The loneliness of the long distance expat

So, I’ve written lots of jolly posts about discoveries in Chicago and amusing differences between British and American culture, but now, for balance, here’s some seasonal gloom.  I’m not in the mood to put up with anyone telling me I shouldn’t have blogged about this, so if you don’t like the sound of it, please stop reading now.

There are eight weeks between Christmas and my birthday in mid-February, and I always find them bleak and hard to get through. The whole world is cold and drained of colour; the excitement of Christmas is over and the first months of the new year stretch ahead with nothing much to break them up – there are rarely any parties, or friends visiting, or cultural events to look forward to.  I feel broke, and fat, and bored, and generally make New Year’s resolutions only to fail them and add disappointment to the tally.

So I wonder if anything’s really different from this fairly trivial roll call this year.  There’s definitely a bit of exacerbation.  Winter in Britain is tough, and darker than it is here.  But winter here is a more serious proposition: it’s properly cold, so cold that some days walking down the street for more than ten minutes makes your face burn with cold and your fingers numb.  More than that there’s a bunker mentality: the only place that’s busy at the moment is the gym.  Everywhere else feels half-empty, as people hunker down at home to wait it out until spring. But when is spring going to come? By now in Britain I’d be looking for snowdrops, and we’d have gone through crocuses and be well into daffodils by mid-March.  I’m not sure when the thick layer of snow will disappear, but I’m guessing it won’t feel like spring for weeks.

Then there’s the problem that lots of the things I’d do in Britain to alleviate the gloom aren’t viable.  We can’t go and stay with friends for the weekend, because we don’t have any friends a weekend-distance away. Because I’m not earning I need to be careful with money and not splurge too excessively on new clothes, new books or unduly expensive activities.  Sometimes at this time of year I go on a nine-mile walk in the countryside and feel a bit better, but there’s too much snow and we don’t have a car to get out of the city.

Post-expatriation unemployment, I guess, is the most important difference.  In some ways there isn’t a huge difference between being unemployed and doing a bit of academic research, and doing a PhD or having a research fellowship.  But back then there was marginally more of two things: a sense of community, and a sense that someone, somewhere cared whether or not you stayed in bed all day and did nothing.  I used to have an office to go to, and before that a graduate centre to hang out in and bemoan the horrible time of year with a group of people who did an excellent job of pretending not to be bored by my woes.  There would be teaching to prepare – maybe only a seminar a week, and maybe the students wouldn’t have done any preparation, but still a reason to do at least a day’s work each week, to feel that some external force was propelling you and that your students and colleagues were counting on you to make a class happen.  There would be a funding body with expectations, too.

I know all this free time should be a luxury. I have a hundred things beyond my research that I can think of to do with it: learn a language or two, work more on my novel, get fitter, take up new hobbies, get better at old ones. There are a million books to read and films to watch. But with no end in sight it all feels like a pointless make-busy scheme. Instead I churn out a few more applications for jobs I half want to do, trying to express my British experience in American terms, and wait to hear. And wait. And check the job websites once more, and wait for new jobs to be advertised, and wait for spring to come and my mood to lift.


About scepticalexpat

British 30something wannabe academic, moving to Chicago for three years in August 2010.
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3 Responses to The loneliness of the long distance expat

  1. Expat Mum says:

    Chicago winters are really hard. If it’s any consolation, it’s even worse when you have a small child or two in the house as you can’t even take them to the park.
    Today is blindingly sunny which makes a huge difference. Mind you, I can’t venture out very far unless I want to climb five foot snow hills every few seconds or so.
    Here’s something to make you feel slightly better – a workman has just drilled a hole in the coat closet which is right off my living room. He didn’t wear a dust mask, left the closet door open and my entire downstairs is now covered with a thin film of brown sawdust. It’s too late to do anything but weep!

  2. awindram says:

    Not really anything to add other than I can relate to a lot of this post.

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