So it is true, I have become a trailing spouse. I have forsaken so much in the duty of being a trailing spouse. Would I recommend it to fellow spouses? Of course I would, it has been an adventure and a challenge. It has also been five countries in ten years.
The term itself was first used in 1981 by a New York journalist, it reflected the economic situation of international corporate life at that time. Someone was lucky enough to get a good job offer, maybe in the same country but it involved a big move. We are from rural England, we had sheep, ducks, chickens, ponies, dogs and ferrets, there were even some goldfish in the pond that the children had won from a traveling fair. I went from having a job I valued, family nearby to a women with a family in a foreign country – I became a trailing spouse. Our first was what I like to refer to as the ‘near miss’ – my husband came home, on a winter’s evening and joyously informed me that he had been offered something great for 8 months in Perth. We had two small children at this point in time – my mind fast forwarded to 8 months in Perth, Western Australia, I thought that is simply an extra ordinarily long holiday, I could not conceal the joy. Turned out it he was referring to Perth, Scotland, so he did a weekly commute.
So we were not going to Australia, no kangaroos, koalas or kookaburras. Our first overseas assignment was to Austria similar to Australia only in spelling, we had Sacher torte, snow and schnitzel.
A trailing spouse of Swedish origin, who I met whilst living in Zurich, had been living in Madrid. She followed the typical cycle that we have probably all experienced to a lesser and greater degree. First comes the big deal in moving, finding a home in a foreign country but if you have children you need to typically find the school, then once you’ve done that, you can look in the vicinity for a home within your budget. Find the home, get the removal firm organised sounds so simple. Now if you are going really far, there maybe a container involved so your first couple of weeks might be like indoor camping, until the container finally arrives.
Secondly comes the ‘tourist’ phase, you explore your new area, it is the honeymoon period of trying out new restaurants, going out with your camera clicking away, facebook updates, whatsapps to friends and family. This will pass. My friend said she then entered the third phase, the ‘Rioja phase’, also known as the ‘culture shock’ a period of six months of sitting lonely whilst the working spouse is out traveling their new territory, staying in fancy hotels, with good restaurant meals. You are at home, same daily routine from back home but the location is different, it might involve children to organise, schoolwork, grocery shopping, in the evening the Rioja comes out to take the edge of your loneliness – hence ‘the Rioja phase’. We can loose our identity when we move, you might have had a job you enjoyed, a tennis group you loved, were a volunteer at your church, the list goes on and all that is carrying on without you. In this phase we are still struggling to find replacements for those activities back home, attending coffee mornings and talks hoping someone will want to take our number and become our friend, if not you run the risk of getting bored and withdrawn. We need our group of other expat women who know what we are going through and can keep us going, offer support, help and wisdom!
Now we move on to the next phase, the one that illustrates just how capable a traveling spouse is, the skills we develop that we never knew we had. To keep the family buoyant: finding the zoo, waterpark, drama club, scout group, swim coaching and so on, in a country where you can neither speak or read the language (Arabic was tricky). We manage to adapt to new banking rules and if like me you have big kids, be able to transfer money at any time of day or night to universities, landlords or car insurance firms, when they call and remember a deadline they forgot to give you. Use of technology: to do instant currency conversions, translations, find a hospital or clinic. The ability advertise cars, furniture and anything you don’t want to take with you. Setting up skype, facetime, a VPN to watch your favourite TV shows. Food shopping when you can not make head nor tail of the writing on the packet. If there is no picture and even if there is, it is a risky business buying ingredients or food. All those familiar brands are no longer available to you, so we adapt. Who knew they sold flour in Czech Republic that feels like semolina, no good for sweet pastry, I know that now! Use of the Blue Tax at airports, keeping all your receipts for a move to another country to prove your item is more than a year old and you DO NOT need to pay import tax on your TV or car.
Meanwhile relationships back home need to be nurtured with both family and friends. Being brilliant at internet shopping and getting items delivered for all those special occasions. Skills we enhance, instead of popping in with a special gift, we need to think quite some time in advance. It can be awkward when you go back and visit, holidays for us seem to be a journey ‘home’ to catch up with everyone. It is hard for them to understand the compromises we are making, there are new friends, but not the ones who have known you for ages. The ones that won’t judge your culture or funny ways, the precious ones who know you from way back when. Trying to explain that it really is the same job of housekeeper, Mum, wife in a different location, comes with the same perils and boredom as doing it in your hometown, washing machine on, dishwasher on – ironing pile getting bigger.
If you are a trailing spouse put your hand up, cross it over to shoulder and give yourself a jolly good pat on the back. It is not easy, I have done five countries in ten years, all amazing and all different and no it does not get easier, we just get better at hitting the ground running and thank heavens for IKEA.
This article was first published in “The Bridge”, the magazine of the International Women’s Association Prague.