Big Questions, No Answers in the Expat Life

a picture of me in my straw cowboy hat
Pondering the Big Questions of the universe…

Not knowing what continent you’ll be living on next year brings up lots of questions. You know, Big Questions. Meaning of life questions. Expat life questions. Ones that can only be discussed ad nauseam in detail, never answered. And have I mentioned that those discussions require wine? And chocolate?

I think my subconscious, fueled by these discussions, directed me when I chose the reading materials for my literature class this week. I chose Anton Chekhov’s The Bet. OK, my ego might have been involved too, probably because saying “when I taught Chekhov this week…” was totally on my Lit Geek bucket list!!

On the surface, this is a story about the morality of capital punishment versus life imprisonment, a worthy topic to be sure. Digging deeper, however, you find a story about our motivations as humans in a materialistic world. One man in the story is driven to consider murdering another in cold blood to avoid financial ruin. The other spends fifteen years in isolation and study, only to eschew both the money he’s about to earn by winning the bet and the society that values money over all else, or, as Chekhov (in translation) puts it, “exchange(s) heaven for earth.”

This story spawned two separate trains of thought for me. One relates to the typical career lifecycle, the other to my own life journey.

First, the career lifecycle. I know a lot of folks, my husband one of them, who have been on the career treadmill for close to 20 years now. People of our generation graduated university in the midst of one of the biggest booms in US history and jumped on that treadmill with big plans both for our careers and for the cool stuff we’d buy with all the money we were making. There were signing bonuses and stock options, other companies poaching us every 12-18 months with promises of more money and stock options and we thought all was well in the world. We bought our first house. We bought our first new car. Sure, sometimes we worked nights and weekends, but our friends were our work friends, so it all seemed like big fun in our 20s.

Then September 11 happened and the bubble burst. Those of us who kept our jobs were glad to have them and when cuts came, we picked up the extra work because hey, it was better than being laid off and unemployed. We turned 30. We had babies. We built a house. And suddenly the fun went out of the long hours, the extra work, and the poor economic climate because now we had to work to pay the mortgage and take care of the children.

Then we got laid off. And it was scary. We lived on severance and tried not to panic. The offer came to go abroad and we took it for the stability and the peace of mind. But the pace increased along with the expat opportunity. Four years in and my husband has hardly come up for air. He’s spent ten years laying people off as the economy continues to contract. It’s soul-sucking work.

Now we’re looking at 40 and we’re pretty sure we want something different for this next decade. But what? See, Big Questions.

As for me, I jumped off the treadmill quite early, when we first moved abroad in 2001. I had no idea that September 11 would make it nearly impossible for me to find work on our first expat assignment to the UK when I agreed to go. I finished my graduate work in communication management one month before we moved. Little did I expect that more than a decade later, I have never returned to full-time work.

Quite honestly, we did not have the temperament to tolerate both of us being in the corporate rat race once we had children. Some people can juggle all those balls at once, and I respect that even as I admit it’s not for me.

But the question becomes how to escape. We haven’t been a two income household for most of the last 13 years, so we haven’t bankrolled enough to retire at age 40 (not sure we would have even if I had stayed on the treadmill to be honest. Seems more likely that our standard of living would have come up as much or more than our savings!). With writing taking up more and more of my time, the likelihood of me contributing much to our finances dwindles to the pocket money I currently make teaching English. Certainly not enough to retire on!

And I refuse to consider Matt continuing to work for the next decade. Watching people just a few years older than us literally dropping dead of stress-related health conditions just solidifies this for me. So what? Step one, sell that house, and shed that big old mortgage. OK, it’s on the market. Now what? We’re not sure. Like I said, I don’t even know what continent we’ll land on when we leave Finland at the end of the year. Most of our Big Questions don’t have answers just yet, but we’re starting to open up to new possibilities. And that’s almost always a good thing…