As I negotiate my family's transition to a new country, I spend a lot of time talking to other expats here in Germany and reading blogs from expats around the world (especially seasoned "expert expats"). I've garnered a good bit of support this way, and know that I am not alone in many challenges I face or the way I often feel. But I've also learned I'm not the average expat, and it has me at a bit of a disadvantage. Worse, it has my kids at a disadvantage. One of the key things that make us different from a great many expats, is that we did not come here on a corporate contract. We're on the do-it-yourself plan.
We came back to Germany so my husband could return to his roots and be close to his aging parents and a handicapped brother, all of whom will need our support in the foreseeable future. It is something we knew we'd need to do one day, and initially thought we'd do right out of grad school. But circumstances, including my mother's unsuccessful cancer battle during the last year of my doctoral program, led us to stay in the United States longer than planned. We built a good life there for our kids and figured the move back to Europe could wait. But about six years ago, my husband really started to feel like it was time to get back to his family, and we wanted to try to do it before the kids got to high school.
So my husband starting searching for overseas work and also requested a move with his employer, who has an office location in Germany. He was unable to find a new job, but after lengthy discussions, his boss approved a transfer of his current job, but needed to get it through Human Resources. It took HR several years to approve the request and figure out how to transfer his job to their European office. But that was all they would agree to do - to allow him to work in Germany while maintaining the position he had. From their perspective, this was an optional move and they were being gracious to allow us to relocate - at our expense. This meant that we would get no support or assistance from them.
Doing it ourselves, it seems we've made every mistake in the book. As mentioned in an earlier post, we failed to understand the housing market, so we lost a lot of time and money trying to find a place to live, and ultimately had to exceed our budget to get into any place at all. But we also failed to understand the myriad paperwork, from licensing our vehicle, to getting my German drivers' license, and most importantly, enrolling the kids in school and getting them the help they need.
If we had been on a standard corporate contract, much of this would have been anticipated for us, explained, and often, paid for. Other expats I've met were given generous moving budgets that covered fees on the sale of their real estate, the international shipping, airfare, temporary housing until a permanent place was found, meal per diems, real estate agent fees, furnishings, various licensing fees, even health club costs and household help (cooks & maids!). But best of all, many expats get international school tuition covered for the children.
I can't imagine how much easier my life would be with even a fraction of this support. Instead, as do-it-yourself-expats with four children, we spent every penny we had on the cost of the moving company and all of the setting-up-house expenses once we got here. Then we ended up over budget on the rental we finally found, and now are also spending hundreds of Euros a week on various tutors for the children. There's certainly no health club or maid. There's not even an electric clothes dryer.
But I can live without most of those trimmings and I even think it is good for us to learn to live with fewer luxuries. What I most regret not having is the funds to cover international school. Watching my kids struggle through the local schools, as teenagers, has been incredibly painful. With only basic language skills, the older ones are unable to keep up in all of their subjects. They are frustrated and, at times, quite depressed. I've spent today online looking for summer language immersion camps and bi-lingual counselors (in recent weeks I was online looking for pediatricians, ophthalmologists, dentists and orthodontists). I need to build their support system here, without much of my own support system. I'm fumbling along in the dark, and as I read other expat blogs looking for guidance, it seems most had substantial corporate support. Anyone who didn't have a corporate contract was smart enough to not try bringing teens with them.
Well, we're here now and we'll make the best of it. If you have resources or tips to share, I welcome your comments. And one day, I am sure this experience will make my kids much stronger, more flexible, confident, and interesting people, capable of taking on the world! We Can Do It!