The expat adjustment curve. I learned about it when I followed a course designed to prepare you for leaving your home country. Sixteen years ago, I went through it. And I think it is safe to say I do not remember it all. The past couple of months I went through phase one: the holiday, the honeymoon. I was lucky enough to visit Patagonia, the Lake District, the coast.. it is not that hard to feel like you are on holiday when you have the opportunity to do all that.
I have now reached phase 2: the culture shock. The phase where you realize that you are here to stay and you will need to adapt, integrate. There is only so much you can do to prepare. And then there are the things you never could have guessed. Yes, I am learning more and more Spanish every day. Yes, we know where our favourite bakery is and I have a regular supermarket. Yes, we have established some routines and habits already. Yes, we are getting used to the time zone. And yes, we even had our first bug and were down with a fever for a week. But that was all to be expected. And then there are the things we did not think of.
This may sound different than how I want it to sound but my children grew up with staff in the house: a housegirl in the house, a gardener outside, a driver to take the kids to school. I did not grow up like that, and for 16 years I never really quite adjusted to it. In Africa, running a household also entails a bit more and other things than in Europe so I welcomed the benefits of having help but it never became natural to me. I just assumed it was the same for my kids – now teenagers. Until we moved here. It is clear they are very used to someone else picking up their stuff. I now reluctantly realize they either do not see work or they consciously chose not to do it. I have been hammering on them to learn to see it – and then, of course, to do it. They are of course teenagers, I am sure they couldn’t care less if their shoes are in the middle of the living room. But I have now resorted to a chores list. I am giving them the benefit of the doubt because I too was a teenager once. I am guessing this is not so much the expat curve but the teenager curve.
In many other ways, this society offers us much more convenience than what my girls are used to. Coming from the third world, it is sometimes mindblowing to all three of us what you can find in the shop. Let alone online. I will honestly admit it can be overwhelming. But is also something that you can easily adapt to, too easily and with pleasure, and even become very lazy. If I wanted decent french fries in Tanzania, I knew I had to buy, peel, clean, cut and fry (twice!) potatoes. In Chile, I order them with Ubereats and watch tv while I wait for them to be delivered. It feels totally decadent but we also totally indulge. My main concern is not even that we are becoming lazy but more that this sort of lifestyle is unhealthy. Overall I am not worried. We adapted to life in Africa, we are now adapting here and we will adapt in whatever other part of the world I might ever end up. So lazy now is not lazy forever.
Another small – but in a way significant – thing that caught my attention is sugar. Tanzanians like everything sweet but in order to have sweet tea or sweet chapati, they have to add a spoon of sugar – and they do, 8 spoons even. In Chile, a lot of food is just sweet, manufactured sweet. Especially drinks and desserts. And while in Tanzania many people suffer from self-inflicted diabetes, in Chile there is a lot of awareness and people buy zero-drinks, with aspartame or stevia. But they still all taste sweet. I crave bitter and sour drinks. Or lemon meringue for dessert, or dark chocolate. Is it because I was brought up in Belgium? I really just prefer sour and bitter: a cold beer and very dark chocolate anyone?
I also have to get used to seasons again. We were really thrown in the deep end when we arrived here in winter. I even had to buy winterclothes, since I no longer owned any. But even now, I am writing this when it is spring, and the weather is unstable. The one day I wear a skirt and the next I need a coat. I am not used to checking the weather forecast – and even then you better wear layers because it can change any minute. But it sure beats Belgium where you need to carry an umbrella at all times.
The silliest adjustment is the presence of stairs. In Africa, I could count the buildings with more than one story on one hand. Good thing because I would not have used an elevator in a country where the power goes off all the time. In Santiago, there are so many high buildings, how else can you fit 7 million people in one city? So I work on floor 9 and I live on floor 5. Thank god for elevators. At times, I am forced to take the stairs, my daily subway stop, for instance, counts 4 flights. Not that I mind. But it is a silly realization when your calves hurt and you think ‘oh yes, that: stairs’. And some people refuse to take an apartment on a high floor because of the earthquakes – and yes, as adjustments go: a swaying building during a 5,5 quake, is a big adjustment!
Subways are also an adjustment. They are extremely convenient and after city trips to London, for example, I used to find it charming that you can come above ground and be somewhere else. But in Santiago, I find it especially confusing because I never see how I get anywhere and the ultimate goal is to get to know this city. I usually come above ground and I need to use google maps and use the Andes to try and regain my orientation.
Missing my friends is one I knew would hit me. I just never even considered that the time zone would add to it. When I sit on my coach in the evening and I want to chat, most of them are asleep. And when I wake up, I have a number of messages. But this way, communication is limited to WhatsApp monologues from me in the evening and reading the monologue of replies in the morning. Not ideal.
And allow me to finish with a bit of a philosophical contemplation. This is a fleeting thought I had the other day while sitting on a bench and I was just randomly thinking.. If I would stumble, trip or fall while walking the streets of Santiago, I would still feel embarrassed. I assume it is an innate feeling. But why? I do not know anyone here. I will probably never see the bystanders of that moment again in my life or not recognize them. No one knows me. No one recognizes me. No one I meet in a bar will say he went to school with my cousin or that he used to live next to my best friend. That is a weird thought. But also a nice one. I could totally re-invent myself if I wanted to. Luckily I am relatively happy with myself and mere adjustments will do. They call it integration, I am told.