Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Lonely in Ireland - What Ex-Pats Rarely Discuss

When expatriates get together to discuss their moves abroad - or when people ask me questions regarding a move to Ireland - those subsequent conversations usually stick to facts: how do I move there? How to I get a job? What should I bring?

What is often unstated, and unasked, is the emotional impact of moving to a country and culture far away from your own. Recently, on, I saw the following cry for help:

"I have lived in Portlaoise for the last year and am wondering if there are any other expats around. I am from California and would like to know if there are other US citizens or people from other countries interested in chatting about life in Ireland. There is an expat group that meets monthly in Dublin, but the timing and distance makes it hard to get to the meet-ups...maybe if there are a few people interested we can start up some sort of group for the midlands. I've been really homesick lately and would like to hear from anyone else who is nervously facing down another Irish winter. "

Living abroad combines a sense of adventure with a sense of being a 'fish out of water'. Being an expatriate for any length of time is a roller-coaster of emotion: moving from the 'highs' of experiencing the excitement and joy of a completely different culture and adapting to it, to the 'lows' of sadness and even despair, because you may be far away from friends, family, loved ones and a culture and nation that you love.

And anyway, you can't get Bisquick over here. And suddenly, that becomes a huge problem! Or at least it seems like it... When that happens, the world seems grey and grim indeed. Colours aren't as bright, and the journey of moving to a new country can seem not only daunting, but soul destroying.

What to Do?
So what do you do when those 'lows' get too low? And it's important to recognise that you're low, and to take appropriate action: Lows can - and do - lead to depression. Over the years, I've experienced this darkness of despair, and know other expats who have felt the same way.

For what it's worth - and I'm no psychologist - here's what I've done in the past and present when Homesickness gets a little too much:

1. Go Home for a Visit - when I first moved here in '82, I didn't return to the United States for four whole years. I didn't go back for one simple reason: I was broke and couldn't afford it. And I missed my 'home' sorely. Back then, airfares were horrendously high. But now, things are different.

If you really miss home, and the world seems grey, for God's sake go back for a few days or a few weeks. A whole range of airlines now operate out of Ireland bound for the United States and North America: Aer Lingus, Continental, Delta, Air Canada... You can fly into Boston, Atlanta, Chicago... and from there, anywhere in the US. And prices are relatively cheap! So if you miss home, Go! Right now, not later! Go walk the streets where you lived. Go hug friends and family. Go to assure yourself that nothing has really changed back there, and that if it becomes truly hard, you really can change your mind and go home. You have that right! And I've found that by knowing I have a choice, living here is also my choice, and a choice that I make every day.

2. Talk About It - do you have a local friend or spouse that's empathetic to your needs and wants? If so, share your feelings of occasional loneliness and isolation with them. Find someone 'safe', and be truly honest with them. Tell them what you like about Ireland. But also tell them what you don't like, or are frustrated with. Being allowed the privilege of 'venting' truly helps.

3. Emerge Yourself in the Culture - a number of years ago, I met a Canadian who had moved here...and was miserable. He constantly complained about the country, and how much he missed home.

But was it any wonder? Turns out, as I got to know him more, that he never gave himself a chance. He never tried to make Irish friends. He never got out from his Dublin home to see the rest of the country and what it has to offer. He hung around only with other North Americans. In fact, I felt that he was living in a 'bubble'. So...what I always suggest is this: make some Irish friends! Get out into the culture of Ireland! Join some local clubs; volunteer for local organisations. Try your best to see the beauty that surrounds us here (when it's not raining, of course): the history and the hills, the fragrant colours of Ireland's hills and fields; the majesty of its mountains and cliffs. And critically, and a most welcome fact: the warmth of the people here.

Emigrating to any country is hard work, and can be emotionally quite stressful. A move of this type catalyses a roller-coaster of emotions. To survive - and emotionally prosper - in a new country, you need to devise a coping and support structure. You need to open your heart, and mind, and soul to what surrounds you. You need to recognise that you won't feel like a fish out of water forever. That as the days pass, you'll feel more and more comfortable in your new home. But that you will also suffer from the occasional day of greyness and seeming solitude when 'home' back wherever you come from looks so much better.

Hang in, is all I can say. Ireland is worth the effort.

For more information and stories about surviving Ireland, why not consider buying Tom's book, A Survivor's Guide to Living in Ireland? Simply click on that link.


  1. Well said, Tom!

    I moved the other way - from Scotland to the USA about the same time you moved to Ireland. My wife is American - and black, while I am white (or more accurately medium brown and pasty pink). So double culture shock for me, I guess.

    But your points are well taken - get out and about; you can make friends, or at least acquaintances in the most mundane of circumstances.

    If you have a hobby, find others of like mind and dive in. Visit the library to get started on what clubs and such are around. Take an interest in the local sports and culture (I now follow baseball, for instance).

    There are lots of inexpensive ways to keep in touch with relatives and friends back home, and you have mentioned them before, I think.

    There will be tough times; I have lost a mother, father, brother and sister since I have been here - and I could not make it back to all the funerals.

    On the other hand, opening your mind and heart can be very rewarding, even if you are naturally shy, like I am. I've toughened up a bit over the years, but I am still pretty timid by most standards and yet I have managed fine (thanks in no small part to my wife, who has enough attitude for the two of us).

    Cheers, and good luck.

  2. Richard, delighted meeting you, a fellow traveller. Your poins are made so well, and I hope other people find them. So many expatriates - going in whatever direction - have talked with me about this area. God knows I don't think we want to start the equivalent of a "12 Steps for Expatriates" chat, but it's comforting to share this sort of experience - and know that where ever you are, and where ever you're from, you're not alone.

    A Survivor

  3. Totally unfounded facts.

  4. that's an interesting statement. Would you, Annonymous, mind supporting this? Which facts were unfounded? I suspect readers would find your views interesting and informative. Tom