And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the pain it took to blossom.
Something wonderful is happening. For the first time in a long while, I’m feeling lighter, more at ease, even joyful. I’ve caught myself humming and dancing around the kitchen while preparing dinner. I feel like I can give the people around me my undivided attention again and really listen to what they’re saying. The dark cloud that has been weighing me down for the last year and a half, intermittently at first and then relentlessly, is finally lifting. Until recently, whenever people asked me how I like living here (which, as an estrangeira with a still-audible accent, is a question that comes daily), I always found myself fidgeting inwardly and, out of a sense of duty to social etiquette, giving the answer I longed to feel in reality. But a couple of weeks ago, my husband and I met some new friends on the beach, fellow expats who had arrived just recently, and when they asked us our plans, and why we had chosen Brasil over England, I answered that at this point in our lives, this is the place we want to call home. And for the first time, I really felt it. There’s still a part of me that wants to remain cautious, aware that I’ve had highs before that didn’t last, but this time it feels stronger, more resilient. I’m certainly not expecting to feel like this every day, and I know that even the most well-adjusted expat has bad days, but for the first time since my initial few months here (which fall into the honeymoon period of the traditional cultural adaptation model) the good days are starting to outnumber the bad. The other night, in a tranquil moment, I said to my husband: ”You know what? I think I’m really starting to like it here.” ”Que bom,” he replied with a smile.
So what changed? While I’m certain that my efforts to meet more people since I got back in March are having an increasingly positive impact on my day-to-day life and mood, the shift over the last month was more immediate. And I know the catalyst: changing my living environment. About six weeks ago, we moved from a house into an apartment. This decision was the culmination of months of soul-searching; of getting to know myself better, and more importantly accepting what I found. I am a sociable person for the most part, but when it comes to re-charging my batteries I’m definitely an introvert and a home-body. I enjoy my own company and some of my favourite activities are best suited to a peaceful environment, as is my work. Consequently, I spend a fair bit of time at home, and need to feel in tune with my immediate surroundings. If you’re an expat in a new country, then it’s even more important to find a space to live in that is very you, and from there you can develop the energy and resilience to branch out and explore the rest; the new language, new culture, new people and so on. For me, I realised that, for now at least, this means living in an apartment rather than a house; an apartment feels more European somehow, more familiar, and as a result I’m not constantly reminded of my foreign-ness. It may sound small, but it has already made such an immense difference to my mood and outlook in the time since we moved, and I’ve spoken to numerous expats with similar stories. While many of them, predominantly those from Europe and the U.S, feel the same on the apartment vs. house issue, it certainly isn’t a rule. A space that feels right will be different depending on the person; it could be a little house in the mountains, a beach house by the sea, or an apartment in the city, but what matters is that it fits you. For several years now, starting back in early 2013 when I gave up my London apartment and started house-sitting, I had been trying to convince myself to subscribe to the ”wherever I lay my hat” approach. From the books I’ve read over the last couple of years on meditation and mindfulness, I focused on the ideal of being content within, of not feeling attached to anything around me, of not needing continuity or particular conditions in order to be happy. But in telling myself I should be able to feel like that in all aspects of my life, I was making myself unhappy. I can’t describe the relief I feel in standing up and saying: ”Hey, this is me. I’m adventurous enough to move from England to an island in Brasil, but I need my creature comforts. Living in a space that feels modern and European (and which, crucially, has the luxury of gas-heated water!) gives me more strength to devote to other areas of adaptation. This is me, and I’m cool with that.” It might seem obvious now, but it took time and determination to figure out what I needed. One of the things that helped me was a quote I noted down in my diary back in January, from The Emotionally Resilient Expat by Linda Janssen, a book I highly recommend:
”Working towards a understanding of what it will take for you to feel your best in your environment is extremely worthwhile.”
These words are golden. When we talk about cultural adaptation, the implication or assumption is that we, the incoming foreigner, need to adapt to the host culture. And for the most part that’s true, because if we reject it then contentment will be hard to find, but I now believe it needs to go both ways. Sure, we can’t expect the host culture to change for us, but we can find out what it takes for us to feel our best, and then figure out where we can take action, what we can change. When it comes to figuring out which aspects these are, I always think of the words on a bookmark my late grandmother gave me: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference. There are a whole host of things I am yet to learn about Brasil, and I know there are still challenges ahead, but changing my living environment has given me the stronger foundation I needed. Every day now, I look out at the view and am struck by how beautiful this island is. And every day I feel grateful, for this life, for my husband and his loving support as I figure things out, and for my own determination in doing so.