March 4, 2015 lia

When the ‘exotic’ life abroad becomes just as conventional as the ‘settled’ life at home

– I think moving abroad would bankrupt me. My 1500 square foot apartment is full of stuff.
– I used to have a rule to always limit myself to two suitcases when living in a country.
– Two suitcases? I could never live that way, being so limited. I mean I love to travel, but I also work really hard to enjoy some comforts at home. When you love your home you don’t have to travel so much to enjoy yourself.
– That’s very interesting. I see having few possessions as an expression of my freedom, and you see collecting things that bring you joy or comfort as your expression of freedom.

Three weeks ago I was on a project management course with a 30-something Belgian development worker who works in Jerusalem for the UN, and a 40-something Dutchman who works for a large cable company in Amsterdam.

Throughout the course, we would relate the theoretical learnings to our real-world experiences. The Belgian would relate one project management process to the time he was building a new temporary school in a refugee camp, and the Dutchman would talk about network architecture and engineers. Over lunch the Belgian described how exciting it was to be constantly surrounded by different people with different experiences, and how enriching his life was compared to if he had stayed home in his village in Belgium, and the Dutchman seemed very satisfied to have a good-paying job which he could work from 9-5 and come home and focus on his family.

I was the outsider and the insider, able to partially relate to both of these realities. Of the Belgian I wondered how deep his connections were with the people he was meeting, if he would ever see them again when his post was over in 2 months and how long he imagined living this exotic international life?

He responded that the only thing he found difficult about his international development postings was finding and keeping a life partner, and that if he had children he thought the best place in the world to raise them would be on a post in Africa.

I wondered if Dutchman had ever felt a genuine excitement or passion about where he lived or his work, and what he found interesting and challenging about what he does.

The Dutchman said he admired people who are passionate about their work but never felt that way himself about it, and that his work involves constant growth and change and that it keeps him on his toes.

Settled vs. Mobile

What I love about finally leading a normal, settled, adult life is the deeper relationships I’ve built by staying in one place, the new facets of life that I’ve gotten to see, actually learning the local language (for the first time) and really feeling like a genuine member of society.

What I don’t like about being settled in the same place is that being part of society means that, as you gain more and more awareness of your new home’s social measuring stick, you are more influenced by other people’s values. I catch myself being more and more affected by social values and norms — living in a big and beautiful home in a sought-after neighbourhood, outfits for yourself and your children exhibiting a particular style, eating at trendy restaurants, and travelling in a constant frequency — and they are beginning to influence my own values.

It’s easy to slip into patterns that bring you more material value but less mobility freedom.

In my home town of Vancouver I knew what it all meant: to live in a particular neighbourhood, to have a detached house vs. a townhouse vs. a condo, what each square footage bracket was, what car you drove, where you holiday, and what clothes you wore. I knew its value to other people.

The downside of being a contributing member of society

For over a decade I lived outside of all of that: I didn’t have much choice in the neighbourhood I lived, I didn’t own possessions, my wardrobe was a collection of items I had bought in countries where I didn’t have anything weather- or occasion-appropriate, and anyone who knew what any of these things ‘meant’ never communicated it to me.

And now I own oyster shuckers, champagne flutes, and other unnecessary objects that symbolise settled-ness. And our priorities for desirable housing and owning a car are starting to eclipse our priority of being mobile and available to experience new things in the world.

Am I seeking more comforts in possessions because I’m getting older? Or am I simply diversifying the things that entertain me? Is the source of this change from inside myself? Or is the influence of my surroundings seeping in?

Regardless of the source, we think part of the cure is to take a family sabbatical.