Thursday, May 6, 2010

Thriving Overseas by Douglas E Morris

I ran across this article on a listserv and thought it was great advice. Douglas E Morris is a trailing partner in the foreign service with a wonderful perspective. Enjoy!


Community life is an important intangible that helps make a post fun and enjoyable. In numerous cases, the sense of community engendered from a post is more significant than the available cultural activities, historic monuments, culinary experiences, or shopping opportunities. For many, the connection to others at an embassy overseas can make or break a tour.

However, as we all know, each post if completely different when it comes to community life. In general, the divergence is between large and small posts, as well as between those in more developed nations to those in lesser developed countries. What many of us have found, is that — for of a wide variety of reasons — community life at smaller US embassies in lesser developed nations is tighter. Expat events are generally more frequent and well attended, and from that a sense of connection to others is at most times much more real than at larger posts in more developed nations.

The last place where my partner and I were located — Ankara, Turkey — was like that. There was a deep sense of community, a feeling that you belonged to something greater than yourself, just by your presence. You were welcomed and celebrated just by being there.

In our current post — Brussels, Belgium — on the hand, community life does not feel quite as strong. And for some, not having that instant access to the embassy community life can be rather isolating. Especially for the accompanying spouses. With their significant others off at work, and the kids off at school, each sharing in their own micro-community, the accompanying spouse is left to his or her own devices. And in a post like Brussels, sometimes that can be rather alienating.

Sure, Brussels has great museums, wonderful neighborhoods, scintillating arts life, and instant access to many different stunning locales in Belgium and around Europe. But if you are doing it all on your own, the colors seems faded, the food at the cafes bland, the chocolate less than scrumptious. And that’s not a good thing.

So what is a person to do? Mope around the house all day watching movies? Certainly not. In a large, developed world post such as Brussels — and for that matter in posts anywhere in the world — to really thrive instead of just survive you need to put yourself out there. You need to make that extra effort to fill your life with friends, activities, and community life. To do that, here are a number of different community-building options to pursue. All of which also apply to smaller posts in less developed nations, though they may not be needed.

Option One is to head to the CLO, the heart of and embassy community. The CLO is where many of the embassy events are organized and planned. With the committed assistance of the CLO, you will be able to help find ways to combat your sense of disconnection. Guaranteed.

Option Two is to follow a simple rule of thumb. For the first 6 to 9 months after you arrive do not turn down any invitations. None. Accept them all. Act like Jim Carey in the “Yes Man.” Say “Yes” to every invite. Well maybe don’t accept the invitation to bungee jump naked off the Eiffel tower, or is that another movie I am thinking of?

Option Three is to check out the embassy newsletter and any other local English-language periodicals on a regular basis for events and activities and pursue the ones that interest you.

Option Four is to consider volunteering. The CLO is likely to have opportunities for volunteering available, and if none interested you, then its time to try option five.

Option Five is to reach out to the extended expat community and find something you enjoy doing, or something new you have always wanted to try … and pursue it. Whether that is taking a drawing class, a wheel thrown pottery class, auditioning for some plays, joining a bike club or dinner club, there are tons of other expats in whatever post you are at who are doing all those things right now, and who would enjoy getting to know you through those activities.

God invented Google just for this purpose. Or was that Al Gore? I can never remember. Whatever the case, by performing a simple internet search, all sorts of possibilities will emerge. For example, why not look into the American Women’s Club? This organization is global are no longer exclusively for women despite what their title says — so guys don’t feel shy about contacting them — and they will usually have tons of fun activities all year round at which you can meet other expats,. Or what about joining a church? Even if you are not religious, churches are a great place to network for friends. When I was growing up overseas as the son of a corporate expat outside of the embassy community, my folks would drag us to church every Sunday as it was a great way for them to make friends.

However, if you still haven’t found what you are looking for try Option Six — create your own community. Say, for example, you love the arts, but you do not want to go to the theater or ballet or symphony on your own. What do you do? You create your own group — by advertising in the embassy newsletter, by putting signs up at the embassy and elsewhere — then voila, instant community.

At a larger, more cosmopolitan post like Brussels, you really have to take charge of creating your own community life. You have to put yourself out there, and take responsibility for your own happiness.

So, even though creating a connection to others in a large post won’t be as easy as instantly being embraced by a tight-knit embassy community as might be the case in smaller ones, in many ways the community life you will find or create for yourself has the potential to be richer, more rewarding, and loads more interesting.


Douglas E Morris has lived abroad for over 18 years in 10 countries on three continents. He can be reached through his website –


Daniela Swider said...

Lovely post, Natalie! Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

It's Friday, and it’s the Weekly State Department Blog Roundup’s Three Month Blogiversary - and you're on it!

Here is the link:

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