying to take as many delivery orders as they can as quickly as possible, things get weird.
Getting a pizza delivered over the phone had changed from something I could do in my sleep back home into something that seemed impossible in Quito.
But the time finally came. It was late evening, it was raining, it was chilly, and we had no food in the house. We badly wanted someone to bring us something hot to eat. We had a phone and a phone book. We knew that “pizza” is spelled the same way in English and Spanish. We looked in the commercial listings, and sure enough, there were the phone numbers of people who would bring you pizza…if you could order it.
I looked at the phone with dread.
It actually took several tries. The first pizza shop I reached was incredibly noisy, and the person I tried to order from lost patience almost immediately. I couldn’t blame him. With the noise and the connection, I couldn’t understand a word he said, so I’m sure he had no idea what I was trying to say.
But eventually I reached a shop that didn’t sound like I’d called a stock exchange trading floor. Someone answered who had the time and patience to help me work my way through my order.
And 40 minutes later, hot pizza arrived at our door.
I can’t over emphasize how much this little victory meant to us at the time. It was akin to a rite of passage…like we were adolescents who had successfully completed our first hunt and could now take our place as adults, able to provide for ourselves and the tribe. It gave us confidence. It didn’t completely eliminate phone dread, but it made it manageable. We knew, as we savored that pizza and enjoyed our first little victory, that we’d get better. That we could do it.
In my experience, it’s little victories like this that make good expats. Things like ordering pizza and opening a bank account and getting the internet hooked up—the mundane things of everyday life back home—become the looming slopes of treacherous mountains that must be climbed and conquered in other countries and cultures.
And it’s conquering those mountains—and the resulting feeling of victory and accomplishment—that makes the expat experience such a thrill to begin with. You see even the most mundane things of daily life with new eyes…the eyes of a beginner.
And when every day in a new country and culture brings a new challenge, every day becomes the scene and setting for a new victory.
Even if you thought you had the world completely figured out back home and it held no more novelty or excitement for you, becoming an expat can make you a conqueror again—every day, in a hundred little ways you never imagined.
For me, it’s one of the most fulfilling things about expat life.
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