Monday, August 22, 2016

From Cruiser to Expat: On Fernweh and Putting Down Roots Abroad

The incredible experience that lead to this photo would never had happened if I wasn't a local.
There was an internet meme going around a while back that defined the word "fernweh" (n) which is the German word for "farsickness". According to Wikipedia it means: wanderlust, a desire for travel, a longing for far-off places.  I, along with many of my cruising comrades, have this. I cannot say exactly where this "fernweh" in me came from, but I know I had it from a very young age and I suspect it had something to do with being born to pretty adventurous parents. Throw in a well cultivated love of reading (the very best way to travel if you can't actually do so), a thirst for all things "different", and - POOF! - there I was, a child who wanted to see the world and would stop at nothing to do so.

From comparatively exotic family vacations to places like Belize, and fairly regular trips to England to visit my British family - my youth was peppered with the excitement of travel. I was privileged and lucky to experience these things and my parents were sure to remind me of this. As I got older, I literally worked for no other reason that to save money for travel. At eighteen I backpacked around Europe for five weeks, and as I entered my twenties I spent a semester abroad in Rome, Italy. I traveled, solo, around Southeast Asia and South America and while my shoe-string journeys were full of all the adjectives one could use to describe travel (amazing, beautiful, awe-inspiring, eye opening...etc. etc.), I always left wanting more... Not more stamps on my passport or patches for my pack, but...more...something intangible and out of reach. I wanted to feel like I belonged in those places I visited. To sit at the cafe and laugh at the jokes the locals were laughing at. To know the intricacies, the stories, the histories and the true color of a place. I wanted to know about the widowed lady who ran the bakery and the grumpy man who sold the papers outside the flower shop. I didn't want to be a person merely passing through. I wanted to be a local. And a few days to a few weeks in a place just doesn't get you there.


No place in this world has held so much allure to me as East Africa. Growing up, I had read several books that were directly responsible for this blind love affair that began as an early teen, and in college (after reading several more books) I made up my mind that I was going to live there one day. I graduated from University and lived the boozed-up post collegiate city life and loved it. But Africa was always on my mind. After a few party-packed years of care-free fun and not much to show on my resume, I knew I needed a change. A nasty break up with a not so-great-(for me)-boyfriend seemed as good a catalyst as any, and I quit my lucrative yet dead-end waitressing job in the city and signed up for a three month volunteer stint in Tanzania.

I came back three years later.

This experience, way too rich and bohemian to describe in a single blog post, was my first experience as an expat.  It was the most incredible, storied, and adventuresome period of my life thus far and there is no way I would have had even a sliver of the experiences I had if I'd only visited for a few weeks.


Which brings us to now. We are expats. We've >>>put down roots here in the British Virgin Islands<<<. And while being an island-dwelling (live-aboard) expat and being a cruiser have quite a few similarities, this is a significant deviation from the suspected plot-line of our well documented story in which we had cast ourselves as roving sea gypsies.

While there are certainly aspects of cruising that I miss; the countless nights at anchor, the freedom of coming and going, seeing the sun rise on the ocean and the excitement of a new landfall - for me, being an expat is, in many ways, more fulfilling.

While we were cruising, we would only scratch the surface of a place. We'd visit a few beaches and towns near the anchorage. We'd visit a restaurant or two and maybe get friendly with a market vendor during our time, but knowing that we'd be leaving in a few day's or a few week's time meant our understanding of a place was always limited. Don't get me wrong, you can (and will!) have incredible cross-cultural experiences as a cruiser but they will be different to those you have as an expat. As an expat, we are certainly not acquiring as many passport stamps, but the experiences we are living have that much more depth.

So what do I love most about expatriate living?

Getting to Know A Place

For one, we have a car at our disposal which means getting off the beaten path and exploring farther afield is that much more feasible. We've lived here for about a year in total and we've only just begun to see what this place has to offer. Part of this slow learning curve is due to the fact that a busy work schedule and a gaggle of girls limits us significantly, but it's also due to the fact that it takes a long time to really get to know a place. We are now getting to know customs (for example, here you always say, "Good Morning" or "Good afternoon" when walking into a place of business or a store, not doing so is considered rude) and the inner-workings of island life (like how to deal with island time, the 'powers that be' and general island bureaucracy.) We still have a lot to learn, but time is an expats greatest teacher. In my experience, it takes at least six months to really sink your teeth into a place...

Cultural Diversity

While the "melting pot" of America is certainly diverse, where I grew up you would need to go to great lengths to not only see that diversity, but interact with it on a daily basis. If Isla was living in my hometown (which, I might add, is a wonderful place!), odds are she'd be in pre-school with no children of color, and seeing a rainbow of ethnicities would be reserved for trips to the city. Here, she is the minority. We interact every day with children and adults from all over the world, and - as a parent - this is very important to me, and a huge bonus of expatriate life.  We certainly got this perk from cruising as well, but instead of playing for a single afternoon, or sharing one single conversation or sundowner on the beach, we are forging more consistent relationships with people from all over the globe. Our girls have a steady group of little friends, which I think is important for them at this age.

Like Minded People

Expatriates, I learned first in my experience in Tanzania and am learning again here, are a different breed of folk. As with cruising, it takes a certain type of person to up and move from their homeland to somewhere foreign. Forming friendships with other expats is usually pretty easy - people who want to live abroad tend to be more open-minded, accepting, and cut from a similar cloth. We are all a dose of hedonist mixed with a pinch of crazy. While the expatriate community is transient, the coming and going of so many interesting people in your life can be very stimulating and inspiring. While the relationships you make might not be as longstanding as, say, a childhood friend, they carry a different kind of depth and connection that is equally fulfilling in a whole new way. Stronger relationships are forged in a shorter amount of time, which is the same with cruising, except with our fellow expat friends we're not saying "goodbye" nearly as much, which is a nice change.


As with cruising, living as an expat requires a good amount of adaptability. Things don't work like they do back home and island life takes more effort in general. You learn to get by with what's available or improvise. Because of the comparative lack of resources you will, in general, be much more inventive with what you do have. Furthermore, making an effort to integrate yourself into another culture, and not simply acting as an observer, will force you out of your comfort zone and show you the importance of being flexible, open-minded, and accepting.

Adventure Every Day

I've already written about the fact that >>>island life is not for everyone<<< and is by no means utopia. But if you are the kind of person who can find beauty in the mundane, laugh at the absurd, and stop and smell the roses, this life is full of excitement - it's all about your perspective. For example, one quick run into town as a family turned into a full morning out when we decided to take our car to the pop-up car wash. Sure, they took over an hour and a half to get our car cleaned, but instead of being annoyed, I chose to find the beauty in it. The car wash was basically a street party; loud speakers blasting music, friends washing cars while shaking their hips to the beat, and a giant water truck providing the means to was an event! I ended up doing a little photo shoot and it was so fun to embrace this experience as something we'd never have back home. Perspective.


While there was a time in my life I would scoff at the notion of stability, as a mom of three little ones, I embrace it. I love that our girls have a little consistency in their lives.  They love our "neighborhood" of Nanny Cay and the community we live in is a HUGE reason why we chose Tortola as home. We have wonderful friends and neighbors and a few days before we left a taxi driver told my mom, 'We love those kids. That family is very good to us and we watch after those girls. All of us here love them and look out for them." He then told her he was going to taxi us to the airport, for free, as a gift (turns out Scott got off work so he could take us, but still...) I nearly cried when I heard that. Aside from the sense of community, being in one place means we have some nice land-lubbing liberties that were not available to us when cruising... Very soon the girls will be going to a little preschool a couple days a week to give mommy a break and to give them a chance to experience a slice of life away from my hip (which, for the record, they've never been away from their entire lives!) I'm excited about this for all of us.


Do we miss cruising? Of course. It's an incredible lifestyle and one that we have plans to return to one day. But I love expat life just as much and in a different way. Luckily for us, we chose to live in one of the >>>most popular cruising destinations in the world<<<, so there are many similarities between the lifestyles and elements that still remain the same. Do I still suffer from fernweh? Yep. Do I long to travel freely and experience new and different places? For sure. Will we do everything in our power to show our girls as much of the world as we can? You betcha. But this period of our lives, the one where one day we will be able too look back and talk about the time we lived in the British Virgin Islands? It's pretty incredible too.
“What makes expat life so addictive is that every boring or mundane activity you experience at home (like grocery shopping, commuting to work or picking up the dry cleaning) is, when you move to a foreign country, suddenly transformed into an exciting adventure. Try finding peanut butter in a Japanese grocery story or explaining in broken Spanish to the Guatemalan pharmacy that you need cough drops and you’ll understand. When abroad, boredom, routine and ‘normal’ cease to exist. And all that’s left is the thrill and challenge of uncertainty.” 
 – Reannon Muth


Necesse said...

I love that whenever I want to see your face I know exactly where to go. We're neighbours!

Windtraveler said...

I love it too!!!! And I love you!

Keep Reaching said...

Thanks for a great post. I have been an expat for over 35 years and what you say really resonates. Interestingly enough, as I approach retirement (I guess I should be thinking about it, having now reached 70), I find myself being drawn back to the the US where I grew up. There are so many crazy things wrong with the US today and there is such a big world out there, but still ....

Michael Robertson said...

Only two photos in this post, but each is stunning.

Unknown said...

Excellent post as always and a very enjoyable read! Thank you - Paul.

Tamara said...

I loved this! As we set out cruising again with our three kids in tow, we are so excited, but you touch on all the parts that we know we won't get from cruising. The other part of travel I crave. The depth of the people and the sense of place that only come from time. We'll get to that part eventually!

Brooke Higgins said...

Would love to see more amazing travelling posts like this one.
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