After living abroad part-time in Guanajuato, Mexico, for 15 years, I’ve noticed that, for many expats, the relationship of living in a foreign country is a bit like falling in love.
Just as with a new lover, intoxication and infatuation are wonderful at first… but don’t last.
And, after the early tender blush of living in a foreign culture fades, irritations can set in. Ironically, sometimes it’s the very things you fell in love with at first that begin to annoy you.
Maybe you should move? Maybe some other town might be a better choice?
I understand this impulse well. Barry, my husband, has lived with what he calls my “town charming” syndrome for more than 30 years. Forget Prince Charming. Even though I love Guanajuato, I can’t stop lusting after, not other men… but other towns.
Just as in a long-term relationship, though, “falling out of love” with your chosen location doesn’t mean it’s over. You don’t need to pack your bags and go home. You are home!
But it does mean you need to navigate the transition from “in love” to the more prosaic aspects of sticking with a relationship, no matter what. And you need to remind yourself what brought you here and make more of an effort to appreciate the lasting joys of your new culture.
Here are eight suggestions to deepen your connection to your adopted home:
#1. Go Back To The States For A Visit
Nothing like being back in the partisan, consumerist, media-saturated, traffic-choked culture of the States to remind yourself that you’re very happy not to live there.
While there, you can enjoy your children and grandchildren, see friends, eat in your favorite restaurant, pick up a few specialties you can’t easily buy overseas, and then head back joyfully to where you live.
#2. Focus On The Sensory
The less structured, more immediate, fluid, and colorful lifestyle is what attracts many expats to a foreign country in the first place.
The taste and smell of markets, the live music, the fragrance of the honeysuckle, the bright bougainvillea, the stone arches and doorways…
Over time you may have begun to take these beauties for granted. If so, make a point of revisiting your favorite urban rincón (nook), listening to the saxophonist playing on the street, and exploring the artisans’ market.
#3. Get To Know Your Neighborhood
Your street is your most intimate geography. Do you know your neighbors by name? Studies reveal that people who know their neighbors’ names and trust them are less likely to have a heart attack or a stroke.
In our case, we invite our Mexican neighbors to our annual Boxing Day party, where we celebrate Barry’s British roots. We also invest “sweat equity” in our local area by cleaning up the nearby graffiti.
#4. Cultivate Loose Ties
“Loose ties” is a sociological term for the people who are not your closest friends with whom you share deep heartfelt conversations, but rather the familiar faces you see regularly, like the cashier at your local grocery, the florist on the plaza, or the guy who sells newspapers at the kiosk.
Barry is always touched, when after being away for half the year, he returns to his favorite Guanajuato café and the barista shouts out, “Hola, Barry!” The need to be seen and known is intrinsic to human nature.
I was devastated when I found out, soon after returning to Guanajuato, that Juan, the owner of the sandwich shop a block away, had died of COVID-19. His wife told me when I passed her on the street. I used to stop in his shop almost every morning, and he was always so simpático. Mexico doesn’t sell sympathy cards, so I wrote Juan’s family members a condolence letter, describing all our warm memories of him.
#5. Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone
Taking any kind of a risk will give you a burst of adrenaline and help disrupt your routine and the rut you may be in. Small risks yield big dividends. You could approach a stranger, invite an acquaintance to have coffee, or hop on a city bus that will take you to an area of town you don’t know, where you can explore the neighborhood on foot.
#6. Learn Something New
Most communities offer classes for seniors. Here in Guanajuato, you can take singing, sketching, and tango classes. You can even get certified in thanatology, which concerns itself with supporting the dying and the bereaved.
#7. Go On A Treasure Hunt
Pick a theme—say, alcoves, courtyards, statues, or murals—and use it to explore your town. For example, thanks to a request by a friend in the States who spent her childhood in Guanajuato, I went on a mission searching for all the historic chapels in town. This led me not only to the oldest chapels, but to quirky neighborhoodsI’d never visited.
#8. Affirm That You Belong
In the book “This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live,” Melody Warnick discusses the concept of place attachment, which is the emotional bond between person and place, when you feel connected to where you live, a sense that this location is your home and where you belong.
According to Warnick, place attachment is not a feeling, but rather the result of specific actions you take over a period of time, such as getting to know your neighborhood.
It’s also a choice. You make an active decision to commit to where you are. Just as you choose to stay married even during challenging times, you can choose to make this town your home.
Stand tall, plant your feet, and announce to yourself, “This is where I belong, this is where I am, and this is where I need to be.”