12 Lessons I Learned from Living Overseas
Like many military families, the first time we received overseas PCS orders, we immediately began asking questions about the many practical aspects involved in moving our household of six.
While the military does an extraordinary job with planning and executing overseas moves (after all, they’ve been doing this a while now!), what I didn’t expect was how much living overseas would change my outlook.
Since then, we’ve had four overseas assignments in the Pacific and Europe, and we've learned some unexpected lessons.
1) The fine art of waiting.
Electricity out? No worries, it will be on again in a few hours…or perhaps tomorrow. You’ll figure out how to pass the time while you wait in a way that doesn’t involve electronics.
Stores close early or aren’t open on Sundays (or any regular hours at all)? Well, that can wait, too. Your driver’s license expired? Well, the mother in me will tell you that you should’ve planned ahead, but get ready to stand in lots of lines to rectify that situation.
2) It’s ok to accept help.
Listen to neighbors willing to clue you in about expectations locally—You shouldn’t mow your lawn on Sundays? It’s rude to honk your horn in Hawaii but expected in Italy to navigate traffic? Don’t have a clue what “quiet hours” entail? Ask someone.
(In other cases, locals will tell you if what you’re doing is annoying and not socially acceptable where you’re stationed!) You’ll also likely be far from family, which will then make you realize…
3) The importance of community.
Whether you live on base or off, the overseas military community is like nowhere else and a wonderful experience. These will be the people with whom you celebrate birthdays, holidays, and everything in between! They’ll be the ones quick to jump in and help when you’re sick or your spouse is deployed. And when you leave, you’ll miss that.
4) From housing to storage to even oven size, you learn to do more with less.
Downsizing takes on a whole new meaning. I once cooked an entire Thanksgiving dinner in an oven the width of a 9 x 13” pan! (No exaggeration, see photo above!).
Your minivan, which is small by U.S. standards, will be like attempting to navigate a bus down some narrow European streets.
5) Celebrate differences.
There’s a lot to learn from our friends around the globe! Some lessons they've taught me: not always being in a hurry, the importance of rest, respecting local customs.
Some American ways I’ve learned to cherish: friendliness, openness, the willingness to try new experiences.
6) The food! The food! The food!
Take a chance on something new. Foods I didn't grow up with are now counted among some of my favorites: fresh brotchen, schnitzel, lumpia, Riesling, Kalua pork, pancit, pho….now I’m hungry!!
Don’t even get me started on the cheese possibilities. Be adventurous!
7) Get out there!
My husband was deployed during our last year in Germany. It was tempting to hunker down and stay within the military community cocoon, but we knew we had borrowed time for travel before the next PCS. We took advantage of our location and USO travel resources to make plenty of trips and hit 13 countries, covering more ground during that time than some people we knew who’d been there for years! While in Guam, we shopped around for a budget-friendly family vacation package to Australia.
Be on the lookout for military travel discounts.
8) "Island fever" is real.
We’ve been stationed on two different tropical islands, and yes, having only a handful of square miles to navigate on a regular basis can wear on you. There will be no road trips!
But don’t plan on complaining about it to anyone on the mainland, who will remind you that you live in paradise! Instead, commiserate with those in the same boat and make some travel plans to get away for a bit, and then come back and relish the sand between your toes.
9) But so are Christmas markets.
Christkindlmarkts are open-air street markets running from the end of November leading up to Christmas in Germany and some neighboring countries. Make a point of experiencing at least one if you’re nearby.
You’ll find unique handcrafts for sale, traditional Christmas items, as well as wonderful food like sausages, crepes, traditional Gluhwein (hot mulled wine), and more from vendors. I just had a rush of memory smells, thinking about the Christmas markets!
10) Living overseas is not always glamorous.
While it’s an absolutely wonderful experience to live overseas, it can also be exhausting. If you don't know the language well, you may miss making small talk and feel stupid and left out at times--and you'll come to appreciate those who can speak more than one language.
From dealing with obscure local ordinances to navigating a healthcare system while ill even to everyday things like driving, little tasks can turn into big chores by the time you get through the language and cultural barriers, never mind if you have an extended family emergency. And if you need to take a break from it all and binge watch Netflix or make a long video call back home, that is ok!
11) America is big.
We visited family in Texas during one holiday season overseas and couldn't stop commenting how big everything was: roads, food portion sizes, even people.
When we moved back to the U.S. and I needed to purchase a simple allergy pill, I felt completely overwhelmed by the wall of choices. Remembering those ‘larger than life’ feelings helps me appreciate what others who move to the U.S. must feel like.
12) Take advantage of the opportunities presented.
If you took a poll of graduating seniors, I’d be willing to wager that ‘traveling the world’ would be in their top few goals. Remind yourself that you’re living someone else’s dream.