Unpacking is not much fun

Arriving back in Munich, we went through the motions of collecting our luggage on autopilot. Each of us was more than familiar with their portion of the tasks that would get us out of baggage claim, through customs and on the S-bahn home with the least amount of time and fuss. Considering all that we had crammed into our four pieces of luggage, that everything went so smoothly was a surprise. The majority of our trips in the last year have landed us in the Lost Luggage office, reporting damage to bags that were almost always a missing wheel, or two… and once three.

The worst luck was primarily reserved for my trips and my bags. It started when I borrowed Oliver’s brand new Lufthansa edition Rimowa suitcase for a business trip. Returning to MUC, the bag that greeted me coming round the curve on the carousel was wrapped in security tape, Chicago security having popped the locks off without even checking to see if they were really closed or not. When my trips to our US office started to increase last year, I splurged on a matching case. I’ve been steadily punished for this decision ever since, losing at least one wheel on every trip, culminating in a true low point when I lost a wheel going in and lost two more coming out. When the bag came out in Munich, minus all but one shaky looking wheel, I was nauseous. Pushing the luggage cart straight to the back stall, I made it to the toilet just in time. Food poisoning and only one wheel? Lufthansa eventually covered the repairs, but the 50 euro cab ride home I blamed on the breakfast omelet was paid for by me. After having placed bets with each other at check-in as to which bag would suffer the most damage, being able to wheel two of four heavy bags onto the train felt like quite a victory.

We’re home – which is still Munich for another few months – and both we and our luggage are in one piece. As always there was too little time to see everyone we wanted to see and to do all that we wanted to do, but we did our best. A week later, I think I’ve finished all the laundry, but my feet and hands are still a mess from the desert. Leaving my family and California is always a little sad, and this time was compounded by the fact that we’re moving to China. After a wonderful day walking around the City with my parents, good bye came early by way of a fried alternator that left us stranded at a Daly City gas station, a maddening 10 minutes away from SFO. So instead of lingering over mediocre coffee at the airport, goodbyes were quickly waved through a cab window after grabbing the first car to drive by in over 20 minutes. Note to self: cabs will not be dispatched outside of San Francisco, even when you start offering large bribes. Extra points go out to my parents, stranded at the gas station, forced to spend the night in Daly City until the car could be worked on the next day.

Other than a note from Fergus’ babysitter that she’d found him one day wedged behind the washing machine and dryer with no way of getting out by himself, there was surprisingly little needing our attention, few fires to do be put out. So far. The big China meeting with the big boss happens Monday, after which there will finally facts to share.

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11 responses to “Unpacking is not much fun

  1. How did you pull it off? The move to Germany profressionally?? Trying to convince the better half that it’s worthwile and most importantly possible and not necessarily career suicide….

  2. yeah, answer that one, megan.

    Nick, my friend, for a lot of women it is career suicide.

  3. Good luck with the next meeting – I am curious how it turns out. That could be our situation one of these days if we keep going the way we are with our jobs. It is almost inevitable to avoid Asia these days.

  4. And so, as sometimes happens, a long comment becomes a post:

    Nick – Jen’s correct. There is no guarantee when a couple moves abroad that both will be able to resume their careers without a hitch. As a German woman who moved to the US (right?), you must be already somewhat familiar with what it takes to move abroad and fit your life into another culture.

    USA, Germany… I actually see the challenges for a foreigner in both countries to be very similar. You need to be persistent, determined and by all means creative and flexible. Some tips for ‘pulling it off’ in my experience include learning some of the language and networking. I came here and first learned some German. I started my working life again with an internship and networked my way to where I am. Where I am now professionally is not bad at all. I actually realized the other day that I am almost at the level where I think would have been had I never left.

    That said, I am poised to walk away from it all and start over again.

    Nick, if your approach is convincing your partner that life here will be the same career-wise, I think that may be flawed. Maybe moving to Germany would be a good move for you professionally, but such moves abroad are only in very rare occasions a good move for both spouses’ careers. Our pending move to China is in no way a good move for me professionally. Although I don’t feel I’ll be committing career-suicide, one could say that I will be abusing it quite a bit at the beginning.

    In the process of deliberating whether or not we would do this, a comment made by someone stuck with me:

    Speaking from their own experience and choice to relocate with their spouse to Eastern Europe, this person said that as a couple the two of them could have both had good careers in their home country, but then neither of them would have had a fantastic career. The choice came one day to place priority on one career over the other. The two of them, as a team, concentrated on pushing one of them forward. Careers abroad bring with them a ton of other factors that do not come into play in “normal life” in one’s home country. There is a lot of extra stress and pressure. It can require two people, working as team, to succeed. One is in the job and the other has their back. The person who told us this is now back from abroad and is enjoying a fantastic career. Her husband, who has had her back for years, has always been working but his career did take a hit in favor of hers.

    This move presents the opportunity for Oliver to move towards having a fantastic career. I would like to do what I can to give him that chance. It’s time we took a risk and his career was the first to make it to the point where the chance presented itself. I set my priorities of personal (slightly) above professional a while back. The first hit to my career coming to Germany I did on my own. I’ve never been happier and I don’t even think I could be called professionally unsuccessful. My experience here has shown me what I can accomplish and I completely confident that I can do it again. But I am also prepared to deal with the consequences. I am realistic in knowing that I will not find myself in exactly the same position as a marketing/communications manager for an industry-leader in China. I will find something relevant but almost surely quite different.

    There is really no recipe for success. Each situation is very individual. I’m sorry that I haven’t read enough of your story to know the relevant details for this reply. Maybe your husband has a career that transfers easily and just needs a nudge. Maybe he doesn’t and you do. If it is truly one of you that would benefit most professionally from the move abroad and not both, that is a decision that will only succeed if both of you are able to completely agree with the terms and really commit to it.

    I can believe that it is not an easy topic of discussion and if both of you have really established careers, not an easy decision to take such a risk.

  5. Megan, the thoughts in your comment … definitely post-worthy. It sounds like Oliver was a support when you came to Germany.

    I don’t know Nick’s situation, nationality, partner’s gender etc, and am incredibly biased given my own experienced. A friend went to Luxembourg for 2 years with his wife on the gamble it would kill his career; it turned out to be a bonus. My guess is that it works better when the woman is the one with the job, b/c men tend not to let their own needs get neglected.

    When both are foreigners in a new country, I’ve observed in friends that there’s danger of a female “trailing” partner putting a lot of energy into providing practical support for the male “career” partner, and the male “career” partner taking this for granted b/c he is the one under pressure in a work situation as a foreigner. I’ve seen this primarily in woman-moved-to-Germany-for-man, German-man-gets-transferred-and-woman-trails scenarios. The woman’s adjustment in both cases is often viewed as a freebie, but when the man is confronted with being a foreigner, that’s big drama.

    I don’t hate men, I’m just a bit burned out …

  6. MollyB – Some very insightful comments and, I think, pretty dead-on.

    I’d agree that, assuming everyone we’re talking about wants to work, men often rise better to the occasion when following their partner abroad because they are less likely to accept anything less. I think they end up getting a lot more emotional and practical support in re-establishing their career overall. They aren’t immediately squashed into the supportive role and generally I think they seldom entertain the assumption that they will not work. They also enjoy the benefit of most everyone else sharing in the expectation that they can and will get back out in the workforce.

    Broadly speaking, women are still up against the old societal expectations placed on their gender. They are expected to be supportive, nurturing, and when it comes down to a choice, sacrificing. In a situation where a couple moves abroad, 1950’s expectations seem to kick in for both and you’re back to bread winner and homemaker. Now this isn’t completely evil or something – and a team-approach strategy is certainly a good idea in the beginning when getting established – but then 6 months have gone by, you’re established… what then?

    It’s much more complicated than that of course. I have also heard it said that women are more successful when moving abroad because they are more flexible and willing to go through the hurdles of integrating oneself into a new culture and workforce. Instead of having that “I’m waiting for a manager position” attitude they are more likely to go for a lower position and work up. They may also be more accepted in that kind of role than men. On the other hand, whereas a man may be seen as adventurous, a woman who has followed her partner abroad may be seen by an employer as flighty, unreliable or at least impermanent because having once pulled up stakes, they’ll do it again instead of stay in their job. And if that partner is a boyfriend then you could be seen as less than serious about your career intentions since you obviously threw everything away on a lark.

    All these thoughts and more are going through my head all day, every day. When following someone abroad it is important to decide what your role in all of it will be and then stick to that plan. I’ll take on setting up camp for the first few months, it’ll be enough of an adventure for a while just finding food and navigating the city. But what I don’t want, and won’t do, is to fall into an entirely domestic role. I find that boring and it is not what I choose for myself. Just as I’ll be supporting Oliver by making the move happen, and allowing him to concentrate on his job at the beginning, he will also be supporting me right back. Professionally, I can – and must – be more flexible, but I am certain that with persistence I can find something in China, just like I did here.

  7. Hi Megan

    I just came to see your blog after you posted on mine about apartments in China.

    This post got my attention, since I am sort of a trailing-wife. We came to China so that my husband could advance in his career, and I tagged along thinking I could do something – like teach English. Two years later, I am teaching Aviation English, which I don’t like very much. Unfortunately, in my location I haven’t been able to find any other options. I also decided to take advantage of a light workload by enrolling in an online grad program.

    I didn’t have a difficult time deciding to follow my husband overseas as we have been living out of my home country – USA – since before we were married. I was also raised in a family that moved a lot, so it made sense to me. As for career suicide – I was working as a registered nurse before the move and I hated it and was desperate for a break. While I would love to find work in my new chosen field, Information science/librarianship, I am just trying to enjoy the challenges of living in China and not worrying too much about my career.

    Megan, if you have any questions about life in China I would be very happy to answer!

  8. I was originally going to make a simple comment about awaiting the details after your Monday meeting, but the above comments got me thinking about our impending move, as well.

    I came abroad alone to start from nothing, and that’s something a lot of people just don’t understand. I had quite a nice life and career in the USA and wanted something different, but the fact I wasn’t a trailing spouse or didn’t have a firm job offer was plain baffling. In fact, a lot of people assume I’m a trailing spouse now that I’m engaged to a local, whom I only met in 2006 after being here 10 years. That’s how they make sense of it, even though it’s a lie.

    Now we both have our sights set on leaving Greece for another country. He wants the USA, I want another EU country. In this case, he’d be the trailing spouse because my career would be the one taking the immediate jump forward since I’ve been working continuously in my field, can speak four languages, etc.; he has no professional experience, no languages and no education (and has done quite well without them — it just won’t translate outside the borders). The challenge I see with this is we’re also trying to start a family as I’m getting up in years, so essentially I’d be doing everything (esp. in the USA where the citizen must go ahead of the spouse). But the decision is complicated by the fact he’s been offered a professional position in a field he likes…but it’s in Athens. I’m both happy for him and disappointed for me because my career is topped out and going nowhere as long as we stay. The stakes keep changing, but reading this post and everyone’s comments has given me greater perspective.

    Megan, I think you and Olli are in a very unique position, and I have no doubt you’ll rise again to where you want to be. More than that, I admire both of you for taking these risks, supporting each other in dreams and making it look easy even though I’m sure it’s not at times.

  9. Heather – Thanks for popping over and adding your take on being the Spouse That Moved. I’d be interested to know how the online studying is working out, I’ve heard that the censorship can interfere with access quite a bit, even for academic sites. I only just discovered your site and will be checking through it to learn more about your story. I do have some questions, especially about pet relocation, I’ll contact you soon. Thanks!

    Kat – I was wondering if you were pondering a move. I saw some references to it, but wasn’t sure if I’d missed something along the way. I’m like you in that I wasn’t too keen on going to the USA again. Oliver had a chance to pursue something in New Jersey, but didn’t because I wasn’t interested in going there. Choosing over one career in favor of the other really, really isn’t easy. There are a lot of issues hiding below the surface that can catch you unaware: There can be huge power shifts in the relationship that turn out to be hard to cope with; If one spouse sees their job as a reflection of who they are, losing it could be an unexpected shock; One can lose momentum and motivation to fight back up to where they were, etc. etc. etc.

    Looking through a lot of expat blogs, I see these issues we’ve been discussing here are often glossed over. We all bitch and moan about the strangeness of our new countries and laugh at ourselves, but I see more silence when the topic of working / staying home / giving up careers comes up. I’d be interested to hear what others have to say. I’ll put a direct in the main section, just to see if anyone else has two cents to add.

  10. Megan, Censorship is a bother, but it hasn’t affected my online studying at all. I’m able to connect to my university website without any problems. If I want to access blocked sites, I use a program called TOR. I don’t know exactly how it works, but it does! If you are curious, you can read about it at http://advocacy.globalvoicesonline.org/tools/guide/

    The ironic thing is that I am studying librarianship, yet I have no access to an English library. With the advent of digital libraries, I really haven’t needed to visit the physical library, although I check out Chinese libraries just to see what they are like.

    There are many quality online degree programs these days. It was a great option for me.

    Please contact me with any questions! Although moving to China now seems to me a piece of cake, I do remember all the questions and uncertainty I felt before stepping on to the airplane!

  11. I can’t speak for others, but I’ve chosen to remain rather hushed about it because I don’t use my site as an online journal. Also, the stakes keep changing for us so I can’t blurt out anything firm to even my family and friends.

    I was ready to leave September 2006, packed and ready. He proposed, and I told him I could only accept if he agreed to move, which was no problem for him because he’s wanted to leave for awhile. I compromised and set a date of January 2008, but the timeline is off now with him being offered a professional position in Athens in a field he likes. I want him to take it because I know he’ll be happier and it’s a path to something else when we leave, but it means my career remains stagnant. So I’m trying to figure out what to do to move my career forward in my field without changing countries and without involving Greek employers.

    I only feel OK to share with you and some others who can identify with what’s in front of me. Otherwise, it’s enough that we’re always renegotiating between ourselves.

    Some people in my life (who have never lived abroad or even traveled) can get very judgmental and call me a flake for allowing changes to alter our plan, even though my own goals are the same. And truth be told, I’m not used to changes happening so slowly, compromising or answering to someone else’s needs. I’ve been independent for years, embrace change and can move on something in a flash. It’s weird being in the opposite situation, and I’m really trying to be OK with it.