• Paul D. Wilke

Is Expat Life Amazing (or what)?



I believe it was Buckaroo Banzai who uttered the deceptively profound words, "No matter where you go, there you are." And it's true. A satisfied soul will find joy no matter where they are. A miserable wretch won't, neither in heaven, hell, or anywhere in between. I can speak with some authority on this since I've lived in several beautiful places tainted only by listening to a few privileged people bitch and moan about being there. I've lived in Monterey twice, Berlin, Brasilia, Washington D.C. a couple of times, Kyiv, Ukraine twice, and now Paris. It's been a helluva run.


Still, no matter where I go, there they are. I'm talking about the people who live in amazing places and have extraordinary lives and yet do nothing but complain all of the time. Don't get me wrong; everyone sometimes gripes about the challenges of living in a foreign country, me included. I'm not talking about the occasional bit of frustrated venting we all do. I'm talking about the people who seem to circle every conversation back to their unhappy state.


If you've ever lived abroad, you know the type I'm describing. They couldn't wait to get overseas, arriving with lofty expectations that were soon crushed by the dull routine of daily life found everywhere from Paris to Peoria. Once that happens, once the corroding acid of disillusion creeps in, the countdown to misery begins. Then any joy of living in paradise gets smothered by an overwhelming desire to be anywhere but there.


The plight they find themselves in - to repeat Mr. Banzai - is that no matter where you go, there you are. Always. If you are prone to misery, not even the deep blue skies of Brasilia or the bustling cafes of Paris will warm your frozen and shriveled soul. Not for long, anyway. You'll find something wrong with it.

For example, I loved Berlin: the rich culture, the history, the bike-friendly urban setting, the parks, the museums, the food, the Christmas markets, everything. I was privileged to live there, something I could also say about living in Paris right now. I'm a lucky man. And yet, I remember some people dwelling on the few downsides of life in Berlin. It was dark and gloomy in the winter. The people were cold and the climate too. They spoke German! Stores were closed on Sundays. The house they wanted in the chicest neighborhood was not the one they ended up in. They lived too far from the city center or too far from the school. And so on, something always ruined it.


"I can't wait to get out of here!" has been something I've heard at every place I've been. I'm writing this little rant now because I constantly hear the same complaining here in Paris. Yes! Even here in the City of Lights, one finds the creeping rot of bored discontent that some folks seem to have burrowed deep in their souls.


The thing is, after escaping the hell of expat life and returning home, they are the ones name-dropping everything they loved about Kyiv-Berlin-Brasilia-Paris-wherever. Social media posts ooze nostalgia for those halcyon days of yore when they lived as glamorous expats. Facebook memories reinforce this personal myth-building, telling the tale of neverending overseas bliss.


But, come on! That's not how it actually was!


I imagine they are now somewhere else complaining bitterly about how much they hate it. These people chase the rainbow of a better future and dwell in the dreamy mists of cherry-picked memories. The present, which is really all that matters, is for them a dreary world of blah blah blah.

"I can't wait to get out of here!"

Yet...

"No matter where you go, there you are."


Ah, but that's the beauty of nostalgia, isn't it? Remembering the past with all the bad parts left out, curating a just-so story of your life, only remembering what you want to remember while forgetting the rest. Nostalgia is a gift from the gods and helps to keep us from sinking into despair as the years tick by. Likewise, our belief that the past was better than it actually was makes us hopeful the future will be as well. Call it a kind of reverse nostalgia for a future that never will be.


A shame, really, because it neglects the most important things.


The present is all there is and ever will be.

The future is never now and never will be.

The past was never the golden age we remember it to be.


Please don't mistake my meaning here; it's good that we can look forward with hope and back with nostalgia. The tragedy is when we fail to notice what is all around us right here, right now.



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Paris, France

April 2019