Today, I got an email saying my flight for our trip home this summer had been canceled. Considering the state of the world right now, I wasn’t surprised. My youngest daughter was really disappointed — she had been looking forward to seeing her grandparents and cousins, going to her favorite spots, and eating the food she’d been craving since last summer. I have always felt that it’s important that my kids get to spend time in my home country and that they know our family there. But I hadn’t realized quite how important this summer tradition was to them, that our canceled plans would be so acutely felt.

It turns out that the last few months of coronavirus restrictions and sheltering-in-place have meant that my daughter has had to get used to things not working out as planned. And, sadly, I think she is also getting used to not really being able to make plans at all.

The combination of missing out on her high school graduation this spring and the uncertainty of what college will look like in the fall has left a mark on my daughter. Add to that the fact that the normal rhythms of life are totally off-kilter, social interactions altered, and the overarching unease and worry about the coronavirus itself, and it’s not hard to see why she feels a little lost right now.

I know where she’s coming from. In all the years I have lived abroad I have felt a certain sense of security knowing that family is just a plane ride away (albeit a long one) — if I have to go for any reason, I can. I have almost always had the next trip home on the calendar, even if it’s far in the future. It’s been something to look forward to and hold on to. Now that I think about it, it’s clear that to a degree, life abroad has been predicated on the knowledge that I can always go home. None of this is true at the moment and it’s unsettling.

Recently, I have interviewed people who relocated overseas right as countries were starting to shut down because of the coronavirus outbreak. They were fulfilling old dreams of living abroad and their moves were long in the making. In each case, the relocation ended up being extremely difficult — from a practical standpoint as well as emotionally and socially. They told me of troubles with getting even the basics working in their new places, of sleeping on air mattresses because furniture shipments from home were delayed by months, and not being able to take care of paperwork, or get a driver’s license because authorities were not operating as normal.

What they had prepared for was regular “expat experiences” — certainly some bumps in the road, but not being confined to their homes in a foreign country, homeschooling two kids in a language they don’t understand, while also taking care of a toddler, in a house with no furniture and local parks closed — which is exactly the situation one family found themselves in.

But what these people also told me about was a new awareness of their own capabilities and stronger bonds within their families. The time in quarantine in a foreign country has tested them in unexpected ways and three months in, they have found ways to cope. One of them is helping an elderly man in her neighborhood to get food and necessities. As time has gone on, they have built a social relationship and now speak on the phone regularly. The trips she was planning to take across Europe have been replaced with long bike rides exploring London, the city she’s in, in ways she had never imagined. 

Nothing is quite working out as we thought it would right now — whether plans for going to school, living abroad, traveling, or visiting parents, or just about anything else. These new circumstances have forced many of us to look for different ways of doing things. We’ve had to reevaluate what is important in our lives and we’ve had to find alternatives to fulfill our needs. We’ve had to make up new schemes for communicating with our loved ones and to find joy where we didn’t think to even look before.

By: Felicia Shermis

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