Hi. My name’s Jay, and I’m an expat wife. It’s been two years since my I traded in my day job for the expat spouse gig, and followed my husband’s career to Warsaw.
And I have another confession to make. It’s not quite what I expected.
I know plenty of people have reservations about giving up their jobs, homes and familiar lives to follow their spouses to another country, but I couldn’t wait. ‘It’s not going to be all cocktail parties and manicures,’ my husband warned. ‘Blah blah something something’ I heard, as leafed through day spa brochures and googled ‘tennis coaching Warsaw’. That’s what expat spouses do, right? It was my first time so I didn’t know. But it’s sure how I imagined it.
Reality set in pretty much straight away. For what seemed like months after we first arrived, I seemed to do nothing but deal with the incredible number of practicalities involved with moving to a new country. How do I get a bank account? What’s a NIP? And most importantly of all (and I don’t know a girl who would disagree), where do I find a good hairdresser? All while traipsing through a total of 29 apartments, looking for somewhere to live, because somehow after a week here I was supposed to know whether I’d prefer to live in Mokotów or Żoliborz for the next three years.
Then there were just a bunch of things about Warsaw that didn’t make sense. Why are there so many dentists here – are their teeth really bad or really good? Is it really SO strange to want milk with tea? And will I ever work out this Rondo Centrum underpass, I wondered, bobbing up and down looking for the right exit like a Meer cat in a burrow.
All of a sudden this expat life wasn’t looking quite like it had in the promotional video. Rather less champagne, and rather more searching for self-raising flour, for a start. And substantially less lunching. Which wasn’t really surprising, since I didn’t actually know anyone. When I realized that singing along to Brittney Spears in the supermarket was the closest I’d gotten to human interaction all day, I worked out that I really needed to meet some people.
But I don’t work and I don’t speak the language, so how am I supposed to do that? Well, I did something I said I never would. I joined one of the expat women’s groups. And I found out – luckily – that there are a whole heap of intelligent, friendly spouses around town who are only too happy to meet up with other people in the same circumstances and be reassured that we can all still hold a conversation on things other than reality TV.
And once I started meeting a few of them, my life got a lot easier, because then I had people I could call to ask stuff. Like where I could get clothes altered, where to buy fresh coriander, and the relative merits of the various satellite packages. Not the big things, just the stuff that makes your life a bit easier when you know and a lot harder when you don’t.
And who were not only free for lunch, but usually had a hot tip about a cool new place to try. ‘OK, this is a bit more like it,’ I thought. Because settling into a new life overseas turned out to be rather a lot harder than the video had made it seem, and it was nice to have people to share that with, too. I wondered aloud one day whether I really wanted to do it again. I was quickly put straight by a more experienced spouse. ‘Oh, it’s like losing your virginity. The first time’s a big deal, but once you’ve done it once, you may as well just keep doing it.’
And now, with life a bit more organised, I’m starting to be able to really appreciate the bits of life in Warsaw that are just amazing. Like listening to string quartets at the Royal Castle, jetting off to Budapest or Stockholm for the weekend, or heading to a dodgy basement club in Praga to hear an experimental Estonian rock music band. (I can honestly say that was the best experimental Estonian rock music I’d ever heard).
So this expat spouse gig isn’t just about getting your nails done and affairs with the tennis coach. Of course on one level I’m disappointed. But while I never expected the practicalities would be so hard, I also never imagined the good bits would be so great, either. And you can put that in the promotional video from me.
And if you’re having trouble with anything, give me a call. We’ll have coffee. I’m getting to know some great little places.