08/07/2013 07:51 am ET Updated Oct 07, 2013

Be Prepared To Panic (It Will Pass)


No matter how long you've planned for this, how much research you've carried out, or how diligently you've followed this program, I promise you that, sometime during your first year in your new country, perhaps even during your first month in your new home, you'll wonder what in the world ever possessed you to think this "leaving home" thing was a good idea.

What were you thinking? You must have taken leave of your senses. Paradise? This place is no paradise. This place is a nightmare. This isn't an adventure. This is nuts.

My best advice is to wait out the panic. It will pass.

Moving to Ireland years ago, we thought the transition would be transparent. We Americans think we know the Irish. They're just like us, aren't they?

No, they're not.

Wherever you decide to chase your dreams overseas, even if it's somewhere as seemingly familiar as Ireland, you're going to discover that the people living there aren't like you either, in ways that won't be apparent at first. You're going to find that life is more difficult than it was wherever you came from. More complicated. Less predictable.

We didn't choose Waterford, Ireland, for our first international move. It was chosen for us by my employers at the time. And we didn't visit for an extended time before we made the leap, because we didn't have time to. My husband, my daughter, and I visited for two two-week planning trips, one in July, the other in September, then we arrived as full-time residents in Waterford in November.

By February, I was sad. Indescribably sad for no reason I could identify. We were comfortable in our rental cottage on the river. Kaitlin was doing well in her new school. Our office was established, and our daily commute was a pleasant 15-minute walk into town. All was well, but I was, frankly, miserable.

Then we took a trip to Nicaragua. After a few days on that country's sunny southern Pacific coast, my sadness disappeared. What was going on?

The Irish winter, that's what. Though I'd traveled in Ireland for years, I'd never lived through an Irish winter. Some days the sun rises after 9 a.m. and sets before 4 in the afternoon. In between those hours, it's typically gray, drizzling, overcast, and damp.

Ireland can be a great place to call home, but before you commit to retirement in the Auld Sod, experience it in winter. Spend time in the country in January and February. Or don't. Ireland is one place that makes good sense as a part-time retirement haven. You could retire to Ireland each summer then spend your winters someplace bright and sunny. That was our strategy. After our first long winter in Waterford, we escaped to the tropics every December and returned to the Emerald Isle in early March, in time to appreciate Irish spring and summer.

In Paris, we wondered about our sanity from the start. During our first few months, my husband and I and our two children were crammed into a 600-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment. Our children slept on cots in a tiny mezzanine. I stored clothes in the china hutch. Lief and I shared a single Internet connection at the single desk in the corner of the single bedroom.

In fact, though, our temporary stay in super-cramped rented quarters when we first arrived in Paris made the transition from Ireland to France more palatable. Instead of going straight from 5,000 square feet and five bedrooms on 7 acres in County Waterford to the 1,200 square feet and three bedrooms of the apartment we eventually bought and renovated in central Paris, we went from 5,000 square feet to the 600 square feet of our interim rental to, finally, 1,200 square feet. By the time the renovation of our little apartment on the rue de Verneuil was complete and we were able to move in, the place didn't seem so little.

Once, when I mentioned the "Prepare for Panic" phenomenon, as I refer to it, to a friend preparing to move overseas for the first time, suggesting that he shouldn't worry about the sense of panic he'd eventually experience, that it'd pass, my friend smiled and nodded politely, humoring me.

It can be hard to imagine, during the excitement of the pre-move phase, that after maybe only a month or two in your new home, you might find yourself questioning the move altogether. My friend, for example, insisted that it wouldn't happen to him. "I've spent months researching and making my plan," Tom explained with confidence. "I understand what I'm getting into. I've thought this through from every angle, and I'm fully prepared."

A couple of years later, over drinks one night, Tom remarked, "You know, before my move, when you talked about the panic stage that everyone goes through at some point after relocating to a new country, I laughed to myself. Panic, I thought. Why would I panic? The idea seemed extreme and, frankly, silly.

"But, I have to tell you, it happened to me. It was maybe a year into my move to Ecuador. I realized that I was feeling out of my element and uncertain in a fundamental way. Unsure of myself and my new situation. I was experiencing a feeling that, I had to admit, could best be described as panic."

"What did you do?" I asked.

"I remembered what you'd recommended. I waited it out. I realized that I was feeling overwhelmed by the frustrations of living in the Third World. I reminded myself why I'd wanted to make the move in the first place and of all the things about Ecuador that I love. There are many. After a little while, the panic passed."

No country is perfect. Wherever you decide to relocate will have its pluses and its minuses. The minuses eventually are going to get to you. The key to being happy in your new home, wherever you decide to make it, is to keep your perspective and your sense of humor. When doubt and frustration creep in, as they will, remind yourself of two things.

First, don't make any hasty decisions. The moment of panic will pass.

Second, while you're waiting for that to subside, remember why you chose this country in the first place. Was it for the beach? Then escape to the coast for a few days of relaxation beneath the palms. Was it for the super-low cost of living? Take yourself out for a nice dinner on the cheap. What do you enjoy most in your new home--the fishing, the boating, the shopping, the neighbors? Make time to catch some fish or to have your new friends over for an authentic home-cooked American dinner.

Bottom line, be prepared, at some time during your first year in your new home, perhaps even during the first month or two, to wonder what in the world you've done. No, this wasn't crazy, and it wasn't a mistake. Wait it out. The panic will pass. Just on the other side is the life you came to find.

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