Third Culture Country: Expat Life in a Pandemic

Photo Credit: 188163769 © Evgenia Sudakova |

It is ironic the year I am applying for permanent residency in Germany is also the year I have most deeply wanted to go back to America. Part of this longing is the pandemic, I simply miss my family, but it is also political. Over the past four years, people have stopped asking why I want to live in Germany. While America has glaring problems with healthcare, education, LGBTQ+ rights, and systemic racism, the recent election was like seeing a tender green shoot sprout from the snow.

Of course, even if I were treading American soil, I wouldn’t yet be allowed to go to Grandma’s house for coffee or sit on my dad’s sofa for a nice long chat, but things would be EASY there. No more Fiktionsbescheinigung or Auftenhaltstitel. No more Ausländerbehörde. I could throw a dart at a US map and move to any state I hit without having to worry about an Anmeldung or Abmeldung. I’d have to register a car or gun or (possibly) a dog, but at least I could fill out paperwork without the help of google translate.

It’s not just the legalese that would be easier, but living would be easier. I could buy a gallon of milk instead of a liter. A gallon! It’s four times the size of a liter. I vaguely remember buying such a thing, but it seems incredible now. What did I even do with such quantities of milk? I don’t drink milk these days, but I know the enormous jug would fit inside an American refrigerator. In my apartment here in Germany, any furniture bigger than a single bed has to be airlifted through an upper story window. In the states, if I wanted that gallon of milk at 2 A.M. on a Sunday, I could run to the nearest 24-hour Wal-Mart. Of course, I wouldn’t WANT to be at Wal-Mart that time of morning, but I COULD.

And DATING…oh, Lord, how easy that would be! I could flirt appropriately. I could understand jokes. I could actually read a person without the cultural wall obstructing my view. I could tell someone any story from my childhood and have them understand it on a common level. Growing up in working-class America is vastly different from growing up under other social systems. Even if my mother only had twenty bucks a week to spend on groceries, she had a choice of what to buy. This wasn’t the case for my friend who grew up in the USSR.

Yet, here I am in Germany. Why AM I here?

Originally, I stayed in Germany because I landed a good job here. I also felt it was a safer place to raise my kids (particularly my transgender child). I thought the school system would set the kids up for great (and affordable) educations. I didn’t worry that a trip to the emergency room would bankrupt me. I bungled things, for sure. Not knowing the system meant we were set adrift in it. Life as an expat often feels like trying to cobble together driftwood for a raft. You grab at anything and hope it keeps you afloat.

A while ago, a friend asked what my expectations were of living in Germany. I genuinely don’t know. I have broad outlines of what I want my future to look like, but I’ve never picked up the fine brush to paint the eyelashes. Maybe the pandemic is finally getting to me. Everything is cold and gray. The sky. My spirit. My creativity. The last 12 months have been like one of those movies where things keep going wrong and you eagerly await the resolution.

On Friday I received an email telling me I’m no longer needed for that job I’d landed nearly seven years ago. Though I wasn’t working full-time, the job was a part of my identity. I had been a stay at home mom for 20 years, and it was the first job that offered some form of independence. With that possibility gone, it’s spun me deeper into this mid-life/pandemic crisis vortex. Because I never worked full-time outside the home, I am underqualified for most jobs. I am educated, yes. But my actual work experience is spotty. I’ve been doing online training to update my skills, but is it feasible to re-train at age 47? If so, what do I even want to do?

Who am I? What am I doing with my life?

It is not easy to live in Germany as an outsider, and yet I would have my challenges in America too. I’ve lived in Germany too long to feel completely ‘American,’ and I’m too American to meld into German culture. I will forever be in this third-culture netherworld, no matter where I end up hanging my hat. However, I’ve come to realize that’s okay. I don’t want to lose my easy-going Americanness, but I do want to adopt some of that German practicality. I’ve realized that because of my unique position as an expat, I don’t have societal pressure to behave a predescribed way.

I was excited to move to Leipzig last summer. I wanted to be closer to my friends and to become more involved in the community. I wanted to feel part of something. Lockdown changed that. Instead of meeting my language group on Friday nights, I sit in my snowbound home, clicking on a keyboard to make connections. I have no idea how the lonely weeks of lockdown will impact me. I have to remind myself of the good reasons I moved and remember that lockdown will eventually be over.

For months I’ve felt lost in the fog of lockdown. I haven’t been really excited about anything. I second-guess all of my choices and dream about running away. As if there is a magical land that will make me feel grounded. I have a difficult time envisioning the future because the present seems to take up the entire screen.

I could sell my belongings and trek the Himalayas again. I could leave the comforts of this beautiful new home and teach someplace tropical with a low cost-of-living. I could go back to the US where everything is big and convenient.

Or, I could make a commitment to myself and to the country in which I’ve chosen to live. I can do things to make my life easier here, like take an intensive language course, find a job with a German company or just ask more questions.

One of my daughters recently reminded me of the dreams I’ve forgotten in the haze of this pandemic. I wanted to write novels. I wanted a cabin in the woods and an apartment in the city. These are things I still want. I just have to keeping taking steps to get there.

This always-winter-never-christmas lockdown is a daily test of strength. Some days I pry myself from bed. I have to remind myself to shower. I force a few words onto a page. I read something, anything, to stimulate my mind. I’ve started listening to podcasts while I clean. Doing these things is like marathon training: each day you do the work until you are fairly sure you can run the distance. I’ve hit the wall multiple times in the past few months, but somehow I catch my breath and move on.

Living abroad is not easy, and the pandemic only complicates matters. Offices you could formerly just walk into and grab a number for your turn now require appointments that are booked up three months in advance. Essential documents once returned in eight weeks now take sixteen. Plus, the lockdown has stripped away many of the benefits of living in Europe. Travel. Culture. Cuisine. Society. You are simply alone in a land that seems bent on spitting you out.

The other day, I accidentally pulled out a beach cover-up from my closet. It still smelled of sun lotion. Of sunshine. Of sweaty fingers intertwined as the sun sank into the lake on that one perfect date I had. Of my gorgeous new apartment. Of my novel being read by those who could bring it to shelves. It smelled of happiness and hope. It reminded me of the good reasons I wanted to be here.

In the ten marathons I’ve run, I’ve understood there are benefits to running further each day. Similarly, through nine years of Crossfit I’ve learned there are rewards for consistently lifting weights. Even when I don’t immediately see the results, I show up and do a little more each day, because the best things are not always easy. As my coach likes to say, “If it were easy, everyone would do it.”

Living abroad is not easy. Thriving in a pandemic is not easy. And yet, quitting is not an option. My version of quitting is to run away: to the Himalayas, to the US, to the arms of another person. But I’m tired of feeling untethered. I don’t want to wander the world forever like a ghost. So, I’ll add a little weight to the metaphorical bar by learning new skills. I run a little further by sending out my manuscript. I’ll write a little more. Read a little more. I’ll commit fully to the present. I trust when the pandemic is over, I’ll see the results.

American expat in Germany, formerly conservative homeschool mom now navigating widowhood; runner, writer, Crossfitter, trying to figure **it out