Photo: Jana Shea/Shutterstock

Survival Kit for Moving Away

by Angelica Arbulu Sep 9, 2011
How to cope with the stresses of moving abroad while avoiding the threats of “Stockholm syndrome.”

THIS IS MY thirteenth international move. I started off moving as a daughter, then as a student, then for work, then for love and now as a mom.

You may be a nomad like me and only know the place you live in for a couple of years. Or maybe it’s where you have spent the better part of your life. Perhaps you were born there and went to school down the street from where you work now. That is such an alien concept to me that I’m just going to go ahead and ignore that option. I am also going to assume that you have a family, i.e. kids, or at least a spouse. If you don’t most of this still applies to you, just subtract 1.¾ cups of stress and 2.5 cups of guilt and replace with booze. It adds up and keeps everyone happy.

Leaving implies leaving people, places and things behind. This is where Stockholm syndrome kicks in, a psychological condition where a captive comes to sympathize with his or her tormentor over time: it doesn’t matter how unhappy or annoyed you may have been by these people or places. It doesn’t matter how unpleasant your neighbors are, or how nerve wrecking it is that the in-laws live four doors down and never knock. Now that you are leaving, everything you ever hated about this place will seem quaint. The food will taste better. The ten minute walk to the nearest grocery store that was so inconvenient now appears delightful and an opportunity to get some exercise. The hassles become charming, the absurd funny, the expensive “quality.”

My advice is to write it down, write it all down.

I ask you to write down what you love and what you will miss because you would be surprised how quickly you forget the little things. Take pictures of the places you go to everyday but consider too mundane to photograph, as they are usually the places most filled with memories and stories. Write it down and treasure it, because this is a part of your story that you are leaving behind for good. Even if you were to come back, it will have changed and so will you. I also recommend that you make another list, one with all the things that you are happy to leave behind. It may seem petty to complain about these little things now that you are about to leave, especially as this country welcomed you so generously. Write it down because you will need that list.

Once you have moved, when Stockholm syndrome really kicks in, you will find yourself in a perfectly acceptable place that will never be able to compare to all the charming and wonderful memories that you have chosen to keep. In hindsight, everything you left behind will feel easier and better. There is a very simple explanation for this: it WAS easier, but only because it was familiar. Have you ever noticed how walking to a place for the first time always seems to take longer?

There are a few major pitfalls to be avoided during the leaving step. They may appear fun, but can turn out to be hazardous to your health, your economy or your career.

The first I like to call the “it’s the last chance ever” syndrome. All the things that you like and considered buying but were uncertain about (their usefulness, if they were worth the money, if you’d ever actually wear them…) you will feel a sudden unstoppable urge to buy, because if you don’t, you will never (ever) have the chance to do so again. This is ok, good even. You will appreciate these things even more now that they will have an emotional attachment to them, just make sure you keep it in check.

The second is in regards to stress management and saying farewell. There are many ways to say farewell. The most traditional is to throw an all out massive party. I’m not one to enjoy these, you end up stressed with the logistics, trying to talk to everyone at the same time and failing miserably. I would recommend instead that you organize small dinner parties. It makes it easier to have quality time, to share and discuss, to enjoy each person and their uniqueness. The danger here is mainly to your liver as these outings will inevitably include booze, which means you might spend the last two months boozing up, which is actually good for your stress management, but again… just keep it in check.

The exception to this is work. For work I recommend you let someone else organize a farewell that includes everyone you don’t want to have a smaller private thing with. And whatever you do, stay sober. Midnight is no time for last minute confessions.

Another red flag goes out in regards to culling. Regardless of the distance and details of the move, it will require you going through your stuff and facing the fact that your house, your drawers and your wardrobe are full of crap. This, my friend, is the time to part with it. To part with the skinny jeans and clothes you bought that one summer you looked like Kate Moss and hoped to fit back into. Part with all the cozy sweaters you wear all winter long that look like they’ve been pulled out of the waste basket. Part with documents that have been in your drawers since you graduated from university and keep meaning to file. Enjoy the feeling of liberation as you part with stuff you should have dumped ages ago, and yes, that does include your husband’s 20 year old favorite shirt, and all the toys your kids are too old for but become re-attached to every time you attempt to bin. Throw out all the broken stuff, which is inevitably their favorite. Donate all the stuff you bought but never got around to wearing, the books you didn’t read, the furniture that’s in the way. This way at least you’ll make room for all the last minute stuff you are going to get.

If you are single, subtract toys and husband’s annoying things and replace with ex-boyfriend’s leftover junk, the Kate Moss articles and the stuff for that one night when you plan to compete with Lady Gaga.

But I leave the most important for last. No matter what else you do, maintain a state of utter denial throughout the preparation process. Do what you need to do, go through the steps to ensure you family will have a home and your children a school. Make sure that someone has time to spend with the kids in the initial weeks so that their initial impressions are positive. Contact any friend of friend that you’ve been put in contact with, no matter how desperate it seems: you need the local knowledge and the introductions to other people until you find someone you click with. Find out what you need to take with you (what is not for sale, available, or too expensive), but whatever you do, stop trying to guess what the future will bring, or how you will solve every step of the way. And then when night comes, dress up for one of those cozy dinners with friends, have a laugh and drink some booze.

Best stress management strategy ever.

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