Every expat, no matter how long they have lived in their host country has a “bad day”. A “bad day” in expat speak is one of those days when you want to chunk your entire life in your host country into the trash and board the next plane back home. Most of the time, I am very happy with our life in Ireland. Yeah, it’s far from home, the cars are tiny, there is no Tex-Mex, and the weather is less than ideal, but I can usually look past those inconveniences and see the benefits of living here. We live in a lovely neighborhood, our kids attend great schools, work-life balance is genraly better than in the US, and most importantly, we have wonderful friends.
I think the fact that I have so few “bad days” makes it much harder when one hits me full force. Like Saturday. I had a few errands to run at the mall near our house. Brad and Isaac took the car to GAA practice, but that didn’t bother me. The bus that stops at my neighborhood delivers me straight to the shopping center. Super convenient! Patrick, Liesl and I headed out to do some shopping. The thing about shopping Ireland – there are no big-box stores. No Wal-Marts, Targets or Costcos. So if you need a few random items, you probably have to visit more than one store. In every store I entered, I encountered multiple instances of poor customer service. (The Irish are generally quite friendly, but customer-service is not one of their strong points.) At one store, an employee followed me around, I think because she thought Liesl would break something. When I went to check out, the cashier accused me of using a stolen credit card because it wasn’t chip-and-pin. I was furious, but felt really stuck. I needed the items, I didn’t know where else I would be able to purchase them, and I was already there. I paid with another card and left, seething.
We had some extra time, so I decided to pop into Marks & Spencers (probably the store most similar to Target), to look for new dresses for Liesl. She has hit a growth spurt, and her clothes are getting shorter by the day! Of course, when we get there, there are many dresses to choose from, but only one in her size. Really M&S? Only one dress available for a 4-year old, at a large store in the middle of a metropolitan area? Sadly, this isn’t that uncommon. Once a store runs out of inventory, they don’t necessarily order more. The Irish have this phrase, “It’s better to be looking at it, rather than looking for it.” Meaning that if you see what you need, you should probably buy it right then because you never know if it will be there the next time you pass through the store. We pick it up, plus a 3-pack of tights and head to the checkout queue. Two people cut me in line, and when I finally got to the till, the cashier rings up my items to €45. That’s right…the equivalent of almost $60 for ONE dress and a pack of tights. This wasn’t a dressy-dress, or a holiday dress. Just a basic corduroy dress for casual wear. And just then, all the frustration of the morning, and living on this tiny, cold, expensive island caught up with me.
I could have driven a nice car to Target, parked in a huge parking lot, picked up all the items I needed plus a mocha at the in-store Starbucks(!), and the entire trip probably would have cost less than the dress and tights at Marks & Spencers. I would have boarded a plane right then.
When we moved here, the opportunity outweighed the negatives. The travel! Experience a new culture! Live outside your comfort zone! But after awhile, it just begins to wear on you. Ireland is the 5th most expensive country in Europe, after the perennial favorites – Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Luxemborg. At least in the Nordic nations, your cost of living is balanced out with high social benefits like free childcare and high-quality schooling and healthcare. It costs more to live in Dublin than almost anywhere in the US. The labor market is quite sticky here, and childcare costs are some of the highest in the world. The housing market is so expensive that it is unlikely we could purchase a home here for quite some time. All of this has been wearing on me for awhile, and the experiences of the morning left me wondering, “Is it really worth it? Is it worth taking a step down in standard of living for a higher quality of life?”
My response used to be, “Of course! Anything is better than the rat-race of the US.” But now I am not so sure. Will we look back on our time in Ireland as a grand (mis)adventure where we had great experiences, but didn’t accomplish much, in terms of worldly gain? Or is it that I’m just being selfish and materialistic?
I think, whether you are an expat or not, making peace with your life’s decisions takes time and effort. I know I probably shouldn’t compare life in Dublin with life in America. The population bases, the economies, and the cultural perspectives are very different and we haven’t even touched on challenging subjects like tax policy! But the fact that I know I have a choice in where I live makes those comparisons unavoidable. Life would be so much cheaper in America, but does that make for a happier life? In Ireland, I have many of the things that matter strongly to me. I do know that I have a great support network here. Right after posting the tweet, I had several friends call and text me to check in and make sure I was ok. No matter where you live in the world, friends matter.
But I still wonder: Are the reasons to stay, reasons enough?