Sunday 25 October 2015

Living overseas changes a person...

This much is self-evident when you consider the ways that experiencing the culture, society and workplace of another country expand's one's perspective on the world. Having lived and worked in four very different countries outside Australia over the past five years, my attitudes towards my life and work have substantially changed.

However, in this case, I'm talking about the physical impact that moving to a new country has had on me - as these are aspects that we so often overlook, but can so often have a huge impact on our physical and emotional wellbeing.

Food - For me, food is an integral part of travelling and experiencing other cultures. However, moving countries can also mean a huge change in diet, which the body can take time to adjust to. When I moved to Papua New Guinea, there were weeks during which my diet consisted mostly of dry biscuits, tinned beans and fresh fruit (which varied, depending on the season). It was depressing, and I certainly lost my appetite for a while. On the flip-side, living in Viet Nam was foodie heaven, and like many expats who move there, I certainly put on a couple of kilos. And whilst there were plenty of leafy greens in the food, there was also a lot of sugar and fatty meat involved. Now that I'm living in the Balkans, I have to confess that I'm much less inspired, and most food options around here involve bread, pastry, processed meat and cheese. Fortunately, there's a fantastic greengrocer just up the road from my house, but the other reality is that cooking at home generally costs 2-3 times as much as eating out. And it can be tempting to lapse into a regular diet of burek, pizza or kebabs - but it's not exactly a healthy option, which leads me to...

Exercise - I've come to realise how much I've taken for granted having an active lifestyle. Back in Melbourne, two of my favourite things were swing dancing and riding my bike - both of which I'd be doing most evenings in the week. And whilst I could always work more on my fitness, it's been enough to keep me active enough to not feel like a completely unhealthy blob of a person. Unfortunately, I have yet to live in another place that has had a regular swing dance scene, and whilst I'd love to get a bicycle and zoom around the city streets like I did in Melbourne and Hanoi, I fear that in doing so, I may meet an unfortunate sticky end. The roads here aren't great, and the traffic is generally unaccommodating of non-automobile commuters on the road. After a few months, it's become apparent that I need to start doing that thing that I really, really dislike - going to the gym. On the plus side, it's given me an opportunity to reacquaint myself with my old favourite podcasts, and discover some new ones.

Alcohol - The expat life can be a somewhat alcoholic one - certainly compared to being back in Melbourne where I'd maybe have a couple of drinks on the weekend. Maybe it's the stress of dealing with cultural challenges, or just the lifestyle that goes with forcing oneself to go out and socialise with others, despite wanting to stay home and be a hermit with a book in a nest of pillows and quilts. But inevitably, there's alcohol involved. It can also help make the experience of mingling with people that I don't have much in common with more bearable. I certainly don't have a drinking problem, but whilst it's still possibly mostly taboo to talk about, I think it's fair to say that it can be a slippery slope to alcoholism if the overseas living experience isn't exactly going to play.

Cigarettes - Again, coming from Australia, it's generally accepted that smoking is bad, and will inevitably lead to lung cancer, so you shouldn't do it, nor should you smoke around others, especially not indoors. And yet, overseas, they are so cheap and plentiful. I've never worked in a place with so many smokers as I have now, nor have I walked out of so many restaurants where it was impossible to escape the smoke.

Coffee - Melbourne is very much a coffee city, and over my many years there I have to confess to having become something of a coffee snob. I've also gone through varying levels of caffeine addiction. Living in PNG and Vietnam, I have been lucky to have been able to access quality coffee from local producers. Strangely enough, Kosovo also has excellent coffee, at a quarter of the price, and for the first few months I'd be drinking 3-4 coffees a day. However, I've now reduced my caffeine intake to an espresso in the morning before work, and then switch to tea for the rest of the day.  I dread the day that I move to a place where the best available option is Nescafe, but maybe one day I'll have to face the option of going caffeine-free.

Sleep - I had the worst insomnia when I first arrived here in Kosovo. Apparently this is common for newly-arrived expats, and there are various theories ranging from the usual jet lag to the pollution and diet. Of course, all of the factors that I've mentioned above can influence sleep. It's something that I try to regulate as much as possible - getting to sleep before midnight, and waking up at 7am every day. But sometimes, like tonight, it's just not going to happen.

These past six months have been a difficult transition in my life, and whilst it's often easiest just to focus on the work and address cultural and social challenges, these other aspects certainly sneak up on me. As the saying goes, mens sana in corpore sano - and just as I need to remain mindful of my emotional wellbeing, I also need to be aware of the physical influences and changes that are happening in my life, and adjust my habits accordingly.

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