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Five short stories about expat life

Hungry Hearts

I moved here ten years ago for a job - and I stayed.” We’re running the introduction rounds in the writing club tonight in a cozy pizzeria bar. It’s called Hungriges Herz (Hungry Heart) and the salad comes with a heart-shaped cucumber slice on it. It almost hurts, how much the name of this place describes the feeling of being an expat in the first months in a new city. German people are proud to say that it takes (lots of) time for them to make friendships, but once it’s established, it lasts forever. I was never really satisfied with this reasoning. I get that lifelong friendships are gold and I’m also lucky to have some that go back to 20-30 years, and I cherish them. It doesn’t help though with the little transactions in daily life when I go to the grocery store, pass random people in the park, or wish to have a small talk in the gym and all I meet is frustration, quiet or faces turned away. These two go together and they bring balance into life: deep and easy, friendships for a lifetime, acquaintances, and small talk. They respond to different needs and satisfy various areas of our lives. I keep initiating conversations, talking to people, and trusting that making connections is a universal human need no matter the culture I live in.


Are you still fluent in your native language?

The bell rang, I opened the door and Daniel entered our apartment in Munich. The last time I met him, was at his wedding in Tel Aviv. Celebrating him and his Israeli wife and seeing the Jewish traditions was a unique experience. It was in more peaceful times when the biggest barrier was to get through the long line at the airport security, and arriving from the cloudy and cold Berlin we were pleased to enjoy the sun in December. Daniel was born in Germany to Hungarian Jewish parents. He spent his early years there, before moving back to Hungary and finishing school there. This is how I got the chance to get to know him, he and my husband were classmates in high school. He later moved to Germany for work and spent time in Switzerland as a research professor before moving to Israel and meeting her now wife there. He was visiting Munich because of an interview and they are considering moving here.

We casually started our discussion about how strange it is to experience forgetting some things in our native language. We’ve both been living away from Hungary for years and as much as we’re dedicated to it, our language skills have faded over time. The order of words in a sentence, the new slang, the trendy phrases, and the cultural influence are not so up-to-date anymore. I sometimes joke about it that I speak Hungarian as it was seven years ago. Time has stopped for me then.

My conversations in Hungarian are full of English expressions, if I feel particularly lazy, I start speaking English instead, I journal in English, I write and read in English, I speak with my friends in English, and I work in English. It became the language of my life and moving to Germany did not change much about that. I even chose to do therapy in English, it speaks much closer to my soul, and I find it healing. English is a language that gives me a sense of being myself. I found my real self in its words, phrases, and style. Hungarian remains close to my heart, I love reading literature in my native language and having jokes and deep conversations in it, it’s almost like a secret language I speak with those whom I have an invisible, secret bond with.

Just like yesterday with Daniel. We used our native language and paused from time to time, asking ourselves, is this how you say it in Hungarian? Is this the right order of the words in a sentence? I used to think that people who behaved like this were faking it. It’s real and it has nothing to do with the feelings toward your country of origin. It’s a natural process, as your identity and life evolve, and your language set follows it.


What defines the choices about your move?

If you asked me at any point throughout my life since I felt conscious about where I wanted to live, I would have immediately responded that somewhere in the Mediterranean by the sea. Now, I live in a Northern country at the feet of Europe’s biggest mountains, next to the Alps.

While listening to Daniel about his options around the globe, I became curious about the choices we make about where we live. Some people never ask themselves this question: they continue living where they were born and raised. Many of the Munich people are like this. It’s an incredibly rich and comfortable city to live in, big enough to have everything, and small enough to be called the largest village in Germany. Easy to get away from, one of the biggest airport hubs in Europe is located here and wherever you wish to travel in or outside Europe it’s possible from here. Yet, locals tend to return to Munich and enjoy the luxurious benefits of calling it a home.

Some others are born in a part of the world, where they have no choice, if they want to make a living or even worse, if they want to survive, moving is the only option for them. They tend to gravitate toward the West, seeking a new home that comes with the promise of safety, operates without (or with less) corruption, and is suitable to rely on in the long term. They learn to get along with the rest, even if it means accommodating to radically different values and cultural reality.

There are the expats then, the group of people who chose to relocate of free will. Some for a few years, some for more, and some for good. Their choices are influenced by job opportunities, visas, and bureaucratic circumstances. They might follow their spouse into a new home, stay longer in a country because of the benefits of the potential citizenship, or let themselves be chosen by a country itself.

“I would have stayed there forever if I didn’t make up my mind. But I did.” - a friend shared it a few years back upon finally making the decision, and leave Berlin for Canada for good. Until that, she allowed her circumstances to influence her living situation. At that point, she decided to choose hers and take responsibility for that. Things followed quickly and by the end of the summer, their move was on the way.


What is the gift of being a third-world kid?

I was laughing over the churros in Berlin-Charlottenburg with Caroline. She was born and raised in Australia, lived in Italy, and lately has moved to Berlin. She struggles with the cold of the locals and the climate, she considers herself Mediterranean, yet she found love here and her partner is not in a position to move away. She decided to stay and escape from depression and darkness to the South during the winters.

“I’m concerned if my children will be missing out if we only live in one place.” - she shares openly. She thinks she got so much from moving across continents, her personality evolved and her world became colorful. She defines certain periods in her life, as the time spent in a given country. She lived her teenage years in Australia, and she sees the country mostly through a teenager’s eyes and experiences.

Some people are worried about raising a third-world kid (the phrase used for children growing up in a different country than the origin of their parents, or moving multiple times during their upbringing and not feeling strongly rooted in any of the countries, or on the contrary, creating multiple bonds). Caroline personally being one has a different opinion: she sees the value of it and wants her future children to experience the world similarly.

Openness, curiosity, adaptability, bilingualism, and high problem-solving skills are on the one side. Possibly a lower sense of belonging, isolation, higher risk of mental conditions, and identity questions are on the other. For long, I’ve been dreading the idea of raising a kid abroad, let alone in Germany (although the system has great benefits, I felt alienated from it mostly because of my resistance toward some of the values of the country and the language itself.)

When this afternoon Daniel shared about the wide opportunities his culture-rich background and trilingual situation are giving him, something shifted in my mind and I started to see the gift of being a third culture kid. I might struggle to learn proper German (yet), and sometimes even listening to it brings up unpleasant emotions, but it can be a different story for my children. They will likely develop a mixed identity, and whether they want to have a similar experience for their children as well, they will get the chance to use this wide and unique experience as a gift. Taking a job on another continent when they want to (or need to), being confident and conversational in multiple languages, calling forth the matching part of their identity and skills about different cultural norms, and hopefully easily adapting to new ones and cultivating novel capacities to navigate life and its waves.


How can you develop a sense of belonging living abroad?

I ordered a cappuccino. I stopped drinking caffeine many months ago. First, I made occasional exceptions, and when I noticed the negative effect it had on my mental state, I decided to avoid it completely. I still drink decaf and low-caf coffee, but not even black tea anymore. The coffeeshop did not have a decaf option and I did not like the other items on the menu. “I might go with the regular one this time.” - I argued to myself. I had the first two sips and I started to feel uncomfortable. Not purely because of the caffeine, but rather the fact that I rejected my own needs to try to fit in. I wanted to feel accepted. I wanted to belong.

I did not finish the caffeinated cup. I chose to stay true to myself. My sense of belonging shifted shortly after. I felt at home being myself. I understood that a lack of sense of belonging can come from wanting to be someone else, but ourselves. What we really want is to know that whoever we are is welcome. We want to feel that we are in the right place. It can’t happen if any of who we are needs to be hidden or denied. It suggests that a part of us can’t be accepted and that creates distance. First and foremost within ourselves. This gap is then closed whenever we decide to show up fully as ourselves, as a whole. It might be welcomed and cherished by our surroundings, and it might not. Interestingly, there is a likelihood that it will be, because by giving permission to ourselves to proudly and honestly present our full self, we also help others to do the same. And this, my dear friends, is the most liberating feeling of it all. Experiencing true belonging to the whole, to the Universe.


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