Your Place or Mine?
Written for Oasis magazine, Living in Egypt
Love is the home you find in someone, I wrote in the February issue of Oasis, followed by a dramatic sigh. For multicultural couples and expat couples from around the globe, it makes good romantic sense. No matter where you are in the world, you are always at home with the one you love. But love does not live under a bridge, does it, and therefore people in love still need a place to call home in the more literal sense. Expats are moving willy-nilly on assignments and postings, tours of duty, missions and sabbaticals.
Multicultural couples, who I call GloLo couples because their love has crossed cultural boundaries, live here in her country, or there in his country or maybe even in a third, and hopefully way more exotic land where they live as GloLo expats. Hence this grounded concept of hearth and home – whether a ranch house in Argentina, a loft overlooking Central Park in New York City, a converted school house in Utrecht, a gated compound in Dubai, or a suite in an international hotel in China – is acutally one of the peskier issues plagueing international globe-trotting couples.
The location where you live, and by this I refer to both country and culture, determines so many things in your daily existence. There are the big or obvious things like whether your family and friends are nearby, the political climate, the language spoken, job possibilities, and even the weather.
Then there are the abstract things like local culture and customs and the annoying things like the food that is available or not available, whether or not you can drink the tap water, the number of Starbucks per square kilometre and whether your driving license is actually valid in the country. And for both GloLo couples and expat couples, location will of course impact each partner differently. One may be enjoying the familiarity of being in the motherland with kinfolk while the other is a foreigner dealing with cultural shock and thinking the kinfolk are kind of weird. Maybe one speaks the language with a local dialect and generous dose of colloquilisms while one cannot read the cooking instructions on a box of minute rice. Usually one enjoys the intellectual stimulation and office peer group, not to mention paycheck, derived from going to work every day while one struggles to have human contact and conversation with anyone beyond the mail man. Hence one of you may feel that love really is the home you find in someone – sigh! – and is relishing in the local habitat while the other feels confused and trapped in an incomprehensible universe which does not feel at all like home, never mind love. Sound familiar?
And one of the constants that globe-trotting expats and GloLo couples share is that the possibility of a change in location is constant, if that is not too contraditory for you. When you live and work internationally and you and your partner have different passport countries, opportunities for change, sometimes sought and desired, sometimes by chance and destiny, abound. There are job opportunities or joblessness, a change in family circumstance either by the addition of a new generation of globe-trotter or the loss of the old generation, the desire to reconnect with the home culture, or even the desperate wish to exit the current culture.
So how do couples move fluidly around the globe while keeping their ‘home’ in tact? How do they answer the “your place or mine?” question? There are essentially three rules to help couples cope with the decision and transition of moving around the world.
Rule #1 - Make a list
Even before you start the visa application process for the new and far flung land you will move to, sit with your partner and make a list of things that are important to you in how you live on a daily basis in your current location. The list will probably include things like proximity to and time shared with family and friends, your job (if you like it), your sports and hobbies, maybe openly practising your religion and enjoying nature. The list may also include things like speaking the language, the weather, food, your pension fund (yes, really), the right to vote, and even your favourite hair salon. Discuss how each of these things will be different in the new location. There will be some things that are simply frustrating, such as not finding your favourite foods at the local grocery store and having to buy them, if at all possible, for outrageous prices at a specialty, ethnic – ha! – food shop. There may be other things that are weightier to deal with such racism or religious intolerance.
Determine if there is anything on your list that would change so much that it could be a deal breaker. You and your international man/woman of mystery need to figure out together how to deal with the issues on the list before you pack the moving boxes.
Rule #2 - Make a deal
Once you and your partner have determined that moving is the right thing, you need to make a deal together. The deal can be customised for each couple but should include things like treating the move as a ‘trial’, as in not binding and forever, and being clear about how long the trial lasts and what options will be discussed if the trial fails. At the risk of sounding a tad bit cynical, particularly for someone who wrote a book about love, if one partner feels vastly unfulfilled in his or her new domicil, love can rapidly wane and, perhaps even worse, turn into resentment. Both partners need to know that home is not the country you live but how you will navigate your life together.
Couples also need to be clear on the roles you play in your new home. Changing location will also likely mean that the dynamics of your relationship change too. Language issues, financial dependency, and not having any friends are just a few things that influence how you interact together, and let’s be frank here, it is not always an easy transition. Include how frequently you will visit home and how frequently guests will visit you (and how long they are staying!). The point of making both the list and the deal is to create realistic expectations for yourself and your partner when you move from point A to international point B.
Rule #3 - Expect the unexpected
Despite having a great list and despite making a great deal with your partner, things don’t always go as expected. E
veryone experiences a move differently, particularly an international relocation. Some fear it, others embrace it, some benefit from the new opportunities while others may not find their new path so readily. And please note that just because you survived and even thrived in his/her country does not mean that your partner will survive, never mind thrive, in yours. Some cultures are easier to adapt to, some languages are easier to learn, and some people have the psychosocial skill set to cope better with change. Above all, as you and your partner face a new set of circumstance in a new country or culture, remember that love is your common homeland and the relocation is just another interesting chapter in the globalisation of your love.