This article by Kathy at the IA describes the unusual but interesting scenario of an expat family of 4 finding themselves in four different countries during a worldwide pandemic.
And it got me thinking: How have I adapted to a scenario like this? Has my experience better prepared me for living under lock-down in an adopted country?
When can I go home?
Home is a weird concept for serial or “professional” expats like me because we’re experts in finding or making our homes wherever we go. There will always be countries we feel more attached to, and our place of birth usually holds a special place in our hearts.
I’ve been living across an ocean from my family for years while we navigate the new reality of seeing each other once a year (occasionally twice, and for at least month-long stints). This is an unprecedented situation, however, in that we can’t be sure when I’ll be able to go to the US to see them again.
For many expats, it’s not just a matter of when we can go to our home countries – it’s also a matter of when it will be safe to, for both ourselves and our family members. It’s really important to take preexisting medical conditions and fitness into account.
It’s scary sometimes, but my family is used to this. We’re doing okay.
At the same time, it’s great that we can see our families and friends via videochat. I’ve never felt so lucky for this technology that keeps us literally connected in tough times.
When can I go exploring again?
Travel is a huge part of my life, passion, and way of being. Yet I understand that having to cancel my fantasy trip to Georgia, Turkey, and Armenia this spring is literally the least of my and anyone’s problems right now.
And I can accept that. It is MUCH more important to keep others safe. I don’t want to risk the well-being of potentially thousands of people by supporting the global systems of transportation and connection that both caused this crisis and yet wonderfully brings all of our worlds a little closer together. It will do that on the other side of this as well.
It’s also likely that people will rediscover what’s wonderful about where they currently live and start small with domestic travel. I’m definitely raring to venture out of Fyn, the island where we live, and discover more of Jutland (largest city: Aarhus) and Sjaelland (largest city: the capital, Copenhagen).
It’s hard, of course, not to know when this will happen. I’m used to my freedom. It’s tough that I can’t go off into my element, experience new things, and clear my mind whenever I want to. I’m restless. I’m always thinking: What do all the places I’m not look like right now? Will this crisis fundamentally change what I would have seen and experienced had I gone before this?
In lieu of that, I’ll be traveling and discovering from my couch for now.
How do I start making my life here?
Ah, bureaucracy- the bane of all expats’ existences.
In Denmark, it can be tough to know where to start. Everything is so high-tech and streamlined that the system is designed to be easy and work well – and it does! Just… once you’re a part of it.
I was so lucky to receive my Danish residency and health card just before the pandemic hit. But I wasn’t able to register for some other crucial programs (like for the personal ID that will allow me to open a bank account, etc.), and that puts me at a bit of a disadvantage.
For example: Every Danish resident has an e-boks (online mailbox) that the government uses to communicate with you. I got a letter in the physical mail letting me know I had a message there, but I couldn’t access it because I didn’t have that ID number!
(Cue three phone calls that led me in a circle with the end result that I’ll just have to wait until the municipal offices open 😉 Don’t worry – it’s nothing too important. I just wanted to make it known that I tried my best to access it!)
Part of the process of recovering from this will be to go through those necessary processes to start my life here. I am very lucky that I am able to communicate well with officials, but this can be very difficult for people who don’t speak either the local language or English well, or people who don’t have the same levels of access to the information they need.
Combine that with sometimes extremely opaque systems (thankfully the Danish one is much more open than the Czech, in my experience), and you may have yourself a lot of frustration. (Stay strong, fellow expats on the outside!) But even that in itself is part of the process of living abroad, and you learn to love it and rely on it in a weird way.
As of this writing, in early May 2020, Denmark has begun to slowly reopen. It started with elementary, kindergarten, and preschools, and has extended to small businesses. Larger businesses are now beginning to implement the hygiene regulations that will allow them to let people back into work if they choose. Many people continue to work from home. Thankfully, anyone who is at risk is exempted from returning to work even if their office is open.
My main feeling of this experience is surreal. I’m stuck between my “birth” home of New York and adopted homes of Denmark and Czech Republic, all of which have taken different approaches. It’s hard to know who’s right, who to trust, who’s fared the best.
It’s so strange that Denmark is already making the first steps on the other side. I am not sure how safe it really is – no one can know – but people certainly feel they are safe, and thankfully proactive measures saved the country a lot of suffering. Czech Republic too – although they had some of the strictest measures including requiring that everyone wear masks (which Denmark never did). And New York is still in the thick of it.
I am straddling the line – not completely here, not completely there. Trying to remain conscious, aware, and conscientious of what is wise and prudent even though many Danes are eager to return to business as usual.
I think this is an anxiety shared by a lot of expats here and all around the world: Apart, but united by our caution and our strength.