If you have spent any time living overseas, you know it can be fun… and challenging, too.
Two years ago, we left Spain to return to America. Like some lucky military families, we had the opportunity to receive orders overseas. We lived in Southern Spain at Naval Station Rota for three years. Our base was small, but there are larger American military bases around the world, including Germany, Italy, Bahrain, Turkey, Japan, Australia, and South Korea. For these military families, living overseas is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Some people love it, while others can’t wait to be back on American soil. Anyone who has spent time living overseas can attest that it is a mixture of blessings and frustrations. If you have lived in another country, you can probably relate to all of these.
Things I miss about living overseas
The food: Some people think Spanish food is bland and boring (it’s not at all like Mexican). We loved it, though. Lots of seafood, fresh vegetables, delicious paella, and rich pastries… yum! Every country has unique local food, recipes, and celebratory dishes. When you try local restaurants and learn to cook regional dishes, those flavors will always be tied to fond memories for you.
Cultural opportunities: We went to Christmas fairs, Spring feria, running with the bulls, Holy Week parades, and horse shows. Most religious and political holidays in Spain were celebrated with parades, music, dancing, or shows, along with good food and wine. There was always something to see or explore, and most of it was new to us. It was fun to soak up as many exotic fun experiences as we could. I wrote about the culture and daytrips in my book, Welcome to Rota.
Travel: One huge benefit of being stationed in Europe is all the travel opportunities. Airfare is relatively cheap, and within a few hours you can be in any other country. This is somewhat true in Southeast Asia, too. Military families overseas have the unique opportunity to visit countries that would typically be out of their budget. With four kids, traveling was still expensive for us, but we were able to visit France,Ireland, and Portugal, plus lots of places in Spain. Even our quick weekend trips were wonderful adventures.
Slower pace of life: Most places in the world are slower-paced than America. We found the Spanish to be more relaxed and family-oriented. They would linger over a good meal for hours. It is common to take the family out for a leisurely walk for about an hour in the afternoon. We enjoyed this tradition and the abundance of family time.
Small American community: The unique aspect of living on an overseas base is that Americans are a minority. Therefore, they stick together and help each other out. No one has family nearby, but everyone on base is willing to act like a family member in an emergency. I had our 4th child in a hospital overseas, and people brought us homemade meals for two weeks after her birth. I liked knowing everyone and always having someone to talk to or ask for help.
Kids were welcome everywhere: This may not be true in other countries, but in Spain children are loved and respected. They come to all the restaurants and public celebrations, even at midnight! Strangers will stop to compliment you on your children and touch their hair. Children are not expected to sit quietly. Instead, they are usually running and playing loudly while parents eat or talk. Consequently, numerous stores and restaurants had playgrounds, bounce houses, or playrooms for children. And these were available for free! Coming back to America required us to adjust our parenting style a bit.
With that said, living overseas is not exactly a dream. At least, not every day. There are plenty of things that are complicated, frustrating, and exhausting about living in another country. Some of these minor annoyances wore us down until returning to America seemed like a kind of liberation. So whenever I get too sentimental for our sunny days in Spain, I remember the downside of living overseas.
What I don’t miss about living overseas
The language barrier: I was lucky to live in Spain and learn enough Spanish to find my way around, but this is more challenging in countries like Germany or Japan where the language is difficult to learn. All day, every day, every single conversation and interaction is a challenge. Your mind has to work twice as hard when you are learning another language, so translating can be physically exhausting. Trying to make arrangements for your family when you are the only one who understands any of the local words can be very stressful. So get a multi-lingual pocket dictionary!
Different timelines and schedules: This was another big challenge in Spain, where restaurants do not open until 8 PM, and dinner is often not served until 10 PM. The siesta in the middle of the day was nice for little ones, but our children in school did not get a siesta. Since my husband worked on an American schedule, we kept American hours. However, this was often a challenge when the rest of the town around us was open and closed during Spanish hours.
Always getting lost: Anyone who has traveled overseas has probably spent some time being lost. During the three years that we lived there, I was lost on too many occasions to count. It happened when I lived in France, too. Reading road signs and maps are challenging enough, but throw in changes like construction or a local festival, and you can get lost on a road you travel often. Being confused and alone in a foreign country is an intimidating experience. I remember my excitement our first day in America when I looked around and realized every road sign was in English!
Every errand being challenging: Living off base in another culture can be a beautiful, exotic experience, and you may make some local friends. The downside is that almost every aspect of caring for your home becomes a chore. Electrical and plumbing systems in most of the world are different from America. You need to use electrical adapters so you don’t fry American appliances. You need to refill butane tanks to have hot water. Buying anything is challenging because the tiny stores don’t have parking lots and don’t keep a consistent inventory. (Info on what to bring when moving overseas is here.) If you need wrapping paper, should you go to a papelleria (paper store), a chino store (which is like the Dollar Tree), or a local grocery chain? Even grocery shopping overseas can be an overwhelming experience. By contrast, returning to American culture was easy because we already know where to find things and how to get things done.